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Telemedicine, Mental Health Top Priorities For US Veterans Affairs

Kathleen J. Davis
90.5 WESA
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs insignia at the Pittsburgh VA hospital.

On today's program: The U.S. Secretary of Veterans Affairs wants to cut wait times and improve mental health care for veterans; unionized cleaners in Pittsburgh have a new and improved contract; Pirates management is cleaning house; and the annual Pittsburgh Shorts Film Festival returns with more than 100 stories, including that of Steelers great Rocky Bleier. 

Pushing veteran care into the 21st Century
(00:00 — 12:45) 

About 9 million American veterans are served by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs each year. Secretary Robert Wilkie tells The Confluence’s Megan Harris he hopes to move away from the Vietnam War-era strategy of “pick a number and wait,” which he says doesn’t serve patients effectively, particularly younger veterans. 

Wilkie says better mental health care remains an ongoing goal for the VA. The department's 2020 federal budget request included $9.5 billion for mental health services, which if approved, would make up 4 percent of the VA’s overall budget.

“We have never had a national conversation about mental health in this country,” he says. “In my father’s day in Vietnam, those experiences were pushed under the rug. We don’t do that anymore, but we are still catching up in terms of research and the treatment of those injuries that impact the brain.”

He says the VA will pilot an electronic health record system in 2020 that starts when prospective servicemembers first visit a military processing station, and follows them through tours of duty until records are turned over to the VA when someone leaves active duty service. Wilkie says he hopes this will change the old culture of servicemembers individually managing hundreds of paper records on their own.

Wilkie says the VA is also working on incorporating some of the services offered in Pittsburgh on a national scale. More than 250 veterans use telehealth services in the Pittsburgh region, which allows them to make virtual appointments with their service providers. 

Pittsburgh’s cleaners and their employers strike a deal
(14:12 — 17:18) 

Local 32BJ SEIU office cleaners ratified a new four-year contract over the weekend, about six weeks after negotiations began and just days before the Oct. 31 deadline. The contract covers workers who clean and maintain buildings Downtown, in the Strip District, Oakland and some East End neighborhoods.

Sam Williamson, leader of the Western Pennsylvania District of union 32BJ SEIU, says the deal calls for more equitable wages, maintains employer-paid health care and increases contributions to union pensions. With the new contract, those outside of the Central Business District will, through raises, earn more than $17 by 2023.

Williamson describes the contract as comparable to those recently approved by cleaners with 32BJ SEIU in Philadelphia and Washington D.C.

Pirates owner dismisses Neal Huntington
(17:21 — 24:20) 

The Pittsburgh Pirates announced Monday that they had parted ways with general manager Neal Huntington. The move is part of a larger post-season shakeup that has also claimed team president Frank Coonelly and manager Clint Hurdle. The Athletic’s Stephen Nesbitt spoke with owner Bob Nutting Monday about the changes. 

Nutting appeared to give Huntington a vote of confidence when the team dismissed Hurdle in September, saying he strongly believed ''Huntington and the leadership team that he has assembled are the right people to continue to lead our baseball operations department.'' Nutting tells Nesbitt that he stands by those remarks as the team was still considering the dismissals that came just a month later. Nesbitt says there was no commitment to increasing payroll.  

Pittsburgh Shorts Film Festival brings fun size projects to the big screen
(24:23 — 38:13)

Contemporary short films from around the globe, including the story of veteran and Steelers great Rocky Bleier, will be presented at the SouthSide Works Cinema Nov. 1-7 as part of Film Pittsburgh’s Shorts Film Festival. More than 30 countries are represented in the 116 films screening during the festival. Opening night will feature screenings of seven films including “The Return,” which chronicles Rocky Bleier going back to Vietnam where 50 years ago he was wounded and told he wouldn’t play professional football ever again. Bleier went on to win four Super Bowl rings with the Steelers. 

Kathryn Spitz Cohan, Film Pittsburgh’s executive director, says the range for this year’s festival is sure to offer something for everyone and that each block of programming offers a taste of that variety. She says 47% of the films that are screening were directed by women. 

Bleier will participate in a Q&A session after the documentary wraps Friday evening. He says while he expects some people in attendance to question him about the current state of Steelers football, he welcomes the opportunity to speak about his experience as a veteran. 

Tickets are available in advance and at the SouthSide Works Cinema 30 minutes prior to showtime. 

The Confluence, where the news comes together, is 90.5 WESA’s daily news program. Tune in weekdays at 9 a.m. to hear newsmakers and innovators take an in-depth look at stories important to the Pittsburgh region. Find more episodes of The Confluence here or wherever you get your podcasts.

Kiley covers city government, policy and how Pittsburghers engage with city services. She also works as a fill-in host for All Things Considered. Kiley has previously served as a producer on The Confluence and Morning Edition.
Kevin Gavin is the host of WESA's news interview program "The Confluence." He is a native Pittsburgher and served as news director for 90.5 WDUQ for 34 years. Since the sale of the radio station by Duquesne University to Pittsburgh EPM, Inc. (now Pittsburgh Community Broadcasting Corp.), he served as Executive Producer of Special News Projects prior to being named as host of "The Confluence" five years ago. kgavin@wesa.fm
Megan Harris is a writer, editor, photographer and curator for Pittsburgh's NPR News station. She leads editorial coverage for The Confluence, 90.5 WESA's live, one-hour, daily morning news show.
Megan Harris is a writer, editor, photographer and curator for Pittsburgh's NPR News station. She leads editorial coverage for The Confluence, 90.5 WESA's live, one-hour, daily morning news show.
Megan Harris is a writer, editor, photographer and curator for Pittsburgh's NPR News station. She leads editorial coverage for The Confluence, 90.5 WESA's live, one-hour, daily morning news show.
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