Veterans news update for Feb. 17

Veterans news update for Feb. 17

Good news for veteransAt Camp Lejeune, a cancer cluster is tough to prove (The New York Times)
Last month, thousands of Marines and their families were blocked in federal court from pursuing their claim that the government had given them cancer. The decision, involving people exposed to contaminated drinking water while stationed at Camp Lejeune, a base in North Carolina, didn’t consider the science. Long before expert witnesses could be called to testify, a United States Court of Appeals let stand its earlier ruling that the lawsuit had come too late. It failed to meet the requirements of a state statute banning claims arising more than 10 years after the final occurrence of a harmful act. The genetic mutations that cause cancer can take decades to manifest themselves, far longer than the North Carolina statute of repose allowed. But the laws we cobble together often trump those of science. And even when legal obstacles can be overcome, a link between a cancer and environmental pollutants is exceedingly difficult to establish, whether in a laboratory or a court of law. In past investigations, only two residential cancer clusters in the country have been linked, though only weakly, to environmental toxins. Camp Lejeune has become the third. The plaintiffs in the lawsuit lived at the base at various times from the 1950s through 1985, a period when the drinking water was polluted with dry-cleaning fluid, organic solvents and benzene — chemicals on the National Toxicology Program’s list of known and probable carcinogens. Even so, epidemiological studies published last year by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that Camp Lejeune’s rate of cancer mortality was lower than that of the general public — 1,078 cases among the Marines during a 10-year period, when 1,272 would have been expected in a population that size. That would ordinarily seem to rule out a cancer cluster. Epidemiologists, however, suspected that the numbers might have been distorted by a “healthy soldier” or “healthy veteran” effect.

Disabled veteran says VA cancelled his vocational rehab plan, sent him list of homeless shelters (The Denver Channel)
Jeremy McVay says he couldn’t believe it when the VA in Montgomery Alabama sent him an email suggesting he reach out to homeless shelters in Colorado. The disabled veteran, who was stationed at Langley Air Force Base during 9/11 as a ground equipment technician, moved to Broomfield in late January after his case worker signed off on a vocational education rehabilitation plan. He started a gunsmith class last Monday at the Colorado School of Trades in Lakewood. Shortly afterwards, the VA notified him that his plan had been cancelled. He said they told him that because his educational plan involved guns, the caseworker’s supervisor needed to sign off on it, but no one told him that before he moved to Colorado and started taking his class. Now, he wonders who’s going to pay for the tuition, supplies and tools that were required for the class.  And those aren’t the only bills he’s worried about. “Once they cancelled my educational plan, I was no longer eligible for a housing allowance,” he said. The disabled vet says the apartment situation is so tight in Metro Denver that he’s had to fork out money for a hotel. Now, he’s nearly out of cash. “My family and friends have sent money so we can stay here a few more nights,” he told 7NEWS. When he called the VA in Alabama, he received an email in reply with a list of seven homeless shelters. “I was disgusted really,” he said. “There are so many homeless veterans and it just seemed like they wanted to add one more to the roll.”

Veterans say new choice cards are causing more problems (The Washington Post)
Veterans and some VA doctors say that the new “choice card” program, meant to reduce long patient wait times, is confusing and causing more stress. The choice card issued by the embattled Department of Veterans Affairs was meant to end long wait times for veterans after last summer’s scandal revealed that those who fought for their country were dying while waiting for care. The card gives veterans who have been waiting more than 30 days for appointments or who live more than 40 miles from a VA facility the chance to see a private doctor. But instead, some veterans say that when they attempted to use their card, the VA told them they had to live more than 40 “miles in a straight line, or as the crow flies,” from their VA rather than Google maps miles, which makes the card harder to use. Several VA doctors e-mailed The Washington Post saying they themselves don’t understand how to use the program. Another reader wrote in saying that her stepfather, Charles Schuster,  who died in 2009, recently received a card in the mail, a symbol of an agency still seemingly in disarray. “Gave me a good laugh,” she wrote. So far, 27,000 veterans have made appointments for private care with their cards, the VA said last week. It’s a fraction of the 9 million veterans who depend on the delay-plagued VA health-care system, the largest network of health centers and hospitals in the country. “As far as I can tell, the choice card has created more confusion and aggravation than improving access to clinical care, though it did gain political points,” said one VA primary care doctor, who says he’s on the front lines of doing intakes. He spoke on the condition of anonymity because VA employees are not allowed to speak to the media without permission. But he said he and other doctors “are confused by the choice card system and don’t understand how to implement it.”

Fewer veterans use Choice Card and private health care than expected, VA says (Stars & Stripes)
Only 27,000 veterans have made appointments for private medical care since the Department of Veterans Affairs’ Choice Card program rolled out at the start of November, Secretary Robert McDonald said last week. It’s such a tiny number compared with the 9 million people who use VA health care that McDonald has asked for “flexibility” to reallocate billions of dollars for other pressing matters, from hiring more claims officers to help wade through a vast veterans’ benefits backlog to managing other patient medical needs. VA’s release of the Choice Card numbers is at the heart of a controversy over President Barack Obama’s 2016 budget, which asks for authority to reallocate funds from the temporary $10 billion program that Congress established last year to help former troops struggling to obtain care at vastly overstrapped VA clinics. House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Rep. Jeff Miller, a Florida Republican, has roundly rejected the plan, calling it a “complete non-starter, which I will not support.” He is instead pushing to expand the program to give veterans more care in private clinics. “If there’s going to be any reallocation, it’s going to be to further improve and strengthen the program itself and not address other unspecified needs,” Miller told McDonald.

Family suing VA over vet’s 2012 death at veterans home (Minneapolis Star Tribune)
The family of Air Force veteran Gerald Bain, who overdosed at the Minneapolis Veterans Home in 2012, is suing the state Department of Veterans Affairs over his death. The family’s attorney says administrators at the state-run facility were not paying close enough attention to how much medication Bain was taking when he died. “Their personnel were negligent and failed to properly assess and control the use of prescribed and non-prescribed medication,” attorney Richard Nygaard said in the lawsuit filed in January in Hennepin County District Court. In March 2013, James Bain was appointed as trustee for the heirs and next-of-kin of his brother, Gerald, who died of methadone toxicity while living at the veterans home. He was 61. Under its “Care Plan” policy, the home was required to reassess Gerald and revise his plan as his medical conditions changed, the suit alleges. “They certainly knew he had been taking illegal drugs and just didn’t do anything about it,” Nygaard said. Staff members were also aware that Bain, who suffered from bipolar disorder and chronic back pain, had not been taking the drugs that were prescribed to him, the attorney said.

Most calls to VA’s benefits hotline are blocked or do not reach a representative (ABC15-Arizona)
The ABC15 Investigators found the majority of veterans calling the Department of Veterans Affairs’ (VA’s) national hotline are not getting the help they need. Most callers are either getting hung up on or getting a busy signal. Recently obtained VA documents show that in 2014, 55 percent of calls never got through to a representative. And, so far in 2015, that number is even higher, at 59 percent. “It’s ridiculous,” said Tom Boyle, a three-year veteran of the Navy. He was discharged after being injured in the line of duty. “I was proud to be a sailor,” said Tom. “A lot of work, a lot of dedication, I just loved it.” Tom told us he felt marginalized by the VA. He said he has called the hotline over and over again, but, most of the time, can’t get through. “You wait like 45 minutes to an hour,” said Tom. “I got frustrated and hung up because I can’t get through.” We found, most veterans or their families calling the hotline for help with their benefits can’t either. Last November, we interviewed two former call center employees who told us they were fired along with several others because they didn’t meet VA guidelines that require employees to spend less than 10 minutes on the phone with each caller.

Denver VA hospital had more patient scheduling troubles (KUSA-Denver)
KUSA has obtained a 2011 memo listing additional improper scheduling practices at the Denver VA Medical Center and its outpatient clinics. Denver VA director Lynette Roff mentioned the memo last month in an employee town-hall meeting, where she talked about a prior KUSA story. That story exposed a secret waiting list in the Denver VA’s sleep lab. KUSA obtained a recording of that town hall meeting, in which she also threatened potential whistleblowers about speaking to the media. “I said we’ve been reporting our wait times in selected areas wrong,” Roff said about the memo she sent to her regional supervisor in November 2011. “We know that it’s wrong. We are in the process of correcting it, and our wait times for veterans will go up, and I want you to be aware of it.” Roff’s memo said Denver VA hospital administrators found three inappropriate scheduling practices: Health clinic schedules not set up far enough in advance, new patients and existing patients lumped together on waiting lists, and canceled appointments not being properly rescheduled. Roff let her bosses know official patient wait times would temporarily increase. She wrote the schedules would be fixed and employees would be retrained by January 2012. “We pretty much knew where the patients were waiting, because we had spreadsheets, and we were recording it. But because of our fragmented system, it was a very fragmented process,” Roff said.