Veterans news update for Feb. 10

Veterans news update for Feb. 10

Veterans news updateEmbattled VA added to federal “high-risk” list (The Fiscal Times)
After a year of scandal at the Veterans Affairs Department, where officials were accused of keeping hidden wait lists and covering up poor treatment of veterans, it should come as no surprise that the agency is now among the most risky programs in the federal government. Every year, the Government Accountability Office releases a list of the most troubled federal agencies, programs and projects at risk of being vulnerable to waste, fraud and abuse. This year, the Veterans Affairs health systems made the not-so-coveted list, NextGov first reported. The VA’s health systems have been in the spotlight since last year when CNN exposed hidden wait lists and cover-ups at a VA hospital in Phoenix. Since then, there’s been a steady stream of scathing reports from federal watchdogs revealing a spate of serious allegations of misconduct and wrongdoing at VA hospitals nationwide. A report released in June by the Government Accountability Office revealed that the Veterans Affairs leasing office had incurred significant cost overruns and major delays acquiring new medical centers needed to reduce the massive backlog at VA hospitals across the country.

New Hampshire senators move to protect Veterans Choice (Military Times)
New Hampshire’s senators have asked the Obama administration to safeguard a new program that lets veterans see a doctor outside the Veterans Affairs system and have introduced legislation to make the program permanent in several states. Reacting to a request in the White House’s fiscal 2016 budget to reallocate funds for the Veterans Choice Program to other programs within VA, Democrat Jeanne Shaheen and Republican Kelly Ayotte fired off a letter to President Obama on Friday, criticizing what they say is an effort to erode a program enacted with bipartisan support in Congress. The administration’s proposal to defund the program “jeopardizes veterans’ access to care and undermines the principle at the heart of the program — veterans’ ability to choose where they receive care,” they wrote. The $10 billion Veterans Choice program was approved in August as part of a massive bill designed to alleviate lengthy wait times for veterans needing medical care. The legislation required the program to remain in place for two years after implementation. But with the release of the administration’s budget proposal Feb. 2, VA Assistant Secretary for Management Helen Tierney said VA officials want to reallocate a portion of the funds because they have “a strong indication that this is not the veterans’ preferred choice” and veterans “would prefer to remain in the VA” for medical care. To protect the program in their state as well as in Alaska and Hawaii — the only three states that lack a full-service VA medical center — the pair introduced legislation that, if approved, would make Veterans Choice permanent for veterans in these states.

Editorial: When colleges use veterans as pawns (The New York Times)
For-profit colleges that burden students with crippling debt — often while giving them useless credentials in return — are luring veterans who receive G.I. Bill benefits to take advantage of a loophole in federal law. On the merits, a proposal in President Obama’s 2016 budget that would close this destructive loophole deserves unanimous support in Congress. But because the for-profit industry has considerable power in Washington, veterans may be let down. At issue is what is known as the 90-10 rule. It prohibits for-profit colleges from receiving more than 90 percent of their revenue from Department of Education student aid, including grants and loans. Congress passed this law in 1998 to make sure that for-profit colleges were not financed solely through the federal Title IV student aid program and were capable of attracting students who either paid themselves or used aid from other sources. But by failing to explicitly count G.I. Bill benefits and Department of Defense Tuition Assistance in the 90 percent, Congress created an opening for the schools to count this aid as part of the private 10 percent. By pursuing and signing up veterans, schools can now cover up the fact that few, if any, private citizens are willing to pay to attend them.

Obama to hold public ceremony to sign veterans suicide prevention bill (The Hill)
President Obama on Thursday will sign legislation meant to help prevent suicides among veterans during a public ceremony. The president will sign the Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for American Veterans Act into law in a ceremony from the East Room of the White House, said a spokeswoman for the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. The advocacy group had pushed for Congress to pass the bill and had urged Obama to hold a public signing ceremony. The Senate voted 99-0 to pass the legislation last week; it sailed through the House in a 403-0 vote last month. The legislation, named after a Marine Corps veteran who took his life after serving tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, calls for independent audits of suicide-prevention programs in the Veterans Affairs and Defense departments to determine which are successful and which should be eliminated.

Toxic legacy: Veterans fear illnesses linked to Fort McClellan (WTMJ-Milwaukee)
To visit Fort McClellan, Alabama is to visit a ghost town. After 81 years training millions of soldiers, the Army base was mothballed in 1999. Though Fort McClellan is still very present in the life of Donald Hayden. “I have arthritis in my right shoulder, my knees, I have degenerative disc disorder in my back, I have fibromyalgia,” he said. Hayden spent only four months there in 1987, but fears that time will haunt him until it kills him. “I was a young guy, and I was going to doctors and I would be the only young person in the room,” Hayden said. AnnaMaria Bliven was at Fort McClellan twice — in 1978 and 1980. She, too, fears her time there is killing her. “I had three miscarriages, my son has mental health issues, I’ve had female issues, and now I’m dealing with thyroid cancer,” Bliven said. From World War II until it closed, Fort McClellan was home to the Army chemical warfare school. It spent decades steeped in the toxic agents of battle. Today, it is off limits and a federal Superfund site.The Fort McClellan Health Registry Act, which has been introduced in Congress in previous sessions and will be reintroduced again this year, and would force the defense department to inform veterans of possible toxic exposure and begin screening them for problems.  Supporters say the bill failed because the defense department opposes it. One DOD staffer e-mailed the bill’s key sponsor it “would generate a significant financial and resource burden upon the Army.”

VA secretary attempts to change culture, combat critics (U.S. News & World Report)
Six months after taking over as Secretary of Veteran Affairs, Robert A. McDonald has proven himself capable in the eyes of many of leading the scandal-ridden agency. But experts agree that the Department of Veterans Affairs still has much work to do – especially regarding transparency and restoring the trust of military veterans. “We want this administration to ensure every individual that put veterans in harm’s way is appropriately dealt with, swiftly,” said Louis Celli, ‎the American Legion’s national director of veterans affairs and rehabilitation. Unlike his predecessor, McDonald – a former Procter & Gamble CEO – can hardly be described as “ taciturn.” Addressing reporters by their first names, giving out his personal mobile number at a press conference and insisting on being called “Bob” are only few of the things McDonald has done to increase the VA’s visibility and to promote an open culture. Since he was sworn in July 2014, he has paid visits to more than 85 VA hospitals, facilities and cemeteries. A lot of the trouble at the agency was a consequence of corruption and cover-ups at individual Veterans Health Administration facilities, which eventually tarnished the whole cabinet-level department. The VA is making progress in correcting these wrongs, “but it’s not a done deal yet,” according to Garry Augustine, executive director of Disabled American Veterans.

VA proposing sweeping changes to Aid & Attendance program (Florida Today)
On Jan. 25, the Veterans Administration introduced new regulations regarding the Aid and Attendance program. Many legal services and veterans service officers have assisted veterans and/or their spouses to access care which they would otherwise be unable to obtain with the help of the very important Aid and Attendance program. If these proposed regulations are implemented, these changes will not only hurt wartime veterans, specifically WWII and Korean War vets, but it will be more detrimental to the enormous claims backlog that already exists. It is also interesting to note that Congress introduced two different bills between 2012 and 2014 imposing a 3-year look-back period. Neither bill passed. Yet the VA has taken upon itself to act on its own with these regulations. The proposed changes in regulations would:

  • Establish a 3-year look-back for gifts;
  • Impose penalties for up to 10 years;
  • Create a bright-line net worth standard of $119,220, which includes annual income;
  • Deny any expenses related to independent living facilities as care costs; and
  • Require veterans to sell their homestead property if the lot coverage exceeds 2 acres.

So how would this affect the veteran or their spouse? When the veteran and/or spouse apply to the VA for Aid and Attendance, they will be required to disclose any gifts that had been made in the last 3 years. This means that any money or asset transferred in which the veteran and/or spouse did not receive something of fair value in return. If the veteran and/or spouse cannot meet this standard, then the VA will assume that the transfer was made for the purpose of meeting the VA eligibility standards and will then impose a penalty based upon the value of the gift. This penalty could be as long as 10 years.

‘American Sniper’ trial sets town on edge (The New York Times)
The trial of the man charged with killing Chris Kyle, a former sniper for the Navy SEALs, is scheduled to open here on Wednesday at 9 a.m. The blockbuster war movie about Mr. Kyle, “American Sniper,” now playing at Cinemark Cinema 6 three miles from the courtroom, will be showing at 3:40 p.m., 7 p.m. and 10:20 p.m. The convergence of the movie, the trial and the fierce emotions that both have stirred up has set this rural town 100 miles southwest of Dallas on edge, as legal experts have questioned whether Eddie Ray Routh, 27, the mentally ill veteran accused of killing Mr. Kyle and Mr. Kyle’s friend at a shooting range in Stephenville’s Erath County in 2013, can receive a fair trial here. But aside from the questions about the legal proceedings, something more than a double-murder trial is set to play out here this week. “American Sniper” has become a cultural moment far beyond the reach of the book, the movie or the criminal case against Mr. Routh. And just as the movie has been debated for what it says about war and warriors, the trial will dissect what war did to and for two men — one of them hailed, particularly in Texas, as an American hero, the other a fellow soldier on trial for two murders that people here are still trying to comprehend two years later. Mr. Kyle’s celebrity hangs over the trial and the town, larger in death than it was in life. The sign outside the Grand Entry Western Store advertises Chris Kyle baseball caps for sale. More ominously, a man called the local newspaper, The Stephenville Empire-Tribune, and told the managing editor that a bomb was going to go off before jury selection. Officials have earmarked $1 million for security in and around the Donald R. Jones Justice Center, where the trial will be held. On the first day of the juror qualification process last week, the judge excused 39 potential jurors, including 12 who said the pretrial publicity made them biased about the case.

Loved ones caring for brain-injured veterans may face health risks (U.S. News & World Report)
Some loved ones who care for veterans with brain injuries may be at increased risk for chronic health problems, a new study indicates. “Traumatic brain injuries can result in devastating physical and cognitive [mental] impairments,” study co-author Karen Saban, an associate professor in the School of Nursing at Loyola University Chicago, said in a university news release. “Grief, anger and blame are common among caregivers who are left to cope with these profound disabilities and the loss of the person they once knew. These feelings may put these individuals at risk for inflammatory-related disease,” she explained. In the study, the researchers looked at 40 wives or partners caring for U.S. veterans with traumatic brain injuries. The caregivers provided information about their levels of grief and stress, as well as symptoms of depression. Each morning, their saliva was tested for levels of TNF-alpha, a substance associated with inflammation and chronic conditions such as heart disease. The caregivers reported having levels of grief that were similar to those of people who have lost a loved one, but grief was not linked with TNF-alpha levels or inflammation in general, the study found. However, elevated levels of TNF-alpha were detected in caregivers who said they had high levels of blame and anger associated with their grief, according to the study published recently in the journal Biological Research for Nursing. While the study showed an association between feelings of anger and blame and levels of a marker for heart disease and other inflammation-related conditions, it did not prove a cause-and-effect link. Since 2000, more than 240,000 U.S. military personnel have been diagnosed with a traumatic brain injury. Of these, nearly 43,000 have a moderate or severe brain injury.

‘Candy Man’ prescriber at VA hospital threatens to sue whistleblower (Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel)
A top doctor at the Tomah Veterans Affairs Medical Center who has been dubbed the “Candy Man” is threatening to sue a whistleblower for comments about the doctor and his troubled facility. David Houlihan — a psychiatrist who is chief of staff at the Tomah facility — was given that nickname by some veterans for his supposedly easy and widespread distribution of painkillers. The Tomah facility is under investigation by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. State regulators are also investigating complaints against Houlihan and two others at the medical center. In a Jan. 30 letter, Houlihan’s attorney, Frank Doherty, demanded that one of the whistleblowers retract at least seven of his public statements because they are “false and defamatory.” The whistleblower, Ryan Honl, has accused Houlihan of having a hand in the death of a 35-year-old Marine veteran at the Tomah facility in August as a result of “mixed drug toxicity.” “I am told that you have invited me to sue you on your Facebook page,” Doherty wrote Honl. “You will likely get your wish.” Reached last week, Honl — a Gulf War veteran and former Tomah employee — said he stands by his statements. As for the potential lawsuit, Honl said, good luck with that. “I have no money for him to take, so he can work up as many billable hours as he’d like,” said Honl, who said he earns $8 an hour as a donations assistant at a Goodwill store. “If he wants to sue a minimum-wage whistleblower, he can have at it.”

DEA investigating drug diversion at ‘Candy Land’ VA hospital (
VA released its previously withheld Tomah VA investigation report yesterday, which embarrassingly revealed the agency is under an active investigation by DEA into drug diversion and inappropriate prescribing of narcotics. The investigation has now taken on renewed vigor with the State of Wisconsin also investigating wrongdoing at Tomah VA alongside DEA. Drug diversion is the illegal act of patients or doctors peddling prescription medications like opioids to third parties, and the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) does not look kindly on such practices. In fact, the practice is illegal. Still, drug diversion is believed to be at the center of the investigation into veteran deaths and linked to the harmful prescriptive practices utilized by Tomah VA health care providers.

Phoenix VA sends veteran’s 12 prescriptions to the wrong person (KPHO-Phoenix)
The Phoenix VA is under fire once again for a mistake that sent 12 vets’ prescriptions to the wrong person. Army veteran Jerry Bliss reached out to CBS 5 News Sunday night and said he returned home to find a box with his VA prescriptions. However, the box also contained prescriptions for 12 other veterans. “Not good and if it was really important like I think some of those might be, I’d be really mad,” said Bliss. Today, the acting director of the Phoenix VA’s pharmacy, Frank Evans, admitted the mistake and offered an apology. “We apologize. This is again 100 percent our mistake. It definitely happened,” he said.  Evans said the 12 prescriptions were originally filled and meant to be picked up by the patient. After some time, when they were still not picked up, a pharmacy technician placed them in a box to be mailed out to the veterans who needed them. “That box was handed off to another pharmacy technician, and (that person) looked inside and saw the first prescription and the first label and incorrectly assumed that whole box was supposed to be mailed to that one veteran,” explained Evans.  Evans says he’s now retraining his staff and ensuring each and every bottle is checked before it is mailed out.

Homeless veteran settles Legionnaires’ lawsuit against VA (Pittsburgh Tribune-Review)
A homeless veteran who worked as a greeter for the VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System has settled his lawsuit over contracting Legionnaires’ disease, according to federal court documents. U.S. District Judge Nora Barry Fischer filed an order Monday saying that attorneys for Kenneth Jordan and the government had reached a settlement. Jordan’s attorney and a Justice Department spokeswoman couldn’t immediately be reached for comment. Jordan, who was honorably discharged from the Army in 1978, approached the VA in 2011 seeking medical and financial help under its Health Care for Homeless Veterans program, the lawsuit said. As part of the program, he worked as a greeter at the University Drive hospital in Oakland until he became ill and was admitted to the hospital May 29, 2012. He was placed in the intensive care unit and, on June 8, 2012, tested positive for Legionella, the lawsuit says. The bacteria can cause Legionnaires’ disease, a severe and potentially deadly form of pneumonia.

Why the Pentagon spent $500,000 on Viagra (Newswire)
According to the Washington Free Beacon who obtained the government contract, US Department of Defense spent half a million dollars to equip US troops with… Viagra. No joke, the document cited by the WFB say the Pentagon awarded 60 contracts for the drug to Ohio-based pharmaceutical distribution company Cardinal Health Inc. spending $504,816 on the erectile dysfunction drugs in 2014. Filed under ‘Troop Support’, the contract shows the Pentagon also ordered other brands of male enhancement drugs, such as $3,505 worth of Levitra and $14,540 of Cialis. By way of comparison, the Pentagon in 2013 spent $425,000 on erection improvement pills, which is the huge leap from $8,000 spent the year before. Viagra is the most popular of several names for Sildenafil, the powerful and most popular erectile dysfunction drug. It is also effective in the rare disease pulmonary arterial hypertension. It relaxes the arterial wall, leading to decreased pulmonary arterial resistance and pressure. This, in turn, reduces the workload of the right ventricle of the heart and improves symptoms of right-sided heart failure. Sildenafil may be useful for the prevention and treatment of high-altitude pulmonary edema associated with altitude sickness such as that suffered by mountain climbers. Now, there isn’t much high altitude climbers amongst US troops, but there is a lot of depression and anxiety.  In fact, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (aka PTSD, an anxiety disorder that follows experiencing a traumatic event) are the most common mental health problems faced by returning troops.