Veterans news update for March 10

Veterans news update for March 10

Veterans news updateBipartisan bill would expand Agent Orange coverage to Blue Water vets (The Hill)
Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and Steve Daines (R-Mont.) have introduced legislation that would extend Veterans Affairs Department benefits to “blue water” Vietnam-era veterans exposed to Agent Orange. Vietnam War veterans who served at sea are currently denied VA disability and health benefits for illnesses caused by Agent Orange. Exposure to the chemical can cause a range of diseases, including cancer. The VA says that for an illness to be linked to Agent Orange exposure, a veteran must have “stepped foot on the land of Vietnam” or served in an inland waterway. But, the senators bill would change that to allow veterans who served up to approximately 12 miles offshore to get VA health and disability benefits for illnesses that are tied to Agent Orange exposure. Under the legislation, if a veteran served offshore and has a disease the VA associates with Agent Orange, then VA officials must presume that the veteran was exposed to the chemical. “We owe it to the veterans who bravely served our country and have fallen victim to Agent Orange-related disease to enact this legislation that will provide the disability compensation and healthcare benefits they have earned,” Gillibrand said in a statement. “Agent Orange is a very difficult chapter in our nation’s history and is past due that we correct the errors of the past.”

Agent Orange debate renewed by bill, VA decision (Stars & Stripes)
Senators on Monday intensified a push on Capitol Hill to cover Vietnam-era “blue water” sailors for Agent Orange exposure, just as another long-awaited decision on VA benefits for crews of repurposed C-123 cargo aircraft was expected this week. A bill introduced by Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., and Steve Daines, R-Mont., would extend Department of Veterans Affairs health benefits to sailors who served on aircraft carriers, destroyers, cruisers and other large Navy ships in Vietnamese waters during the war, and who come down with illnesses associated with the tactical herbicide. A similar bill was introduced last month in the House. The legislation comes as the VA prepares to decide as early as Tuesday or Wednesday whether Air Force reservists who served on the C-123 Provider aircraft — planes previously used to spray Agent Orange over vast swaths of Vietnam — will also qualify. It underscores the wide reach and debate over exposure and benefits nearly a quarter century after Congress passed a law extending coverage to nearly all the 2.7 million who served in the theater. “Hundreds of thousands of our veterans are being denied benefits they need and deserve, because of a technicality in the law,” Gillibrand said in a released statement.

In a first, senators plan to introduce federal medical marijuana bill (The Washington Post)
In what advocates describe as an historic first, a trio of senators plan to unveil a federal medical marijuana bill Tuesday. The bill, to be introduced by Senators Rand Paul (R-Ky.), Cory Booker (D-N.J.), and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), would end the federal ban on medical marijuana and implement a series of reforms long sought by advocates. They include downgrading its status with the Drug Enforcement Agency from Schedule 1 to Schedule 2, allowing doctors to recommend its use in some cases to veterans, expanding access to researchers and making it easier for banks to provide services to the industry. The Compassionate Access, Research Expansion and Respect States (CARERS) Act would “allow patients, doctors and businesses in states that have already passed medical marijuana laws to participate in those programs without fear of federal prosecution,” according to a joint statement from the senators’ offices. The bill will also “make overdue reforms to ensure patients – including veterans receiving care from VA facilities in states with medical marijuana programs – access the care they need.”

Lawmakers plan Wisconsin hearing on ‘Candy Land’ VA facility (Military Times)
House and Senate lawmakers will hold a field hearing in Wisconsin at the end of March to look into problems at the Tomah Veterans Affairs facility, nicknamed “Candy Land” for its alleged high number of pain medication prescriptions written by officials. Members of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee and Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee will host a March 30 hearing in the central Wisconsin suburb, which has become an increasing center of focus for national lawmakers. A Center for Investigative Reporting investigation last year found that prescriptions and use of opiates at the Tomah VA Medical Center rose sharply in recent years, even as the number of patients declined. Members of the Wisconsin delegation have demanded a formal VA investigation, but have also taken criticism for not reacting sooner to allegations of prescription abuse. Last month, Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., said she would conduct an internal review to see whether her staffers may have ignored reports of problems. Committee officials said the March 30 hearing will include families of veterans treated at the medical center and “others with insight into the operation of the hospital.” VA Secretary Bob McDonald has said his department is looking into the allegations. Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., House Veterans’ Affairs Committee chairman, said lawmakers need to see if those steps are enough. “Unfortunately, the situation at the Tomah [medical center] is a familiar one for VA, involving skyrocketing opiate prescription rates, patient deaths, a secret inspector general report, executive bonuses and allegations of retaliatory behavior,” Miller said in a statement. “It’s important for us to hold this hearing to … identify who at VA — if anyone — will be held accountable.”

Bill would require study of VA’s burial practices (The Hill)
Two Republicans have introduced legislation to shine light on the burial practices of the Department of Veterans’ Affairs for unclaimed veterans’ remains. The bill offered by Rep. Bill Shuster (R-Pa.), the chairman of the House Transportation Committee, and Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.), would direct the VA to conduct a study on how it deals with unclaimed remains. About 47,000 veterans’ remains are still unclaimed, according to the Missing in America Project, a nonprofit that helps locate and inter unidentified veterans’ remains. The study required by the legislation would focus on how remains are identified and interred, estimating the number of unclaimed remains, and any bureaucratic obstacles between the VA and veterans’ organizations to find the deceased soldier’s next of kin. “The services and sacrifices of our veterans should never be forgotten,” Shuster said in a statement. “Each one of them should be treated with the proper respect they deserve, and Congress needs to act to address this clear problem.”

VA-proposed rule is attack on veterans and their families (Forbes)
Opinion: “In a surprise move, the Veteran’s Administration is proposing new rules on just who can get monthly pension or widow’s benefits. It’s an attempt to prevent people from gaming the system by giving away assets and then applying for aid. But veterans and their families are crying foul. They say it will cause real harm by making an already cumbersome process more so and will mean more delays in granting benefits. That would put needy veterans at risk of losing one of the most critical benefits out there—one that can help veteran’s stay at home and not go to a nursing home. “The proposed VA rules are an attack on our nation’s veterans and their families; it’s a huge change from the status quo,” says Bernard Krooks, an elder lawyer in New York and a Forbes contributor. One big legal wrinkle: The regulatory action comes after attempts to pass a look-back rule in Congress failed. There’s some question whether these changes can be made administratively, so if the regulations pass, they could be challenged in court. The VA pension—or widow’s pension–benefit provides money to needy veterans and surviving spouses who require daily assistance for necessary activities such as eating, bathing and dressing. Basically, there is no hard and fast net worth number to be eligible, at least for now. … The proposed rules on “Net Worth, Asset Transfers, and Income Exclusions For Needs-Based Benefits” would establish a new combined net worth and income limit of $ 119,220, impose a 36-month look-back period on asset transfers (like Medicaid’s Congressionally-mandated five-year look-back period), and a penalty period of up to 10 years related to gifts. There’s a new tougher definition of medical expenses deductible from income, and a proposed IRS matching program. The new gifting rules and penalties for making gifts (all gifts in the look-back period are presumed to have been made to qualify for benefits) are strict. There’s no allowance to give away money to your church, or say for a wedding gift to a grandchild. For a veteran who gave away $50,000, he would get a 28-month penalty. That is, he wouldn’t qualify for benefits for 28 months. A widow would be penalized for 44 months.”

Why BRAC is good news for the VA (Federal News Radio)
Closing a retail location isn’t usually a huge deal. Organizations make decisions on opening, maintaining and closing locations based on all the factors you might expect: potential customers in the area, demographics, traffic of the location, the business success of the location once it’s open and other factors. J.C. Penney is closing 40 stores this year, including some that have been open for decades. Sears has closed locations for the past decade or so. Radio Shack is shutting down more than 1,700 of its stores that once dotted the landscape like Starbucks; General Wireless will take over 4,000 more former Shack stores. Did we really buy that many adapters and CB radios in the 1970s? But when your decision-making process adds a highly-charged political layer, and input from 535 people, all with their own opinions and agendas, it becomes a whole different story. Objective decisions go out the window; emotions, politics and hyperbole rule. Hence, my surprise at the takeway from last week’s House Appropriations Committee hearing: at least some members of Congress don’t completely hate the idea of letting the Department of Veterans Affairs close or consolidate some of its facilities. One member of Secretary Bob McDonald’s leadership team even compared it to the Base Realignment And Closure procedure Congress has used in the past to shrink the footprint of the Defense Department. “We need a framework where everybody is going to agree to close certain facilities,” Helen Tierney, VA’s assistant secretary for management and chief financial officer, told the committee. “We need something like a BRAC process that would be fair, where a board would evaluate our facilities and Congress would agree with those closures based on their ranking.” The reception to the VA argument is striking because of two other high-profile cases of footprint shrinking in government. Both have met with far less success than the reception the VA team got this week.