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.

Friday, August 15, 2014

COMMENTARY: The Department of Veterans Affairs Will Never Be Fixed Until Corrupt Hospital Directors Are Removed

Remember that shocking, far-reaching scandal at the Department of Veterans Affairs? You know, the one that broke just a few months ago in which it was revealed that some 110 VA facilities across the country had a secret waiting list for veteran patients seeking care, and that many of our veterans were harmed and even killed as a result? Well, guess what? Most of the directors of these VA hospitals enmeshed in the mega-scandal are still on the job. And it's unclear if or when they will be disciplined, let alone removed.

Last week, President Obama signed the Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act of 2014. The accountability provision of the law, which grants new VA Secretary Robert McDonald complete authority to fire senior executives, took effect immediately.

So when will the department use the additional firing authority that’s part of the new law? It doesn't appear to be any time soon.

As AP reports this week, the department is in the process of holding dirty employees accountable. But McDonald is not saying how many people are being fired, who they are, or for what they're being fired. Does this sound familiar?

McDonald told reporters at the VA hospital in Memphis on Thursday that VA employees who are being removed are allowed due process, but that the agency is working as fast as it can to punish and even get rid of corrupt employees.
"You've got to treat that person with respect," he said. "They have to be allowed a certain due process that's allowed them by law or by statute or by policy. And, so, we can't talk to you about names, we can't talk to you about individuals, even though that's what you would like. We can't do that because that would be disrespectful.
"On the other hand, we've got to deal with it as quickly as we can," he said. "We've got to deal with it deliberately and we've got to deal with it appropriately. I can tell you, we are going to hold people accountable, and we're going to do that as quickly as we possibly can."
As NBC News reported this week, VA says it has recommended disciplinary actions against six employees at VA medical facilities in Colorado and Wyoming for manipulating patient wait times, but the punishments for these employees remain unclear. 

The VA, which announced the disciplinary actions against VA employees in Cheyenne, Wyoming, and Fort Collins, Colorado, said in a July 29 statement that “certain supervisors in these facilities were found to have personally manipulated data, instructed their subordinates to manipulate data, and withheld accurate information from their superiors.”

OK, so why not just get rid of them? The new law makes that pretty easy. These "disciplinary actions" in Colorado and Wyoming are just recommendations. A Congressional source who is very familiar with the situation tells me this week, "Nobody at VA has actually been disciplined. Not one person. The only thing that has happened is a proposal in Wyoming, but nothing's been done yet. The President signed the bill. It is immediate. When will VA use this authority?”

The Congressional source adds that if these employees didn't know what was going on, "they were negligent. If they did know they are corrupt. At a minimum, if they fudged numbers, that is altering federal documents, which of course is not allowed. If those alterations and schemes resulted in a bonus, that is some sort of fraud. And if the manipulation caused harm of a veteran that is something more serious.”

Bottom line? When it comes to revealing what specific executives did at specific VA hospitals, and what their punishment will be, the department is still operating under a shroud of secrecy. This despite all the national media attention in recent months, the new secretary, the angry speeches by President Obama and members of Congress on both sides of the aisle, and the new law. 

VA still is not saying just how they are dealing with these executives, who of course were on the front lines of the deceit that in some cases lef to veteran harm and even deaths.

The problems at VA absolutely start with the directors of the individual hospitals. That's where the rubber meets the road. And speaking of that, the executive who appears to be among the most corrupt of the bunch, Sharon Helman, the Phoenix VA director who almost comically sped away from CNN reporters in her expensive blue Mercedes Sports Coupe back in May, is still employed.

Multiple sources have told me that Helman knew all about the elaborate scheme at Phoenix VA to cover up long wait times at the hospital. Dr. Sam Foote, a physician who worked at Phoenix VA for 23 years, told me that as many as 40 veterans died at Phoenix VA waiting to see a doctor.

I've spoken to numerous additional sources who worked at Phoenix VA who say the same thing: the problem was deep and wide and Helman knew everything.

VA keeps citing due process. But if anyone should be disciplined right now in this scandal, it should be Helman, who resided over a hospital whose staff lied about wait times and where patients died waiting, and waiting, to be seen.

Rep. Jeff Miller, chair of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, continues to be frustrated by VA’s lack of accessibility. He's gotten no response from VA or VA's Office of Inspector General to letters demanding that the department disclose just who is being punished and for what. 

All this of course leaves veterans with the same deep frustrations with VA that they have had for so long. There have been legitimate efforts by McDonald to address the wait times. But what about accountability? What about all these unquestionably corrupt VA executives? When are we going to see some real disciplinary action? 

Frankly, any director of a VA hospital who knew about these manipulations of wait times should be fired. Immediately. Anything less is unacceptable. The point of the bill passed by Congress and signed by President Obama is to cut through all that red tape and make it easier for VA to get rid of corrupt officials. 

But apparently there are still piles of red tape, and probably dozens of corrupt officials, at the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

The Hotel Del Coronado: A Perfect Summer Vacation at the Perfect Hotel on the Perfect Beach

The "perfect beach" at Hotel Del Coronado

In The Endless Summer, Bruce Brown's timeless cinematic paean to sun, sand and surf, two eager young surfers, Mike Hynson, the legendary San Diego waterman, and Robert August set out on a worldwide adventure in search of the perfect wave. When I first watched that film in my teens, Mike and Robert's Quixotic hunt for perfection inspired me to embark on my own search. Not for the perfect wave, but for the Perfect Beach. It has proved to be an almost lifelong quest.

I've always been a romantic when it comes to the sun, the sand and the sea. For me, the beach is a place to celebrate your life. The beach is about laughter and friendships and romance and tan lines and digging your toes in the sand and tossing the football and hearing a song while soaking up the rays that reminds you of a time when you were 16 years old and ready to conquer the world. 

The beach is about renewal. It's about remembering and embracing everything good in your life. The beach calms. It soothes. It centers. It inspires. It brings you back to what matters in your life. And for me, now, the beach is above all else about family.

But it wasn't until this summer that I finally, mercifully found the Perfect Beach that I've been seeking all these years. And it was much closer to home than I had imagined. Maybe I knew it all along. But all I really had to do was check in with my family to the Hotel Del Coronado, the Victorian masterpiece in Coronado, California, not far from my San Diego home, then step out onto Coronado Beach. 

Hotel Del's Perfect Beach
And there it was! That Perfect Beach I'd been looking for most of my life was right here. The Hotel Del rests on arguably the most enviable piece of beach real estate of any hotel in the continental United States. The impossibly scenic 1.5 mile-long Coronado beach has long been a Mecca for those in search of health, recreation and relaxation. I've enjoyed this beautiful spot myself countless times, but didn't realize just how magical it was until I staycationed there a few weeks ago. Paradise found!

Coronado is a very special place

Coronado is within eyeshot of San Diego, but you have to take a ferry or a towering bridge over San Diego Bay to get there, or drive almost to the border then come back up the Silver Strand. Coronado is technically not an island, it's a peninsula, but for all practical purposes and for the purposes of this story it is indeed an island set unto itself. 

When you're in Coronado, which is mostly residential and has one movie theater, one main street, and some very charming and pricey old homes, you feel like you've traveled back in time. It has a vaguely pre-Vietnam War, early 60's vibe. And when you step out of your hotel room at the Del and onto that sun-drenched beach, which is simultaneously rustic and pristine, it feels blissfully far away from the maddening crowd.

Consistently ranked one of the top beaches in the United States and in some of the more enlightened polls the whole world, the beach fronting the Hotel Del has lured visitors for more than a century. Many of you will recognize it from the classic comedy Some Like it Hot with Marilyn Monroe, Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis (below).

Jack Lemmon, Tony Curtis & Marilyn Monroe on the Perfect Beach
Known for its wide flat sandy expanse and relatively calm waters -- you can ride small waves here, but hardcore surfers can enjoy the bigger waves just a few miles north -- this beloved beach became even closer to perfection this summer after the resort unveiled something called Del Beach, a luxurious new waterfront set-up featuring plush daybeds and half-moon cabanas, personalized service for food and drinks, and a bunch of cool recreational activities for kids of all ages.

The new programs and activities -- including a lively beach playground for kids and boogie board, surfboard, stand-up paddle and kayak rentals -- is the first West Coast operation to be managed by Boucher Brothers, a Miami-based hospitality management company charged with setting up and managing the beach daily from sunrise to sunset.

Adding a sophisticated new dimension to the picture postcard backdrop are new furnishings, beach towels and other accoutrements – in a crisp white and striped burgundy. Guests and locals alike can rent chaise lounges complete with cushions and terry covers, expansive fringed sun umbrellas, half-moon cabanas for two with sun shade, and plush daybeds. 

It all makes for the Perfect Beach experience. Furthering its beachfront appeal, the resort also offers food and beverage service -- complete with salads, sandwiches, mai tais and margaritas -- literally right on the sand. You don't have to move a muscle, and the staff goes out of its way to make sure you are content. 

The Perfect Tunes for the Perfect Beach

Ipod on the Beach - radiopotato.com
When you go, I recommend you bring your iPod or whatever device you use to listen to your music. Load it up with your favorite tunes just to make the experience even more enjoyable and relaxing. I put a bunch of beachy/summery songs on a playlist and listened while I enjoyed Del Beach. I wanted to stay on that beach forever, just listening to music, drinking ice cold tea, watching our daughter swim with her friends, and holding hands with my wife, who was just as blissed out as I was. 

This is my "Perfect Beach" playlist (with a few of my own songs thrown in there just to remind myself that I did have a record deal once upon a time):

All Summer Long - Beach Boys
All Summer Long - Kid Rock
Hotel California - The Eagles 
Boys of Summer - Don Henley
Breezin' - George Benson
Summer Moon - Jamie Reno
Feels so Good - Chuck Mangione
Summer of '69 - Bryan Adams
Big Kahuna - Jamie Reno
Warmth of the Sun - Beach Boys
Don't Wory Baby - Beach Boys
California - Phantom Planet
Summertime Sadness - Lana Del Ray
Boston Blues - Jamie Reno
Peaceful Easy Feeling - The Eagles 
Ask - The Smiths 
Comfortably Numb - Pink Floyd
Beat This Summer - Brad Paisley
Schools Out - Alice Cooper
Windansea - Jamie Reno

Summer Breeze - Seals & Crofts
Surfer Girl - Beach Boys

California Girls - Beach Boys
The Girl from Ipanema - Astrud Gilberto & Stan Getz
Away - Jamie Reno 

Wipeout - The Surfaris
Vacation - The Go Go's
Summertime - DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince

Summer in the Seventies - Jamie Reno
My Wave - Surf Punks
Love and Mercy - Brian Wilson
In the Summertime - Mungo Jerry

Hot Fun in the Summertime - Sly and the Family Stone
Saturday in the Park - Chicago
Rock Lobster - The B-52s

Still More Beach Activities

More activities at Del Beach include boating, bike rentals, surfing, boogie boarding, yoga on the beach, an interactive kids’ play area on the beach with a wooden boat and kids’ toys, nightly s’mores where families can enjoy a crackling fire pit under the stars, 'Dive-in' movies where you can plunge into the main pool and watch movies with the family every Tuesday evening, and much more.

USA Today and other national media announced “Dr. Beach’s” annual picks for the best beaches in May 2012, and Coronado was named No. 1 in America. “Dr. Beach” -- also known as Stephen Leatherman, director of Florida International University’s Laboratory for Coastal Research -- uses 50 criteria in selecting the best beaches, including water and sand quality, facilities and environmental management.

Coronado’s expansive white sand and endless sunshine make it the perfect spot for summer  adventures for all ages. The sprawling shoreline is great for jogging or walking along the Pacific. Coronado’s generally small waves are perfect for learning to surf or boogie board. And the Coronado bike trail, which runs along Glorietta Bay and the beachfront walk, is safe, easy to navigate and beautiful year-round.
You've still got plenty of summer days left. It's not too late for a summer trip to the Del. I think you'll like it as much as I did. It is the perfect summer vacation. At the perfect hotel. On the Perfect Beach.

Where: Hotel del Coronado
1500 Orange Avenue
Coronado, CA 92118
Phone: 619.435.6611/800-HOTEDEL
Website: www.hoteldel.com