Veteran suicide prevention bill passes Senate; ready to sign into law (The New York Times)
As a Marine serving in Iraq, Clay Hunt barely missed being killed by a sniper, yet he faced what proved to be more powerful foes after leaving the corps: depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. Mr. Hunt killed himself four years ago, even as he worked to help other struggling veterans. His death helped galvanize an effort to provide better help for suicidal veterans or those otherwise suffering serious mental health issues. The Senate on Tuesday, by a vote of 99 to 0, passed legislation, named for Mr. Hunt, to improve suicide prevention and mental health treatment programs at the Department of Veterans Affairs. The bill, which also passed the House unanimously, now goes to the White House, where President Obama is expected to sign it. It signals an unusual level of bipartisan agreement on Capitol Hill, where the measure had died late last year because of a parliamentary maneuver. According to the latest government data, an estimated 22 veterans kill themselves every day. While many are older veterans, a survey by the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America — which had made the Clay Hunt bill a centerpiece of its efforts to prevent veteran suicides — found that two out of five of its members knew a recent combat veteran who had committed suicide. Paul Rieckhoff, the organization’s founder and chief executive, said after the bill’s passage: “While we are thrilled about today’s vote, all of us must remember the sobering reality that necessitated this action: the invisible wounds of war and our nation’s initial failure to treat them.”
House bill would give veterans easier access to medical marijuana (Huffington Post)
A bipartisan bill introduced in the House of Representatives Tuesday would allow Department of Veterans Affairs doctors to recommend medical marijuana to military veterans in states where it is legal. The Veterans Equal Access Act would allow VA doctors to recommend or offer opinions about medical marijuana for veterans suffering from serious injuries or chronic conditions like post-traumatic stress disorder. VA doctors are currently prohibited from aiding patients seeking medical use of marijuana. “Post-traumatic stress and traumatic brain injury can be more damaging and harmful than injuries that are visible from the outside,” said Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.), a co-sponsor of the bill. “And they can have a devastating effect on a veteran’s family. We should be allowing these wounded veterans access to the medicine that will help them survive and thrive, including medical marijuana — not treating them like criminals and forcing them into the shadows. It’s shameful.” Nearly 30 percent of veterans who served in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars suffer from PTSD and depression, according to a 2012 VA report. Some research has suggested marijuana may help PTSD symptoms, which can include anxiety, flashbacks and depression. A recent study found that PTSD symptoms in patients who smoked cannabis were reduced an average of 75 percent.
Poll: Veterans want health care outside the VA (Military Times)
A new poll from Concerned Veterans for America shows strong support for health care options outside of Veterans Affairs Department facilities, despite a new announcement from VA officials about plans to cut back on those programs. About 88 percent of respondents to the poll — part of a larger health care survey from the conservative veterans’ advocacy group — said officials need to increase health care choices for VA patients, including access to private care physicians. About 95 percent said veterans should be entitled to the best care possible, regardless of the provider. The 1,000-person survey was conducted by the conservative Tarrance Group with an error margin of 3.5 percent. CVA officials said the results are a clear indication that plans to trim private care options for veterans are a mistake. “Veterans overwhelmingly favor VA reform and want more health care choice,” group CEO Pete Hegseth said in a statement. “Unfortunately, President Obama and the VA remain wildly out of touch with these wishes.”
Director of troubled Denver VA hospital to retire (Stars & Stripes)
The director of the veterans health care system for Denver and eastern Colorado is retiring, days after a report that a Veterans Affairs sleep clinic in Denver had a secret waiting list. Lynette Roff is stepping down, a spokesman for the VA said Tuesday. No other details were immediately released. Former VA employee Tommy Belinski obtained a paper waiting list — separate from the official computerized list — that could have been used to hide lengthy waits for appointments at the sleep clinic, KUSA-TV in Denver reported last week. The list had more than 500 names on it, Belinski said. The VA has said officials discovered an “unofficial list” in 2012 and abolished it. Dan Warvi, a spokesman for the VA in Denver, said in an email to The Associated Press Tuesday that no secret list exists. Roff didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment made through a spokesman. Investigators following up on whistleblower complaints have discovered large-scale improprieties in the way hospitals and clinics around the country scheduled veterans for appointments. Eight months ago, an audit found that 1,600 new patients had to wait 90 days or longer for appointments at eastern Colorado VA medical facilities. It wasn’t clear if the sleep clinic was included in the audit.
Veterans group wants data on military service academies’ gender admission policies (Associated Press)
A lawsuit filed Tuesday by plaintiffs including an advocacy group for female service members is pressing the Pentagon for information on gender targets and recruiting policies at U.S. service academies, where enrollment remains overwhelming male. The complaint alleges the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, the U.S. Air Force Academy and the U.S. Naval Academy did not respond adequately to requests filed in November for records under the Freedom of Information Act. The Service Women’s Action Network, which advocates for female service members and veterans, and the American Civil Liberties Union are pursuing the data as a starting point for what they describe as a broader challenge of the admissions policies at the academies. “The underrepresentation of women at the Military Service Academies contrasts starkly with the wide range of opportunities for military leadership open to women after graduation, particularly in light of the Department of Defense’s elimination of gender-based restrictions on women’s service in combat units and specialties,” Michael Wishnie, an attorney with the Veterans Legal Services Clinic at Yale Law School, wrote in the complaint filed in federal court in Connecticut.
Senator backs Atlanta VA director in wake of veteran’s apparent murder-suicide (Atlanta Journal-Constitution)
Georgia Republican U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson, the chairman of the Veterans Affairs Committee, backed the Atlanta VA’s leadership in the case of a Cobb County veteran accused of killing her three children and herself. Internal VA documents labeled Kisha Holmes a “high risk for suicide” and she had missed mental health appointments in December. She and her children, aged 10, 4 and 9 months, were found inside their Austell apartment last week. Isakson said at a news conference Tuesday that he was privy to details of the internal investigation that he could not share, and the medical center’s director, Leslie Wiggins, called him “immediately” after the incident. Asked about his confidence in Wiggins, Isakson added: “I absolutely have faith in her. Anytime somebody tells you they’ll call you if anything comes up — good or bad — and they call you when it comes up, even when it’s the worst it could be, you know you’ve got somebody who’s good to their word. The veterans of Georgia are lucky to have her at the head of that hospital.”
Obama’s budget proposal eliminates for-profit colleges’ GI Bill loophole (Forbes)
President Barack Obama’s free community college plan stole the education spotlight, but his $4 trillion budget for next year contained another proposal that could alter higher education for many Americans. The President proposed closing a loophole that allows for-profit colleges’ to cash in on veterans’ GI Bill benefits. As it stands now, for-profit colleges must abide by the so-called 90-10 rule, which keeps them from getting more than 90% of their operating revenue from federal student aid money. But that rule doesn’t consider GI Bill benefits government funding. Meanwhile, veteran enrollment at for-profit colleges has soared. Thirty-one percent of veterans attended for-profit schools in 2013, up from 23% in 2009, giving such institutions access to $1.7 billion in post-9/11 GI Bill benefits in the 2012-2013 academic year, up from $640 million in 2009-2010. Obama’s budget proposal aims to curb that trend by counting veterans’ education benefits toward for-profit schools’ federal money cap. If the GI Bill loophole were closed, dozens of for-profit institutions would be in violation of the 90-10 rule, according to a Department of Education analysis, which found that 133 for-profit schools receive more than 90% of their revenue from a combination of Pell Grants, Stafford Loans, and GI Bill funds.
Military compensation commission testifies on health issues (Military Times)
Health care recommendations by the Military Compensation and Retirement Modernization Commission would improve health services for military families and actually save lives, commission members told lawmakers Tuesday. One key recommendation — to align the Veterans Affairs Department’s pharmacy formulary with that of the Defense Department— would “get at” the heart of the veterans’ suicide problem by ensuring continuity of care for troops leaving the military, commission member and retired Army Gen. Peter Chiarelli told the Senate Armed Services Committee. According to the Government Accountability Office, just 43 percent of the medications in DoD’s formulary also are in VA’s system, excluding many pain medications, anti-depressants and antipsychotics taken by injured service members for physical pain and mental health conditions. The gap leaves troops vulnerable, Chiarelli said. “If we have found a medication that works, it should be available wherever [the veteran] goes. … If it’s not the VA formulary, someone should hand the veteran a card so he or she can go to a [retail] pharmacy and get it,” Chiarelli said. A version of a bill passed Tuesday in the Senate includes a provision requiring VA and DoD to furnish a report on the challenges of combining the two formularies.