Veterans news update for Jan. 28

Veterans news update for Jan. 28

Veterans news updateIndependent panel proposes changes to military pensions (The Wall Street Journal)
A special commission looking for ways to revamp U.S. military benefits is expected to call for the creation of a new 401(k)-type retirement system as part of an overhaul of the existing Pentagon pension plan, an idea certain to face resistance in Washington, according to people briefed on the proposals. The new retirement plan is one of 15 sweeping recommendations the independent panel is set to unveil Thursday when it releases a 300-page report meant to serve as a road map for President Barack Obama , Congress and the Pentagon as they try to ensure that military benefits don’t overwhelm the constrained defense budget. While private-sector pensions have been rolled back and eliminated during the last 20 years, the defined-benefit pension has remained a cornerstone of enticements in the U.S. military. Although the proposal wouldn’t replace the existing defined-benefit plan or affect current members of the military, it is likely to raise the ire of influential veterans groups that successfully prevented budget cuts in veterans benefits last year. Advocates say the change will help the majority of people who serve a few years in the military without getting close to qualifying for a pension or other retirement benefits.

VA steps up programs as more veterans enter hospice care (NPR)
Starting last year, more military veterans are passing away in hospice care than in all of VA trauma and ICU wards combined. That’s because the millions of Americans who served in Korea and World War II are reaching their 80s and 90s; Vietnam veterans are reaching their 70s. That means the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs is focusing on how to make veterans comfortable in their final weeks and months. “I think they call it end of life care. But whatever it is … they treat you like gold,” says 68-year-old Thomas O’Neil, a resident at St. Alban’s VA in Queens, New York. “If you’re going to be sick, this is the place to be.” O’Neil did a year in Vietnam, from 1966 to 1967, at a time when the war was killing more Americans in a year than the total casualties from Iraq and Afghanistan combined. When he came home he didn’t talk to anyone about the war. O’Neil says he nearly drank himself into the grave. In 2011, he finally came to the VA to treat the PTSD he’d been enduring for 40 years. Last year he learned he has terminal cancer. “They can tell you you got three months. They don’t really know,” he says. “I came to terms with this. I’m not happy with the diagnosis, but I came to terms with it.” Coming to terms with the end of life can be a bit different for veterans, says Dr. Alice Beal, who directs VA palliative care for most of New York City. “If a veteran’s been in combat, a veteran’s likely to have killed,” Beal says. “I think no matter what your culture is, when you meet your maker, even if it’s been to save your buddy, to save your life to save your country, it’s just a burden the rest of us haven’t even thought of.”

House panel easily passes veterans sick leave bill (The Washington Post)
The House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform seemed poised to move beyond its reputation as a rancorous, partisan pit at its opening meeting of the 114th Congress on Tuesday. That lasted about five minutes, due to wrangling over rules. Despite the partisan tussle over rules, this first meeting managed a good bipartisan start for one group of feds in particular — newly hired disabled veterans. On a voice vote, the committee unanimously approved the Wounded Warriors Federal Leave Act. It would allow most new federal employees with at least a 30 percent disability rating related to military service 104 hours of paid sick leave. That’s 13 work days. Generally, employees initially have no sick leave and earn hours as they work. Additional legislation is planned for the 15 percent of employees not covered. “This lack of initial leave for new federal workers is particularly burdensome for those who are also wounded warriors and must make regular visits to the VA [Department of Veterans Affairs] in order to receive treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder, severe physical injuries and other service-connected disabilities,” said Rep. Stephen F. Lynch (D-Mass.), who introduced the bill.

Bill to rescind VA bonuses gets backing of veterans advocates (The Washington Times)
Veterans advocates mostly supported a bill Tuesday that would allow the VA secretary to take back a bonus if an employee was found to have been manipulating data. Rep. Jeff Miller, Florida Republican and chair of the House Veterans Affairs’ Committee, said the bill would allow the VA secretary to rescind a bonus whenever he deemed it appropriate, though the employee would have a chance to appeal the secretary’s decision. “I believe the ability to recoup a bonus based on bad or manipulated performance data  is a tool the secretary needs and that the American public would expect,” Mr. Miller said at a hearing. Last year, a whistleblower at the Phoenix VA hospital alleged that veterans were dying while waiting for care on secret lists in an effort to make wait times appear shorter than they were and thus secure large bonuses for the bosses. Under Mr. Miller’s proposal, the VA would be able to take those bonuses back if it was discovered that they were awarded for fraudulent data. The VA has paid more than $380,000 to top executives at 38 hospitals across the country that are currently under investigation for falsifying wait times as part of last year’s scandal, according to a release from Mr. Miller’s office. Aleks Morosky, deputy director of the national legislative service for Veterans of Foreign Wars, said employees who are putting veterans’ lives at risk or fraudulently serving the government shouldn’t be eligible to keep a bonus. “We feel like bonuses should be awarded for exceptional performance,” he said. “Clearly anybody who is putting veterans at risk or defrauding the government is not serving exceptionally.”

Making progress on veterans suicide prevention bill (The Hill)
Commentary: What a difference a few weeks makes. An important suicide prevention bill for veterans, derailed at the end of the last Congress, is back on the fast track. The Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for American Veterans (SAV) Act was unanimously passed by the House of Representatives earlier this month and the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs just last week. Now, we are counting on the Senate to act quickly and send it to the president. This legislation is desperately needed; an estimated 22 veterans of all ages die by suicide every day. Young veterans are particularly at risk with those receiving Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) healthcare services dying by suicide more often than both active-duty troops and civilians, according to VA data. And for those warriors returning to civilian life, estimates suggest that many face the signature health issues of Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom: traumatic brain injury (TBI) and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The SAV Act will address obstacles in veterans’ access to timely and appropriate services. Under the bill, special care and attention will be given to service personnel transitioning from active duty to veteran status through community outreach and peer support groups. To make recruitment of mental health professionals easier, new incentives will be offered to psychiatrists who agree to serve at the VA. And both Department of Defense and VA suicide-prevention programs will be evaluated each year to increase accountability and improve care.

U.S. settles suit over misuse of West L.A. veterans campus (Los Angeles Times)
The federal government has agreed to settle a lawsuit accusing the Department of Veterans Affairs of misusing its sprawling West Los Angeles health campus while veterans with brain injuries and mental impairment slept in the streets, people familiar with the agreement said Tuesday. Under the settlement, the VA will develop a master land-use plan for the campus that identifies sites for housing homeless veterans. Further details were not available. Veterans Affairs officials did not respond to requests for comment.  VA Secretary Robert A. McDonald has scheduled an announcement at the West Los Angeles Medical Center on Wednesday afternoon. “I believe the settlement is a game changer,” said Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Torrance), who succeeded Henry Waxman this month representing the Westside district that includes the property. In its 2011 suit, the ACLU of Southern California argued that the VA should develop housing for veterans on the 387-acre campus. The suit accused the agency of illegally leasing land to UCLA for its baseball stadium, a television studio for set storage, a hotel laundry and a parking service. It also made a land deal with the private Brentwood School for  tennis and basketball courts. A federal judge in 2013 struck down the leases, saying they were “totally divorced from the provision of healthcare.” More recently, U.S. District Judge S. James Otero halted construction of an amphitheater on the property.

Pentagon website is its ‘pathetic Vietnam whitewash’ (The Daily Beast)
Commentary: It’s the biggest snow job of 2015—and you probably haven’t heard about it. This year is the 50th anniversary of the start of the Vietnam War. It was on March 8, 1965 that the United States dispatched 3,500 Marines to Vietnam, officially starting our ground war there. And now the Pentagon is running a campaign apparently to commemorate the Vietnam War by whitewashing it. According to reporting last fall by the New York Times: The effort, which is expected to cost taxpayers nearly $15 million by the end of this fiscal year, is intended to honor veterans and, its website says, “provide the American public with historically accurate materials” suitable for use in schools. But the extensive website, which has been up for months, largely describes a war of valor and honor that would be unrecognizable to many of the Americans who fought in and against it. The website, for instance, barely mentions the mistakes and atrocities on the battlefield for which America’s military was responsible. Nor does it say much about the extraordinary protest marches and heated political debates that embroiled our nation during the fighting. It’s so bad, in fact, that 500 veterans, scholars and activists have signed a petition challenging the Pentagon’s whitewashed version of history.

Funding concerns around Texas veterans tuition program (Texas Tribune)
For more than 80 years, veterans in Texas have received a free education through the Hazlewood Act. The state’s university systems bear the brunt of the costs, which have escalated since the program expanded five years ago to allow veterans to transfer unused credit hours to their children. While the program is well regarded, there have been disputes connected to how it is applied. With its rising costs, the program could face fiscal peril if the 84th Legislature does not look at changes. A Texas Tribune video series explores this topic.

Lawmaker unveils PAC for GOP veterans (The Hill)
Rep. Ryan Zinke (R-Mont.), a former Navy SEAL Team Six commander, has launched a political action committee in the hopes of getting more GOP veterans elected to Congress. The goal of SEAL PAC “will be to work across the country to elect more veterans and like-minded leaders — to strengthen America, protect the Constitution and ensure for our country the prosperity that our generation has known,” Zinke said in a statement. The PAC arrives as the total number of veterans in Congress continues to decline. Only about 100 lawmakers today have served in the armed services, the lowest total since the 1950s. “It wasn’t too long ago, back in the 1970’s, that military veterans made up more than three-fourths of the membership of Congress,” Zinke states on SEAL PAC’s website. “Sadly, the number of veterans in Congress has declined to less than 20 percent in both chambers.” By electing more Republicans with a service record, “think of how better informed we can make our debates on defense policy, military procurement, and veteran’s benefits,” he added.

Police: VA employee falsified records in veteran’s death (Dayton Daily News)
Middletown, Ohio police say they expect to charge a Dayton VA employee next week with patient negligence, falsifying records and possibly theft in office because “he’s getting paid to do a job he’s clearly not doing.” Lt. Scott Reeve, of the Middletown Division of Police, said detectives have been investigating the home health care worker for the past 10 months and are close to proving he falsified reports about a Middletown veteran who died last year. Officers found Calvin Coleman, Jr.’s body on March 28 at a residence in the 2200 block of Carolina Street, but investigators believe he died four days prior to their discovery. The Dayton VA employee, who was charged with assisting Coleman, documented that he spoke with him the day before his body was found and visited him on March 25. “We believe he actually died on the 23rd or the 24th, so when the home health care worker documented his visit on the 25th and 27th, Calvin was already dead,” said Lt. Scott Reeve, of the Middletown Division of Police. Coleman’s death certificate lists his official date of death as March 28, but Butler County Coroner’s officials said that based on the autopsy it looked as though Coleman had been dead for a few days before he was found, according to police. Police say coroner’s officials told them that Coleman’s body had already started to decompose.

Howard Dean apologizes to veterans over ‘American Sniper’ comments (Huffington Post)
Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean (D) apologized to military veterans on Tuesday for his recent comments linking audiences for the film “American Sniper” to angry tea party enthusiasts. Appearing on “Real Time With Bill Maher” last week, Dean said that there was maybe “a lot of intersection” between people seeing the movie and the tea party. “There’s a lot of anger in this country. And the people who go see this movie are people who are very angry,” Dean said. “This guy basically says, ‘I’m going to fight on your side.’ They bite for it.” The film, directed by Clint Eastwood, tells the story of Chris Kyle, who may have been the deadliest military sniper in U.S. history. Kyle was killed in 2013 by another veteran. The film has been nominated for several Academy Awards, including best picture. After criticism from conservatives, including actor Gary Sinise, Dean apologized, acknowledging he hadn’t seen the movie. “I’ll apologize to the veterans. I haven’t seen the movie and I think I was wrong,” Dean said on the MSNBC show “Hardball.” “I make no apologies to all of the right-wing nut-jobs that have been twittering me in nasty language, but I do apologize to the veterans. “We owe them a lot and I think this movie was much more nuanced than I thought.”