Veterans news update for Nov. 17

Veterans news update for Nov. 17

Veterans news updateNew data shows long wait times persist at many VA hospitals (USA Today)
More than 600,000 veterans — 10% of all the Veterans Affairs patients — continue to wait a month or more for appointments at VA hospitals and clinics, according to data obtained by USA TODAY. The VA has made some progress in dealing with the backlog of cases that forced former secretary Eric Shinseki to retire early this year. For instance, the VA substantially cut the overall number of worst-case scenarios for veterans — those who had waited more than four months for an appointment. That figure dropped from 120,000 in May to 23,000 in October. Much of that improvement occurred because patients received care from private providers. Since May, the VA has been reduced the number of veterans waiting longest for care — its top priority — by 57%, according to James Hutton, a VA spokesman. From June to September, the VA completed 19 million appointments, an increase of 1.2 million compared with the same time last year. “VA’s goal continues to be to provide timely, high-quality healthcare for veterans,” Hutton said in a statement. “Veterans and VA employees nationwide understand the need for reform, and VA is committed to putting these reforms into place. And while we have significantly improved capacity and access to care, we have not yet achieved our intended state — systemic and timely access across the board. It will be an ongoing and significant effort to reach our goals.”

More veterans press VA to recognize medical marijuana as treatment option (Washington Post)
Every morning, former Air Force senior airman Amy Rising makes breakfast for her second-grader, drives him to school and returns home to prepare what she calls her medicine. She suffers from severe anxiety after four years working in the frenetic global command center at Scott Air Force Base in Illinois, providing logistical and support services for bombings and other missions in Iraq and Afghanistan. Rising says she has found a treatment that helps her cope. But her local Veterans Affairs hospital does not provide it — because her medicine is a joint. At a time when the legalized use of marijuana is gaining greater acceptance across the country, Rising is among a growing number of veterans who are coming out of the “cannabis closet” and pressing the government to recognize pot as a legitimate treatment for the wounds of war. They say it is effective for addressing various physical and psychological conditions related to military service — from chronic back pain and neuropathic issues to panic attacks and insomnia — and often preferable to widely prescribed opioid painkillers and other drugs. Researchers in the United States and several other countries have found evidence that cannabis can help treat post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and pain, although studies — for instance, looking into the best strains and proper dosages — remain in the early stages.

VA didn’t track medical job openings until this year (Arizona Republic)
The Department of Veterans Affairs’ record-keeping processes were in such disarray across the USA in recent years that the agency didn’t track its number of unfilled medical positions until June of this year, according to VA officials. The VA’s lax record-keeping occurred against a backdrop of year-over-year budget increases while VA administrators created secret lists of patients who languished for months waiting for medical appointments. The disclosure came in response to a Freedom of Information Act request by The Arizona Republic seeking the number of medical vacancies nationally and at the three VA hospitals in Arizona. Four months after the newspaper requested vacancy statistics dating to 2010, Veterans Health Administration FOIA Officer Barbara Swailes responded that the information was unavailable. “The VHA Central Office did not start collecting vacancy information until June 2014,” she wrote in a letter earlier this month. The newspaper requested the information in July. The VA started collecting the data only after a wide-ranging scandal involving the VA became the focus of national attention following congressional hearings and media coverage. Earlier this month, the VA released to The Republic records showing that on a national basis, the number of unfilled medical positions hit 31,006 on July 15, 2014. In Arizona, it was 997.

Disability system for veterans strays far from purpose (Los Angeles Times)
The room fell silent for seven minutes as Illinois Rep. Tammy Duckworth upbraided a government contractor. “Shame on you,” the congresswoman scolded Braulio Castillo at an oversight hearing in Washington, D.C., last year, accusing the business owner of gaming the veterans disability system. Castillo had filed a claim with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs after learning that a disability rating would give his technology company preferential standing for federal contracts. His disability: A foot injury suffered playing football at the U.S. Military Preparatory Academy in 1984. Though the injury didn’t prevent him from going on to play quarterback at the University of San Diego, the VA rated him 30% disabled — good for $450 a month, tax-free. Duckworth, an Army veteran who lost both legs in Iraq in 2004 when her helicopter was shot down, noted that her severely damaged right arm was rated only 20%. “You, who never picked up a weapon in defense of this great nation, very cynically took advantage of the system,” she said. “You broke the faith with this nation.” Duckworth directed her ire at Castillo, but the real culprit was the broad eligibility criteria of the disability system itself. The contractor had played by the rules for benefits and, as many Washington lawmakers know, those benefits cover ailments from sports injuries to bullet wounds, resulting in disability payouts that totaled $58 billion this fiscal year — up from $49 billion last year. Routinely criticized in government reviews as out of touch with modern concepts of disability, the system has strayed far from its official purpose of compensating veterans for their lost earning capacity.

Despite efforts, veteran suicides remain alarming (St. Cloud Times)
The statistics are jarring, and they don’t seem to be changing. An estimated 22 veterans take their own lives every day in the United States, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. In Minnesota, it’s a similar pattern. A St. Cloud Times analysis of death records found that 102 people who had served in the armed forces killed themselves in Minnesota in 2013. Veterans in Minnesota are dying by suicide at a rate more than double that of the general population — an estimated 30 per 100,000 last year, compared to 12.5 per 100,000 in the general population. While there have been numerous cases of veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan taking their own lives in recent years, it’s not just recently deployed veterans who are dying by suicide. In fact, the largest number of suicide deaths are older men, said Dan Reidenberg, executive director of Suicide Awareness Voices of Education, a national nonprofit based in Bloomington. The vast majority of veterans who commit suicide are older than 55 years, Reidenberg said. Many have had lengthy battles with post-traumatic stress, substance abuse, anxiety or other problems, he said.

Veteran’s suicide devastates those left behind (USA Today)
Rory Gavic was a young, decorated member of the military who served his country overseas twice, who had earned praise and the respect of his peers, who had volunteered as a Big Brother. His suicide in 2009 devastated his family, especially his mother. His death was the beginning of hers. Gavic had joined the Air Force Reserve after graduating from high school in 2002. A few years later, he enlisted as active duty in the Air Force and rose to the rank of staff sergeant. As a K-9 handler, Gavic served in Iraq in 2007 and Pakistan in 2009. He earned more than a dozen commendations, including Airman of the Year in 2008. But the deployments changed Gavic. He struggled with post traumatic stress disorder. In 2009, he was 25 years old and stationed at Hill Air Force Base in Layton, Utah. On Nov. 14, he called his mother, Linda Sawatzke, at home in Buffalo. She was worried and asked him to talk to her. He hung up. She tried calling back again and again, but there was no answer. Later, Utah officials called Sawatzke to tell her they were searching for Gavic, who was missing from the base. His truck was found in Antelope Island State Park. Gavic’s body was found the next day. He had shot himself.

Lejeune veterans gain by knowing details of 2012 law (Jacksonville Daily News)
A 2012 law that requires VA to cover health care of former Marines, sailors and family members with ailments linked to 1957 to 1987 water contaminations at Camp Lejeune continues to surprise segments of the impacted population. Some of the law’s details bitterly disappoint those who believe they’ve been harmed by exposure to poisons. But thousands of veterans who served at Lejeune during that era have gained access to VA health care and likely don’t know it yet. The quirkiness of parts of the Caring for Camp Lejeune Families Act is coming into sharper focus as the Department of Veterans Affairs takes its final, long-awaited steps to fully implement the complex statute. “Since the day the law was signed (Aug. 6, 2012) VA began providing health care to Lejeune veterans,” said Dr. Terry Walters, deputy chief consultant for post-deployment health for the VA’s Office of Public Health.

Cambodian-American veterans seek U.S. recognition of war role (The Cambodia Daily)
A group of Cambodian-American war veterans will convene in Washington on Monday and Tuesday to push for congressional approval of a resolution that would for the first time recognize the role Cambodian soldiers played in the Second Indochina War. More than 100 veterans from the U.S., Cambodia, Laos and Australia will meet with members of the U.S. House of Representatives over the next two days to discuss the passage of House Resolution 596, according to a statement released last week by the St. Paul, Minnesota-based International Khmer Assembly. In May, U.S. Representative Sean Duffy, who introduced the resolution, said the recognition was overdue. “These men deserve the grateful thanks of our nation, and this resolution awards them the recognition that they’ve long deserved,” Mr. Duffy said. During the Second Indochina War, U.S. B-52 bombers dropped about 2.7 million tons of ordnance on Cambodia in an effort to cut off Hanoi’s supply lines to the south of Vietnam, where communist Viet Cong guerillas were operating. Many of these covert air operations took place with help from Cambodians.

How the private sector is shaming government in veteran integration (The Daily Caller)
Veterans Day brings the nation together to celebrate the individuals who give up the comforts of home to protect and serve the United States. Unfortunately, that celebration also highlights the failures of the federal government to help veterans when they come home. As of 2013, 8.8 percent of the veterans who have served since September 2001 are unemployed. Two million of the roughly 2.8 million veterans, called Gulf War-era II veterans, are employed. Of that nearly three million, 99.4 percent work in nonagricultural industries, and of those, 68.8 work in private industries. Twenty-eight percent work in government, 16.3 percent being in federal government, and 2.5 percent are self-employed, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The federal government strives to help veterans, but continues to struggle — and in certain cases fail altogether – to help veterans integrate back into society. Reports have come out over the last few years detailing the persistent issues the government faces when it tries to hire veterans. These reports show how the system has become increasingly complex and bloated, so much so that it has started to impact work environments. The issues are creating distrust and tension not only between employees and the government, but also between veteran and non-veteran employees.

HUD secretary says nation on track to house all homeless vets (Los Angeles Times)
The U.S. is on track to end veteran homelessness by the end of next year, even in Los Angeles, the epicenter of the problem, U.S. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro said Saturday. “I believe we can,” Castro said at the United Way of Greater Los Angeles’ HomeWalk to end homelessness in Exposition Park. “We are making progress as a nation.” Castro, a rising Democratic star whose been mentioned as a possible running mate for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential race, said that under the Obama administration Congress had increased the number of rental vouchers for veterans from the 20,000-30,000 range to 75,000-80,000. Los Angeles County has an estimated 4,618 homeless veterans, the highest number of any jurisdiction in the country. The county also receives the most vouchers, which are the federal government’s primary weapon to end veteran homelessness, of any jurisdiction in the nation, Castro said. Mayor Eric Garcetti has pledged to get every homeless veteran in the city into housing by the 2016 deadline.