Veterans news update for March 13

Veterans news update for March 13

Veterans news updateAgent Orange announcement for C-123 vets delayed again (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)
A Department of Veterans Affairs announcement regarding Agent Orange benefits for Air Force reservists who flew on C-123 transport planes in Pittsburgh and elsewhere has been delayed again. The announcement by Allison Hickey, undersecretary of benefits for the VA, was supposed to be made last week and then was moved to this week, but it’s been pushed back once more because the specifics are still being worked out, a VA spokesperson said. No date has been set. A fleet of the giant C-123s was used in Vietnam to spray Agent Orange defoliant. After the war, the Air Force removed their spray tanks and supposedly decontaminated the planes before returning them to duty in the U.S. at the 911th air base here and two other bases in Massachusetts and Ohio. Some 2,100 crew members, flight nurses and mechanics who flew on the C-123s or serviced them from 1972 to 1982 have long suspected that the planes remained contaminated with dioxin, the toxic chemical in Agent Orange, and that their medical problems are the result of exposure. They say they should be eligible for the same Agent Orange benefits that all veterans who served on the ground in Vietnam receive, but the VA has denied most of their claims over the years. A report in January by the Institute of Medicine, however, concluded that C-123 reservists were probably exposed to dioxin.
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Court says Vietnam vets cannot sue for Agent Orange benefits (Courthouse News Service)
Navy veterans who served primarily on warships off the coast of Vietnam during the war cannot sue for Agent Orange benefits, a federal judge ruled. “The court is sympathetic to the many challenges faced by [these] veterans and their families,” U.S. District Judge Tanya Chutkan wrote Wednesday. “However, Congress chose to shield VA benefits decisions from review or channel them into specific courts, and the court therefore has no jurisdiction to hear these claims.” U.S. forces sprayed Agent Orange and petroleum across the Vietnamese countryside in the 1960s and 1970s as part of Operation Ranch Hand, a program to defoliate Vietnamese jungles and destroy food supplies during the Vietnam War. The chemicals washed into rivers and streams and eventually into the bed of the South China Sea. Under the Agent Orange Act, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs affords a presumption that Agent Orange is responsible if any veteran “who served in the Republic of Vietnam” develops a certain disease. Those veterans are entitled to benefits without actually proving exposure, but the VA has published a series of regulations defining service in Vietnam over the years. Veterans who were not “on the ground” in Vietnam and have thus been denied an Agent Orange presumption sued the VA in 2013 through two organizations, the Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Association and the Military-Veterans Advocacy Inc. They say proving Agent Orange exposure is nearly impossible given the death of records about the chemical’s use.For more on Blue Water veterans, click here

VA agrees to inform McClellan veterans of hazards (WTMJ-Milwaukee)
The Veterans Administration will begin sharing information about possible toxic exposure for soldiers stationed at Fort McClellan, Ala., a spokesman said. In a statement, the VA confirmed a February meeting between former Fort McClellan veterans and government officials. Fort McClellan was shuttered in 1999 and declared a federal Superfund cleanup site. As the home of the Army’s chemical warfare school, McClellan may have exposed soldiers to toxic substances. “As a result of this meeting, the VA’s Office of Public Health is updating it’s website to include more information for Veterans and Servicemembers on potential environmental hazards at Fort McClellan,” the statement read. “We intend to follow up in the near future for additional discussions.” A number of veterans who were trained at Fort McClellan and now report strange and debilitating illnesses. Those veterans did not know about a possible link between their illnesses and their service until word began to spread on social media.

Obama administration to start new group to advise on veterans issues (Reuters)
President Barack Obama’s administration on Friday will announce the creation of a new advisory group made up of public officials and leaders from the private sector to advise on improvements to the government agency tasked with helping U.S. veterans. U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert McDonald will announce the formation of the new committee during an event with President Barack Obama at the Phoenix VA facility, where long waits for medical care sparked a political crisis for the administration. “The committee will advise the VA on additional ways the VA can work to improve customer service delivery and veteran outcomes and set the course for longer-term excellence and reform,” a White House official said. “The members of this new advisory committee have experience in customer service, large-scale organizational change and advocacy for veterans and include business leaders, Veteran Service Organizations members, and health sciences and academic professionals,” the official said.

Obama’s day: The Phoenix VA (USA Today)
President Obama spends Friday returning to Washington, D.C. from California, with a high-profile stop in Arizona for a visit to the Phoenix VA Medical Center. Obama “will be briefed on the progress made to improve the VA’s ability to serve veterans in a timely and effective manner, areas where more progress is needed, and further steps that are planned,” says the White House schedule. Problems at the Phoenix veterans’ hospital triggered national investigations into veterans health care, and led to a shake-up in the Veterans Affairs Department. Issues ranged from long waiting lines to longer delays in care to falsified records. During the trip to Phoenix, Obama and new VA Secretary Robert McDonald plan to meet with patients, other veterans, VA employees, and local elected officials. The latter group includes Arizona’s senators, John McCain and Jeff Flake. McCain, a veteran as well as Obama’s opponent in the 2008 presidential election, has been particularly critical of VA medical care. Obama is scheduled to return to the White House late Friday.

Breaking another promise to veterans (The Wall Street Journal)
Opinion: “Last August President Obama signed the Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act, the most significant reform to the Department of Veterans Affairs in decades. Seven months later, the Veterans Choice Program, a core part of the law designed to help veterans see private doctors, is floundering. Yet instead of fixing the many problems, the Obama administration is using them as an excuse to divert funding from the program. … It was designed to give veterans who lack timely or convenient access to VA health care the ability to seek compensated care from a private provider. Since November, 8.6 million Veterans Choice cards have been mailed out, but according to the VA only 27,000 veterans have made appointments for private medical care using the cards. … It was designed to give veterans who lack timely or convenient access to VA health care the ability to seek compensated care from a private provider. Since November, 8.6 million Veterans Choice cards have been mailed out, but according to the VA only 27,000 veterans have made appointments for private medical care using the cards. The VA fails to mention that it missed several deadlines for mailing the cards and issued confusing and overly stringent criteria for using them. Cardholders must call a toll-free number and follow prompts before speaking to a representative, which in some cases has taken more than an hour. To qualify, they must verify there is at least a 30-day wait for treatment at a VA medical facility or live at least 40 miles (as the crow flies) from a VA medical facility. … A generous interpretation is that the VA is having difficulty standing up a new program. A less generous interpretation is that the VA bureaucracy is intentionally erecting barriers to protect its monopoly on veterans’ health care. The recent statements and actions of VA leaders lend credence to this more cynical, but also more realistic, interpretation.”

Lawmakers want IG to probe VA’s womens health policies (Military Times)
A bipartisan group of House lawmakers is asking for an investigation into the Veterans Affairs Department’s outreach efforts to female veterans, calling the issue critical to the future of the agency. The letter, sent Thursday by 11 members of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, asks VA’s Inspector General’s office to look into privacy policies, facility access and gynecological services available throughout the Veterans Health Administration. “Female veterans are the fastest growing population served by [VA],” the letter states. “Women currently comprise about 10 percent of the population of the VA, but are about 20 percent of the active-duty components. It is critical that [VA staff] are prepared to serve the unique needs of female veterans.” Lawmakers said they are concerned with recent reports that VA “drastically underserves” female vets, either due to missing services, untrained staff or inadequate facilities. VA officials said more than 635,000 female veterans are enrolled for VA health care, and about 400,000 actively use department services. Those figures have roughly doubled since 2000. In testimony before the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee last month, VA Secretary Bob McDonald said he has made recruiting gynecologists a departmental goal, recognizing the growing need. The department is also expanding the number of women’s clinics nationwide. But Rep. Dina Titus, D-Nev., said in a statement that she sees chronic problems in the system, “including a lack of women’s health providers, problems with the coordination of care, and inappropriate treatment.”

VA secretary presses for veterans’ care reform (USA Today)
On the eve of a presidential visit to the Phoenix VA hospital, Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert McDonald stressed that reforming his massive federal agency is a process with two key elements: leadership and time. “What we’re doing is changing a system,” McDonald said Thursday after meeting with student veterans at Arizona State University’s Tempe campus. “And we’re telling them we want them to help do that. … We’re not where we want to be.” McDonald arrived in Arizona a day before Friday’s scheduled arrival of President Barack Obama, who is paying his first visit to the Carl T. Hayden VA Medical Center since it became the hub of a national controversy over veterans’ heath care. In 11 tumultuous months, investigators verified that patients had died awaiting care in a broken VA system, Secretary Eric Shinseki was replaced, and Congress passed a $16.3 billion reform measure.

Phoenix VA appointments increasing, director says (
More patients are being treated by the Phoenix VA hospital in the wake of a national scandal that erupted at the facility last year, its interim director told state senators Wednesday. Interim Director Glen Grippen said he expects to provide a similar state-of-the-hospital presentation to President Barack Obama and Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert McDonald, who are scheduled to tour the Carl T. Hayden VA Medical Center on Friday. Since April, the medical complex has been at the epicenter of a nationwide crisis over delayed care, falsified wait-time data and other management failures in the VA. “We’re quite excited to have the president come, and we think we have some good stories to tell,” Grippen told members of the Arizona Senate Committee on Public Safety, Military and Technology. Among those stories are increases in the number of patients who were seen in 2014 compared with 2013. The number of primary-care patients increased by 13 percent, while the numbers of mental-health patients jumped by 29 percent and specialty care veterans by 14 percent, Grippen said. The number of full-time employees increased by 320 during 2014. “That’s a strong effort in trying to do more outreach and care for more veterans, and that’s why the numbers are up,” said Grippen, who has managed the beleaguered facility since November.

VA clinic turns away veteran because of service dog (AOL News)
A U.S. Army veteran from the Houston area says his dog, Jack, got him turned away from his local VA clinic. “A guard stopped me in the hallway and said, ‘You can’t come in here with that dog,'” John Sutton told KRIV. John Sutton served in the Vietnam War and says his dog is trained to help with his post-traumatic stress disorder. “Jack has helped John Sutton after three suicide attempts,” Fox News reporter Heather Nauert said. The Bronze Star recipient had previously brought Jack with him to numerous PTSD therapy sessions at that VA outpatient clinic in Conroe, Texas. This is where the story gets really interesting, and it centers around whether VA policy and federal law defines Jack as a service dog or an emotional support animal. The only types of service dogs currently allowed inside VA hospitals are ones that help with vision, hearing and mobility problems — as well as seizure-response dogs. The distinction appears to be that service dogs are specially trained to perform a task that the handler either can’t do him or herself, or that the handler needs as a direct result of the disability. Although the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs website has a whole page on service dogs for PTSD, it does say it hasn’t yet determined whether “there are things a dog can do for a Veteran with PTSD that would qualify the animal as a Service Dog for PTSD.” However — and here’s where it gets really murky — it looks like federal law has. A look at guidelines from the Americans With Disabilities Act shows that it actually includes language about PTSD service dogs. An example of a service performed for someone with PTSD is explicitly provided as “calming a person with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder during an anxiety attack.” Currently, the Department of Veterans Affairs is looking into changing its rules to include all types of service and support dogs.

Grieving mother wants answers about VA’s handling of email (Indianapolis Star)
When Sheri Russell learned about an internal email at Roudebush Veterans Affairs Medical Center that mocked veteran suicides, her knees got weak and she couldn’t speak. “It hit me like a ton of bricks,” she said. “I can’t even find the words…It brings a lot of pain and hurt as a mom.” That’s because her son, Shane Miles, a 21-year-old Army private from Martinsville, committed suicide in September, less than a month before he was scheduled to be deployed to Afghanistan. Athletic and good with his hands, Miles had played on the soccer and basketball teams at Tabernacle Christian School. He had a lot of friends and was something of a class clown. “He just liked to crack jokes and make people laugh,” his mother said. “He was just a good kid.” In the Army, he excelled at physical training and specialized in utility equipment repairs. He once tore apart two broken generators that his supervisor had written off and got them working again, his mother said. But as his first deployment grew near, “there was anxiety there,” she said. He was stationed at Fort Campbell in Kentucky on Sept. 22 when he suddenly took his own life. His family continues to recover from the shock. “My son’s death is only five months old,” Russell said. “My emotions are still raw and it’s still fresh to me.” Russell’s grief turned to anger on Monday, when news broke that a manager at the Indianapolis VA had distributed an email mocking veteran suicides. The email quickly found its way to national news outlets and drew condemnation from veterans groups and members of Congress.

Treating PTSD cases can hit a drug formulary wall (Tacoma News-Tribune)
Editorial: “Many who have changed health insurance policies have encountered some kind of glitch with the insurers’ drug formulary — the list of medications that can be prescribed under the policy’s coverage. Switch insurers and a drug covered under one policy may not be covered under the new one. You can still keep taking the drug if it works for you and you can find a provider to prescribe it, but you’ll be paying more or all of the cost out of pocket. When the condition being treated is something like an allergy, the formulary gap is usually not much of a problem; several alternatives are available. But it’s a big problem for a growing number of military veterans taking medications to treat post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). No drugs have been specifically approved for treating PTSD, but doctors have had some success with anti-depressant, anti-anxiety or anti-psychotic drugs, as well as others for pain and sleep disorders. Because PTSD affects individuals in different ways, and because sufferers’ genetic makeup may play a factor, every case is a little different. Often it’s a matter of trial and error — determining what drugs, what combination and what dosages work for a particular person. For military veterans, this can be a big deal. When personnel with PTSD are still on active duty, the Department of Defense’s very broad drug formulary applies, allowing clinicians to prescribe just about any medication that has met federal regulatory approval. But when they separate from active duty, they fall under the Department of Veterans Affairs’ much more limited formulary.”

Navy veteran defends picture of baby wrapped in American flag (New York Daily News)
Cyberbully her all you want, Vanessa Hicks has her fellow veterans backing her up. The U.S. Navy veteran and Virginia Beach photographer is not backing down from people who posted several negative comments on her studio’s Facebook page after she posted a picture of her active duty Navy client holding his newborn baby inside an American flag. “They messed with the wrong group,” she told the Daily News. “I’ve heard from people who have served in the military from all over the country offering support. Did all veterans agree? No, but that’s what makes this country great.” The controversy began on Thursday when Hicks was hired to do a photo shoot with the Clevenger family after the birth of their second child. She had done previous maternity and Christmas shoots with the mother, an Army veteran and fourth-generation service member, and the father, an active duty sailor. Hicks, who served in the Navy between 2003 and 2007, and whose husband serves in the Navy, began looking online for some ideas and saw people posing with their child and the American flag. So the 29-year-old had the father dress in uniform and cradle the baby inside the flag. She took several similar pictures and posted one on her studio’s Facebook page Sunday as a sneak peak for the album.

VA submits whistleblower to criminal investigation (Human Events)
The U.S. Office of Special Counsel is now investigating the claims of a whistleblower who revealed the use of a secret appointment wait list at the Shreveport VA hospital — including 37 veterans who died awaiting care. Mental health social worker Shea Wilkes contacted the media in June, saying his bosses and the VA Inspector General had done nothing to address his year-old complaints about excessive wait times. In fact, Wilkes’ attorney, Richard John, says the IG turned the tables on his client, opening a criminal investigation into how Wilkes obtained the list he used as evidence to show patients were not receiving adequate care at the Overton Brooks VA Medical Center. The Special Counsel — an independent office established that protects whistleblowers and reports to the president — wants to get to the bottom of the secret appointment list and find out why Wilkes has not been granted whistleblower protection. “The Special Counsel is really interested in helping,” Wilkes said. Wilkes, an Army veteran, has worked at the Shreveport VA for eight years. In May 2013, he discovered that veterans were waiting months, even years for appointments. To mask the hospital’s poor performance, Wilkes alleges that staffers hid may veterans on a secret waiting list and that the number of patients actually seen was falsely inflated.

Another $43 million staves off shutdown of work at new VA hospital (The Denver Channel)
Reallocation of $43 million will stave off a potential shutdown of the Veterans Affairs Hospital construction project in Aurora this month, but will not bring it to completion. The VA says it is reprogramming, which means transferring, $43,295,000 within its Major Construction account to keep the construction project going beyond the end of March. Wednesday, members of Congress said the work on the 184-bed hospital was in danger of a second shutdown because of cost overruns. “Months after the biggest construction failure in VA history, and weeks before work is yet again set to stop on the replacement Denver VA Medical Center, the department hasn’t provided Congress the information required to get the effort back on track,” said Rep. Jeff Miller, R. Fla., Chairman, House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs. “Since the project’s inception, the cost of the hospital has ballooned from $328 million to $800 million, and now it looks as if the price tag could top $1 billion.” On Thursday afternoon, Congressman Mike Coffman, R-Colorado, told 7NEWS that he believes the hospital will now cost $1.3 billion, when it was originally budgeted for $600 million.

VA employee cited in agency’s purchase of family-owned property (The Daily Caller)
A project manager participated in a property evaluation and selection group all the while knowing that five of the properties ranked were owned by her family, according to a report by the watchdog at the Department of Veterans’ Affairs. The VA ended up purchasing a $4.25 million dollar property owned by her relative. “Oh my God, I shouldn’t be here,” is what project manager Wendy Gillis said during the site selection process for the Fayetteville VA Medical Center’s new facility in North Carolina. Out of 16 of the potential sites for review, five were owned by her family. Investigators stated that if the VA had actually asked Gillis to sign a conflict of interest form, it’s unclear if she could have signed it in good faith. The document doesn’t name Gillis explicitly, but The Fayetteville Observer determined that Gillis was in fact behind the improper conduct because in other VA documents, she is listed as project manager. The Observer also managed to receive a copy of the original complaint filed where her name is displayed. The report covers Gillis’ struggle when discussing her role in the project with medical center associate director Joyce Alexander-Hines. Gillis admitted to Hines that a particular plot of land belonged to her husband’s family, but Hines stated that if she wanted to continue, she could, so long as she promised to be fair. Gillis mentioned that her immediate family would not benefit from the VA’s purchase of the property. Later, Gillis told investigators that she figured she was fulfilling her obligations by telling Hines of the family connection.

Young VA ice machine had low levels of Legionnaires’ bacteria (Tampa Bay Times)
A “minor presence” of the bacteria that causes Legionnaires’ disease was found in an ice machine at the C.W. Bill Young VA Medical Center in the same building where a pneumonia patient who tested positive for the bacteria died on Feb. 20, the hospital said Thursday. A pneumonia patient testing positive for the Legionella pneumophila bacteria is generally considered by health professionals to have Legionnaires’ disease. But the VA has avoided saying the patient contracted the disease, instead saying the 64-year-old man died of “medical complications.” Jason Dangel, a spokesman for the Department of Veterans Affairs hospital, said in releasing the test result that “No other patients have tested positive for the disease” since the first patient died. Dangel said the VA cannot confirm that the patient was exposed to the bacteria at the hospital. The positive test was one of 13 samples taken in various parts of the hospital after the patient died. Dangel said 11 other tests were negative for the bacteria. One test result is still pending.