For an agency that has been under intense fire for months, the Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medals are a welcome relief.
The Department of Veterans Affairs had two winners of the awards, better known as Sammies, which are among the most prestigious given to federal employees. At a luncheon and an evening banquet on Monday, the Partnership for Public Service, the good-government group that sponsors the awards, paid tribute to all the winners and, by extension, the federal workforce they represent.
The Sammies “focus not on what’s wrong, but focus on what’s right,” said Max Stier, president and chief executive of the Partnership. “We will have a better government if we pay more attention to that.”
It’s been hard to pay attention lately to the many things that are right about VA when news reports, inspector general’s audits and congressional hearings understandably and correctly point to serious things that have gone wrong.
That makes it all the more refreshing to see that the cover-ups of long VA wait times, the bogus scheduling and the retaliation against whistleblowers have not diminished the enthusiasm of William A. Bauman and Ann M. Spungen. They are the director and associate director of rehabilitation research and development at VA’s National Center of Excellence on the Medical Consequences of Spinal Cord Injury in the Bronx. Their work is life-changing and lifesaving. They won in the science and environment category.
The benefits of their research extend well beyond VA and veterans to medicine and rehabilitation generally.
“The department of the VA is committed to performing high-quality research,” Bauman said just outside the luncheon at the University Club on 16th Street NW. He exudes energy. “Our work showcases one of the many exemplary, world-class research programs of the Department of Veterans Affairs. We’re honored to be recognized, but I hope this award casts a sharp light on how incredibly valuable, practical, innovative and important VA research is, not only to the VA, but to all of American medicine and to advancing the science of medicine.”
This is how the honorees’ work is described by the Partnership:
“Their work led to the realization that persons with spinal cord injury are at a markedly increased risk for heart disease. These investigators were the first to describe and then treat an asthma-like lung condition common in those with higher levels of paralysis. They have developed approaches to make it easier for paralyzed patients to undergo successful colonoscopies.
“With other researchers in their unit, they have formulated novel drug combinations to raise low blood pressure, and they have overseen the development of animal and clinical treatments to reduce bone loss shortly after spinal cord injury. Their work has advanced our understanding and treatment of chronic, non-healing pressure ulcers. Investigators under their direction also are making strides toward improving our understanding of body temperature regulation and the effect of swings in body temperature on one’s ability to think.”
That’s impressive, but that’s not all.
The VA said Spungen is testing a “new bionic walking assistance system that enables individuals with paralysis to stand, walk, and climb stairs.”
She calls it “a fabulous new technology.”
Homer S. Townsend Jr., executive director of Paralyzed Veterans of America, said the work of Bauman and Spungen “has led to advancements in understanding that undoubtedly have saved lives.”
Thanking and congratulating them, Townsend added: “For veterans who have been catastrophically wounded, there is no better system of care than VA. They may not only have spinal cord injury, but may also have suffered brain injury, loss of vision or hearing, or suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. Being able to receive care for myriad conditions in a holistic environment is critical to their health and quality of life after injury. The specialized services required are just not available anywhere else.”
Said VA Secretary Robert McDonald: “Any research institution would be proud to have these leading scientists, but they have chosen to dedicate their careers to serving veterans at VA, and we are proud to call them our own.”
The VA isn’t the only agency that’s proud.
Omar Pérez Aybar and Reginald J. France are among the winners. I owe them an apology because information in an earlier blog item I wrote, which was repeated in a colleague’s story about the awards, said the recipients in their group worked for the departments of Homeland Security and Justice. Though they won the Homeland Security and Law Enforcement Medal, Aybar and France are with the Department of Health and Human Services. Their co-winners, Joseph Beemsterboer, Dan Bernstein, Randy Culp, Joseph Jeziorski, work for the Justice Department.
They and members of the Health Care Fraud Prevention and Enforcement Action Team (HEAT) in South Florida “uncovered hundreds of fraudulent Medicare schemes by durable medical equipment suppliers, home health agencies, physicians and rehabilitation facilities,” according to the Partnership. “The investigations resulted in nearly 700 convictions and the recovery of almost one billion dollars.”
Congratulations to all the winners and their agencies.
Previous columns by Joe Davidson are available at wapo.st/JoeDavidson.