Veterans news update for March 12

Veterans news update for March 12

Veterans news updateCost of caring for Iraq, Afghanistan vets extends beyond federal government to the states (ABC15-Phoenix)
The federal government has spent $4.4 trillion fighting the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and is expected to spend another $600 billion to $1 trillion caring for the veterans in the next 40 years. There, of course, is no neat dollar value for the price of human suffering, for the time spent serving overseas, for the challenges of returning home. But two new research papers from Brown University’s Watson Institute show the often-unrecognized level of state spending on veteran care, which further reflects how big the challenges are for veterans in the post-9/11 era. The case studies, part of the Watson Institute’s Costs of War project, put a lens on veteran spending in Rhode Island and Texas, estimating that between 2001 and 2014 Texas has spent roughly $786.4 million on veterans from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Veteran care during that same period cost Rhode Island between $73.6 million and $79.8 million. The researchers looked at money spent on medical care, retirement, housing, employment benefits and other veteran-centered programs. Beyond official state allocations, the research took into account money from private nonprofits and charities as well as the money spent by individual cities. The Texas paper, with a larger population examine, was able to explore some of the incurred costs in cities such as San Antonio and Austin, but the Rhode Island study could not provide substantive results about municipality spending.

VA expects to end claims backlog this year (KUSA-Denver)
The VA is whittling down wait times for veterans to be approved for financial and medical assistance for injuries they received in the service. Department of Veterans Affairs officially announced on Wednesday changes to required paperwork to help eliminate their claims backlog by the end of the year, which would mean virtually all compensation claims would be processed within 125 days. Of the 7,743 claims currently being processed in the VA’s Denver Regional Benefits Office, 53 percent are considered backlogged. Most claims are asking for monthly financial compensation and ongoing medical care for service-connected disabilities. Other claims are for other benefits like pensions, burials and vocational rehab. To assist in reducing the backlog, the VA is mandating veterans use standardized forms, even for “informal” claims, beginning March 24. In the past, veterans had been allowed to make many requests by letter. Veterans who have an existing claim request will not have to re-file their paperwork. The forms below, once optional, are now mandatory:
• For disability benefits, applicants must now use VA Form 21-526EZ
• For needs-based pension, use VA Form 21-527EZ
• For dependency and indemnity compensation (DIC), survivor’s pension, and accrued benefits, claimants should use VA Form 21-534EZ
• Veterans filing a Notice of Disagreement should use VA Form 21-0958

VA scandal subsided, but vets still can’t get medical help (Minnesota Public Radio)
For a brief, shining moment last year, the nation was consumed with the scandal at the Veterans Administration, where veterans were denied medical treatment or had to wait months to get it. Then, politicians got their pound of flesh — the resignation of the head of the VA — and the scandal quickly faded for sight. But many veterans still aren’t able to get timely help and KARE 11-TV says it has proof. A program launched last November to help veterans who are stuck with long delays and are 40 miles from a VA clinic doesn’t work — or at least it doesn’t work like it’s supposed, the station says. The program allows veterans to see non-VA doctors. It used one veteran with cancer as an example: “Walker wanted to show KARE 11 what happened when he tried using the Choice Card Veterans Affairs sent him, so he called the number on his card while Investigative Reporter A.J. Lagoe watched. “I want to see about getting preauthorization to get cancer treatment at a facility closer to me,” Walker told the operator. But he was told he was not eligible under the 40 mile rule because the Northwest Metro VA Clinic in Ramsey is only 20 miles from his home. The frustrated veteran told the woman handling his Choice Card call that the Ramsey clinic does not offer the cancer treatment he needs. “All they do is dental work there and eye work and some basic kinds of different minor things,” he told her. “But I have cancer stage 4.” Paul’s reasoning that the clinic near him doesn’t offer the treatment he needs got him nowhere. “I don’t get a choice. I get to die. So, to me that’s not a choice,” he said.”

Phoenix whistleblower to meet with VA secretary (KPHO-Phoenix)
U.S. Secretary of Veterans Affairs Robert McDonald is in Phoenix just ahead of President Barack Obama’s scheduled visit to the VA on Friday. McDonald is scheduled to meet with whistleblower Brandon Coleman at 11 a.m. Thursday. Coleman, who’s currently on leave from the Phoenix VA Medical Center, said despite changes made within the VA, whistleblowers still aren’t safe. “Based on the current culture at the Phoenix VA, it’s surprising because there is a lot of work that needs to be done in order to make whistleblowers feel like they’re not retaliated against,” Coleman said. Coleman will have 20 minutes to share with the secretary his experiences of seeing suicidal veterans at the Phoenix VA not getting the level of care they need. When he initially revealed the lack of care, he said he was placed on leave and accused of threatening another employee. The Phoenix VA is considered the epicenter of the controversy about extremely long wait times and mishandled healthcare. Obama and McDonald said they hope to get an update on the progress in Phoenix while others, like Coleman, hope to tell them about the continuing problems. “First off, I’d like to thank him for coming, and I think that that’s a step in the right direction,” Coleman said. “I think that the current environment in Phoenix is toxic, and it needs to be restructured in order to make people feel safe, employees feel safe in order to come forward, if there are problems within the VA and I think that we owe that to every man, woman, that served this country.”

Obama roundtable planned with veteran reps in Phoenix (The Arizona Republic)
Chuck Byers of Vietnam Veterans of America is mulling the many questions he might ask if he could address President Barack Obama during a roundtable event Friday at the Phoenix VA medical center. “I might ask, “Honestly, President Obama, would you come into the VA’s ER if you had a medical emergency?’ ” “I think the VA system is still broken,” he added. “There’s a lot of smoke and mirrors, and it’s so big.” A White House spokesman declined to confirm Friday’s plans, but at least four veteran service organizations said they expect to deploy Arizona representatives to meet with Obama and VA Secretary Robert McDonald. The American Legion, Disabled American Veterans and Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America reported they are hoping to have members at the sit-down along with the Veterans of Foreign Wars. Gretchen Anderson, a national spokeswoman for IAVA, said her organization will be represented by Cara Hammer Campbell of Phoenix, a U.S. Army veteran who served in Iraq and now works as program manager for the Pat Tillman Foundation. Campbell said representing vets is “an exciting opportunity I take very seriously.” She said she hopes to ask Obama how to restore trust to the VA, and to suggest that it begins with ensuring an atmosphere of respect and accountability. “Screw the bureaucracy of the system and chop out the people who don’t belong there,” Hammer said, “because employee complacency kills people.”

Preliminary Tomah VA inspection confirms unsafe prescribing (Stars & Stripes)
Doctors at the VA Medical Center in Tomah overprescribed opioids and sometimes combined them with other drugs in potentially dangerous combinations, a preliminary inspection found Tuesday. The review also cited “an apparent culture of fear” at the medical center that inspectors said hurt patient care and staff morale. The review was undertaken after reports of doctors overprescribing painkillers that led to the death of a 25-year-old Marine. Signed by Carolyn Clancy, the VA’s interim secretary for health, the one-page report said the team had recommended a deeper look at practices in Tomah and had already begun the additional review. The Tomah facility was dubbed “Candy Land” by some veterans for the reportedly liberal prescribing practices under chief of staff Dr. David Houlihan. Clancy’s inspection team found unsafe practices in pain management and psychiatric care. It examined the treatment of 18 patients and found that injuries to six of them were at least partially due to overprescription of depressants or opioids. The report said treatment for nine of the patients wasn’t changed even in the face of “aberrant behaviors.”

VA missed opportunities to enroll patients in telehealth program (FierceHealthIT)
Non-Institutional Care Patients had some of the best outcomes through the Veterans Health Administration’s Home Telehealth Program; however, a recent audit found that the agency missed opportunities to expand enrollment for those patients. The purpose of the program, according to the audit by the Department of Veterans Affairs Office of Inspector General, is to improve access to care for the nation’s veterans while reducing costs. The OIG says because the VA missed enrollment opportunities for those patients, it could “have potentially delayed the need for long-term institutional care for approximately 59,000 additional veterans in FY 2013.” Through the telehealth program, the VA did increase the number of patients overall, according to the report. That number increased by about 115 percent, from a little over 37,200 patients to about 80,200 patients. However, the majority of them were chronic care management and health promotion/disease prevention patients, whom the OIG said would need less intervention from a primary care provider. NIC patients show some of the best outcomes, OIG says, including reduced inpatient admissions and bed days of care. CCM patients served grew by 51 percent and HPDP patients served grew by 37 percent, while the number of NIC patients served fell by 4 percent. The drop in NIC patients occurred because the VHA switched its focus to looking at all patients enrolled, instead of focusing on increasing enrollment for NIC patients, the report states.

Senators introduce bill to end federal curbs on medical marijuana (Forbes)
Bipartisan legislation was introduced yesterday in the U.S. Senate proposing to change federal law such that states could regulate the medical use of marijuana without fear of prosecution. A somewhat unlikely team of Senators Rand Paul (R-Kentucky), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-New York), and Cory Booker (D-New Jersey) stood with parents and patients to discuss The CARERS Act: The Compassionate Access, Research Expansion, and Respect States Act. The major aim of the six-part legislation (S.683) is to reclassify marijuana under the Controlled Substances Act to Schedule II, thereby changing the plant from a federally-criminalized substance to one that has recognized medical uses. This “downscheduling” would put marijuana in the same class as opioid narcotic pain relievers such as morphine and oxycodone. Currently, marijuana is on the Drug Enforcement Agency’s Schedule I, the most restrictive classification of controlled substances, reserved for drugs with high addiction potential and no accepted medical use. Marijuana could be used and prescribed for veterans receiving care in Veteran’s Administration medical facilities. Because these sites are federal, medical marijuana use is currently prohibited at the VA even in states with medical or recreational decriminalization. Giving veterans another option for pain management is likely to garner additional bipartisan support.

‘Veterans Against ISIS’ groups at odds with each other (Army Times)
Two grassroots efforts to take on the Islamic State group — both named “Veterans Against ISIS” — share a common enemy, but they may be battling each other first. One group, whose mission is to defend the United States from Islamic State attacks, has applied for a trademark and is considering legal action against the second, which is recruiting veterans to fight Islamic State in Iraq. “We’re not saying go or don’t go; we just don’t want you using our name when what you’re doing doesn’t represent what we’re about,” said the first group’s co-founder Bob Maher, an Army veteran. Maher’s Veterans Against ISIS group was formed last September to quietly monitor any IS activity within the U.S. and share information between veterans. It currently has almost 1,100 members who actively coordinate information about the Islamic State group via a closed Facebook group. “We are here in case of a domestic threat; we’re not a recruiting agency sending able bodies to Iraq,” said the group’s other co-founder Andrew Brian, another Army vet. “We’re not looking for trouble, but if ISIS starts something here, we’re pledged to do anything we can to stop it,” Brian said. Sean Rowe, however, is itching to immediately take the fight to the Islamic State. Two weeks ago, inspired by online stories of other veterans fighting IS abroad, Rowe, who also served in the Army, formed a group with the same name to recruit fellow veterans to travel to Iraq and directly engage the enemy. “I founded Veterans Against ISIS because I’m really dissatisfied with where things are politically, and these people [fighting IS] need our help,” Rowe told Army Times.

Report: Planned food stamp cut to hit veterans (The Huffington Post)
Roughly 60,000 veterans will be cut from food stamps next year absent policy changes at the federal level, a liberal think tank warned Tuesday. The vets represent a small share of the million Americans the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities expects to be kicked off the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program next year. The caseload cutback will occur as states re-impose a three-month time limit for recipients who are able-bodied, working-age adults without dependents. Next week, congressional budget bosses will unveil spending blueprints that could call for further reductions in food stamp spending. The Center on Budget’s Ed Bolen says lawmakers should instead think of the vets, and increase nutrition spending rather than cut it. “The House and Senate Budget Committees can help protect these veterans — and the rest of the estimated 1 million people facing the loss of food assistance — by providing the resources in the budget resolutions planned for release next week,” Bolen said in a blog post. “At the very least, they shouldn’t make matters worse by assuming deep cuts to SNAP,” Bolen wrote. A spokesman for the House Budget Committee declined to comment other than to say the committee is working on its proposal, which will be unveiled Tuesday.

Senators introduce bill to reduce veteran homelessness (Stanley News & Press)
Senators Richard Burr (R-NC) and Joe Manchin (D-WV) introduced the Homeless Veterans Prevention Act of 2015. This legislation would build on existing homeless veterans programs at the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) by investing in established programs that are proven to be effective and removing any residual barriers to housing for veterans. “It is heartbreaking that we still have almost 50,000 homeless veterans in this country,” said Senator Burr. “This legislation will help us reduce the number of homeless veterans until all of our nation’s heroes have a place to call home. In particular, many women have been unable to fully participate in existing programs because their children were not allowed to live in the transitional housing. The Homeless Veterans Prevention Act bill addresses this shortcoming and increases the availability of housing for homeless veterans.” “I don’t know how we, as a country, can accept that nearly 50,000 Americans who have served our country will be homeless tonight,” Senator Manchin said. “We must do all that we can to help those veterans and their families – and this bill will go a long way to assist with their transition into permanent housing.” The bill has support from National Alliance to End Homelessness and the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans. Key Points for the Homeless Veterans Prevention Act of 2015:
• Keep veteran families together by allowing VA to house the children of homeless veterans in transitional housing programs.
• Incentivizes grantees to avoid disruptions that arise when veterans complete transitional housing programs and move on to permanent housing.
• Allows VA to partner with public and private entities to increase the availability of legal services for homeless veterans.

VA denies veteran cancer treatment closer to home (KJRH-Tulsa)
For Nadine Lee, her son is all she has left. Her family fought cancer four times, and lost; her husband and three children died from the disease. Now, the Tulsa mother is doing it again, but this fight isn’t just with cancer. “I’ve lost three children, this is my last child and I don’t plan on losing him,” Lee said. Her son James Stevens, a Vietnam War veteran, gets his medical care through the VA in Tulsa. However, to treat Stevens prostate cancer, the VA told Lee he would have to go to the VA medical center in Oklahoma City. Under the Veteran Choice Act, if a veteran lives more than 40 miles from the nearest VA facility, he or she will get care at a non-VA facility closer to home. When Lee came to the 2 Works for You Problem Solvers in December for help, we went to the VA to ask why Lee wasn’t getting care in Tulsa. A spokeswoman said the law says the veteran must live more than 40 miles away from any VA facility, even if the closest facility doesn’t offer the care the veteran needs. Therefore Stevens doesn’t qualify because there is a VA medical center in Tulsa, but it doesn’t provide cancer treatment. So we contacted Oklahoma Senator Jim Inhofe and asked him to review the law, and he disagreed with the VA’s interpretation. “That defeats the intent,” Senator Inhofe said. “The intent of that of the 40 mile rule was to take care of people so that they don’t have to do the very thing that they’re having to do.” Since bringing the issue to Senator Inhofe, he is helping lawmakers in the State Senate draft a companion bill that would amend the 40 mile rule.

VA hospital turns Marine away after losing application (WJLA-Washington, D.C.)
A 20-year military veteran has reached out to WJLA-TV after his application to the Department of Veterans Affairs for health care was lost. Now, he can’t get the medical care he earned. In August of 2012, Tom Reid filled out and submitted an application for VA medical care. But earlier this year, when he needed medical attention he couldn’t get it; the VA had no record of his paperwork. “I just expected everything to work like it should. I just had that expectation,” said Reid. Reid, a retired Gunnery Sergeant with 20 years in the Marines, served in Vietnam and Desert Storm. He was exposed to Agent Orange and toxins from oil rig fires in the Middle East. Now that he’s getting older, medical issues are creeping up. “Now it’s time for me, for the problems that are starting to come up, to see if they are related to my military,” stated Reid. “And the VA needs to step up.” WJLA contacted the VA hospital in Martinsburg, W.V., where Reid sent his application. We were told examples like his are rare and the enrollment process has recently improved—which includes reaching out to more veterans groups to help with applications. But due to privacy laws, Reid’s case cannot be discussed. “I think when a system fails to that degree, and I’m just one guy, how many other guys are out there that really need it, life and death? It’s a benefit we earned. It wasn’t given to us, we earned it,” concluded Reid.

Vet loses faith in VA care after surgeries, amputation (
When Tim Kuncl shattered his shinbone after falling from his Puyallup home’s rooftop while hanging Christmas lights in 2011, he trusted that his local Veterans Affairs hospital would return him to health. But more than three years and three surgeries later, the 45-year-old Coast Guard veteran’s confidence in VA health care has also been smashed. “It ruined my life,” said Kuncl, a married father of four. Tim Kuncl of Puyallup is a former Coast Guard officer who recently had his led amputated by a private surgeon after enduring several unsuccessful surgeries at the VA Hospital in Seattle. From the get go, Kuncl’s complicated bone break challenged doctors. Each surgery at the VA Puget Sound Health Care System in Seattle succeeded only in leaving him in escalating pain, Kuncl said. His agony became so intense he could barely control his bladder when he walked. Last fall, after a VA nurse told him his pain was partly neuropathic — even though X-rays showed problems with surgical hardware — Kuncl finally had had enough. He turned to treatment at a private hospital, where he learned his leg damage left him few options. Now, with only a stump below one of his knees, Kuncl is recovering from recent amputation surgery while sounding an alarm for other vets. “I don’t want to see what happened to me happen to anyone else,” said Kuncl, a longtime VA volunteer.

Lawmakers warn Colorado VA hospital work could shut down again (The Denver Post)
Congressional leaders are warning that the troubled Department of Veterans Affairs hospital project in Aurora could shut down again this month. In a letter Tuesday to VA Secretary Robert McDonald, leaders of the House and Senate veterans affairs committees noted that the agency already has borrowed $56 million from other sources to keep the Aurora hospital under construction. “Work on this project is estimated to cease on March 29, 2015, without additional funding,” said the letter, signed by the chairmen and ranking members of both committees. “To date, you have provided Congress no report on the need for a cap increase, any analysis for the cost overruns or updates on efforts to hold properly accountable those responsible.” Jeff Miller, chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, called the Aurora hospital “the biggest construction failure in VA history” and warned that authorizing more money would be irresponsible “absent a VA plan to hold the employees responsible for this massive failure accountable.” On Wednesday, a unified Colorado delegation echoed that alarm and announced plans to visit the construction site.