Veterans news update for Feb. 18

Veterans news update for Feb. 18

Veterans news updateBill introduced in House for Blue Water veterans exposed to Agent Orange (
Rep. Chris Gibson (R-NY) has reintroduced the “Blue Water Navy, Vietnam Veterans Agent Orange Act” (H.R. 969) in the House of Representatives, along with 130 original House sponsors. Co-sponsors are continuing to be added to that overwhelming bipartisan support. A previous version of the bill (H.R. 543) had 258 co-sponsors but was not brought out of committee for a vote before the last Congressional session ended. In the Senate, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) is preparing to introduce identical legislation. One of the key factors that has been holding up this legislation has been the uncertainty of the final cost for treating all the sailors and fleet Marines who are sick with diseases recognized by the VA to have been caused by exposure to Agent Orange.

New rules on narcotic painkillers cause grief for veterans, VA (The Washington Post)
New federal rules that make it harder to get narcotic painkillers are taking an unexpected toll on thousands of veterans who depend on these prescription drugs to treat everything from missing limbs to post-traumatic stress. The restrictions, adopted last summer by the Drug Enforcement Administration to curb a national epidemic of opioid abuse, are for the first time, in effect, forcing veterans to return to the doctor every month to renew their medication, although many were already struggling to get appointments at overburdened VA health facilities. And even if patients can get appointments, the new rules pose an additional hardship for many who live a good distance from the health centers. While the tighter regulation applies to everyone on opioid painkillers, it’s hitting veterans especially hard because so many are being treated for horrific injuries sustained during the long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and have become dependent on the VA’s beleaguered health-care system for medical care. The rules come at a time of turmoil for the Department of Veterans Affairs. The agency’s widespread problem with patient backlogs burst into view last year with revelations that employees had covered up how long veterans had to wait for care, even for such pressing matters as cancer and suicide prevention. In dramatically curtailing access to the highly addictive painkillers, the government is trying to roll back what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has termed “the worst drug addiction epidemic in the country’s history, killing more people than heroin and crack cocaine.” The rules apply to “hydrocodone combination products,” such as Vicodin. More than half a million veterans are now on prescription opioids, according to the VA. Pain experts at the VA say that in hindsight they have been overmedicating veterans, and doctors at the Pentagon and VA now say that the use of the painkillers contributes to family strife, homelessness and even suicide among veterans. A study by the American Public Health Association in 2011 also showed that the overdose rate among VA patients is nearly double the national average.

VA looking at its own version of BRAC — for unneeded hospitals and clinics (Military Times)
Veterans Affairs Department officials want their own version of a base closure round, targeting aging hospitals and clinics they no longer need. But getting support for such a move might be as frustrating and fruitless as convincing lawmakers to go along with the unpopular military base closing process, something the Pentagon has been begging for since 2012. In budget testimony last week before the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, VA Secretary Bob McDonald said the department has 336 buildings nationwide that are less than half-occupied, and many are completely unused. The inventory includes not just historic sites but also aging, out-of-date locations. Combined, the maintenance costs on those sites total more than $24 million a year, officials said. “VA cannot be a sound steward of the taxpayers’ resources with the asset portfolio that we’re currently carrying,” McDonald told lawmakers. “No business would carry such a portfolio. Veterans deserve much better. It’s time to close the VA’s old substandard and underutilized infrastructure.” More than 1,300 VA facilities are at least 70 years old, officials said, pointing to the need to upgrade and replace many parts of the infrastructure.

No, the VA has not fired 60 people for manipulating wait-time data (The Washington Post)
“Nine hundred people have been fired since I became secretary. We’ve got 60 people that we fired who have manipulated wait times.” –Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert McDonald, NBC “Meet the Press” interview, Feb. 15, 2015
These figures from McDonald’s first Sunday TV show interview seemed to be a bombshell revelation in the aftermath of the wait-time manipulation scandal at Veterans Affairs medical facilities. McDonald was appointed secretary late July 2014, amid whistleblower allegations that employees were falsifying and manipulating patient records. McDonald vowed to turn the agency around and hold employees accountable — and since then, has faced pressure from families, veterans groups and congressional members for not firing bad actors quickly enough. The VA has attempted to explain McDonald’s statement. “Regarding the 60 figure, it is most accurate to say that ‘VA has proposed disciplinary action related to data manipulation or patient care against more than 60 employees nationwide.’ This takes into account the full range of accountability actions including admonishments, demotions, reprimands, and termination,” wrote VA spokesman James Hutton to The Fact Checker.

Veterans in Congress bring rare perspective to authorizing war (The New York Times)
Veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan now serving in Congress have emerged as some of the most important voices in the debate over whether to give President Obama a broad authorization for a military campaign against the Islamic State or something much more limiting. In other conflicts, Congress shaped military policy with a certain remove from the battlefield. But as lawmakers deliberate whether to give authority for a military operation to a president for the first time since 2002, there are 26 veterans from the United States’ two most recent wars serving in the House and Senate, according to the group Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. To them, this fight is not a distant foreign conflict. They have an intimate understanding of battling the same kinds of deadly extremists. “One of the reasons I ran for Congress was to make sure we didn’t repeat the mistakes of the past, of going into war without a clear strategy,” said Representative Tulsi Gabbard, Democrat of Hawaii and an Iraq war veteran. As a member of a National Guard medical unit who was responsible for reviewing the previous day’s casualty list, she said, she wondered whether “the leaders of our country and those in positions of making these decisions really understand what the impacts of their decisions were.” While Ms. Gabbard and other veterans agree that Congress should exercise its constitutional prerogative to authorize the commander in chief to engage in military action, their conflicting views on the scope of that authority reflect the larger complexities of the debate and the difficulty the House and Senate face in any effort to draft a compromise resolution.

VA targets Los Angeles as deadline for ending veteran homelessness nears (The Washington Post)
The Department of Veterans Affairs this month unveiled plans to end veterans homelessness in Los Angeles by 2016. The move came as the agency races to meet its goal of eliminating the same problem across the country by the start of next year. So far, the VA is not on pace to meet its national target, having brought only about one-third of the veteran homeless population off the street since the effort began in 2010. The Los Angeles program serves two purposes, bolstering the nationwide initiative and allowing the VA to end a legal dispute over how the agency uses its 387-acre campus in West Los Angeles. The plan, announced last week, was part of a settlement involving the VA campus, where the agency has been leasing land for commercial uses despite its designation as a “National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers.” A federal judge declared the leases illegal in 2013, so the VA promised this month to open the property to permanent and temporary housing as part of an agreement to end the dispute. The settlement also requires the department to “develop an exit strategy” for non-VA tenants on the property, create a master plan for the land and expand programs for ending veteran homelessness in the LA area with help from national experts.

After Mass. investigation, state veterans department orders increased benefits for some (
The head of the state Department of Veterans’ Services has ordered all towns and cities to fall in line with its own interpretation of a benefit payment law that had been the subject of disagreement between local agencies. The directive issued by Secretary Coleman Nee reiterates the policy that a veteran’s family is treated as a single unit, rather than separately, which will increase future monthly payments for those who were held to a different standard. reported on Dec. 9 that several communities were interpreting a state law called Chapter 115 in a way the department disagreed with, and it was affecting payments. Chapter 115 Section 5 states that a veteran has to establish residency in a town for 24 hours before applying for taxpayer-funded benefits at the local agency, but any dependents must have lived in Massachusetts for at least three years. Most local agencies ignored the three-year rule at the state’s direction, while others enforced it and paid certain veterans with families at an individual rate. Nee’s directive was sent to veterans services officers and dated Dec. 19. It was obtained by this week. It reminds local agencies of a 1979 federal court ruling that struck down a three-year residency rule for the veteran, calling it a violation of the U.S. Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause, and replaced it with the 24-hour standard.

A broader re-evaluation of trauma (Seattle Times)
Opinion: “David J. Morris returned from Iraq with a case of post-traumatic stress disorder. The former Marine turned war correspondent was plagued by nightmares. His imagination careened out of control; he envisioned fireballs erupting while on trips to the mall. His emotions could go numb, but his awareness was hypervigilant. Images and smells from the war were tattooed eternally fresh on his brain, and he circled back to them remorselessly. “Trauma destroys the fabric of time,” Morris writes in his book, “The Evil Hours.” “In normal time you move from one moment to the next, sunrise to sunset, birth to death. After trauma, you may move in circles, find yourself being sucked backwards into an eddy or bouncing like a rubber ball from now to then to back again. … In the traumatic universe the basic laws of matter are suspended: ceiling fans can be helicopters, car exhaust can be mustard gas.” Morris’ book is so good because it relies on literature, history and psychology to communicate the reality of PTSD, both to those who live with it and those who never have. But this book is also important because it’s part of a broader re-evaluation of trauma. Most discussion about PTSD thus far has been about fear and the conquering of fear. But, over the past few years, more people have come to understand PTSD is also about exile — moral exile.”

Washington state lawmakers consider medical marijuana to treat PTSD (Tacoma News-Tribune)
People diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder would become eligible to use medical marijuana under a proposal being considered in the Legislature. Several veterans showed up Tuesday at the Capitol to testify in favor of Senate Bill 5379, which would add PTSD to the list of terminal or debilitating conditions that qualify patients for medical marijuana use. PTSD is defined by the National Institute of Mental Health as “anxiety disorder that some people get after seeing or living through a dangerous event.” Under state law, conditions now eligible to be treated with medical marijuana include cancer, HIV, multiple sclerosis, epilepsy, intractable pain, glaucoma and Crohn’s disease. Sen. Steve Hobbs, D-Lake Stevens, said that adding PTSD to the list of eligible diagnoses would help veterans who continue to suffer from wartime injuries and psychological stress. Hobbs, who is the prime sponsor of the legislation, served in Kosovo and Iraq and is a member of the Army National Guard. The Food and Drug Administration has approved two types of antidepressants to help treat PTSD, but Hobbs said he thinks medical marijuana should be available as a treatment too. “This is just another option for these men and women who have suffered from the wars,” Hobbs said. “One size does not fit all.”

Pressure mounts on Sen. Tammy Baldwin over Tomah VA (Green Bay Press Gazette)
For Sen. Tammy Baldwin, the questions keep coming. The head of the Wisconsin Republican Party has joined a growing chorus pressing the Madison Democrat for details about her firing a top aide, offering a cash payout and asking that the aide sign a confidentiality agreement. “Tammy Baldwin must stop hiding and come clean with Wisconsin about the terms of this deal and her role in this reprehensible situation,” Joe Fadness, executive director of the state GOP, told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. The aide, Marquette Baylor, rejected the deal and is exploring a potential lawsuit against Baldwin for wrongful termination or sexual discrimination, the Journal Sentinel reported Tuesday. Baylor was fired on Jan. 22, just days after USA TODAY reported that Baldwin had received an inspection report outlining “unusually high” opiate prescription rates at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Tomah last August. But she didn’t act on it, despite repeated pleas from a whistleblower, until four months later, when news reports revealed a veteran died from an overdose as an inpatient at the center. Baldwin’s office did not respond Tuesday to a message seeking comment on Fadness’ plea and asking for details on the firing and confidentiality agreement, and what the senator knew when about the report and the whistleblower’s pleas.

Pros, cons of privatizing the VA health system (
The recent Veterans’ Administration “choice card” program faces criticism for confusing regulations surrounding use. 27,000 out of 21.4 million total veterans have made one or more appointments for care. The VA health system is one of the largest hospital and health center networks in the country yet has lingering wait time issues. With these factors in mind, will privatizing the VA health system occur? Or, rather, expansion of the “choice card” system? CONS: 1, The VA health system serves a unique population with common ailments; 2, Shifting to private market more complicated than dual-eligibility. PROS: 1, Niche value will decrease with aging veteran population; 2, Tighter government spending won’t sate increase demand for care.