Meeting Minutes for March 2016

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Meeting Minutes - March 2, 2016

  • Call to order - 9:30, Invocation - Pledge of Allegiance
  • Greetings: Recognition of visitors and guests
  • Announcements - Ralph Donais, Chairman - Jerry Kyser, Vice Chairman.

1. VA Regional Office - Ron Woolery
            *Kim Graves has been reinstated as the director of the St. Paul regional office.
*St. Paul was one of eight original stations to move into the National Work Queue. We have been in it for several weeks and as of Monday, February 29, two more stations have been added; Baltimore and Roanoke. Despite some growing pains, productivity has increased in the National Work Queue system.
*The Pension Management Center, which has been behind in adopting technology, has started going into centralized mail. They will no longer be handling paper mail. It will all be sent to Janesville, Wisconsin, then scanned and uploaded, in the same way the Service Center has been doing. This shall cut down on the paper shuffling.
*We will be hosting a town hall in conjunction with the Minneapolis VA Medical center on March 17th from 4—6 PM in Shakopee.
*There will be an Honoring Veterans event on March 18th in Fridley, at the Fridley Community Center. From 9 AM until noon, there will be an educational seminar dealing with non-service connected pension, aid and attendance, and the new national cemetery pre-registration. At the same time across the hall, the hospital, vet center, and several service organizations have been invited. Women Veterans Association and Gold Star Families will also be attending. There are already 125 confirmed reservations for the event.
*On March 29th the St. Paul regional office will hosting an event commemorating the 50th Anniversary of the Vietnam War. This is a national event sponsored by the DOD. Vietnam veterans who attend will receive a unique commemorative pen. The exact time is TDB.

VISN 23 - Janet Murphy - Director VISN 23 - Jason Petti
            *Minneapolis and St. Cloud are doing well with their sale data. Secretary McDonald is scheduled to visit St. Cloud later in March. Exact date TBD.
            *Network Director Janet Murphy will be back by the end of the month.
            *Currently under negotiations for a new Pharmacy Benefits Manager.
            *Re-announced our Human Resource Office vacancy in the network office.
            *We have an HR Specialist vacancy coming up in the network office.
            *Several candidates are being interviewed for the Clinics Informatics position.
            *Veterans should direct their questions concerning payment for the Choice program to this number: 877-881-7618
            *The Choice program is going to change the way that it makes its payments. The VA is going to allow HealthNet to pay the 80% charge upfront without getting a progress note for the visit. Then, once they have received the progress notes, they will pay the remaining 20% to the provider.
            *The My VA staff arrived in the network office and have been there for about two weeks. So far there is only one staff member, but recruitment efforts are ongoing. They will be spread out through their geographic regions. The SCS person is in Chicago and the GS-15 person is in Minneapolis.
            *There was a presentation from our Med Legal department concerning reorganization in the VA. Contracting and IT has gone centralized. Logistics is being looked at. General legal council has also been reorganized into districts.
*Our district has the least amount of malpractice claims in the nation for all of VISN 23.
*Working to improve our Standard Mortality Rate and our Standard Mortality Rate based on a thirty-day discharge. We would like to see improvement in these areas by the end of the fiscal year. In doing so we want to reduce the number of times a patient goes to the emergency room or is readmitted for the same issue. Two main problems we’ve been seeing are congestive heart failure and COPD.
*We also want to start discussing end of life issues with our patients earlier, and facilitate those discussions between patients and their families in order to make the whole process easier.

MPLS VA HCS - Director Patrick J. Kelly - Mike Rosecrans - Leg. Liaison - Kurt Thieolen
            *There have been a number of allegations surrounding the VA concerning scheduling practices that the IG has been investigating for a while. Reports have been released in the past few days. 77 investigations have been completed so far. Three concern the Minneapolis VA HCS. None of the original accusations were substantiated on those. This information has been released to the media and stakeholders. More information is available on their website.
            *There is continued frustration with the Veterans Choice Program. It is unclear what the future holds. However, we are working on getting a provider agreement process in place, where we are able to go directly to the vendors and access the Veterans Choice funds.
            *There was an access Stand Down on February 27th, which went well. Major categories were well below the national average.
            *Historically we have had low attendance at Town Hall meetings. We would like stakeholders to attend in the future, if possible.
            *The Veterans Valentines is an annual program where we get valentines from the community and distribute them to inpatients in the hospital.

Q. How are you dealing with the back payment issues, and vendors not getting paid? We have vendors who are refusing to see veterans now because of this.
A. Locally, when it comes to payment, the hospitals that are part of the Veterans Choice program are not part of that process at all. It’s administered on a national level and then directly through the vendor. When we hear about specific issues, we contact the vendor and then provide information at the national level.
Q. Are you working with the veterans when these things aren’t getting paid and are getting sent to collections?
A. The vendor should be working with the vet in those particular cases to get that resolved.
Q. So the vendor meaning—?
A. HealthNet, which is the third party administrator for the program. They are responsible for the direct payment to the vendor. The VA has also established a 1-800 number to deal with some of these issues.

St. Cloud VA HCS - Director Barry Bahl - Sharon Meschke
            *The primary focus is provider recruitment in order to improve access and decrease panel sizes. Three new providers started last week and three more will join in the coming week.
            *There are continuing challenges with the Choice program.
            *A Vietnam Veteran Commemorative event is tentatively being planned for March 25th or 29th. This will be the first of several events for the year to honor those Vietnam veterans. The Public Affairs Officer will be working on getting that information out.
            *There will be an Advanced Care seminar on April 13th. This will focus on end of life care discussions with veterans and how to improve end of life care. There will be two separate sessions, one in the morning and one in the afternoon.
            *The number for the Veteran Collection Agency is 877-881-7618
            *Construction is underway at the Linden Grove Apartments. The goal is to assist veterans to achieve greater social and economic independence through stable housing and comprehensive support services. The residents are drug and alcohol free. There will be on-site referral support for services including job search assistance, literacy, computer skills training, and a close proximity to health care services. There will be housing for 35 single individuals and up to two families. Veterans have priority placement.

Ft. Snelling Cemetery - John Knapp - Bob Razor
            *Not present.

Vets Employment and Training Services [VETS] - David Seay
            *We have accepted the Homeless Veterans Reintegration Project and the Incarcerated Veterans Transition Program. We are in the process of reviewing employment based grant requests. Contact David Seay for more information at 651-259-7511

2. Federal Congressional Representatives and Senators
Senator Amy Klobuchar - General (RET) Tim Cossalter
            *Klobuchar has been advocating for the restoration of some benefits to the Women’s Air Force service pilots. Currently there are less than 130 remaining. The VA initially recognized them as veterans so they could be buried at Arlington, but has since changed its mind. The senator has been working on this.
            *We are currently surveying the community for veterans who were exposed to toxic burn sites in the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to get a sense of how many people were impacted. Klobuchar is looking to support HR 22-37, the Helping Veterans Exposed to Burn Pits Act. It should be introduced shortly.
            *Klobuchar is also working on Senate 25-20, the Newborn Care Improvement Act. This impacts female veterans who give birth in a VA hospital. Current law only allows coverage for the infant for the first seven days. This is outside the standard of care, so we are attempting to expand that to fourteen days.

Q. Agent Orange.
A. The VA can address any condition. We are not overly concerned at this point, but we need people to bring this to our attention if people are having issues that are not being addressed.
Q. I believe they’re finding that the dependents of veterans with Agent Orange are having symptoms that look like they are becoming hereditary. This is the concern now, that the VA is not looking to take care of those people.
A. We have received a lot of those issues on the casework side and are trying to address those as best we can. I’m not sure how it’s going to work out, but we are aware of it.

Q. Concerning the burn pits and air quality, we have vets coming back with crystalized lungs. I have two veterans dealing with this, and they can’t get it diagnosed or look at what the ramifications might be. It’s being labeled under asthma and bronchitis. This problem is not going to go away. What concerns me is that they’re having veterans sign things to say that they were not exposed. We know this is a problem and the VA needs to do something about it.
A. We are getting a lot of feedback on this.

Senator Al Franken - Alex Schueller
            *Franken signed on to the Blue Water Vietnam Veterans Act in regards to Agent Orange exposure to Navy veterans. He also signed a letter to the DOD protecting credit for active duty members and the Toxic Exposure Research Act, which concerns the dependents of service members exposed to Agent Orange and any conditions that may have been caused by that. That way they would be covered in the future. Franken is in support of a letter that Senator Klobuchar’s office sent out, as well as co-sponsoring the WASP legislation for restoring internment into the national cemetery.
            *The co-legislation in the House with Walz, the Veterans Benefits Delivery Act, was passed.
            *Franken co-sponsored the Korean War Veterans Wall of Remembrance Act, which would allow privately funded individuals to build a wall in DC in remembrance of all the veterans who died in Korea.
            *Franken signed onto a letter requesting maximum funding for the Beyond the Yellow Ribbon Program on the national and state level. More information will be forthcoming.
            *Franken has done several visits to vet centers around the state to listen to the veterans.

1st District Representative - Tim Walz - Shawn Schoesser
            *Not present.

2nd District Representative - John Kline - Chaz Johnson
*Kline signed onto HR 44-24, the Rural Guard and Reserve Act. This bill grants Guard and reserve commanders flexibility to use unit funds to support travel for guardsmen and reservists who must travel 75 or more miles from their home to their drilling location.
*Kline signed onto HR 42-00, the Military Family Stability Act. This bill allows certain military service members conducting a permanent change of station flexibility in moving their families up to six months before or after their scheduled move.
*Kline signed onto HR 43-81, the Service Member Retirement Improvement Act. This bill allows members of the Guard and reserve to contribute the maximum to their TSP (thrift saving account) or IRA, as well as their civilian IRAs each year, so the contributions to one IRA does not impact the maximum that can be contributed to the other.
*Kline recognized the newest general, General Best, on the floor of the House.
*The NDAA will be coming up again in the next few months. There is a provision in there concerning troop flexibility. The Yellow Ribbon Program will also be discussed.
*Since this will be Kline’s last term, there will be a spring Service Academy information session on April 25th, 2016. Interviews will likely be conducted in November. It is suspected that Kline will be fully out of office by December.

3rd District Representative - Eric Paulsen - Margret Cavanaugh
            *Not present.
4th District Representative - Betty McCollum - Connie Haddeland
            *McCollum sits on the House Appropriations Committee as well as the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, which are in the midst of hearing different budgets. 
            *There are several healthcare registries, including the Agent Orange registry, the Airborne Hazards and Burn Pit registry, the Gulf War registry (including Operation Iraqi Freedom and New Dawn), Ionized Radiation, and so forth.  You can receive a registry exam at the VA through the environmental coordinator there. It does not require you to be a patient of the VA medical system.
            *Concerning Service Academy nominations, there were 11 individuals this year who received and accepted offers of appointment and admission.
            *McCollum will be holding an informational meeting on the Service Academies on April 12th at Mounds View High School.

5th District Representative - Keith Ellison - Mike Siebenaler
            * Not present.

6th District Representative - Tom Emmer - Zack Freimark
            * Not present.
7th District Representative - Collin Peterson - Meg Louwagie
            * Not present.

8th District Representative - Rick Nolan - Rick Olseen
            *The 8th congressional district has the highest number of veterans in the state of Minnesota. Currently there are 62,719. Their contribution from VA expenditures is over $469 million. A lot of these people are eligible for Veterans Choice, but problems continue with the program.
            *Now that summer is coming up, please discuss the Let’s Go Fishing program with your constituents. It serves seniors, veterans, and people with disabilities.

3. State Agencies and MN Veteran Assistance Organizations
MN Department of Administration Assistant Commissioner - Alice Roberts-Davis - Jerry Kyser
            *The Office of Equity in Procurement is hosting an Opportunity Fair on March 7th at the Skjegstad room in the Stassen Building. Small businesses are invited along with buyers from state agencies to learn about procurement opportunities. We are trying to support veteran owned businesses getting procurement aid from the state of Minnesota.

MN Department of Veteran Affairs - Commissioner Larry Shellito - Ben Johnson
            *Mike McElhiney, former legislative director, was promoted to chief of staff.  It is a new position and one we hope will help integrate the two arms of the Department of Veteran Affairs.
            *The interim tag was removed from Brad Lindsey’s title. He is now the permanent Deputy Commissioner for Programs and Services.
            *We are currently looking for a Deputy Commissioner for Veterans Health Care.
            *The ribbon cutting ceremony and grand opening of Building 21 will be on March 7th. This is Phase 2 of the new construction and renovation at the Minneapolis Veterans Home. It starts at 10 AM. Demolition and construction of Phase 3 will begin once the residents are moved in.
            *The UVLC CTF and CVSOs are working on Veterans Day on the Hill, which will be on March 16th. That event will be a rally at the Cedar Street Armory in St. Paul. It will be from 10 to 11 AM. Please get the word out.
            *The new legislative session starts on March 8th. The first deadline for bills is April 1st.  There are only ten weeks this session. Sources indicate that the two priorities will be transportation and taxes, which were not finished last year.
            *Our priority this year is the bonding. We have a little over $12 million requested, supported by the governor; $5 million for asset preservation at the veterans homes and $7.8 million for the replacement and repair of the Trust Bridge. We are testifying before the House on bonding issues on March 3rd at 2:20 PM.

Q. Currently the backlog at the Minneapolis vets home is about 13 months. Is opening this new building going to shorten that or result in the transfer of existing residents?
A. The latter. The new building will not add capacity or reduce the wait time. We are still working on that.

Q. The issue of dependents paying to be buried in the cemetery…what part of the commissioner’s budget does that come out of? Do we need to request more money for that part of the budget?
A. He’s talking about the $750 fee for a spouse to be buried at the state veterans cemetery. That comes out of programs and services. There is a budget that does maintenance for the cemeteries. We try to use that to offset some of those costs. I need to get more information to follow up.
Q. State law says the commissioner can set that. What I’m saying is that can we, as a group, go into the House and Senate and say, “the commissioner needs $200,000 to eliminate the burden on the surviving spouse having to pay that”?
A. I’m happy to pass that along.

MN Assistance Council for Veterans (MACV) - Kathy Vitalis
            *Upcoming legal clinics. Locations are on website.
                        Minneapolis - March 8th
                        Anoka - March 10th
                        St. Cloud - March 22nd
                        Litchfield - March 23rd
*Dates for upcoming Stand Downs are as follows:
                        Rochester - 5/24
                        Fergus Falls - 4/28
                        Metro - 8/2 through 8/3
                        Virginia - 8/25
                        Duluth - 8/26
                        Bemidji - 9/28
                        Grand Rapids - 9/29
                        Marshall - 10/12
                        Mantako - TBD
            *Recent media reports on homelessness are relying on older information. Newer data is needed in order to form an accurate opinion. We have seen the number of veteran homelessness go down with our own work. The numbers from the Pit Count should be in by the end of the month.
MN Military Affairs - LTC Joe Sharkey - Annette Kuyper - Don Kerr - Joe Sharkey
            *Our key legislative priority this year is the bonding bill. Our agency has $10.5 million requested, $4.5 million for building a new facility in west St. Paul, $3.5 million to renovate and expand the St. Cloud armory, and the remaining $2.5 million in statewide asset preservation.
            *2% of the governor’s proposed bonding bill would go to military and veteran affairs.
            *Col. Sandra Best has been promoted to Brigadier General on February 25th, the first female general in the Minnesota National Guard.
            *Col. Dan Gabriele will be the next Wing Commander for the 133rd Airlift Wing, replacing Col. Jim Johnson.
            * Brigadier General William Leader will be retiring on March 12th.
            *The NDAA on military construction took a hit.
            *Major-General Nash will be going to Washington to meet with the congressional leaders to advance our federal legislative priorities in two weeks.

Q. There’s been talk about converting the treatment center in Anoka to housing for homeless veterans. Have you heard much about that?
A. I did last summer. There were some initial meetings. I am the wrong person to give you a factual update on that project. I heard they were still looking at it.

Military Action Group (MAG) - Jerry Kyser
            *The next MAG meeting will be on March 14th at State Office Building 400.
            *Best Buy is hosting a buyer procurement event on April 12th. The UVLC will be involved with this.
            *We need volunteers for the Medal of Honor convention in October.

MN Paralyzed Veterans of America - Stephen Thell
            *Not present.

Women Veterans Initiative - Jill Troutner
            *WVI has received the Women Veteran of the Year award this year, which we hope to continue. MNDVA is supporting us with this. Nominations are currently open and will close March 31st.
            *The Minnesota Humanities Center and their Veteran Voices program have been important this year, since it has brought the Medal of Honor convention to Minnesota. Veteran Voices award nominations will be open on March 10th.
            *The Minnesota Humanities Center has a $2.5 million bonding bill that they are lobbying for to help continue the preservation and operation of that society.

MN Department of Employment and Economic Development - Jim Findley - Paul Reidner
            *Convened various groups at the Veteran World Cafe to discuss mental health issues in the community. It was determined that organizations were not collaborating enough with each other, there were arguments over resources, and the negative narratives about veterans as either victims or heroes - with nothing in between. Lastly, we need to increase understanding about moral injury.
            *Veterans Resilience Project came out of that and an emphasis on EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) therapy, which the VA does not currently utilize. We created an independent network of EMDR therapists across the country. Veterans do not go through the VA to get their care or even have a diagnosis of PTSD. The program covers 12 sessions. The process is 100% confidential and does not impact their benefits.
            *Our pilot project went from 2012 to the end of 2014 and produced optimistic results. 74% of participants who completed the program no longer qualify as having PTSD.  100% displayed massive symptom reduction.
            *We need to spread the word about this program.
            *We have a wait-list of veterans who want to participate, but we don’t yet have all the funding.
            *Our first fundraiser will be on March 22nd at the St. Paul Landmark Center for World Storytelling Day. All proceeds will fund the Veterans Resilience Project. It is from 6 PM to 9 PM
            *There is another event coming up at the VFW in Uptown on March 20th.

4. Announcements
            *Introducing Lisa Klenk, President of the Minnesota Association of County Veteran Service Officers.
            *Beware of scam charities targeting veterans. 

5. Meeting in Recess for five minutes

Next meeting April 6, 2016
Minneapolis VA Building 9