Veterans news update for Feb. 3

Veterans news update for Feb. 3

Veterans news updateObama’s 2016 budget proposes to cut back just-passed VA Choice law (The Blaze)
The Obama administration outraged members of Congress on Monday by proposing to scale back a new program aimed at letting veterans access health care outside the VA system. Last August, Congress passed a VA reform bill that created the Veterans Choice Program, which was supposed to be a way to speed up access to health care given the breakdown within the VA itself. President Barack Obama quickly signed it into law. But on Monday, Obama released a budget plan that said he would try to pare it back, and would offer legislation to do so. “In the coming months, the administration will submit legislation to reallocate a portion of Veterans Choice Program funding to support essential investments in VA system priorities in a fiscally-responsible, budget-neutral manner,” the budget said. VA Secretary Robert McDonald added that he would propose this chance in order to provide flexibility at the VA, in order to “serve veterans the way they want and deserve to be served.” Key members of the House and Senate reacted by saying the idea was already dead in Congress. House Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller (R-Fla.) called it a “non-starter, which I will not support.”

VA budget request for 2016: $168.8 billion (VetsHQ)
President Obama’s budget ask for the Department of Veterans Affairs continue to climb, and for FY2016 the VA budget request will be $168.8 billion, an increase of 73 percent since 2009. The request includes $95.3 billion in mandatory spending, which goes to fund the benefits programs such as disability compensation, pensions, and education. That is more than double the VA’s mandatory spending in 2009 ($47.1 billion). The discretionary spending total request of $73.5 billion for 2016 will be used largely for veterans health care. In a statement released Monday, VA Secretary Robert McDonald said, “VA has before it one of the greatest opportunities in its history to enhance care for Veterans and build a more efficient and effective system.  This budget will allow us to continue important progress to better serve Veterans, their families and their survivors. We are listening to what Veterans, Congress, employees, Veterans Service Organizations (VSOs), and other stakeholders are telling us.  We aspire to make VA a model agency that is held up as an example for other government agencies to follow with respect to customer experience, efficient and effective operations, and taxpayer stewardship.”

Advocates worry that planned VA budget hikes aren’t enough (Military Times)
The Veterans Affairs Department budget keeps going up, but it’s still not enough, outside advocates say. A coalition of veterans groups praised President Obama’s fiscal 2016 budget request for VA programs after it was released Monday, but said the plan still falls more than $1 billion short of what the department truly needs to keep up with the demands on the system. “They’re going in the right direction, but there are still a lot of things that need to be fixed,” said Joe Violante, national legislative director for Disabled American Veterans and one of the author’s of this year’s veterans “independent budget.” “This administration has tried to give VA the resources it needs. But I don’t know if they’re always on the mark,” he said. The independent budget calls for $74.5 billion in discretionary VA spending for fiscal 2016, which would be more than a 9 percent jump from last year in nonmandatory department spending. VA has proposed slightly less than an 8 percent increase in that funding. The groups behind the independent budget — DAV, the Veterans of Foreign Wars, Paralyzed Veterans of America and AMVETS — see shortfalls in health care spending, staffing for benefits processing and major construction efforts. Last month, they highlighted all three of those areas as major legislative issues facing VA, noting that the shortfall in major construction alone could reach tens of billions of dollars within a decade if funding isn’t made available now.

VA official: Identity breaches happening more than we would like (WISH-Indianapolis)
A Department of Veterans Affairs’ employee took documents containing personal information of four veterans outside the Cleveland Federal Building last fall where they were left unattended for two to three days before being found by another employee, a VA security official said. The documents, which contained personal information of one Indiana veteran and three others, were left in a park courtyard area just outside the Cleveland Federal Building. The identities of the other three veterans is unclear. One of them is Bob Ildefonzo, a Peru, Indiana man who notified WISH-TV about the incident. In an interview last month, Ildefonzo said he was expecting to hear about his medical claims appeal. Instead, he got a letter in the mail telling him that his identity might have compromised and offering him free credit monitoring. “Somebody could have taken it or they could have taken pictures of everything. I feel very violated,” Ildefonzo said last month. The employee who committed the error was “re-trained,” according to Stan Lowe, the deputy assistant in the VA’s Office of Information Security. What’s not clear is that employee’s identity or if that person faced any other discipline. Lowe refused to say in an interview. In his first interview since WISH-TV broke the story last month, Lowe did admit it was a mistake. “Frankly how long the information was out there is immaterial, whether it be for a minute, an hour, a second, the mere fact that it was left unattended is enough for us to take action. We take veteran information seriously and the mere possibility it could have been compromised is enough for us to take action,” Lowe said. Lowe said these types of incidents are “happening more than we would like.” In an effort to combat human error, he said they’ve reminded employees of the importance of keeping veterans’ information secure while at the same time started to switch to more electronic rather than paper records.

Snow forces delay in Senate vote on suicide prevention bill (Associated Press)
An expected vote on a Senate bill aimed at reducing a suicide epidemic among military veterans was delayed Monday by a winter storm that walloped the Midwest and Northeast. The storm caused the cancellation of flights, classes and major court cases across the Northeast and dumped more than a foot-and-a-half of snow on the Chicago area. The Senate vote on the veterans’ bill was rescheduled for Tuesday. The measure is named for Clay Hunt, a 26-year-old veteran who killed himself in 2011. The bill is in response to suicides that on average claim the lives of 22 military veterans every day. The measure, which passed the House last month, would require the Pentagon and Veterans Affairs Department to submit to independent reviews of their suicide prevention programs and make information on suicide prevention more easily available to veterans. It also would offer financial incentives to psychiatrists and other mental health professionals who agree to work for the VA and help military members as they transition from active duty to veteran status.

De Blasio will unveil plan to end veteran homelessness in New York City (New York Daily News)
Mayor Bill de Blasio will announce a push in his State of the City speech Tuesday to end veteran homelessness by the end of this year. De Blasio administration officials say that the 1,000 veterans who currently live in city homeless shelters can be placed in permanent homes in the coming months. “There’s a moral obligation to serve those who have served us,” said Loree Sutton, commissioner of the Mayor’s Office of Veterans’ Affairs. “We are committed to solving the homelessness crisis (and) we are prioritizing veterans and their families.” The city will begin giving veterans first preference for affordable housing units offered to the homeless. They’ll also get preference for two other housing programs: supportive housing funded by a state program and housing with health services built using federal Medicaid cash. The city also plans to aggressively push to get vets signed up for federal housing vouchers that are already available for ex-military members. “By the end of this month, we will have a housing plan for every one of those veterans,” Sutton said.

A new diagnosis for combat nightmares (Defense One)
Jeff, a 22-year-old Filipino-American, wakes up in a cold sweat, heart pounding. He looks around his Brooklyn bedroom, trying to remember where he is. He’s 32, not 22. It’s been a decade since he was a scout in the army, and the all-too-vivid combat scenes are just a dream built from memories. He’s been getting these nightmares a lot lately, but that’s not unusual. He gets combat nightmares pretty often, up to two or three times a week when he’s stressed. Sometimes, he wakes up to find he can’t move, and he feels like someone, or something, is trying to drag him out of his bed. It’s not unusual for veterans to have sleep problems after their service. In fact, according to Colonel Vincent Mysliwiec, a sleep-medicine specialist for the U.S. Army, it’s become increasingly common since 2006, due to the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Traditionally, soldiers experiencing this sort of thing are diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or a more traditional sleep disorder. But a recent study suggests some of them may have a new affliction: trauma-associated sleep disorder (TSD). People dealing with TSD have vivid nightmares and a myriad of other sleep problems, including insomnia, anxiety, night sweats, thrashing, screaming, kicking, and punching while asleep. They often act out their terrifying dreams.

Military life is stressful for all concerned; efforts to help often fall short (The Washington Post)
The military has never been a particularly family-friendly career. (Thus the old saying that if Uncle Sam had wanted you to have a family, he’d have issued you one.) Yet 44 percent of military personnel have children, and families serve, too. In recognition of the rigors of service, every branch of the military runs programs to support the psychological health of military families. But a report released in 2013 by the Institute of Medicine concluded that these efforts are falling short in many areas. Even relatively smooth deployments can strain families, says psychologist David Riggs. The person who comes back from war is not the same person who left, but the family that stays behind changes, too. “It’s not like the service member comes back” and family life just returns to normal, says Riggs, executive director of the Center for Deployment Psychology in Bethesda, Md., which trains behavioral health professionals to work with military personnel and their families. Studies show that partners and children may develop anxiety, depression and other mental health problems while a family member is deployed, Riggs says, and these problems can persist after their loved one has come home. The departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs have invested billions of dollars to expand their capacity to support veterans and their families, but it’s not clear that those dollars are translating into better results, says Terri Tanielian, a senior research analyst at the Rand Corp. in Arlington. “When people get care, are they getting the right care? Are they getting better, and if they’re not, is the system able to identify that and adjust accordingly?” Those questions remain unanswered, she says.