Veterans news update for Dec. 12

Veterans news update for Dec. 12

Veterans news updateHearing: Homelessness among veterans is declining, but goal remains elusive (Stars & Stripes)
Veteran homelessness has been reduced 33 percent since 2009, but there is still a long way to go before the U.S. reaches “functional zero,” Congressmen and veteran service providers said Thursday in a hearing on Capitol Hill. In November 2009, President Barack Obama and then-Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki set the ambitious goal of ending homelessness among veterans “within five years.” Since then, the stated deadline has shifted from the beginning of 2015 to the end of 2015, even as the VA and groups across the country worked to quickly implement Shinseki’s comprehensive plan. A VA inspector general report released last week shows the effort has not been flawless: The VA’s National Call Center for Homeless Veterans missed more than 40,000 opportunities to engage with veterans because of calls going to recordings during peak hours. Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, said the findings would be unacceptable for any government program, but is particularly problematic for a population that faces significant challenges just to make a phone call.

VA employees doubt agency can police itself (Atlanta Journal Constitution)
Federal investigators with the VA inspector general’s office appear to be in the final stages of an inquiry into alleged mismanagement and mishandling of hundreds of thousands of health applications at the Veterans Affairs national enrollment office in Atlanta. But some employees at the national Health Eligibility Center (HEC) are critical of the investigation and say officials with inspector general’s office are not vigorously pursuing leads they are giving them. They question if the investigation will get to the bottom of what they say are systemic problems with the VA’s health enrollment system. The VA inspector general’s office has faced heightened scrutiny and criticism for the way it appeared to dilute the findings of its investigation into patient wait times earlier this year. That scandal emanated from the Phoenix VA but exposed long waits at veterans hospitals across the country.

Colorado delegation asks VA, contractor to negotiate over hospital (Denver Post)
Let’s hug it out. That’s the message that members of Colorado’s congressional delegation sent Thursday to warring factions at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and Kiewit-Turner, the contractor hired by the VA to build a new hospital in Aurora. Earlier this week, a federal board of appeals decided the VA had breached its contract with Kiewit-Turner. That meant the construction company could abandon the troubled Aurora project — an escape route that officials at Kiewit-Turner immediately said they would take. Since the decision, however, Colorado lawmakers have worked furiously to bring the two sides together. The letter sent Thursday, which was signed by both Colorado senators and all seven House members, was the latest effort by the delegation to salvage the project, which the construction contractor estimated last March would cost about $1 billion. “Now that the lawsuit is behind us, it is time for everyone to work together for our veterans and the workers who want to be back on the job,” U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., said in a statement. One past timeline had put the project’s completion at last February. Now it’s uncertain when hospital construction will finish.

Is the VA health care system cheaper than private care (Roll Call)
A Congressional Budget Office report released this week looks at the Veterans Health Administration (VHA) and examines the difficulties in comparing the cost effectiveness of federal and private health care. At first, the CBO assumed – based upon earlier studies – that VHA care costs less than equivalent care provided in the private sector. Now, the budget agency is no longer so sure. Changes at the VHA, the complexities of cost comparisons and the paucity of new studies make a current comparison difficult. Meanwhile, the VHA is expanding the use of private health care services to compensate for highly publicized and very long treatment waiting times. Factors favoring lower costs for veterans care include lower prices for pharmaceutical products and likely lower pay rates for doctors. Also, the private sector’s favoring of fee-for-service payments probably hikes the cost of private care. However, the report notes in conclusion: “even if VHA currently provided care at a lower cost than the private sector, expanding the VHA system might not be cheaper in the longer term than increasing the use of private-sector providers.”

Report: Active duty suicides increase in 2014 (The Washington Times)
More active duty service members have committed suicide in the first half of 2014 than over the same time period last year, according to a Defense Department report released Thursday. From January to June of this year, 144 active duty service members killed themselves, the report found. Over the same time period in 2013, 128 active duty troops had committed suicide. In total, 224 service members committed suicide from January until June of this year, including 38 reservists and 44 National Guard members. In the first half of 2013, 238 service members killed themselves, showing that the overall number of suicides is decreasing as the number among active duty troops rises. The Senate is expected the pass an annual defense bill by the end of the week that includes a provision to mandate an annual mental health check for all troops, including reservists and National Guard members, who often don’t have the same mental health resources available to active duty service members when they return home from war.

Man to be sentenced in VA clinic shooting in Ohio (Navy Times)
An Ohio man who pleaded guilty to a charge of assault with a dangerous weapon in a Veterans Affairs hospital shooting that wounded an employee in the ankle is to be sentenced in federal court. Former Veterans Affairs employee Neil Moore, 59, of Trotwood, is due in U.S. District Court in Dayton on Friday. He pleaded guilty in September in an agreement with prosecutors. They dropped a count of use of a deadly weapon in the commission of a violent crime. Moore entered a break room at the Dayton VA Medical Center on May 5 and pointed a gun at several employees, and one employee was shot in the ensuing scuffle, authorities said. Moore pointed the revolver at another person before fleeing, according to court documents. U.S Assistant Attorney Dwight Keller has said he thinks the agreement recommending 5 1/2 years in prison is a fair compromise for all. The judge can accept or reject it. The count carries a possible maximum sentence of up to 10 years in prison and a possible fine of up to $250,000.

For native American vets, traditional therapies work over conventional for PTSD (Indian Country Today Media Network)
Many Native American veterans who participated in a university survey about Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder say traditional healing therapies are more effective for them than conventional therapies offered by the Department of Veterans Affairs. Among the therapies they cite: Sweat lodge ceremonies, purification lodge ceremonies, spiritual ceremonies involving sacred songs and, among horse cultures, equine therapy. Washington State University PhD candidate Greg Urquhart, Cherokee, and his research partners hope data gathered from their comprehensive online survey will bolster steps taken by the VA, Indian Health Service and Tribes to make traditional Native American therapies more available, particularly in rural Native American communities that are far removed from VA health care offices. The survey is part of a research study titled, “Native American Veterans’ Perceptions, Knowledge, and Attitudes toward Posttraumatic Stress Disorder and Available Treatment.” The survey went live in November 2013 and will remain online until January or February, Urquhart said. The data will be presented to VA, IHS and indigenous nations in the U.S.

Senate Veterans Affairs chairman a ‘no’ vote on defense bill (The Hill)
Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) on Thursday voted against moving forward on the 2015 defense policy bill, saying he had concerns about the Pentagon’s “bloated” budget. “I am voting no because I have very serious concerns about our nation’s bloated military budget and the misplaced national priorities this bill reflects,” he said in a statement. The Senate on Thursday voted to advance the $585 billion bill, which authorizes the Pentagon’s programs and spending. Sanders was one of 14 senators to vote “no.” “At a time when our national debt is more than $18 trillion and we spend nearly as much on defense as the rest of the world combined, the time is long overdue to end the waste and financial mismanagement that have plagued the Pentagon for years,” Sanders said. The bill authorizes $521 billion for the Pentagon’s base budget, and $64 billion for overseas contingency operations (OCO), also known as war funding. Fiscal conservative groups have called the OCO account a Pentagon “slush fund.”

Pain relief for vets doesn’t have to lead to prescription drug addiction (Sacramento Bee)
The epidemic of prescription drug abuse in the United States has become rampant and deadly. Unfortunately, those who have served our nation are disproportionately prone to abusing powerful narcotics that have been prescribed for combat injuries. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, along with other operations across the globe, have led to a sharp increase in the number of opioids being prescribed to military personnel. Those who suffer from dependence and addiction to these medications doubled from 2002 to 2005 and almost tripled between 2005 and 2008, according to the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence. It is imperative that injured and recovering veterans have access to pain relief. But promising new technology from certain drugmakers can help offer palliative care, while also helping to curb abuse of opioid drugs. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved several new formulations of narcotic painkillers that are made “tamper proof” to prevent abusers from crushing pills to inhale, inject or snort them – most often the cause of overdose and death from the misuse of prescription pain medications.

Vets with PTSD say Cape Coral VA clinic kicked them out (Fort Myers News-Press)
No doubt the 10 men who were booted out of the Veterans Administration Healthcare Center in Cape Coral were treated shabbily. These guys are combat veterans who fought in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. They all suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD, a mental disorder that can develops following a terrifying events like those that happen in war. Every Friday for the past 18 months the men have held their support group at the VA Clinic offices. And they wanted to continue those meetings there with their current group leaders. The VA has a different idea. It wants one of two peer specialists, employees who are certified mental health professionals, to help run the group; something the members of this PTSD support group have refused to allow. The current group leader is a trained volunteer, Luis Casilla. A 63-year-old Vietnam vet, Casilla is a trained peer specialist with more than a decade of experience. “They don’t want to associate with these guys,” Casilla said the PTSD support group members have told him. The VA’s specialists haven’t had PTSD. “They don’t trust them. They want keep our group. But (the VA) wants to do it their way.”

Salem VA seeks to eradicate possible source of Legionnaires’ disease (The Roanoke Times)
High levels of chlorine will soon be pumped through the water pipes of six buildings at the veteran’s hospital in Salem, a process intended to kill a form of bacteria that may have caused a patient to become ill with Legionnaires’ disease. Officials at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Salem described the process Thursday, one day after confirming the presence of the Legionella bacterium in the hospital’s water system. It remains unclear if the system’s water is what made the veteran sick. The man was an outpatient and could have come into contact elsewhere with Legionella, a bacterium that exists in many water systems — although usually at levels too low to pose a risk. Nonetheless, Salem VA officials are embarking on an extensive cleanup project and have hired an expert contractor for the job. VA spokeswoman Marian McConnell said tests have detected the bacterium in sporadic locations within six buildings. The medical center, which serves about 112,000 veterans in Southwest Virginia, consists of about 20 buildings on a campus near the Roanoke-Salem line.

Merrill Newman, U.S. Korean War vet who was held in North Korea, tells his story (The New York Times)
In his 36th-floor hotel room overlooking Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, Merrill Newman developed a routine. He woke at 7:15, ate breakfast at 8 — eggs, toast and two cups of coffee — and then he waited. A nurse and a doctor visited four times a day to take the temperature and blood pressure of the 85-year-old Californian. The interrogator, who sometimes shouted at him, called him a liar and told him to stop acting like a 3-year-old, came less frequently. A year after he was released by North Korea, Mr. Newman, a Korean War veteran who ran afoul of the North Korean authorities on a trip there last year, has finally told the story of his detention in an e-book, “The Last P.O.W.” by Mike Chinoy, released this week. A former United States Army intelligence officer who fought in the Korean War, Mr. Newman was detained by North Korea for more than a month and accused of war crimes. The narrative, based on interviews by Mr. Chinoy, a journalist, portrays the event as the unfortunate result of a collision between a naive 85-year-old and a paranoid state, worried that an elderly, ailing war veteran might be part of some American plot to reignite a 60-year-old conflict.