Veterans news update for Jan. 8

Veterans news update for Jan. 8

Veterans news updateIraq war veteran, now a West Point professor, seeks to rein in disability pay (The New York Times)
Nearly 200 sick and wounded soldiers in a gym at Fort Carson last month listened silently as Lt. Col. Daniel Gade offered a surprising warning: The disability checks designed to help troops like them after they leave the service might actually be harmful. As he paced back and forth in front of the soldiers, some of them leaning on crutches, Colonel Gade said that too many veterans become financially dependent on those monthly checks, choose not to find jobs and lose the sense of identity and self-worth that can come from work. “People who stay home because they are getting paid enough to get by on disability are worse off,” he said. “They are more likely to abuse drugs and alcohol. They are more likely to live alone. You’ve seen these guys. And the system is driving you to become one of them, if you are not careful.” It was a message that many veterans find offensive and misguided. But Colonel Gade is not your typical messenger. He is a combat veteran who lost a leg while serving as a tank company commander in Iraq in 2005. Today he is a professor of public policy at the United States Military Academy at West Point, but he spends much of his spare time publishing essays and traveling the country pushing the idea that the Department of Veterans Affairs should move away from paying veterans for their wounds and instead create incentives for them to find work or create businesses.

House could take up veterans suicide bill in February (The Hill)
Lawmakers could take up legislation to help prevent suicides among veterans as early as February, according to House Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller (R-Fla.) “I would expect that we will probably have it done some time in February,” Miller told reporters following a conference meeting of GOP members. The bill, known as the Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for American Veterans Act, passed the House in the last weeks of the 113th Congress but was blocked in the upper chamber by then-Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.). Miller said he had breakfast on Wednesday with Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert McDonald along with Rep. Corrine Brown (Fla.), the House panel’s top Democrat, and their counterparts, Sens. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) The lawmakers told McDonald “we were going to bring it up very quickly,” he added. “It is an important piece of legislation. Is it going to solve the problem? No. But it will help solve the problem,” said Miller. The VA estimates that as many as 22 veterans commit suicide each day, which would lead to more than 8,000 veteran suicides every year.

Isakson to chair Senate Veterans Affairs Committee (WTOC-Savannah)
U.S. Senator Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., Wednesday was officially named chairman of the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, which will play a key role in ensuring that critical reforms passed by Congress last year are implemented to improve services and health care delivery for our nation’s veterans. Isakson also was named chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Ethics, becoming the only Senate Republican to chair two committees in the 114th Congress. The Senate Republican Conference will meet Jan. 8 to ratify committee-elected chairs for the 114th Congress. “I am very proud to be allowed to chair these two Senate committees on which I have served for several years. The work of the Senate VA Committee is so important to our nation and to my state of Georgia. The work of the Ethics Committee is critical to maintaining the integrity of the United States Senate,” Isakson said. Isakson is a veteran himself – having served in the Georgia Air National Guard from 1966-1972 – and has been a member of the Senate VA Committee since he joined the Senate in 2005. Isakson’s home state of Georgia is home to more than a dozen military installations representing each branch of the military as well as more than 774,000 veterans.

El Paso VA hospital shooter was former employee and an Iraq veteran (CBS News)
The Iraq veteran who shot and killed a Veterans Administration hospital doctor before turning the gun on himself Wednesday afternoon was a former employee of the clinic who had threatened the doctor more than a year ago. The gunman, who sources told CBS News was identified as 48-year-old Jerry Serrato, killed Dr. Timothy Fjordbak, a psychologist at the El Paso VA Health Care System, which is near Fort Bliss Army Base. Serrato served in the Army from 2006-2009. He left with an honorable discharge and a rank of Specialist, CBS News correspondent David Martin reported. He had done a four-month tour in Iraq. It is unclear when his employment at the clinic ended. According to a listing on the Veterans Administration website, Fjordbak was a mental and behavioral health pscychologist licensed to practice in Florida, Georgia and New Mexico. He began treating troops returning to the United States after the Sept. 11 attacks, according to the El Paso Times. Fort Bliss Army Base authorities and the FBI confirmed the doctor was killed in the incident. Serrato committed suicide after shooting Serrato, officials said at a press conference Wednesday.

House member: VA not using Choice Card as intended by Congress (Investor’s Business Daily)
Commentary by Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.): “Recent scandals at the Department of Veterans Affairs have exposed the sad reality that those who served in uniform are forced into a second-rate health care system. Despite promises of speedy reforms, more than 600,000 veterans — about 10% of all VA patients — still often wait more than a month for medical care. In some cases, the wait can run for six months, conjuring up images of the old Soviet Union. The bureaucrats charged with cleaning up the system have responded in typical governmental fashion. Veterans Affairs Secretary Bob McDonald’s reform measures include hiring more bureaucrats, including one for the new post of chief customer service officer. Despite the promises of reform, McDonald has failed to act on a critical provision that was enacted as part of the reform package that Congress passed earlier this year. The “Veterans Choice Card” was supposed to put an end to these wait times by giving veterans a choice in care and allowing them to go outside the system for treatment. But as McDonald explained to veterans, “It is important to know that the Choice Card does not provide guaranteed health care coverage. “In fact, before your Choice Card for this benefit can be used, your eligibility must be verified and you must receive advance authorization from VA.” That’s certainly not what Congress intended when it enacted the provision into law.”

Military veterans bring a special perspective to Congress (U.S. News & World Report)
Members of Congress clash on many things, but legislators of all political stripes usually agree it’s important to care for the nation’s military and its veterans. During what was one of the least productive Congresses in recent history – the 113th – lawmakers debated how best to address sexual assault in the military, improving the Veterans Affairs health care system, and how the U.S. should respond to the rise of the Islamic State group in the Middle East. With fixes to some of these issues still on the congressional to-do list, the members of the legislature who are military veterans may have opportunities to speak to their service experiences and influence debate about how Congress can best meet the needs of the departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs. Four veterans were newly elected to the Senate, while 13 were elected to the House for the first time. Overall, the total number of veterans in Congress has declined sharply since the 1970s, when veterans’ ranks peaked at 72 percent of members in the House and 78 percent in the Senate, according to the Congressional Research Service. Those numbers now stand at about 19 percent and 21 percent, respectively, according to U.S. News calculations and data from Veterans Campaign, a nonpartisan program of the National Association for Uniformed Services that provides training for former service members interested in getting into politics.

Vietnam veteran with PTSD on death row seeks clemency (USA Today)
Family and lawyers of a Vietnam veteran facing execution in Georgia next Tuesday for murdering a deputy sheriff in 1998 are pleading that he be spared because his actions were linked to severe post-traumatic stress disorder. In clemency papers filed Wednesday, lawyers for Andrew Brannan argue that “our knowledge of PTSD and the frightful toll that it can exact on veterans has grown exponentially as a result of … wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.” This level of understanding, particularly within the public, didn’t exist when Brannan stood trial in 2000, they argue. “It’s not right to execute a decorated veteran for a crime that stemmed, without question, from the mental suffering that he incurred from serving his country,” Brannan lawyer Tom Lundin said in a phone interview. The killing of Laurens County Deputy Sheriff Kyle Dinkheller during a traffic stop for speeding was captured on a video camera mounted on the officer’s patrol car. Brannan had served as an first lieutenant and forward artillery observer in Vietnam near the Laotian border in 1970 and saw considerable combat, according to military records. He received a Bronze Star for meritorious service. Years later, he was rated 100% disabled with PTSD by the Department of Veterans Affairs, which also found him to be suffering from depression, suicidal thoughts and bipolar disorder.

Hepatitis C drug costing VA, DoD millions (Military Times)
One of the costliest drugs on the market threatens the Veterans Affairs Department’s health budget — to the point that VA, which added the medication to its formulary in April, provides it to only the sickest patients who need it. At a commercial cost of $1,000 a pill, the hepatitis C drug Sovaldi received FDA approval in 2014, a breakthrough that reduced the time it takes to treat patients with the blood-borne virus to 12 weeks, down from a year, and at reduced risk. But treating all of the 174,000 hepatitis C patients in the VA health system is cost-prohibitive. Even with the cost negotiated by VA with the company’s maker, Gilead Sciences Inc. of Foster City, California — $594 per dose — treatment would run nearly $12 billion. So VA has taken a conservative approach to providing the treatment, reserving Sovaldi and its competitor, Olysio, made by Janssen Therapeutics of Titusville, New Jersey (negotiated cost: $413 per pill), for those with advanced liver disease or needing a transplant. In fiscal 2014, the Veterans Health Administration treated more than 5,400 veterans with Sovaldi at a cost of $370 million. And VA has asked Congress for roughly $1.3 billion to provide Sovaldi and other new hepatitis C drugs for another 30,000 patients.

Fayetteville VA waits are 2nd longest in nation (WRAL-Raleigh)
A study by the  Department of Veterans Affairs shows veterans in Fayettteville have the second-longest wait in the country to see a doctor. On average, veterans wait about seven days to see a primary care physician, the study showed. For patients of the Fayetteville VA Medical Center, that wait can stretch to almost 30 days.  Fayetteville was second only to the Hampton VA Medical Center and its regional clinics, where the average wait is 30.53 days. In Fayetteville, the average wait is 28.45 days. The national average is 6.95 days.