Veterans news update for Jan. 14

Veterans news update for Jan. 14

Veterans news updateVeteran fights for $250,000 in benefits for Agent Orange-caused condition (NBC-San Diego)
Frustrated and fed-up, Vietnam veteran Don Rabush calls his fight to get Veterans Affairs benefits for an ailment caused by Agent Orange one of the worth battles he’s ever faced. The Army second lieutenant has been working to get nearly 40 years of retroactive benefits after suffering a heart attack in 1974. Though a doctor at the time told him the attack was not war-related, the decision was reversed in 2010 when doctors discovered Rabush suffered a heart condition from contact with Agent Orange. He encountered the chemical during his five and a half years of service. “In Vietnam, I was fighting the Viet Cong. This is a more vicious enemy. These are people who hide behind bureaucracy not to serve veterans,” Rabush told NBC 7 Tuesday. When Rabush filed for benefits in 2010, the VA granted them. Officials are not disputing Rabush’s ailments or their cause, but when the benefits should start. Rabush said he should get them retroactively to 1974, but the VA says they should start in 2010 when he filed his new claim. At issue, says VA Pension Management Center Manager Gary Chesterton, is a form Rabush submitted in 1974, which the VA says was a procedural form, not a claim form. Disabled American Veterans representative Guy Anastasia told NBC 7 Rabush’s checks say otherwise. “I did research. I went to the legal staff here and in D.C. to verify it can be used for adjudication purposes. It can be,” Anastasia said.

Military suicides up slightly in 2014 (Associated Press)
Suicides among members of the active-duty military personnel rose slightly in 2014, led by increases in the number of sailors and airmen who took their own lives, new Defense Department figures show. There were fewer suicides by Army soldiers and Marines, the two services that have seen the most combat in Iraq and Afghanistan during the past decade. According to preliminary Pentagon data, there were 288 confirmed and suspected suicides by active-duty personnel in 2014, compared with 286 in 2013. Both totals, however, represent a sharp drop from the 2012 number of 352. The data was obtained by The Associated Press. The number of suicides by members of the active-duty National Guard and Reserve decreased a bit last year, after going up slightly in 2013. Those totals are included in the overall 2014 numbers.

Lawmakers demand investigation into out of control opioids at VA facility (The Daily Caller)
A VA medical facility in Wisconsin — known by veterans as “Candy Land” — is handing out record numbers of opiates, and punishing staff who disagree. Veterans are reportedly so high during therapy that they drool and burn themselves on cigarettes. Sen. Tammy Baldwin and Rep. Ron Kind are demanding that Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert McDonald further investigate a report on the facility. The Center for Investigative Reporting originally broke the story on Friday, revealing that from 2004 onward, the number of prescriptions handed out has quintupled under the direction of chief of staff Dr. David Houlihan. Staff members stated that Houlihan punished anyone who raised questions about lax prescription policies. In one case, a 35 year old died after overdosing in a psychiatric ward. After only two months serving in the mental health clinic, Gulf War veteran Ryan Honl couldn’t take it anymore. Honl resigned and filed a whistleblower complaint, stating that the number of prescription painkillers being handed to veterans is absolutely out of control.

Vietnam veteran executed for murder after PTSD defense fails (The Washington Post)
Convicted killer Andrew H. Brannan, who murdered a Georgia sheriff’s deputy 17 years ago, was put to death Tuesday night after attempts for clemency citing his post-traumatic stress disorder developed in combat in Vietnam were denied. The execution was carried out by lethal injection at 8:33 p.m. at the Diagnostic and Classification Prison in Jackson, Ga. Brannan’s lawyers had filed numerous appeals in recent days asking for clemency and a stay of execution, saying the post-traumatic stress he developed after serving in combat in the Army had crippled him for life. Brannan, 66, lost his temper with Laurens County Sheriff Deputy Kyle Dinkheller, on Jan. 12, 1998, after driving 100 mph on a country road and getting pulled over by the officer. Brannan left his vehicle and sarcastically prodded Dinkheller to shoot him, screamed that he was a “goddamn Vietnam combat veteran,” and then retrieved a rifle from his pickup truck, according to a police cruiser dashboard camera video later released. Brannan lost a bid for clemency with the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles on Monday, and with Georgia’s top court and the U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday. In a statement, Brannan’s lawyer, Joe Loveland, said that he spoke to Brannan a few hours before his execution and had a message for fellow veterans who had supported him. “I am proud to have been able to walk point for my comrades, and pray that the same thing does not happen to any of them,” Brannan said, according to Loveland.

Senator: Congress must keep empowering VA to fire bad executives (Military.com)
The newly named chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee says the law passed last year to crack down on problem executives within the Veterans Affairs Department may need fine tuning but there will be no backing down on demands for increased accountability. “There may need to be some tweaks to the Veterans Choice Act … but we won’t back away from [insisting on] discipline,” Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Georgia said on Monday.  “We’re going to do anything we can to make it work. We can’t wait for more years to go by, we have a big responsibility to the veterans.” Over the past four or five months since the Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act was signed into law, the VA has made about 700 personnel changes, Isakson said, “[but] most have been voluntary separations, retirements or transfers” and not taken as a disciplinary action. The law overwhelmingly approved by Congress following a House and Senate conference was framed as get-tough legislation giving the VA secretary the authority to quickly jettison mismanaging or poorly performing officials, including those in the senior executive service ranks.

Lawmakers ask VA to patch gap that costs veterans their trucking jobs (The Missoulian)
Two state representatives are asking U.S. Sen. Jon Tester to help patch a loophole in federal law that puts Montana veterans needing a medical exam to renew their commercial driver’s license at a disadvantage. Reps. Ed Lieser and Andrew Person, Democrats representing Whitefish and Missoula, respectively, said Montana veterans with a CDL are losing their jobs or suffering long renewal delays because the VA Montana Health Care System doesn’t have any certified medical examiners. New federal regulations require CDL drivers to get their medical exam from a certified examiner. “Montana veterans with a CDL are either losing their jobs or at least suffering significant delays in certification or extended periods of unemployment, because there are no certified examiners in the VA system,” Lieser said. Tester co-authored legislation in 2011 that led to the Hire Heroes Act. Among other things, the law helped ease the transition of service members by converting their military experience to civilian work, such as military truck driving to commercial truck driving. At issue, Tester said, are new Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations that require CDL holders to provide a copy of their medical exam certificate when receiving or renewing their license. The exam must be conducted by a certified examiner listed on the National Registry of Certified Medical Examiners. An examiner must take a training course and pass a federal exam to be listed on the registry. The Montana VA has no such examiners, Lieser and Person said, and getting certified could take months. Tester has asked VA Secretary Robert McDonald to correct the oversight.

Senate VA panel considering next steps on suicide prevention (The Hill)
The Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee will discuss the path forward on a bill to strengthen suicide prevention efforts among military veterans next week, according to the panel’s chairman. The committee will come together for an organization meeting next Wednesday, Jan. 21, “which is when we’ll take it up,” Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) told The Hill. The House on Monday voted 403-0 to pass the legislation, which is named after a Marine veteran named Clay Hunt who took his life after serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. Despite the House’s moves, Isakson doesn’t plan to accelerate the bill’s timing in the Senate. He said he’s already spoken about the timeline with Sen. Richard Blumenthal (Conn.), the panel’s top Democrat, as well as Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.), who co-sponsored the legislation in the last Congress. “Everybody’s on board, and we’ll do it next Wednesday,” Isakson said.

Bill would give VA power to revoke bonuses (Federal Times)
Are you a Veterans Affairs Department manager who has gotten a bonus? One lawmaker wants to give the agency the power to take it back. Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, introduced legislation Jan. 13 that would give the VA secretary the authority to revoke bonuses given to executives. The VA paid more than $380,000 in bonuses to executives at 38 hospitals that are under investigation for falsifying wait times for medical care, according to Miller. The VA has been reeling from investigations showing the agency falsified waiting lists in order to boost performance ratings, harming its patients and forcing veterans to wait months for medical care – a scandal that originally focused on the Phoenix health care system before expanding across the country. The scandal led to the resignation of then-secretary Eric Shinseki, and to widespread reforms at the agency, including new firing authorities. “Ideally, VA employees and executives who collected bonuses under false pretenses should be subject to prosecution when warranted, but at a minimum their bonuses should be paid back in full,” Miller said. “I urge my colleagues to support this bill so the VA secretary will have another tool to instill some much-needed accountability throughout the department.”

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