Lawmakers vow to keep a close watch on Veterans Affairs programs, spending (The Wall Street Journal)
Key members of Congress are vowing to ensure the Department of Veterans Affairs follows through on reforms designed to alleviate long wait times at VA facilities that brought down the organization’s top leadership last year. Top legislators in the House and Senate veterans committees said they would scrutinize how the VA’s new leaders spend more than $16 billion in emergency funding approved last year to reform the ailing department. Fighting veteran suicide and ensuring female veterans get adequate care also tops lawmakers’ goals this year. “Job one at the veterans committee is making sure the Veterans choice bill is implemented,” said Sen. Johnny Isakson (R., Ga.), the new chairman of the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs. “That is a monumental task right now.” Mr. Isakson said the sheer number of veterans affected by the bill presents problems bringing it to fruition. The act, which allows veterans who have been waiting more than 30 days for an appointment, or live more than 40 miles from a VA facility, to seek treatment at non-VA facilities. From June to November, the period the department has tracked, VA authorized 1.5 million non-VA appointments, a 47% increase over the same period in 2013, according to the VA.
Study: Explosive blasts leave distinct injuries to brains of veterans (Fox News)
New research shows that veterans who survived explosive blasts have distinct brain changes, suggesting that these impacts may be to blame for many of the psychological and social problems that vets face upon returning home. Researchers at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine examined the brains of five male U.S. military veterans, ages 23 to 28. All subjects had survived improvised explosive device (IED) attacks but later died of other causes, including methadone overdoses that may have been accidental. The drug is commonly prescribed for soldiers’ chronic pain, a gunshot wound to the head, and multiple organ failure. The veterans’ brains were compared to those of 24 people who died from a range of causes including heart attacks and motor vehicle crashes. Using a molecular marker, researchers tracked a protein called APP as it traveled from one nerve cell to another by an axon, a long nerve fiber. If axons are broken by injury, APP and other proteins clump at the break and cause swelling. Researchers found that axonal swellings look differently, depending on the injury. In the brain of a death caused by a car accident, the swellings are large and bulb-shaped. In those that died of methadone overdose, the swellings are small. Looking at the brains of the vets, in four of the vie, researchers found that the axonal bulbs were medium-sized and arranged in an unusual, specific honeycomb pattern near blood vessels.
Do veterans with PTSD really belong on death row? (The New Republic)
On Tuesday night, Georgia executed Vietnam War veteran Andrew Brannan for murdering Sheriff Deputy Kyle Dinkheller in January 1998. The dashboard camera in Dinkheller’s patrol vehicle captured their confrontation: Dinkheller pulled Brannan over for speeding, and Brannan’s reaction escalated rapidly from taunting Dinkheller to screaming at him, culminating in a firefight that left Dinkheller dead. Brannan was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder in 1984 and, later, bipolar disorder. His defense team invoked his diagnoses in an attempt to avoid the death penalty. In 1986, the Supreme Court outlawed the execution of the mentally ill. In order to be executed, a person has to understand both what capital punishment means and why he is receiving it. A condition like chronic schizophrenia, where a person might experience frequent dissociation, could disqualify him. With a diagnosis like PTSD, where symptoms can include flashbacks, self-destructive behavior, and aggression, the ruling’s application is less clear. A person could hypothetically commit a crime during a flashback or experience a violent rage because of his condition, and temporarily lose touch with reality. But it’s extremely difficult to establish that a person’s PTSD is relevant to his crime, and that it should be relevant to his sentencing.
Lawmakers push to ensure benefits for Filipino vets (The Hill)
A bipartisan group of lawmakers on Thursday unveiled legislation that would help determine whether certain Filipino veterans who served alongside the U.S. military during World War II are eligible for benefits. The bill — sponsored by Sens. Dean Heller (R-Nev.) and Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) in the upper chamber and Rep. Grace Meng (D-N.Y.) in the House — directs the Defense and Veterans Affairs departments to establish a way of verifying if individuals have the necessary service requirements to receive specific Filipino veterans’ compensation. “Many Filipino veterans who served during World War II call Nevada home. Unfortunately, they have yet to receive the benefits they earned and deserve,” Heller said in a statement, adding the legislation “ensures these veterans are treated fairly and with respect.” An estimated 260,000 Filipino soldiers fought on America’s behalf during the war. Afterward, the Army created the Approved Revised Reconstructed Guerilla Roster of 1948, sometimes called the “Missouri List,” so that those veterans could receive healthcare and other benefits. The roster was used by the military to confirm those who served alongside U.S. troops in the Philippines. However, since getting on the list was voluntary, it’s possible some veterans were not added or were improperly denied benefits.
Veterans groups push for more VA funding (The Washington Times)
Veterans advocates warned Thursday that the Choice Card program passed by Congress last year is not a long-term fix for the VA’s poor services for veterans, and told lawmakers to boost the department’s budget so it can hire more staff and get a new scheduling system to prevent another waiting list scandal. Four of the top veterans service organizations released a report saying that the Veterans Affairs Department will need an additional $2 billion in 2015 alone in order to keep up with growing demand from veterans. “We don’t believe sufficient resources have been devoted to the VA health care system,” said Carl Blake, the associate executive director of government relations at Paralyzed Veterans of America. “I think the decisions of the committees on the Hill in Congress last year validate that, when you consider the amount of money the committees were willing to pump into the VA.” Congress acted to inject $16 billion into the department last summer to help hire new medical staff and pay for the Choice Card program, which allows veterans to be seen by private doctors if wait times at the VA are too long or the patient lives too far from a facility. Advocates said Thursday the Choice Card program isn’t running smoothly yet. Ray Kelley, national legislative director for Veterans of Foreign Wars, said some of its members have erroneously been told by the VA that the program hasn’t been implemented yet — a sign, he said, that the department needs more training.
Bill would boost federal sick-leave for disabled veterans (Federal Times)
Service-disabled veterans who become federal employees would start their careers with paid sick leave available, under legislation introduced by a bipartisan group of lawmakers Jan. 14. Currently, there is no special accommodation for such employees. The Wounded Warriors Federal Leave Act would give them 104 hours starting out, instead of starting from zero and accruing more leave as federal employees currently do. The bill’s sponsors said that a lack of sick leave unfairly hurts veteran efforts at getting regular medical care and in treating injuries. The employee must be 30 percent disabled to qualify. The sick leave provided would not carry over into the second year and veterans would then accrue sick leave normally. “It is unacceptable that our wounded warrior federal employees who are just starting out in the federal workforce are often faced with the difficult choice of having to take unpaid leave to attend their VA appointments or miss their medical visits,” Rep. Stephen Lynch (D-Mass.) said in a statement. “The Wounded Warriors Federal Leave Act of 2015 provides vital federal leave for our heroic and dedicated wounded warriors so that they are able to take the time they need to address their disabilities, while continuing their much appreciated service to our country.”
Opinion: The Hire More Heroes Act is misguided (The Washington Post)
Last week, the House of Representatives unanimously approved the Hire More Heroes Act, which would exempt businesses from counting newly hired military veterans toward the 50-worker threshold at which they must provide health insurance or pay a fine under the Affordable Care Act. Although the bill calls veterans “heroes,” it treats them as victims. The logic behind the bill is simple: Why not give small businesses seeking to avoid the ACA’s “employer mandate” an incentive to hire veterans, who can get health-care coverage through Tricare and the Department of Veterans Affairs? And like most initiatives aimed at assisting military veterans, the bill is well intentioned. But as a matter of public policy, it is based on a faulty premise, sets a counterproductive goal and, on top of it all, is poorly named. Americans may be shocked to learn that there is no veterans’ unemployment crisis. The unemployment rate in 2014 for post-9/11 veterans was 7.2 percent, the lowest level in seven years of tracking these veterans.