Veterans news update for March 2

Veterans news update for March 2

Veterans news updatePittsburgh-area Air Force reservists may get help for Agent Orange exposure (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)
Michael Silverman remembers the smell. “The first time I got on one of those planes I said, ‘What stinks?’ ” he said. “They said this plane was used to spray Agent Orange. Everybody smelled it. It was kind of a sweet smell. It was unmistakable.” That was in 1975 when Mr. Silverman, 69, of Fox Chapel, a former Vietnam B-52 navigator and retired lieutenant colonel in the Air Force Reserves, began flying C-123 Provider military cargo planes assigned to the 911th Airlift Wing at Pittsburgh International Airport. The air base had 16 of the lumbering behemoths from 1972 to 1982, five of which had been used in Vietnam to spray Agent Orange defoliant as part of what the military called Operation Ranch Hand. About 2,100 crew members, flight nurses and maintenance workers who serviced those “spray birds” here and at bases in Massachusetts and Ohio have long maintained that the C-123s were contaminated, even though the Air Force insisted they had been cleaned. Reservists with various cancers and other health problems are convinced Agent Orange residue is to blame and that they should receive the same Agent Orange health care and disability benefits that veterans who served in Vietnam get. They haven’t because the Department of Veterans Affairs has said they are ineligible. Until now. The VA appears ready to change its mind in the wake of a January report from the Institute of Medicine concluding that C-123 reservists were likely exposed to dangerous levels of dioxin, the toxic chemical in Agent Orange. The VA is expected to make an announcement this week about treatment and benefits for these reservists.

VA report: 48 claims’ dates at Little Rock benefits center altered (Associated Press)
A surprise inspection of the Little Rock veterans benefits center revealed staff members marking overlooked claims — many almost 2 years old— to make them appear as if they had just been filed. The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reports that the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Office of Inspector General reported the practice threatened to further delay benefits to Arkansas veterans. It was unclear whether any claims were delayed because the Little Rock office implemented its own protocol to track them. After allegations that the VA’s Regional Benefit Office in Little Rock was manipulating records, inspectors auditing the office found 48 instances in which old claims had been marked with the dates that they were “discovered,” not the dates they were originally submitted.

Lawmakers press VA for improved access to rural health care (Pittsburgh Tribune-Review)
The Department of Veterans Affairs is failing to make enough rural health care available to veterans who live far from VA medical centers, a breakdown that violates the intent of a 2014 federal law, more than two dozen senators say. They helped pass the Veterans Choice, Access and Accountability Act, meant in part to improve health care access for veterans who live more than 40 miles from VA facilities or who must wait more than a month for VA care. Veterans in those circumstances are entitled to a Choice Card, which should grant them faster or closer care in a non-VA facility at the VA’s expense, according to the law that President Obama signed in August. But VA officials since November have authorized only 0.37 percent — or about 30,000 patients — out of 8.5 million cardholders nationwide to receive non-VA care, Sen. Pat Toomey and 27 other senators wrote Wednesday to VA Secretary Robert McDonald. They argued the VA is imposing a much-too-narrow interpretation of the eligibility criteria. “We need to make it easier, not more difficult, for veterans to get the care they need and earned, regardless of whether they live in a rural area or a big city. I am going to continue to press the VA to ensure that this happens,” Toomey, R-Lehigh Valley, said in a statement to the Tribune-Review. Specifically, Toomey and his colleagues said the VA is measuring the 40-mile distance from veterans’ homes “as the crow flies,” not in roadway miles. They said the VA “does not consider the type of care available” near a veteran’s home. For instance, a veteran might be within 40 miles of a VA-owned clinic but require specialized care that is not available there. The VA might not make that veteran eligible for relevant, non-VA treatment that’s closer to home, according to the senators. It wasn’t clear how many more veterans might qualify for non-VA care under the broadened eligibility sought by the senators, who asked McDonald to loosen the standards.

Kevlar for the mind: Hopeful research for stopping suicides (Military Times)
Commentary: “Suicide among active-duty troops and veterans has plagued psychological researchers for the past decade. Early in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, rates of suicidal thoughts, attempts and completions increased by more than 50 percent. Countless theories have been put forth regarding the reasons behind the increase and millions of research dollars have been funneled into the collective hands of university, military, Veterans Affairs and private researchers. Unfortunately, a definitive explanation for the increase remains elusive. More troublesome is that fact that there is little consensus on which interventions are most effective for preventing suicide. However, a recent groundbreaking study has brought us closer to an answer. Over the course of two years, 152 soldiers with past suicide attempts or suicidal thoughts with the intent to die were randomly assigned to one of two groups. The first group, referred to as the treatment-as-usual group, received the typical treatment services from military and civilian mental health clinicians. This generally consisted of individual and group therapy, substance abuse counseling, and antidepressant and sleep medications. The second group received the same typical treatment services as the first, but also received 12 weekly sessions of the suicide-focused psychotherapy. These sessions focused on development of a crisis response plan, management of intense emotions, and challenging thoughts that contribute to suicidal thinking. At the end of the study, 31 suicide attempts were made by 26 soldiers across both groups. Eighteen soldiers in treatment as usual made at least one suicide attempt whereas only eight attempted suicide from the brief therapy group. Those results are significant for several reasons. First, to date, this is the largest reduction in suicide-attempt risk seen in the military population. Second, soldiers involved in the brief therapy were less likely to be medically retired from service. This can translate into significant cost savings for the military. And lastly, long-term, expensive and riskier treatment approaches may not be warranted given the positive results of this shorter and more focused intervention.”

VA refuses to recognize veteran’s wife and child (
The Department of Veterans Affairs has ordered an Iraq war veteran to pay back federal benefits she earned for her wife and child, claiming that she was issued them by mistake, since her home state of Texas does not recognize her marriage.  After serving in the military for five years, including during Operation Iraqi Freedom, Melissa Perkins-Fercha left active duty and received a 50 percent disability rating from the Department of Veterans Affairs, reports LGBT organization the American Military Partner Association. Perkins-Fercha and her wife traveled to Washington to legally marry in 2012, and in 2014, her wife gave birth to the couple’s daughter in El Paso, Texas. Shortly thereafter, Perkins-Fercha added her wife and daughter as dependents on her VA benefits plan, according to AMPA. In response, the VA sent a letter informing Perkins-Fercha that it could not legally add her wife and child as dependents because the couple lived in Texas, which does not recognize same-sex marriages. But the VA apparently failed to remove the dependents from Perkins-Fercha’s record, meaning the benefits she received included compensation for her wife and child, according to AMPA.  Perkins-Fercha twice appealed the VA’s denial of her family, but it wasn’t until this month that she received another letter informing her that all of her disability benefits would be withheld until the compensation which the VA mistakenly overpaid was “paid back in full,” reports AMPA.  “I was shocked, angry, and hurt all at once,” Melissa Perkins-Fercha told AMPA. “Who are they to tell me that my marriage is not valid and my daughter is not mine? More importantly, how does the rest of the federal government recognize my marriage and daughter but the Department of Veterans Affairs does not?”

VA hospital land price probe unresolved (Louisville Courier-Journal)
A year after two members of Congress asked for an investigation into the appraisal price of the planned Brownsboro Road VA Medical Center site, there has been no response and opponents are launching an 11th-hour appeal to persuade Veterans Affairs officials to pick another site. There’s “momentum” to change course on the Brownsboro plan “right now like there’s never been before,” said Irene Yeager, an opponent along with her husband, architect Mike Yeager. The Yeagers, who would be able to see the medical center from their backyard in the small city of Crossgate, have suggested a veterans cemetery at the site instead. U.S. Rep. John Yarmuth, who called for the investigation after the price jumped to $12.9 million only 14 months after it was appraised at $9.8 million, is still awaiting a response from the VA’s Inspector General’s Office. Yarmuth said a year ago that the VA “may have paid an excessive amount” for the Brownsboro site in a letter to acting VA Inspector General Richard Griffin. “It is critical that not only is the VA a good steward of taxpayer dollars but that the community has confidence in this project,” he wrote. U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Colo., who was chairman of the House Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, also questioned the change in appraisal at the same time in a letter to Eric Shinseki, then VA secretary.

Jacksonville VA hospital among worst wait times in the country (St. Augustine Record)
More patients wait 30 days or longer for appointments at the Jacksonville Veterans Administration Outpatient Clinic than at any other major facility in the country, according to data the VA began making public on individual clinics in November. The Jacksonville clinic, at any given time, has a pending appointment load of just over 30,000. From clinics with less than half its scheduled appointments to the largest VA medical centers in the country, the Jacksonville facility falls far behind them all with roughly a quarter of its patients waiting more than 30 days after the “preferred date” — and hundreds for more than four months and beyond. In VA speak, the preferred date is the date a doctor deems medically necessary for a patient to get an appointment. If the doctor doesn’t specify, the choice of appointment date then falls to the veteran. The backlog is critical because some of those waiting the longest need appointments with specialists and typically suffer from more complex or long-standing issues. Nine months after Shinseki’s resignation, the percent of veterans waiting more than 30 days for an appointment in Jacksonville is 23.29 percent, nearly double that of Phoenix (12.43 percent) and well ahead of the backlog at major VA systems around the country.