Veterans news update for Nov. 20

Veterans news update for Nov. 20

Veterans news updateWalz abandons bid for top Veterans Affairs committee spot (National Journal)
Rep. Tim Walz, the only Iraq War-era veteran on the House Veterans Affairs Committee, has backed off his effort to become the top Democrat on the panel, amid questions raised over his status as a member of the panel. Walz had let it be known earlier this month he planned to challenge Rep. Corrine Brown of Florida for the ranking-member seat on the panel, to succeed Rep. Michael Michaud of Maine, who is leaving Congress. Walz is a four-term congressman from Minnesota, and a major in the Army National Guard. His congressional website describes him as “the highest ranking enlisted soldier ever to serve in Congress.” And Rep. Peter Welch of Vermont did present Walz’s candidacy for ranking member to the House Democratic Steering Committee, controlled by Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. But according to members of the committee, Welch later withdrew Walz’s name, following discussions about the congressman’s exact status on the committee, including his future status.

Democrats’ leadership fight frustrates veterans advocates (Military Times)
Democratic leaders had planned to vote to sideline the only Iraq War-era veteran on the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee and stave off an internal power struggle, a move that has infuriated some veterans advocates. Rep. Tim Walz, D-Minn., announced last week his plans to seek the ranking member seat on the committee, following the retirement of current ranking member Rep. Mike Michaud, D-Maine. Walz is a retired command sergeant major in the Army National Guard, the highest ranking enlisted soldier to ever serve in Congress. But congressional seniority rules put Rep. Corrine Brown, D-Fla., in line for that post, and Walz’s move has touched off behind-the-scenes fights over who will be a more credible minority party voice on the committee in the coming session. Brown and members of the Congressional Black Caucus have bristled over suggestions that the 10-term congresswoman could be passed over for the ranking member post. But Michaud and several veterans groups have publicly backed Walz, citing his military knowledge and role as the committee’s most experienced veteran.

At-risk veterans need help on suicide, senators say (USA Today)
Veterans at risk of suicide have to wait too long to get mental health treatment from the Department of Veterans Affairs, senators said Wednesday at a hearing to learn how to stem the rising number of suicides. “We cannot have someone call in for an appointment and have to wait five weeks to get help,” Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., told VA representatives. “The VA has to start planning and requesting necessary resources now.” Veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are at a higher risk for suicide than the general U.S. population, said Harold Kudler, the chief mental health services consultant for the VA’s Health Administration. The number of veterans receiving specialized mental health treatment from the VA has increased each year, from 927,052 in 2006 to more than 1.4 million in 2013. The VA has 150 medical centers, 820 community outpatient clinics, 300 vet centers for counseling, a crisis line and staff at colleges and university across the country. It still needs more, Kudler told the members of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee.

Veterans’ suicides prove VA must improve services, mothers testify (Military Times)
The mother of an Army National Guard soldier who killed himself less than seven weeks ago pleaded with Congress on Wednesday to do more to save troops and veterans suffering from combat-related mental health conditions. Valerie Pallotta, whose son, Pfc. Joshua Pallotta, 25, died Sept. 23, tearfully described the challenges she and her husband faced when Joshua returned from Afghanistan with post-traumatic stress disorder and the nightmare they’ve lived since police officers knocked on the door of their Vermont home at 3:37 a.m. to tell them Joshua was dead. “Our minds are at the funeral home, crying on our son’s body as it lays cold … our minds are at the veterans cemetery in Randolph, Vermont, the place our son was laid to rest, a place we haven’t been able to visit,” Pallotta told Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee members. Pallotta and Susan Selke, the mother of a former Marine who died by suicide in 2011, pressed committee members to support legislation designed to improve mental health services for veterans, at Veterans Affairs Department medical facilities as well as civilian practices, where many returning troops end up seeking medical care after leaving service. Selke, whose son, Marine Corps veteran Clay Hunt, died at age 26, urged passage of a bill named for her child — legislation that would require VA and the Defense Department to submit to an independent review of their suicide prevention programs and create a program designed to attract psychiatrists to work at VA by paying back their student loans.

Report finds missed opportunities at VA clinics to prevent Vietnam vet’s suicide (The Daily Caller)
A newly released government investigation has found that three Veterans Affairs health clinics “missed opportunities” to prevent a Vietnam veteran’s suicide, with failures ranging from “communication breakdowns” to completely ignoring his “multiple suicide risk factors.” The unnamed sixty-something patient, who had previously attempted suicide in 1989, shot himself in the head in 2013. He’d been receiving treatment for chronic shoulder, neck and back pain; osteoarthritis, degenerative discs in his lower back, low bone density and a variety of nerve conditions exacerbating pain and weakness in his neck and back, and had had cervical spine surgery in the fall of 2012. The patient bounced around from clinic to clinic beginning in 2011, when the VA reassigned him from his usual primary care clinic to one nearer his home. A year later he requested another transfer, and another six months after that. He was also diagnosed with PTSD related to his service in Vietnam, depression, anxiety, “intermittent explosive disorder,” bipolar depression, steroid-induced mood disorder and alcohol abuse.

Lawmakers blast VA over at-risk data (The Hill)
Outdated equipment, poor training and network security weaknesses continue to expose data at the Department of Veterans’ Affairs. Speaking Wednesday at a House Veterans’ Affairs Committee hearing, officials from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) and the VA’s inspector general office detailed an agency that has repeatedly failed to secure its sensitive data.  “We continue to see systemic deficiencies,” including such basic mistakes as employees taking equipment with sensitive data home, said Sondra McCauley, the VA’s deputy assistant inspector general for audits and evaluations.  The VA revealed on Monday it had failed its annual cybersecurity audit for 2014 — its 16th straight failure. “I think it’s clear from the findings presented here,” said Rep. Jackie Walorski (R-Ind.). “The personal information of millions of veterans remains at risk.”

VA sends out second round of veteran Choice Cards (Washington Post)
The Veterans Affairs Department this week began mailing its second round of Choice Cards to former troops who have struggled to access care at the agency’s medical centers, issuing the temporary benefit to those who have waited more than 30 days for an appointment. The new program, which started earlier this month, allows eligible veterans to seek care at non-VA health-care facilities if they have trouble obtaining treatment, either because of scheduling delays or because they live far from the nearest VA hospital. VA began issuing a first wave of cards on Nov. 5, sending them to patients who live more than 40 miles from the department’s nearest health facility. The first two rounds involve about 700,000 veterans, and the department plans to issue more cards next month to 8 million former troops enrolled in its health network, just in case they qualify to use them in the future, according to an agency fact sheet.

VA moving forward with mobile app to schedule appointments (Stars & Stripes)
VA appointments via cell phone app are about to move closer to reality. On Friday, the Department of Veterans Affairs will ask companies to make proposals for a new mobile application for scheduling care at its nationwide network of hospitals and clinics, officials said during testimony Tuesday in the House. Eventually, the app could allow veterans to request an appointment and see available slots. It is part of the agency’s effort to overhaul a decades-old electronic scheduling system implicated in a patient wait-time scandal and rife with security flaws that put millions of patients’ personal information at risk to hackers. “We are expecting to get capability online in [fiscal year] ’15,” said Stephen Warren, executive in charge and chief information officer at the VA Office of Information and Technology. The VA expects to award the contract in March and begin rolling out a new overall scheduling system and the app during the following two years, Warren said during a Veterans Affairs Committee hearing.

Veterans in subsidized housing: one in two is elderly (The Oregonian)
With the federal government’s push to reduce the number of homeless veterans, research is revealing more about those who receive rent subsidies. It is also showing that many more would benefit from rent assistance. A Nov. 10 report from the Washington, D.C.,-based Center on Budget and Policy Priorities concluded that rental assistance has “played a central role in the 33 percent reduction in veterans’ homelessness between 2010 and 2014.” But assistance reaches “only a fraction” of the veterans who need it, the report adds. The Center studied March 2014 population data and found: about 343,000 veterans were housed with the help of rent assistance as of March 2014; of those, 52 percent were classified as elderly, 10 percent female and 21 percent were “non-elderly veterans with disabilities”; about 121,000 children live in rent-supported housing with a veteran; and about one-third (34 percent) of assisted veterans lived in households below the poverty line.

Deported U.S. veterans to be included in Obama’s executive action (Fox News Latino)
Alfredo Varon is a 56-year-old veteran of the U.S. Army. He served as a specialist 4 assigned to NATO in Europe for six years, before starting his own business in New Jersey. But in 1998, the Colombian immigrant’s American dream came crashing down when a 10-year-old attempted forgery conviction for a $300 check got him deported. Now, with President Barack Obama expected to announce an executive order to overhaul immigration reform, Varon is part of a group of deported veterans who are demanding that they benefit from any action taken on immigration. These military veterans say they risked their lives to serve in the U.S. military – some even served in the Vietnam War – and yet they were not only kicked out of the country they served but they also don’t receive any medical benefits from the military. “I feel is what they did to me is unfair and it affected a lot of veterans in the world,” Varon told Fox News Latino. “I feel that now that now that I’m getting older we should pursue that cause and, with this new executive order immigration in the spotlight, I hope veterans are noticed and helped out.”

Why the Veterans of Foreign Wars is worth saving (Business Insider)
Commentary: “Did I join my local VFW when I returned? Hell no. But here’s why we need a reformed VFW. There was a time when our country assumed no social responsibility for the men they sent to war. These men returned injured, broken, and sick, and virtually zero benefits existed for them — no Veterans Administration, no G.I. Bill, nothing. The service members of these wars were expected to simply return, and get on with their life even though they had suffered lost limbs, fatal diseases, lost eyesight, and debilitating “shell shock.” By 1899, American veterans had enough, and the first local chapters of the Veterans of Foreign Wars were founded in order to lobby Congress for the benefits they deserved. These early chapters were erected in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Colorado. By 1936, the VFW had over 200,000 veterans in its ranks. Since then, many important benefits that we modern veterans often take for granted were fought for and won, such as the Montgomery G.I. Bill, which sent thousands of World War II vets to college and essentially created the American middle class. We have the VFW to thank for compensation for veterans who inhaled fatal chemicals like Agent Orange in the jungles of Vietnam.