Veterans news update for March 27

Veterans news update for March 27

Veterans news updateNearly 100,000 veterans prescribed dangerous tranquilizer-opiate combo (
Nearly 100,000 veterans currently are receiving prescriptions for both tranquilizers and narcotic painkillers from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, a potentially deadly combination that is explicitly discouraged by agency guidelines. The scale of the problem came to light in prepared testimony delivered by Carolyn Clancy, the VA’s interim undersecretary for health, ahead of a Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs hearing this morning into the overuse of opiates. The VA’s use of these risky combinations has been under the microscope since January, when The Center for Investigative Reporting revealed a pattern of runaway opiate prescriptions and overdose deaths at the VA medical center in Tomah, Wisconsin. There are “tragic and real consequences for veterans, their families and entire communities,” said Sen. Tammy Baldwin, the Wisconsin Democrat who called for the hearing after CIR’s exposé. Questioning Clancy, Baldwin expressed concern about “dangerous drug combinations,” like the one that killed Marine Corps veteran Jason Simcakoski. The 35-year-old veteran died of a drug overdose in the Tomah VA’s psychiatric ward in August. An autopsy report prepared by the University of Wisconsin Hospital and Clinics declared the cause of death to be “mixed drug toxicity,” including two opiate painkillers and diazepam, the generic form of the tranquilizer Valium. An internal investigation launched by the VA in January found that veterans treated in Tomah often were issued opiates in combinations with tranquilizers – a combination that can cause a person to stop breathing. During today’s hearing, Clancy said the agency was slowly reining in the dangerous practice nationally. Data obtained by CIR show that the number of veterans receiving both benzodiazepines and opiates has fallen from about 120,000 in September 2013 to 93,000 today.

VA says drug prescription programs are saving lives (Military Times)
A Veterans Affairs Department program that distributes narcotics overdose kits to family or friends of patients who take opiate pain medications has saved 41 lives, a VA official said Thursday. VA’s Overdose Education and Naloxone Distribution program, or OEND, provides emergency kits containing the antidote naloxone to veterans who take high doses of opiates or use multiple medications to manage pain. Since its introduction in May, more than 2,400 kits have been prescribed, said Dr, Carolyn Clancy, VA’s interim under secretary for health. When injected or administered by nasal spray, naloxone can reverse the respiratory depression that often causes death during an overdose. Clancy said that while the most effective way to prevent prescription drug abuse or overdose is to avoid prescribing addictive medications like fentanyl, hydrocodone or oxycodone, VA programs such as OEND and monitoring programs are working to reduce the number of prescriptions and accidental deaths. “Chronic pain management is challenging for veterans and clinicians. … Opioids are an effective treatment but their use requires constant vigilance to minimize risk and adverse effects,” Clancy said. VA officials were called before the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee on Thursday to discuss pain medicine management at VA following a report earlier this year by the Center for Investigative Reporting that found a 14-fold increase in the number of oxycodone pills prescribed at the Tomah VA Medical Center in Wisconsin, from 50,000 in 2004 to 712,000 in 2012.

Amendment on Veterans Choice rule passes Senate (Military Times)
Signalling the Senate’s commitment to fixing a problem at the Veterans Affairs Department that has become known as the “40-mile rule,” senators on Thursday unanimously approved an amendment to address a shortcoming in the Veterans Choice program. As part of its budget resolution (S. Con. Res. 11), the Senate passed an amendment offered by Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., that would let veterans who live within 40 miles of a VA clinic with limited medical services to be eligible for Veterans Choice. While the budget resolution is nonbinding, the vote of 100-0 strongly indicates the problem likely will be fixed in the coming months. “Veterans who are entitled to care are not receiving it and, in a sense, false promises were made. If we get this issue correct, the VA then implements the Choice Act as intended,” Moran said during comments on the Senate floor Thursday. On Tuesday, VA Deputy Secretary Sloan Gibson said legislation would be needed to allow the department to pay for private health care for veterans who live near a clinic but have to travel farther to a larger VA facility for treatment. Gibson told the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee that vets are “frustrated” with the Choice program, but the department’s hands are tied because language in the Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act prohibits the VA from offering the program to a veteran who lives within 40 miles of a VA health facility.

Army vet recruits 17 fighters for ‘Veterans Against ISIS: Offensive Wing’ (Palm Beach Post)
A Florida veteran has put together a combat team to fight terrorists in the Middle East. Now, the group says it is getting ready to deploy in a few months. Veterans Against ISIS: Offensive Wing founder and Army veteran Sean Rowe’s goal was to find several veterans willing to fight the terror group, and he found more than a dozen veterans willing to fight. Almost half of them are from Florida. Rowe said a lot of people reached out to him after the first story aired. He said all the team members have a military background and are ready to return to the battle field to fight ISIS. Rowe said he was looking for a few good men to join his group Veterans Against ISIS: Offensive Wing and he’s found them. Just don’t call them mercenaries. “I hate that term. We’re not doing this for money; we’re volunteering our time,” Rowe said. Rowe said this new team of combat veterans is less than 90 days from taking the fight to ISIS on their turf. “Every single guy I talk to, they are burdened by what is going on with ISIS and they want to help,” Rowe said. Rowe said he has 17 men ready to go. Eight are from Florida, five from the Jacksonville area, and they have seven spots still to fill. “Our mission is to support the locals against ISIS,” Rowe said. Each of the vets on the team has served, Rowe said. He said some are decorated.

Government halts enrollment of veterans in helicopter flight program (Los Angeles Times)
The federal government, concerned about violations that have cost taxpayers tens of millions of dollars, has barred new enrollment of military veterans in an Arizona flight program and is reviewing the conduct of a second, Utah-based school. The actions by the Department of Veterans Affairs came less than two weeks after a Times investigation disclosed that helicopter flight companies, aided by public colleges and universities, had exploited a loophole in the latest GI Bill to collect high fees for training — more than $500,000 for a single veteran in some cases — and that the VA enabled some of the spending by not enforcing its own rules. The two programs cost the government at least $40 million last year, based on enrollments and average cost data. Most of that money goes to the flight training companies, which rely heavily on the GI Bill because few nonveterans can afford to pay for the training themselves. In a letter Tuesday, the VA cited Yavapai College in Prescott, Ariz., for failing to comply with a regulation mandating that nonveterans account for at least 15% of students in any education program funded by the GI Bill. The rule is designed to ensure that programs are affordable enough and of sufficient quality that at least some students are willing to invest their own money. At Yavapai, which contracts with Guidance Aviation, all 90 helicopter students currently enrolled are veterans, according to the letter.

Philadelphia VA director’s relocation bonus far above average (The Washington Times)
The $288,000 relocation bonus paid to Philadelphia Veterans Affairs Director Diana Rubens was about $275,000 more than the agency’s average relocation award, The Washington Times has learned. In 2011, the VA paid average bonuses of $13,047 to relocate personnel, according to agency figures provided to the Times. In 2010, the average bonus was $11,951. Ms. Rubens received the huge payments when the VA relocated her from Washington to Philadelphia last summer to take over the embattled office, where an Inspector General has found dozens of problems to correct. “The government shouldn’t be in the business of doling out hundreds of thousands in cash to extremely well-compensated executives just to move less than three hours down the road,” said Rep. Jeff Miller, Chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee. In a letter to VA Secretary Robert McDonald, Mr. Miller said his panel is investigating the payments. He said the VA “shouldn’t be in the business of doling out hundreds of thousands in cash to extremely well-compensated executives just to move less than three hours down the road.” “For VA to pay such an outrageous amount in relocation expenses at a time when the department is continually telling Congress and taxpayers it needs more money raises questions about VA’s commitment to fiscal responsibility, transparency and true reform,” Mr. Miller wrote. “That’s why our committee is investigating this matter and why we have asked the VA inspector general to do the same. Our investigation will continue until all of the facts are at hand, including who at VA headquarters authorized this payment and their rationale for doing so.”

Sequestration would force involuntary separation of combat vets (
Dropping the Army’s end strength to 450,000 would require the involuntary separation of about 14,000 Soldiers, the Army’s vice chief of staff told lawmakers. Gen. Daniel B. Allyn testified March 25 before the Senate Armed Services subcommittee on readiness. He warned that sequestration would have a detrimental effect on the force. “It will increase significantly the involuntary separation of officer and non-commissioned [NCO] leaders who have steadfastly served their country through the last 13 years of war,” Allyn said. “Sequestration will undermine readiness, ultimately putting Soldiers’ lives and our mission success at risk,” he said. It would require the involuntary separation of about 2,000 Soldiers per year — both officers and NCOs, Allyn said. In fiscal year 2014, the Army was forced to involuntarily separate about 2,100 Soldiers. Just more than 50 percent of those Soldiers had served two or more combat tours, he said. “These are Soldiers who answered the call, multiple times, to meet the requirements that the nation had,” Allyn said. Separating those Soldiers was not a choice the Army wanted to make, he said. “This is a budget-driven requirement,” he said. “Treating those veterans of multiple combat tours with dignity and respect is our absolute number 1 commitment,” Allyn said. “Our objective in notifying people who were forward-deployed was to give them the maximum amount of time possible to prepare,” he said. The goal was to allow them a minimum of 10 months to prepare for employment.

Study adds evidence on link between PTSD, heart disease (
In a study of more than 8,000 veterans living in Hawaii and the Pacific Islands, those with post-traumatic stress disorder had a nearly 50 percent greater risk of developing heart failure over about a seven-year follow-up period, compared with their non-PTSD peers. The findings appear in the April 2015 issue of the American Journal of Public Health. The study adds to a growing body of evidence linking PTSD and heart disease. The research to date—including these latest findings—doesn’t show a clear cause-and-effect relationship. But most experts believe PTSD, like other forms of chronic stress or anxiety, can damage the heart over time. “There are many theories as to how exactly PTSD contributes to heart disease,” says Dr. Alyssa Mansfield, one of the study authors. “Overall, the evidence to date seems to point in the direction of a causal relationship.” Mansfield was senior author on the study while with the Pacific Islands Division of the National Center for PTSD of the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). She is now with the VA Pacific Islands Health Care System and also an assistant adjunct professor of epidemiology at the University of Hawaii. The study tracked 8,248 veterans who had been outpatients in the VA Pacific Islands system. The researchers followed them an average of just over seven years. Those with a PTSD diagnosis were 47 percent more likely to develop heart failure during the follow-up period. The researchers controlled for differences between the groups in health and demographic factors. Out of the total study group, about 21 percent were diagnosed with PTSD. Of the total 371 cases of heart failure during the study, 287 occurred among those with PTSD, whereas only 84 cases occurred among the group without PTSD.

Arizona medical marijuana for PTSD study gets OK from feds (KTAR-Phoenix)
An Arizona-based psychiatrist and marijuana researcher is moving forward with a controversial cannabis study that could have nationwide implications. Just months after her termination from the University of Arizona College of Medicine, Dr. Sue Sisley has been given the go-ahead from the federal government for the study and has secured funding as well. Sisley has faced numerous hurdles in her efforts to study the effects of four marijuana strains on veterans who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. “It has been five years now battling the government at all levels to try to get this study underway,” she said. The former clinical assistant professor at UA has said she was fired from the school for attempting the pot study. “I believe that we owe it to these veterans, we have a duty to them, to at least put marijuana through the rigors of a randomized controlled trial to understand if these claims are accurate,” she said. Sisley is looking for a Valley-based location to complete the research.

Same-sex marriage benefits endorse on Senate floor (Roll Call)
The Senate endorsed Social Security and veterans benefits for married gay couples Thursday night in a 57-43 vote, with 11 Republicans joining every Democrat. The amendment slowed down the vote-a-rama, with a group of Republicans huddled in the well and at times talking to sponsor Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii. The nonbinding amendment to the budget resolution still falls short of the 60 votes needed to beat back filibusters in the chamber. Among those voting late after a lengthy delay against providing equal benefits to married gay couples were Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., and Patrick J. Toomey, R-Pa. The Republicans backing equal benefits for gay couples were: Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, Richard M. Burr of North Carolina, Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia, Susan Collins of Maine, Bob Corker of Tennessee, Dean Heller of Nevada, Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, Mark S. Kirk of Illinois, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Rob Portman of Ohio and Thom Tillis of North Carolina.

Photo of kids climbing on Vietnam memorial draws anger (
Kids, being kids, like to climb on things. More often than not, that’s OK. But when the thing in question is a war memorial? That’s the question burning up online parenting groups and in family rooms after an amateur photographer snapped a picture of two children scampering on top of the Vietnam Women’s Memorial in Washington. The photographer, Matt Munson, described the shot on Facebook as “two little brats climbing over war memorial right in front of a veteran.” The parents, he said, were laughing. “It actually drew a crowd of spectators and the parents realized how evil they were being and quickly took off before I could take a picture of them all,” Munson wrote. “The more I look at this photo the angrier I get.” He has plenty of company there. As the photo went viral, comment after comment poured in on Facebook and Twitter, chastising the parents for allowing the kids to play on the statue, part of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial that depicts three women tending to a wounded soldier. One nurse cradles the wounded fighter while another looks despairingly into an empty helmet. The third looks skyward, to a rescue helicopter or perhaps God, according to the memorial foundation’s website. In Munson’s photo, a visitor to the memorial seems to grimace at the sight as he pushes an older man in a wheelchair. The older man, wearing a Navy ballcap, and a woman also look on. The children’s parents aren’t shown.

Lawmakers: End bonuses until VA hospital is finished in Colorado (The Denver Channel)
Colorado Rep. Mike Coffman (R) and Sen. Cory Gardner (R) are introducing legislation to stop the Veterans Affairs from awarding any more bonuses until the Aurora VA hospital is fully operational. The VA Hospital Construction, Accountability, and Reform Act, being introduced in Coffman and Gardner’s respective chambers, authorizes amount of funding necessary to complete the hospital, transfers construction authority for the project from the VA to the Army Corps of Engineers, provides for an independent review of the project’s mismanagement up until this point, and prohibits the bonuses. Coffman’s office said in fiscal year 2015, there is $360 million authorized for VA bonuses. “The VA paying out bonuses while veterans go without the care they need is completely unacceptable,” Gardner said. “This legislation would start to hold the VA accountable for their failures while also making sure that this critical facility is, at long last, completed. I’m grateful for Representative Coffman’s leadership on this issue, and I’m eager to work with him to ensure that Colorado veterans get the world-class care that they deserve.” “The massive VA mismanagement of this hospital is offensive to the veterans it is supposed to serve and offensive to the taxpayers funding the project,” said Coffman, a Marine Corps combat veteran. “My bill will help get the hospital built for the veterans who deserve the care it will provide, while holding the VA accountable for its failures and ensure this never happens again.”