Veterans news update for Nov. 21

Veterans news update for Nov. 21

Veterans news updateAmerican Legion opposes Obama’s immigration action (Huffington Post)
The head of one of the nation’s largest veterans groups on Thursday said the threat of terrorist groups in the Middle East was the reason the group, the American Legion, opposes President Barack Obama’s expected immigration action. “At a time when ISIS, al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations are killing innocent Americans, it makes no sense to let our guard down and send a message that the United States is an open, soft target,” American Legion National Commander Michael D. Helm said in a statement released by the group. Obama announced a plan Thursday evening to defer deportations of some undocumented immigrants, a move which has rankled conservatives and energized members of the president’s party. The American Legion has vocally opposed deferring the deportation of immigrants in the past, arguing instead for a policy of strict enforcement and “self-deportation.” But previous arguments by the group have focused largely on the potential of immigrants to drain resources like the health care system or public schools. The idea that deferred deportations would leave the United States vulnerable to terrorist groups in the Middle East like the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, appears to be a new argument.

First VA official fired under new procedures (The Blaze)
Months after Congress passed legislation making it easier to fire officials at the Department of Veterans Affairs, the first official has finally been fired under the new process. VA Secretary Robert McDonald had come under fire from members of Congress over the last few months for not using the process against the many officials who played a role in the VA health care scandal, or those involved in other scandals. But on Wednesday, one official was finally forced out under the new process: James Talton, the former director of the Alabama Veterans Healthcare System. Talton was put on paid administrative leave earlier this year, for failing to take appropriate disciplinary action against two VA officials. One of those officials took a veteran to a crackhouse, and the other crashed a VA vehicle and lied about the circumstances of the crash. Talton was also accused of lying to Rep. Martha Roby (R-Ala.) about whether people involved in the health care scandal had been fired. In October, the VA finally decided to recommend Talton’s removal. But under the law passed by Congress, Talton had the right to appeal to the Merit Systems Protection Board. He did appeal the VA’s finding, but a decision from an administrative judge released Wednesday said it upheld the VA’s decision.

Why are they still on the VA payroll? (Montgomery Advertiser)
Editorial: Although there are some encouraging signs of better times to come for the Central Alabama Veterans Health Care System, there also are troubling reminders of how far the system has to go in restoring the confidence of veterans and the rest of the taxpayers. One of the most disturbing aspects of this long-running story has been the appalling conduct of CAVHCS employees who suffered no consequences for their actions, but remained on the payroll despite shocking revelations that surely would have cost private-sector employees their jobs. As the Advertiser’s Kala Kachmar reported, some employees whose actions were detailed in news reports months ago — actions that took place months before then and had to have been known to CAVHCS management — are still being paid with your tax dollars. It’s indefensible.

Whistleblower complaint filed against St. Petersburg VA office (The Suncoast News)
Just days after issuing a scathing report pointing out what he said was a “poor, inept and inaccurate” quality control process for benefit claims at the Department of Veterans Affairs St. Petersburg Regional Office, Javier Soto was told that his services as a Ratings Benefits Services Representative “were no longer needed.” On Tuesday, Soto filed a whistleblower complaint with the federal Merit Systems Protection Board, claiming he was fired in retaliation for pointing out problems at the office, the nation’s busiest claims processing center. Soto, who is seeking his job back, said he was fired without notice or due process and without any investigation into the concerns he raised in his report and several others like it. The complaint also said that management made the decision without consulting with Soto’s direct supervisors, or taking into account that he had no prior performance or disciplinary issues and was cited in his reviews for “following orders and working well with everybody.”

Report: VA mismanagement of contracts wastes millions (The Daily Caller)
Even as hundreds of thousands of veterans wait weeks for a doctor’s appointment, the Veterans Health Administration is on track to mismanage hundreds of millions of dollars over the next five years, according to a government oversight report. The report estimates that the VHA will inappropriately spend $159 million annually or $795 million over the next five years by doing things like not seeking out the best price for contracts. This comes on the heels of a USA Today investigation that found that over 600,000 veterans are waiting more than a month for appointments at VA hospitals and clinics. The VHA’s spending on support service contract functions quadrupled from 2002 to 2012 and contract costs have increased 60 percent since 2012, according to the report. The Office of the Inspector General has identified similar problems since 2005.

VA settles two more Legionnaires lawsuits (Washington Times)
A federal judge has been asked to approve settlements totaling $160,000 for lawsuits involving two veterans who died after contracting Legionnaire’s disease at a Pittsburgh Veterans Affairs hospital. The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review reports survivors of 65-year-old Navy veteran Lloyd Wanstreet, of Jeannette, and 58-year-old Marine veteran Brant Evans, of Freedom, are seeking the settlements. Both died during an outbreak of the severe form of pneumonia – which is spread by bacteria commonly found in water supplies – that killed at least six Pittsburgh VA patients and sickened 22 others from February 2011 to November 2012. The outbreak affected the University Drive hospital in Pittsburgh, where Wanstreet and Evans died, and another VA hospital in O’Hara Township. According to court documents, the VA has agreed to pay Wanstreet’s sister $115,000 and Evans’ widow $45,000.

Veterans may gain easier access to medical marijuana (Huffington Post)
A bill introduced in Congress would allow Department of Veterans Affairs doctors to recommend medical marijuana for their patients. The Veterans Equal Access Act. Introduced Thursday by Reps. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) and Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) with 10 bipartisan cosponsors, would lift a ban on VA doctors giving opinions or recommendations about medical marijuana to veterans who live in states where medical marijuana is permitted. “Post traumatic stress and traumatic brain injury are just as damaging and harmful as any injuries that are visible from the outside,” Blumenauer said. “Sometimes even more so because of the devastating effect they can have on a veteran’s family. We should be allowing these wounded warriors access to the medicine that will help them survive and thrive, including medical marijuana, not treating them like criminals and forcing them into the shadows. It’s shameful.” Nearly 30 percent of veterans who served in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars suffer from PTSD and depression, according to a 2012 report from the Department of Veterans Affairs. Some scientists have suggested that marijuana may help PTSD symptoms, which can include anxiety, flashbacks and depression. In a recent study, patients who smoked cannabis saw an average 75 percent reduction in PTSD symptoms.

Veterans face another battle: paying for college (CNBC)
When AnnaBelle Bryan decided to finish college after leaving military service, she thought the process would be easy. After all, the government is supposed to pay some or all of veterans’ tuition costs. But that was before the university she was attending, South University, incorrectly told the Veterans’ Administration that she was going to school part-time, she said. The VA responded by paying only half of the tuition benefit she should have received, a difference of about $800. It’s not as if the Bryans don’t know how to deal with the VA: AnnaBelle Bryan is the research manager of the National Center for Veterans Studies at the University of Utah, and her husband Craig is its executive director. Craig Bryan called the VA, but was told that since the error was in the system, nothing could be done. “They never resolved the thing,” Bryan said. “It was just lost benefits.” And it happened more than once. All told, he estimates the couple lost over $2,000 to the errors. When Congress passed the Post-9/11 Veterans Educational Assistance Act in 2008, the goal was to extend military educational benefits to more recent veterans. On paper it does exactly that. But veterans report numerous difficulties actually making use of the funds.

Study: Veterans with PTSD improve with telemedicine (The Daily Caller)
A new study published by the medical journal JAMA Psychiatry has found that telemedicine is a far superior method to deliver treatment for PTSD than requiring veterans to travel to government Veterans Affairs hospitals. Veterans have traditionally been plagued with the need to travel long distances to VA hospitals in order to receive the treatment they need, but this requirement has been difficult, mostly because veterans with injuries find it difficult to maintain consistency. Telemedicine, it seems, is an effective substitute and ensures consistency in treatment. Researchers in this study used a randomized trial design to study evidence-based psychotherapy, dividing 265 veterans, who lived in rural areas, into two separate groups. The study lasted from November 23, 2009, to September 18, 2011. Although the sample size was small, the results are promising. Veterans in the first group were given access to doctors via telemedicine, which included video correspondence and phone calls. This group was 8 times more likely to complete eight sessions of cognitive processing therapy than the second group, in which veterans still had to commute. The first group showed considerable improvement on PTSD and depression.

Seniors boost the number of veterans deemed unemployable (The Washington Post)
Jack Behunin received welcome news last year from the Department of Veterans Affairs: He was declared unfit to work because of war-related medical conditions, boosting his tax-free monthly disability compensation from $1,850 to $3,000. Not that he had any interest in a job. The World War II veteran from Burbank, Calif., is 90 years old. His case is not an aberration. Senior citizens have helped make the benefit — known as individual unemployability — one of the fastest-growing expenditures in the Veterans Affairs disability system. The number of “unemployable” veterans has nearly tripled since 2000, to 321,451, with the majority at ages when most people have stopped working. Government data show that 56 percent of the beneficiaries are at least 65. Eleven percent are 80 or older. Being classified as unemployable can add $1,100 to $1,900 to a veteran’s monthly disability pay, which often comes on top of Social Security.

WWII Filipino vets still fighting for benefits funds (NBC News)
Filipino veterans of WWII like Jesse Baltazar — a 94-year old from Virginia — know firsthand the story of the Bataan Death March. He lived through it, was wounded in battle, and awarded a Purple Heart. But the longest battle of his life began after the war ended. Baltazar is one of the lucky 18,000 veterans still alive who has been able to successfully cut through red tape, fighting initial request denials to receive U.S. Veterans benefits. More than 4,500 others, like 97-year-old Celestino Almeda, are still fighting for their own funds. Today, some will testify before a Congressional subcommittee about their struggle. Even though Congress in 2009 approved one time payments of $15,000 to veterans who are U.S. citizens ($9,000 for veterans who remained Filipino citizens), survivors and families complain that the Department of Veterans Affairs refuses to make the verification process easy for the Filipino vets. Payments have been denied Almeda and others whose identification and evidence of service have been deemed inadequate. Among Almeda’s documents are pay stubs and his formal discharge documents from 1946. “I have known all my life that I am a veteran,“ Almeda, among those testifying in Washington, told NBC News. “I was called to duty when the Japanese invaded the Philippines. I have in my own personal records all the documents to support that I am a veteran from the beginning to the end.”

Mayor targets 90-year-old veteran for feeding homeless (The Federalist)
As if it weren’t sacrificial enough to have served our country in World War II, 90 year-old Arnold Abbott, or Chef Arnold, as he’s called, and his organization Love Thy Neighbor have been feeding the homeless near Fort Lauderdale, Florida for more than 20 years. Even getting arrested didn’t stop him from dishing hot food to the hungry. Wait, what? That’s right. Two weeks ago, the mayor of Fort Lauderdale, the obviously intelligent and hospitable Jack Seiler, had Abbott arrested for violating a new ordinance that made feeding homeless people in parks illegal. He told the local news channel, “Mr. Abbott has decided that he doesn’t think these individuals should have to have any interaction with government, that they should be fed in the parks. We disagree.” The story has continued to escalate. Just last week Abbot was cited a second time for—guess what?—continuing to feed homeless folks right where they are, in the city’s parks.