Veterans news update for Feb. 13

Veterans news update for Feb. 13

Veterans news updateWatchdog: DoD ignored risks, continued to burn trash in Afghanistan (Stars & Stripes)
The U.S. military knowingly put troops’ health at risk and wasted tens of millions of dollars on shoddy contracts while operating dangerous open-air burn pits in Afghanistan, according to a report from the government’s top watchdog there. “Although DOD knew about the risks associated with open-air burn pits long before contingency operations began in Afghanistan, it was not until 2009 that U.S. Central Command developed policies and procedures to guide solid waste management, including requirements for operating, monitoring, and minimizing the use of open-air burn bits,” according to a report from the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction. It’s still unclear how many troops were sickened by burn pits but their widespread use in Iraq and Afghanistan — sometimes against Central Command’s own directives — means related illnesses could represent the latest health crisis for Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, with echoes of Agent Orange in Vietnam. Many troops who say they were downwind from the smoke from base burn pits have reported a wide range of maladies, including severe respiratory problems. At the mission’s peak in 2011, when there 110,000 American troops in Afghanistan, the U.S. military was producing 440 tons of waste per day. Despite a 2009 U.S. Central Command rule that bases over a certain size were to find alternatives to burn-pits in order to dispose of waste, many bases continued to use the pits, even burning prohibited items, such as batteries and tires, according to the report. As late as August 2010, Central Command reported that there were 251 active open-air burn pits in Afghanistan. “The overall approach to its solid waste disposal in Afghanistan was haphazard and reactive,” the report says.
Read more burn pit news reports on VetsHQ here

Obama signs veterans suicide prevention act into law (The New York Times)
President Obama signed a measure into law on Thursday to fight a wave of suicide among veterans struggling with post-traumatic stress, a problem that has won increased attention as American troops have returned from Afghanistan and Iraq. The measure, passed by unanimous votes in the House and Senate, was designed to make it easier for veterans to find mental health resources, do more to recruit and retain professionals to help them and increase accountability for the government programs serving them. By some estimates, 22 veterans commit suicide every day in the United States. While that includes older veterans who kill themselves years after their service, not just those who have recently come home from Iraq and Afghanistan, studies show that the rate is higher among those who do not receive mental health care. But in his remarks on Thursday, Mr. Obama stressed that fixing the Department of Veterans Affairs is only part of the solution. “This is not just a job for government,” he said at a signing ceremony at the White House. “Every community, every American can reach out and do more with and for our veterans. This has to be a national mission. As a nation, we should not be satisfied until every man and woman in uniform, every veteran, gets the help that they need to stay strong and healthy.” The new law was named for Clay Hunt, a Marine from Texas who served in combat only to struggle with post-traumatic stress after returning home. He took his own life four years ago at age 28, and ever since, his family and friends have lobbied Washington to focus more intently on the problem of veteran suicide.

McDonald: Clay Hunt bill a major step in suicide prevention (Military Times)
Opinion: “The Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for America Veterans Act complements VA’s on-going, multifaceted efforts to improve mental health care for our nation’s veterans, and I’m pleased that both houses of Congress came together to pass the SAV Act. I’m proud to stand with President Obama on Thursday as he signs this important legislation. The health and well-being of the courageous men and women who have served in uniform is VA’s highest priority. And we’re working hard to provide timely access to the highest quality recovery-oriented mental health care that anticipates and responds to veterans’ needs and supports their reintegration back into their communities. We know that a growing number of veterans are seeking mental health care, and VA has deployed significant resources and increases in staff toward mental health services. VA provides a continuum of forward-looking outpatient, residential and inpatient mental health services across the country. We have many entry points for care: through our medical centers, more than 800 community-based outpatient clinics, 300 Vet Centers that provide readjustment counseling, the Veterans Crisis Line, VA staff on college and university campuses, and other outreach efforts. VA offers expanded access to mental health services with longer clinic hours, telemental health capability to deliver services, and standards that mandate rapid access to mental health services. While we know that the suicide rate is lower for those veterans who use VA health care, losing just one veteran to suicide is one too many. So, VA will continue to develop and improve mental health and suicide prevention services so that veterans who reach out for help receive that help when and where they need it.”

National Guard members mobilized for 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill eligible for VA benefits (AmeriForce)
Members of the National Guard who were mobilized in response to the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico may be eligible for medical benefits through the Department of Veterans Affairs as a result of duty in the Gulf. And filing a medical benefits claim with the Deepwater Horizon settlement program will not affect potential VA benefits, according to VA officials. VA benefits may be granted if there were service related injuries, including long term illnesses. However, eligibility to receive those benefits will be determined on a case-by-case basis, VA officials said. “The determination as to whether activation of Reservists and members of the National Guard confers “veteran” status for VA benefit purposes depends upon the statutes used to activate them and other factors, which VA must adjudicate on a case-by-case basis,” said David J. Barrans, assistant general counsel with the VA. However, state active duty status, or similar status outside of federal active duty status, is not eligible for VA benefits, according to Barrans. “Generally (it) may confer eligibility if the member was disabled or died during the period of service from an injury or disease incurred or aggravated in the line of duty,” he said. However, a formal review of the claimed injury or illness would be needed before the extent of VA benefits would be determined, said Randy Noller, a spokesman with the VA, adding that other possible contributing factors would be reviewed as well.

Veteran: VA doctor asked him to sign document promising not to talk (KUSA-Denver)
A veteran says a Denver VA Medical Center doctor asked him to sign a document promising he wouldn’t contact members of Congress or news organizations. Daniel King of Denver said Thursday he refused to sign the document, which was labeled “Behavior Contract.” King says the hospital director later sent him a letter stating the behavior contract wasn’t a standard VA document. The letter said the contract would have no bearing on King’s treatment. King has thyroid cancer. Denver VA Medical Center spokesman Daniel Warvi said he could not comment because King would not sign a privacy waiver. VA officials have accused King of being abusive to hospital staff, and he faces a federal charge of disorderly conduct. King denies misconduct. A judge on Thursday refused to dismiss the charge.

Allegations surround Phoenix VA over gaps in mental health care (KSAZ-Phoenix)
Whistleblowers are shining the spotlight on the mental health care at the Phoenix Veterans Administration Medical Center. And a secret audio recording of a VA meeting shed light on the extent of the problems that emergency workers are having with treating some of our most vulnerable veterans. Now the Office of Special Counsel, the same federal agency that investigated the scheduling scandal last year is looking into claims there is not enough training and staff to properly treat and keep suicidal patients at the VA safe. “No suicidal veteran should leave the VA without talking to somebody, that shouldn’t be allowed to happen,” said Brandon Coleman. Coleman is an addiction specialist at the Phoenix VA and now a whistleblower who says some suicidal vets are not getting the proper help when they show up at the emergency room on the brink of taking their own lives. A well-known problem that was brought during a VA staff meeting that was recorded by an employee. In the recording, the Chief of social work and an Emergency Room worker discuss recent incidents of suicidal veterans being able to leave the ER when they should have been admitted. Voice of David Jacobson, Chief of social work: “We’ve had a couple incidences in the past week or two, where veterans here that were at risk for suicide just bolted out the door and weren’t prevented from that happening… We’ve been really lucky that nothing bad has happened in these specific incidences that just happened it, was sheer luck that nothing happened.” Voice of the ER department worker: “It has actually been a high number just since I’ve been down there’s been five in the last week.”

VA debates first step on medical marijuana (The Daily Caller)
A Veterans Affairs official stated Wednesday that the department is trying to find a way to accommodate veterans who want medical marijuana, and VA physicians who want to recommend it. In states with legal programs, a physician’s recommendation is the first step to obtaining medical marijuana from dispensaries. At a hearing before the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, Dr. Carolyn Clancy, the VA’s interim under secretary for health, said VA physicians are barred from recommending marijuana to patients, even in the 23 states where medical marijuana programs exist, reports. However, Clancy noted that officials are having internal discussions on how to accommodate veterans, since medical marijuana is skyrocketing in popularity as a treatment. “It’s great that this issue finally seems to be on the V.A.’s radar, but the longer the department and Congress take to sort this out, the longer veterans who served our nation will needlessly suffer,” Tom Angell, chairman of the Marijuana Majority, told The Daily Caller News Foundation. “We need to stop muzzling V.A. doctors and let them talk with their patients about whatever treatment option will work best for them.” To remedy the problem, Democrats and Republicans have teamed up in the House with Democratic Rep. Earl Blumenauer of Oregon to introduce the Veterans Equal Access Act, which effectively protects doctors who recommend marijuana as a treatment to patients.

Marijuana, veterans, PTSD: Will Feds succeed where Colorado failed? (Westword)
Last year, a bill to add post-traumatic stress disorder to the list of conditions legally treatable by medical marijuana in Colorado failed despite the testimony of Sean Azzariti, a Marine who served in the Iraq war and spoke movingly about the plight of PTSD-suffering veterans like him. Cannabis advocate Brian Vicente described this development as “shameful.” Now, however, there are two indications that the issue may move forward at the federal level: comments from a Veterans Administration official and a new bill co-sponsored by Colorado Congressman Jared Polis. The V.A. rep in question is interim under secretary for health Dr. Carolyn Clancy. In testimony before the House Committee on Veterans Affairs yesterday, she confirmed that “there are active discussions going on now” involving organizations that want to allow vets to legally access cannabis treatments to address their various conditions, including PTSD. Clancy added that a “fair number of our clinicians have veterans who use marijuana” medically, despite a law preventing V.A. doctors from recommending medical marijuana. That rule holds sway whether a patient is in a state that’s legalized MMJ, such as Colorado, or not. The Marijuana Majority’s Tom Angell, who’s long championed the cause of cannabis treatments for veterans with post-traumatic stress order, was cheered by this development, but eager for more progress. In an e-mail to Westword, he writes, “It’s great that this issue finally seems to be on the V.A.’s radar, but the longer the department and Congress take to sort this out, the longer veterans who served our nation will needlessly suffer.”

Veterans struggle to close on adjustable-rate VA home loans (
New mortgage regulations from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) recently went into effect, and implementation has been a difficult, tedious task. It has created problems for some veterans looking to purchase or refinance homes over the next few weeks. Fortunately, Flagship Financial Group, LLC recently announced it is able to continue underwriting adjustable-rate VA home loans, and will continue to do so without problems while these regulations are being rolled out. As of Jan. 10, the CFPB’s new regulations dictate that VA mortgage lenders must notify homeowners with adjustable-rate mortgages (ARMs) of any rate changes 45 days in advance. Previously, lenders only had to notify borrowers 30 days in advance. Ginnie Mae, the Government Sponsored Enterprise (GSE) responsible for purchasing VA home loans, recently notified mortgage lenders that it would not purchase mortgage loans under the 45-day rule until it has purchased up the remaining 30-day loans on the market. The agency will begin to purchase new loans on April 1. Since Ginnie Mae has put a hold on new ARM purchases, many mortgage lenders do not have the capital to close on ARM loans until April 1. “Overall, these new regulations are great for veterans. It will give them more advance notice of rate changes so they can adjust their family budgets accordingly,” said Will Farrar, CEO of Flagship Financial Group. “Unfortunately, implementation has been a little rough. It’s a burden on lenders and consumers alike. The last thing a lender wants to do is disappoint a customer because they’re unable to close on a loan. The consequences are serious. It could mean someone is stuck paying a higher rate or loses out on purchasing a new home.”

VA reaches out to sexual trauma survivors via Facebook (The Washington Post)
The female veterans on the Women Veterans for Equality in our VA System Facebook page couldn’t believe what they saw. But there it was. A Department of Veterans Affairs military sexual trauma (MST) coordinator personally assigned to helping them, answering questions directly and guiding them through what many say is a emotionally harrowing and complicated financial benefits process. The Washington Post last month chronicled efforts, sometimes for decades, by this group to receive  financial benefits for post-traumatic stress disorder caused by sexual trauma — ranging from harassment to rape — in the military. The VA’s Heather Lonigro, freshly trained in working on the sexual abuse claims, was standing by and ready to help, she wrote on the Facebook page. The idea to appoint Lonigro specifically to the Facebook group was from Allison Hickey, who as undersecretary for benefits in the VA is in charge of more than 20,000 employees and delivering services to over 12 million veterans. But she is also, as she put it in an interview in her Washington office  this week, “a woman who served in the military and I know.” “I knew far too many who have been through this, people very, very close to me and it literally destroys lives, reproduction, marriages. It rings true and it totally destroys people” said Hickey, who is a retired brigadier general in the Air Force and served in the military for 27 years.

Managing chronic pain in active military and veteran populations (Forbes)
Much of the conversation around managing chronic pain has been directed toward the general U.S. population. One specific group deserves a little more attention: active military and veterans. The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH), part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), this week delivered its recommendations for assisting military veterans with pain management. A working group from the center’s advisory council administered the report. The group’s findings were prepared after a series of five meetings. During these engagements, the council listened to presentations by experts in various backgrounds: pain research, study design, complementary and integrative approaches. The Department of Defense (DOD) and the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) gave input on initiatives, practices and priorities. Leaders from several veterans organizations also addressed the group. The working group recommended that large-scale collaborative research into pain management for U.S. veterans should do the following: assess the impact of pain on patient function and quality of life as primary outcome measures, with changes in the use of opioids and other drugs as a secondary outcome; evaluate an integrated package of non-drug treatments, an integrative model of care, or a holistic approach to care rather than focusing on individual complementary health approaches; focus on patients in the early stages of chronic pain; leverage natural experiments and existing resources whenever possible; and be pragmatic and embedded in the delivery of care.

Florida Congressmen promise ‘Trust But Verify’ approach to VA budget (Sunshine State News)
VA Secretary Robert McDonald testified before the U.S. House Veterans Affairs Committee on Wednesday and the Florida congressmen running the committee intend to examine the Obama administration’s $169 billion proposal for the department. McDonald’s confrontation with U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Colo., sparked most of the national headlines but the VA secretary insisted he was helping turn the troubled department around. Last year, reports about altered waiting lists at VA medical centers around the nation rocked the department as news emerged that more than 30 veterans in the Phoenix area who were on altered lists died as they awaited treatment. This led to the ouster of Eric Shinseki as VA secretary. McDonald stressed that the VA could become a “model agency with respect to customer experience and stewardship of taxpayer resources” in the aftermath. “VA is emerging from one of the most serious crises the department has ever experienced,” McDonald said “We now have before us the greatest opportunity we’ve ever had to improve care for veterans.” U.S. Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., the chairman of the committee, ripped the VA’s “mismanagement, bureaucratic indifference and a systemic lack of accountability” and called for “thorough housecleaning.” Miller promised that his committee would be watching closely. “Given VA’s past struggles with transparency, honesty and accountability, we can’t afford to take anything other than a ‘trust but verify’ approach,” Miller said.

Army to allow hormone therapy for former Bradley Manning (Pittsburgh Tribune-Review)
Chelsea Manning, the convicted national security secrets leaker, has been approved for hormone therapy for transition to a woman at the Army’s Fort Leavenworth prison, according to a memo obtained Thursday by USA Today. Manning remains a soldier as well as an inmate, and the decision to administer hormone therapy is a first for the Army. “After carefully considering the recommendation that (hormone treatment) is medically appropriate and necessary, and weighing all associated safety and security risks presented, I approve adding (hormone treatment) to Inmate Manning’s treatment plan,” Col. Erica Nelson, the commandant of Fort Leavenworth in Kansas, wrote in a Feb. 5 memo. Formerly named Bradley Manning, the soldier was convicted of sending classified documents to anti-secrecy website WikiLeaks. Manning is serving a 35-year prison sentence and is eligible for parole in about seven years. At Manning’s trial, her attorneys argued she had been disillusioned by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and believed the release of the documents, including diplomatic cables and military reports, should be seen by the public. Manning sued the federal government for access to the treatment. Manning asked for hormone therapy and to be able to live as a woman. Transgenders are not allowed to serve in the military, and the Defense Department does not provide such treatment. The Department of Veterans Affairs, however, does provide the treatment. The VA won’t pay for veterans to have sexual reassignment surgery, but it will pay for hormone treatment and counseling for those who qualify.