Veterans news update for March 19

Veterans news update for March 19

Veterans news updateNew Lejeune water contamination report raises concerns (Jacksonville Daily News)
As Gavin Smith read over a new report released this week from the Institute of Medicine, it was what is missing from the document that raised his concerns. The report offers recommendations to improve a draft Veterans Affairs clinical guidance document intended to help health care providers determine whether a veteran or family member has a medical condition covered by legislation established in response to groundwater contamination that was documented at Camp Lejeune. In 2012, Congress passed the Honoring America’s Veterans and Caring for Camp Lejeune Families Act, which provides hospital care and medical services to veterans and family members who have any of the 15 health conditions associated with use or consumption of the contaminated water. The report states that between 1957 and 1987, the groundwater at Camp Lejeune was inadvertently contaminated with chemicals that were later found to cause cancer and other health problems. After a quick glance, Smith noticed the dates. He said there is evidence to support a starting date of 1953. But after further review he was disappointed not to find more reference to the recent research by the Agency for Toxic Substance and Disease Registry (ASTDR). The recent reports — the 2014 Birth Defects and Childhood Cancer Study, the 2014 Civilian Mortality Study, the 2014 Military and Naval Personnel Study and the 2014 Male Breast Cancer Study — all show elevated risks for cancers and other illnesses as a result of exposure to drinking water exposure through ingestion, absorption through skin, or inhalation of vapors from the soil.

White House picks nominees for VA’s health, IT posts (Military Times)
The White House on Wednesday will tap the head of a prominent New Jersey medical center and an outside information technology expert to fill a pair of high-ranking Veterans Affairs Department leadership posts, sources familiar with the announcement said. Dr. David Shulkin, president of Morristown Medical Center, was nominated to be VA’s next under secretary for health, and LaVerne Council, CEO of Council Advisory Services, was nominated to take over as VA’s assistant secretary for information and technology. If confirmed by t he Senate, both individuals would fill leadership spots that have been vacant for months. Shulkin’s nomination comes after a search committee recommendation. The job he would fill was at the center of last year’s patient wait time and data manipulation scandals, which forced the resignation of several top officials, including former VA health chief Robert Petzel and VA Secretary Eric Shinseki. Shulkin has served on a number of East Coast medical boards and organizations, including CEO of Beth Israel Medical Center in New York and Chief Medical Officer of several Philadelphia hospitals. He also was founder of DoctorQuality Inc., a consumer-oriented health care information sharing venture. Council is in line to take over a post vacant for two years, despite VA’s goals of modernizing its systems and converting lingering paper records to digital files.

VA says new whistleblower protections unnecessary (USA Today)
Legislation to strengthen laws protecting government whistleblowers is duplicative and unnecessary, according to a top Veterans Affairs official testifying before Congress this morning. “While we appreciate the committee’s efforts to assist the Department in these endeavors, we believe the specific whistleblower disclosure and protection procedures provided by this bill would be unworkable,” said Meghan Flanz, director of the Office of Accountability Review at the Department of Veterans Affairs. Flanz was testifying before a House subcommittee on veterans affairs about a bill from Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., that would require retaliation complaints to be handled more formally and quickly, and add stiff penalties against those who retaliate. President Barack Obama and VA Secretary Robert McDonald have encouraged VA employees to disclose wrongdoing within the organization, especially regarding patient health and safety. But VA whistleblowers around the country, including two top VA officials in Montgomery, say they’ve been punished for stepping forward. Whistleblowers, starting in Phoenix, Ariz., revealed information last year showing veterans were waiting too long to see doctors and the fraudulent efforts to conceal the long wait times. Miller said existing whistleblower laws are not enough. “Many VA supervisors found a way to really circumvent the law that is there to protect these individuals,” Miller said this morning.

Alabama VA whistleblowers say they’ve been punished (Montgomery Advertiser)
Two whistleblowers say that not only are they under attack for alerting the public about long wait times being covered up at the central Alabama VA, but that those wait times are getting longer. Hundreds of leaked documents sent to the Advertiser during a seven-month period revealed patient abuse, inadequate care and unethical practices by the director and other staff at the Montgomery and Tuskegee hospitals. Records included:
• VA police reports of patient abuse by staff who went unpunished
• Internal reports showing there wasn’t enough staff to adequately care for the number of veterans the facility was supposed to be serving
• Internal briefing documents showing that when management discovered thousands of X-rays were disappearing before doctors reviewed them, the problem was ignored for years
• Evidence that former CAVHCS director James Talton knew that records of patient wait times were being manipulated to indicate shorter delays, but took no action for more than a year.
But more than six months after Talton was put on administrative leave and then fired for neglect of duty, very little has changed, according to internal CAVHCS reports obtained by the Advertiser. As of March 2, there were nearly 4,000 CAVHCS patients who have been waiting more than 90 days for non-VA care, a figure that has more than tripled since July 2014, according to an internal CAVHCS report.

Calls on VA to fire 2 construction managers (KUSA-Denver)
The chairman of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee is calling for the immediate firing of two top VA construction managers after new estimates for the Aurora VA Hospital show the cost will be $1.73 billion. The new projected cost is more than $1 billion over budget, and the hospital’s construction has gone through a series of delays and cost overruns. Other projects to build VA medical facilities across the country have also been over budget and behind schedule. “Every single member of VA’s top leadership is fully aware of these issues,” Chairman Jeff Miller (R-Florida). “Yet the senior executives who presided over the mismanagement that led to them remain firmly entrenched at VA, where they collect generous taxpayer-funded salaries.” Miller says it is “well past time” for the VA to fire Office of Acquisition, Logistics, and Construction Principal Executive Director Glenn Haggstrom and Office of Construction and Facilities Management Executive Director Stella Fiotes.

Agent Orange: It’s affecting veterans and their kids (
The number of Vietnam veterans affected by the chemical Agent Orange is astonishing. Roughly 300-thousand veterans have died from Agent Orange exposure — that’s almost five times as many as the 58-thousand who died in combat. “Did it save lives? No doubt. Over there it did, but nobody knew it was going to be taking them later,” said Dan Stenvold, President of the North Dakota branch of the VVA. The Vietnam Veterans of America (VVA) define Agent Orange as a highly toxic herbicide used by the U.S. military to kill vegetation during the Vietnam War. “You know we killed the jungle with back packs, sprayed so we had a good perimeter,” said Stenvold. According to Stenvold, one tablespoon of Agent Orange in the drinking water of Los Angeles would kill the entire city. That toxicity is coming back to haunt veterans and it’s also affecting their children… “Well my dad was a Vietnam veteran, my brother has brain cancer believed to be caused by Agent Orange passed through my father,” said Ashely Busby, daughter of a Vietnam Vet. …And their children’s children. “Our daughters that can’t have children, there’s a lot of them. I was telling Ashley I know of at least 70 in North Dakota alone where the daughters can’t have kids,” said Stenvold. 11 million gallons of Agent Orange were sprayed in Vietnam over 20 million acres, putting three million Vietnam veterans and their families at risk. “It’s an everyday question kind of, you know, what’s passed on, what’s not passed on,” said Busby.

Lawmakers announce post-9/11 veterans caucus (The Hill)
Reps. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) and Scott Perry (R-Penn.) will launch a new caucus on Thursday for congressional members who have served in the post-9/11 wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The launch comes on the 12th anniversary of the Iraq War. Gabbard and Perry, who are both post-9/11 veterans, will serve as co-chairs. Other members of the caucus will include Reps. Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.), Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.), Mark Takai (D-Hawaii) and Ted Lieu (D-Calif.). “The Congressional Post-9/11 Veterans Caucus will focus on empowering the most recent generation of Veterans to continue their commitment to service and carry on the mission of a stronger and more prosperous America,” said a statement from Gabbard’s office. “Our Caucus will strive to improve Veterans’ transition to civilian life, reduce the Veterans Affairs disability claims backlog, promote education, entrepreneurship and employment opportunities, and ensure responsive, expedient and efficient services for Veterans,” the statement said. Gabbard is a captain in the Hawaii Army National Guard. Perry is a brigadier general in the Pennsylvania Army National Guard. Gallego is a former Marine and Iraq veteran; Hunter is a former Marine and an Iraq and Afghanistan veteran; Takai is a lieutenant colonel in the Hawaii Army National Guard and an Iraq veteran, and Lieu is a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Air Force Reserves.

Do today’s veterans really have trouble getting jobs? (
The Bureau of Labor Statistics releases annual figures on employment for veterans every March. There’s a familiar story that veterans from the post-9/11 era have had an especially hard time finding work. However, the numbers supporting that premise turn out to be elusive. There is a striking graph from the Institute for Veterans and Military Families at Syracuse University. “If you look back to about ten years or so you start seeing a real spike,” says Nicholas Armstrong, the Institute’s research director. “A gap in terms of unemployment being higher for vets that are ages 20 to 24.” However, that’s a small group — small enough that the gap isn’t always statistically significant, according to Jim Walker, an economist who tracks veteran-employment numbers at the Bureau of Labor Statistics. “That group, there’s very few of them,” he says. “It has a very high error rate.” The Syracuse chart also leaves out other numbers that seem like they would make a useful comparison, For instance: What about 25 year-old vets? What happens when those younger vets turn 25? Armstrong’s group hasn’t tracked those stats over time. It’s not that the data undercut the familiar narrative. Kate Kidder, a researcher who looks at veterans issues at the Center for a New American Security, says veterans groups, lobbying for resources, do push stories about out-of-work veterans.  “Individual stories are compelling,” she says. “And it’s also — a number of these folks were coming back as the economy was tanking.”

Veteran unemployment easing, but still high (Reuters)
Unemployment rates for U.S. military veterans fell last year, but joblessness among their ranks remains higher than the civilian population, a government report showed on Wednesday. The unemployment rate among veterans who joined the military after Sept. 11, 2001, fell to an average of 7.2 percent last year from 9 percent in 2013, the Labor Department said in the report. While the jobless rate has declined from a post-recession peak of 12 percent in 2011, it remains about 1 percentage point above the rate for the civilian population. “Even as we celebrate the good news in this report, we will continue to deploy this system with every ounce of urgency to make sure all veterans have the opportunity to secure a job that helps them support their families,” Labor Secretary Thomas Perez said in a statement. The Obama administration and the U.S. Congress have pushed forward an array of measures, including tax credits for companies employing veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

Jury finds county discriminated against Iraq war veteran (
Kitsap County deliberately discriminated against an Army National Guard veteran returning to work in the Fire Marshal’s Office and retaliated against him after he filed a complaint by demoting him and passing over him for a promotion, a federal jury decided Monday. The county’s attorney said she disagreed with the verdict in the case of former Deputy Fire Marshal Craig D. Hanson, saying the county’s hiring process that Hanson disputed had picked the most qualified candidate for the promotion. The first trial in August in U.S. District Court in Tacoma ended in a hung jury. In the most recent two-week trial, jurors sided with Hanson in three of nine claims, awarding him about $65,000. Hanson’s attorney, Matt Crotty of Spokane, said the jury’s finding that the discrimination and retaliation was “willful” was uncommon and could allow for the doubling of the award. Hanson, now retired from military service, was a master sergeant in the Washington National Guard and also had served in the Army and Marines. He started with the Fire Marshal’s Office in March 2007 and left in November 2009 when he was called to active duty. One of his deployments during that time was for a year in Iraq. He returned to work in the office in December 2012 but claimed in court documents the work environment had turned hostile and resulted in him being demoted. Fire Marshal David Lynam did not return a call for comment left at his office Monday afternoon.

Old infrastructure a drain, VA says (
The Veterans Affairs Department has asked Congress to be more open to closing outdated facilities, possibly through a base closings commission-like process, saying that keeping them open is draining away money that could be better used for medical care and other services to veterans. Secretary Robert McDonald said at a recent House hearing that numerous obstacles are in the way, citing as an example a state agency designating a disused gas station from the 1930s as an historic building, preventing the VA from building a facility for the homeless on the site. He said that of the 5,565 VA medical facilities –hospitals, clinics, warehouses, and other assets that support medical operations – more than 900 are over 90 years old, and more than 1,300 are over 70 years old. Overall, 60 percent of VA facilities are more than 50 years old, he said. VA currently has 336 buildings that are vacant or less than 50 percent occupied, forcing the agency to maintain over 10.5 million square feet of unneeded space at an estimated annual cost of $24 million. Many of those facilities were placed to meet levels of local demand that have since dropped, while there are shortages in areas of current high demand, he said. He asked for enactment of the government-wide Civilian Property Realignment Act, which would enable federal agencies to pursue consolidation and disposals in a streamlined way, and authority for the VA to pursue enhanced use lease agreements for purposes beyond the currently authorized purpose of creating supportive housing.