Tuesday, August 26, 2014

COMMENTARY: Allison Hickey Should Resign! VA's Under Secretary for Benefits Has Lost the Trust of America's Veterans!

Allison Hickey, VA's under secretary for benefits
Contrary to the fervent wishes of a growing legion of critics, including members of Congress on both sides of the aisle and many high-profile veterans advocates, Allison Hickey, the brigadier general and under secretary for benefits at the Department of Veterans Affairs, still has her job at VA. 

But she needs to go.

Hickey's been under fire for years over the Veteran Benefits Administration's (VBA) inadequate benefits system and tragically ongoing backlog of unprocessed veteran disability claims. Members of Congress have reportedly caught Hickey telling alleged half truths more than once, and have urged President Obama to remove her from the position she's held since June 2011. 

In March 2013, Rep. Jeff Miller (R-FL), who chairs the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs (HVAC), called for Hickey to resign from her VBA post.

“I don’t think she’s equipped to handle the problems that exist out there,” Miller told the Center for Investigative Reporting last year. "I think she is overwhelmed, and I would call for a replacement.”

One of Hickey's more egregious actions, or inactions, if you will, is her virtual dismissal of Gulf War Illness as a real condition. 

As the Military Times reported last year, after the Institute of Medicine recommended that VA use the term “Gulf War illness” (GWI) to describe the myriad of symptoms affecting more than 200,000 Gulf War veterans, Hickey said in an email that that changing the name from Chronic Multisymptom Illness (CMI) to GWI "might imply a causal link between service in the Gulf and poor health which could necessitate legislation for disability compensation for veterans who served in the Gulf."

Veteran advocate quickly and rightly attacked Hickey's remark, saying it reflects VA's ongoing cynical efforts to avoid acknowledging that Gulf War Illness is real because it would open the door to tens of thousands of new disability claims.

In May of this year, the Washington Post reported that when the American Legion, the nation’s largest veterans group, called for the resignation of VA Secretary Eric Shinseki, the Legion also urged the President to oust Hickey.

As Nextgov.com reports, VBA employees and the VA's Inspector General (IG) told the House committee that Hickey's department changed dates on claims to make them appear new, manipulated data, and misplaced and possibly shredded thousands of claims documents.

But while several top execs at VA have been ousted, Hickey has somehow managed to hold on to her vitally important position. Last month, she appeared before the HVAC and was summarily grilled by lawmakers. At the hearing, Hickey looked defensive and at times overwhelmed. 

Hickey said at the hearing that the disability claims backlog dropped 55 percent from a peak of 611,000 in March 2013 to 275,000 on July 14. But Miller said he had no faith in Hickey's veracity. “I don’t believe anyone [from VBA] is telling me the truth about the claims backlog," Miller said.

Glenn Bergmann, a partner at Bergmann & Moore, a law firm that solely represents veterans with appealed disability claims at VA, said his firm has been disappointed with VBA's claims initiatives over the last two years. 

"Those in charge seem to have forgotten that the VA claims system was set up to be paternalistic and pro-veteran," Bergmann said. "In the rush to deal with backlog issues, quality has severely suffered. VA's own IG reports invariably spell failure. It is a sad state of affairs."

Mike Zachea, a combat-wounded, medically retired Marine Lt Col. and respected veterans advocate, said Hickey has "no credibility" with Congress or with veterans. "She is the visible person most directly responsible for the VA benefits fiasco - the buck should stop with her, but for some reason, of all the officials, she has gotten a pass," he said.

Zachea added that just this past month, more than 200,000 “e-claims” filed by veterans expired because of the VA’s failure to work through them. Zachea said Hickey's tenure has been an "unmitigated disaster. This expiration of 200,000 claims should be enough to fire her. It is a failure, and failure is not acceptable. It is a lack of leadership, and a lack of integrity. In the military, she would have been sacked. A commander would lose confidence in her ability to lead."

Clearly, it's time for a new leadership at VBA. In a petition demanding that Hickey be removed, Faatimah Sabir, the wife of Sgt. Bilal Sabir, a decorated Vietnam veteran, said her husband has been fighting to get a decision on his VA benefits claim for more than eight years. 

"Many military heroes have died, many VA claims have been destroyed, many VA employees have violated employment rules and regulations while under the supervision of this woman," Sabir writes. "Few have been held accountable, especially directors, managers, and supervisors. How many more of our military heroes have to die, never receive benefits they're entitled to, and struggle to find housing, good medical care, and employment under this wicked, uncaring, impersonal, unsympathetic General?" 

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

EXCLUSIVE: An Inside Look at Livestrong After Lance Armstrong

Livestrong and Univ. of Texas announce historic new cancer program

Like many of you, I was both furious and forlorn when Lance Armstrong admitted last year that he had lied for years about taking banned substances such as EPO and steroids. The famed bicyclist and cancer survivor's stilted confession to Oprah Winfrey that he cheated was not exactly a shocker. I just wanted to believe he had been telling the truth. As a four-time survivor of stage IV non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, patient advocate, and athlete, I bought into his entire narrative. I was in deep denial.

I'd been a diehard supporter of the Livestrong Foundation, the innovative and inspiring cancer organization Armstrong founded at just about the same time that I was initially diagnosed with cancer. I've used many of the foundation's services, and for years I've known and admired the foundation's president and CEO, Doug Ulman, who is also a cancer survivor and is both genuinely kind and uniquely savvy.
I proudly wore that yellow wristband. But for me it was never really about Armstrong. Or Ulman. It was about all cancer patients and, more selfishly, about me. It represented the good, the bad and the ugly aspects of my 18-year cancer journey. It was a badge of sorts. 
 The fact that Armstrong took performance-enhancing drugs didn't change any of that. It also didn't change the fact that Armstrong is a cancer survivor. For all his flaws, which are now so public, he remains one of us. He was told that he had cancer. Period. Unless you've experienced this, you respectfully can't know how it can profoundly change a person.  
There has been some talk recently about Armstrong returning to Livestrong. But Ulman and other leaders of the organization who are still on board have made it very clear to me that this will never happen. They know that bringing Armstrong back would be a fatal blow. 

Armstrong was a conceited bully and a liar, which he now admits. But we all deserve forgiveness. Armstrong is a flawed human being, but I know of very few truly accomplished and famous men who are not flawed. Bill Clinton comes to mind. And Steve Jobs. And just about every President of the United States since George W (Washington, that is). Most of these men have never painfully confessed their sins before the judging public the way Lance did. 

There are other mitigating factors, too. Namely that Armstrong has helped literally millions of people with cancer. And the fact that he was juiced in a sport in which most if not all of his fellow athletes were juiced. That doesn't make it right, of course, but there is some glaring hypocrisy among his loudest critics in the bicycling world. 

It's likely that you think of Armstrong now as a villain and a pariah. That's understandable. But I choose to forgive. It isn't easy, but Armstrong has made a positive difference in my life and I will always appreciate it.

But more importantly, what about Livestrong? It took an enormous punch to the gut when Armstrong finally came clean. Several major sponsors bolted, including Nike', whose departure was a huge financial blow and seemed particularly harsh and selective given the fact that the shoe company did not abandon dog-killer Michael Vick or serial wife-cheater Tiger Woods after their falls.

There have been rumblings that the foundation might not survive. But I was confident that people like Ulman, a three-time cancer survivor, former college soccer player and eternal optimist, would keep it alive. Doug told me last week that Livestrong was alive and well and that in addition to its ongoing programs and navigation services, the organization is looking at new and innovative models where to serve the cancer community. 

"The foundation, our existing partners and longtime supporters are also excited about Livestrong's commitment to create and sustain a patient-centered cancer care model that will benefit the lives of patients and survivors today and in the future," Doug said last week.

This morning, Doug raised the bar for all other cancer organizations when he announced at a press conference on the campus of the University of Texas at Austin that the foundation is launching the Livestrong Cancer Institutes, which will create an original model of patient-centered cancer care in partnership with the university's Dell Medical School. 

Livestrong will provide a whopping $50 million grant to the university over the next 10 years to advance the treatment of and quality of life for cancer patients and survivors and establish replicable models of care. It's an ambitious, even historic move for Livestrong, which Doug says will work with the medical school to educate the next generation of oncologists and practitioners to put cancer patients at the center of the healthcare ecosystem. 

“Livestrong's groundbreaking work with the global cancer community has informed all of our efforts over the past 17 years, and that knowledge will help us create new models that treat the whole person, not just the disease,” Doug said this morning. “The Livestrong Cancer Institutes in partnership with The University of Texas’ Dell Medical School will allow us reach more patients not just here in Texas but around the world, as we create a replicable and scalable model of care."

Doug continued, "This is not about new buildings in one physical location but rather about radically shifting a culture of care and reshaping the ecosystem to be more inclusive and provide care for all of those who need it. The Institutes are a game-changer for us and a game-changer for the cancer community, as a whole.”

Dr. Clay Johnston, Dean of the Dell Medical School, added that Livestrong has been "incredibly innovative in supporting the full patient and survivor, and this is exactly what we want to support at the Dell Medical School through education, care, and research. We’re kindred spirits in that we both recognize the tremendous opportunity to improve the lives of those we touch and to create new models of care that improve lives everywhere. Our team is energized by the spirit and the power of Livestrong’s global community, and we look forward to working together to change the way patients and survivors live with, through and beyond cancer.”

I'm elated for all the future cancer patients who will benefit from this new program. Cancer is the world's number one cause of death, and countless lives will be saved and empowered as the result of this remarkable new relationship between Livestrong and the University of Texas.

And I am truly happy for Ulman, who recently told me that Livestrong "has spent 17 years working alongside leaders in the healthcare industry and finding the best ways to improve the lives of people affected by cancer now – it’s our main priority." 

That has indeed always been Livestrong's genius. The foundation is relentlessly patient-focused. It always puts patients first. It's never really been about one man. It's about everyone who has heard those three life-changing words, "You have cancer."

Olympic gold medalist Eric Shanteau, who used Livestrong's services after being diagnosed with testicular cancer before the Olympics in 2008, tells me that the foundation is still strong post-Armstrong because it has "never lost sight of its core objective, which is helping people and their loved ones who are currently fighting cancer. The focus has always been getting support to those who need it now. This concept and the foundation's unwavering acceptance of it is why I continue my support."

The good news about the Cancer Institutes follows up on the fact that a number of new sponsors have joined forces with the foundation since Armstrong left. One of them is American Green Technology (AGT), which is creating a lighting system in hospitals that kills 99 percent of germs that are airborne. This will help stem the 20 percent of people who leave a hospital with a different disease than what they had when they checked in, according to Livestrong. 

Livestrong's spokesman Andrew Tanker tells me that AGT is now one of the sponsors of Livestrong's Big C competition, a global social innovation challenge aiming to change the way the world lives with cancer. According to Tanker, AGT is "spreading the message to the world about Livestrong through its AGT Rea Racing team."

Tanker adds that the the newer Livestrong sponsors "are with us for the right reasons. The new ones, we know why they are here: to help improve the lives of people affected by cancer, not for ancillary reasons."

Meantime, it was Ulman's determination, above all else, that kept the Livestrong dream alive. Unlike many former Livestrong employees who bailed after Armstrong's confession, Doug, like any good captain, was willing to go down with his ship. Turns out, Livestrong is not the Titanic, it is in fact the coolest and fastest racing boat on the water. Today's announcement shows that the foundation remains a vital and innovative player in the nationwide and global cancer communities. Cancer patients should be very comforted to know that Livestrong is still strong.