RI whistleblower prompts Congress to consider more oversight of VA centers

Military

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — The Marines say the greatest weapon in their arsenal is a fighting spirit.

That’s certainly true for retired Lt. Col. Ted Blickwedel of Smithfield, who’s on the brink of seeing years of perseverance finally pay off.

Back in 2018, Blickwedel put a spotlight on combat veteran counselors being overworked and the negative impact it was having not only on them, but also those they serve.

Now, a piece of legislation he inspired may soon be up for a vote in Congress.

“I feel vindicated,” he said Tuesday.

According to Blickwedel, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Readjustment Counseling Service had a policy mandating that counselors conduct 30 visits a week with veterans. He called that “unrealistic,” especially when treating veterans with conditions like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

“You’re trying to process specific traumas that veterans have experienced in combat, and it can’t be accomplished within that 60-minute time frame,” Blickwedel told Target 12 at the time.

Blickwedel said counselors were getting burned out, which compromised the care they were providing. He claimed he faced a hostile work environment for questioning the caseload expectations. He retired three years earlier than planned as a result.

In 2018, he filed a formal complaint with the VA, which got the attention of the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO). The following year, the GAO launched an investigation into the policy and found the VA’s counseling standards “have the potential to negatively affect care and create undue burden and stress on counselors” at Vet Centers.

The GAO’s report led U.S. Sen. Jack Reed and Rep. David Cicilline to co-sponsor the Vet Center Improvement Act, which they the two Rhode Island Democrats say would create an oversight group within the VA to look at the counseling practices and allow counselors to provide anonymous feedback.

The bill was introduced back in May, and the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs held a hearing on it last month.

“We need to make sure that all VA facilities are prioritizing quality of care and the well-being of counselors and patients — not visit counts,” Cicilline said in a statement.

“That was the ultimate vindication on a personal note,” Blickwedel said. “But more importantly, what this is all about is veterans’ quality care that was being compromised by excessive metrics that were burning out counselors that caused all that now is being addressed in this legislation, so it’s a win-win.”

The VA has consistently maintained that counselors have flexibility in managing their schedules with veterans. The agency testified that it does not support sections of the bill, saying: “VA has developed an action plan to meet these requirements and is on track to complete the actions outlined in GAO’s recommendations in accordance with timelines established by VA and accepted by GAO.” (Read the full testimony below.)

In the meantime, Blickwedel is optimistic that his journey for justice will soon see a resolution.

“I just felt it was something that had to be done because the veterans and those that take care of them deserve better,” he said.

Full testimony from the VA on S. 1944  Vet Center Improvement Act of 2021

Section 3 of S. 1944 would require VA, not later than 1 year after the date of the enactment of this legislation, to evaluate productivity expectations for readjustment counselors at Vet Centers. Not later than 90 days after the date of the completion of the evaluation of productivity expectations, VA would be required to implement any needed changes to the productivity expectations to ensure the quality of care and access to care for Veterans and the welfare of readjustment counselors. It would further require VA to make every effort to ensure that all Vet Center readjustment counselors are given the opportunity to fully provide feedback on Vet Center operations and productivity expectations to a working group established under section 5 of the bill. Not less frequently than once every year during the 5-year period beginning on the date of enactment, the Comptroller General would be required to audit the feedback obtained from Vet Center readjustment counselors. Not later than 1 year after the date of enactment, VA would be required to develop and implement a plan for reassessing the productivity expectations for Vet Center readjustment counselors and implement any needed changes to such expectations. VA would be required to conduct a reassessment not less frequently than once each year.

Section 4 of the bill would require VA, not later than 1 year after the date of enactment, to develop and implement a staffing model for Vet Centers that incorporates key practices in the design of such staffing model. In developing the staffing model, VA would have to involve key stakeholders, incorporate key work activities, ensure the data used in the model is high quality and incorporate various factors. Not later than 1 year after the date of enactment, VA would have to develop a plan for assessing and updating the staffing model not less frequently than once every 4 years and implementing any needed changes to such model.

Section 5 of the bill would require VA to establish a working group to support the efforts in sections 3 and 4 of the bill. This group would be composed of readjustment counselors, outreach specialists and Vet Center directors. The working group would provide to VA feedback from readjustment counselors, outreach specialists, and Vet Center directors and recommendations on how to improve quality of and access to care for Veterans and the welfare of Vet Center staff.

Section 6 of the bill would require VA, not later than 1 year after the date of enactment, to standardize descriptions of position responsibilities at Vet Centers. In the next two annual reports required by 38, U.S.C. § 7309(e), VA would be required to include a description of VA’s actions in this regard. This section of the bill also would amend      38 U.S.C. § 7309(e)(2) to also require a description of actions taken by VA to reduce vacancies in Vet Center counselor positions and the time it takes to hire such counselors.

VA does not support sections 1-6; while we are in agreement with the goals of these sections, we do not believe they are necessary. VA already has the authority to carry out these requirements and has been working to address the issues raised in these sections based on the findings of the September 2020, Government Accountability Office (GAO) Report, “VA Vet Centers: Evaluations Needed of Expectations for Counselor Productivity and Centers’ Staffing” (GAO 20-652). VA has developed an action plan to meet these requirements and is on track to complete the actions outlined in GAO’s recommendations in accordance with timelines established by VA and accepted by GAO.

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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