Veterans news update for March 30

Veterans news update for March 30

Veterans news updateVeterans groups sue to stop VA’s new informal claims process (Stars & Stripes)
Several veterans advocate groups have filed a lawsuit to stop the VA from changing the way veterans file disability claims and appeals. On Tuesday, the Department of Veterans Affairs did away with a long-standing system that allowed veterans to file informal claims to notify the department of their intent to file a claim or appeal — even a handwritten note on a scrap of paper would do. By doing that, the veteran ensured any compensation awarded would be backdated to when they filed the informal claim. Under the new system, veterans must file their claim through standard paperwork or register an intent to file through an 800 number, a change many veterans advocates say could unduly harm older and disabled veterans. VA officials have said the new system will get veterans their benefits more quickly and said insinuating that disabled veterans cannot fill out paperwork is insulting. According to numbers the VA used to get the rule change approved, about half of all veterans filing claims or appeals used the informal system. The lawsuit was joined by American Legion, AMVETS, Military Order of the Purple Heart, the National Veterans Legal Services Program and the Vietnam Veterans of America. “Our nation’s promise to care for its injured and disabled veterans is being diluted by this new VA rule,” said Ron Abrams, joint executive director of the National Veterans Legal Services Program.

Fort McClellan veterans soldier on (
Thousands of veterans who trained at Fort McClellan say contamination at the military base caused them to become seriously ill. For more than a decade they’ve demanded the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) acknowledge the source of their sicknesses and approve their exposure-related benefits claims. The VA recently sat down with a Fort McClellan veteran to actively listen to their allegations for the first time, ending what veterans have called an enduring “systematic lockout.” As previously reported veterans in Portland and across the United States claim they suffer from an array of strikingly similar health problems including cancer, brain tumors, reproductive disorders and fibromyalgia, as the result of exposure to contamination during their training at Fort McClellan near Anniston, Ala. An estimated 600,000 veterans have served at the base since 1935, but VA spokesman Randy Noller says the VA has no way of knowing how many are still alive, nor how many Fort McClellan veterans have filed claims alleging toxic exposure. The fort closed in 1999 – nine years after the Environmental Protection Agency declared the area a Superfund site (the agency’s designation for the country’s most toxic sites in need of cleanup). In the years that followed, thousands of veterans reported health problems they believe are connected to the contamination. Partially responsible for contamination in the area is Monsanto, which produced PCBs in nearby Anniston for decades. According to both veterans’ activists and VA officials, Monsanto’s smokestacks were malfunctioning from 1969 to 1971 and PCBs spewed into the air, blanketing the area with toxic particles. Monsanto settled with the residents of Anniston for $700 million in 2003. Veterans say PCBs landed on the base, but VA says they did not, and that if soldiers were affected, it was due to time spent in the adjacent town of Anniston – meaning the VA is not liable.

State lawmakers respond to increase of veterans in Texas (San Antonio Express-News)
Legislators on both sides of the aisle agree there’s an increasing need to boost health and workforce benefits for Texas veterans this session. About 31,600 veterans are expected to be in the state next year, an impact of troops coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan, the Texas Veterans Commission reports. The aging population of veterans from WWII, Korea and Vietnam in Texas also increases the demand of veterans services. Lawmakers seem to be responding to this increase in Texas veterans. There currently are more than 40 bills before the House Defense and Veterans Affairs Committee, and more than 20 bills before the Senate’s Veteran Affairs and Military Installations Committee. Sen. Donna Campbell, R-New Braunfels, filed five bills regarding Texas veterans that were heard before the Senate Veteran Affairs panel last week. Four of the bills passed unanimously, while one was left pending for clarification. Senate Bill 832, which was passed unanimously through committee, would create a separate workgroup in the Texas Coordinating Council for Veterans Services to analyze veterans’ mental health issues. The council currently has only one workgroup for health and mental health. These workgroups analyze the needs of Texas veterans and come up with recommendations for the Legislature. Campbell said bills that deal with mental health would be a priority this session.

Veterans with PTSD are at higher risk of developing heart failure (
In a study of more than 8,000 veterans living in Hawaii and the Pacific Islands, those with posttraumatic 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.

Late vets’ family members to have their say about VA care (USA Today)
A construction contractor will relive the “most painful day” of his life when his veteran son died at a Wisconsin Veterans Affairs’ center. A widow will recount receiving bags of pills in the mail for a husband who hadn’t been home for months. A daughter will chronicle the final lucid hours of her veteran father as he waited hours for care, then slumped over limp and unresponsive. And a pharmacist will raise questions about three more “unexplained” veteran deaths — all patients like the others who received treatment at the Tomah Veterans Affairs Medical Center. All are set to testify at what promises to be an emotional congressional hearing in Tomah, Wis., Monday. It will be their first chance to publicly face VA officials overseeing the facility since news reports drew national attention to their struggles and triggered investigations by several state and federal agencies, including the VA and the Drug Enforcement Administration. In prepared testimony obtained by USA TODAY, the late vets’ family members, the pharmacist and another whistle-blower have the same implicit questions: How did this happen? How did complaints about unsafe patient care in Tomah go unheeded for years? Why were whistleblowers fired? How did an investigation by the VA inspector general raise “serious concerns” last year about “unusually high” opiate prescription rates but find no evidence of wrongdoing? And why weren’t the findings publicly released, leaving potentially deadly problems to fester without oversight? It’s unclear whether they will get many answers Monday. Carolyn Clancy, the VA interim undersecretary for health, found in a preliminary internal probe that veterans were 2 1/2 times more likely to receive high doses of opiates at Tomah than the national average. But in her prepared testimony, she hails her agency’s efforts to decrease opiate prescribing nationwide and offers few answers on Tomah, except to say investigations still are underway.

For 1 veteran at Tomah, even high doses didn’t end the pain (Military Times)
Like flashes of lightning, sharp pains strike 39-year-old Jason Bishop’s left arm several times a day, causing him to writhe in agony. Frustrated by his chronic suffering, Bishop has struggled to find relief at several Department of Veterans Affairs hospitals, including an embattled medical center in Tomah. He said the VA hospitals have offered him treatment, including prescriptions for narcotics, but few long-term solutions. “They don’t fix you. They’re not trying to find an answer,” Bishop said. “They just control you with medication.” The hospital is at the center of multiple probes after reports of narcotic overprescribing practices and retaliatory behavior surfaced in January — allegations already affirmed by a preliminary report. The facility was known to some in the community as “Candy Land” because of the prescriptions of narcotics coming from physicians there. Former Marine Jason Simcakoski, 35, died of an overdose in the hospital’s inpatient care unit. U.S. House and Senate committees are to hold a joint field hearing Monday in Tomah. Bishop served as a transport plane loadmaster in the Air Force in Kosovo and Bosnia between 1996 and 1999. He said at an appointment to check on intestinal problems in 1999, doctors found Bishop had sick sinus syndrome — a condition that prevents the heart from pumping properly. Surgeons at a Little Rock militarybase implanted a pacemaker to help Bishop’s heart, but he was left with chronic pain that lingers more than a decade later. Physicians at multiple VA hospitals prescribed narcotics, but none gave him consistent care plans, he said, until he met Tomah VA Chief of Staff David Houlihan. “He said I’d been medically mismanaged,” Bishop said. “To hear that from the chief of staff, that’s like the golden ticket.”

Troops and veterans divided over compensation reform (Stars & Stripes)
The Military Coalition can make Congress tremble from time to time by presenting a united front of millions of members from more than 30 military associations and veterans’ service organizations in support of, or opposition to, legislation affecting military folks and veterans. That lesson was learned by budget committee chairmen a few Decembers ago after they led Congress to enact — and then quickly to repeal — legislation that would have permanently capped military retirees’ annual cost-of-living adjustments 1 percent below inflation. The power of that coalition is now fractured over whether to support key recommendations of the Military Compensation and Retirement Modernization Commission. Some of these groups are turning thumbs up, others thumbs down and most still want to see more analysis on proposals to replace triple-option Tricare and to phase in a new retirement system. As the House armed services’ subcommittee on personnel discovered Wednesday at a “stakeholders” hearing, where a group stands will depend on whom it serves. Associations largely representing career retirees want to preserve the value, and not risk force-retention effectiveness, of traditional 20-year retirement for future generations of servicemembers. Groups with larger veteran populations, most of whom left service after a tour or two, and with no retirement benefits, favor the commission’s call to blend a smaller immediate annuity at 20 or more years’ service with a new 401(k)-like savings plan that has government matching of member contributions and full vesting in the balance after only two years of service. Reserve and Guard associations also tend to favor the more modern retirement features found in the private sector. And though a majority of groups are wary of replacing Tricare, even with a new health care allowance for in-service families to buy coverage off a menu of commercial health insurance plans, the National Military Family Association sees potential here for families to gain more choice and faster, easier access to care.

CT official: VA’s failure to share data puts vets at risk of prescription abuse (
Connecticut veterans are escaping the notice of a state program aimed at combating prescription drug abuse, an epidemic among those veterans; and the federal government’s Department of Veterans Affairs is to blame, a state official says. The Drug Control Division, established as a part of Connecticut’s Department of Consumer Protection, runs the Connecticut Prescription Monitoring Program that oversees the entire pharmaceutical industry in the state, including wholesalers, prescribers, pharmacies and any other place drugs can be purchased. While the division’s 12 agents are tasked with keeping an eye on the loss and diversion of all drugs, including controlled substances, the head of the agency, John Gadea, says there are gaping holes in the system. “The problem in Connecticut is that we have the VA that does not upload data into our system, and that provides a Swiss-cheese approach to data,” he said. “It doesn’t help anybody.” The state has two major VA facilities, in Newington and West Haven, and a number of smaller clinics that serve Connecticut’s more than 330,000 veterans. Gadea says painkiller abuse usually occurs among “dual patients.” Those are veterans who are treated in VA facilities and also see private doctors. Because the VA doesn’t share information, prescribers “on the outside” don’t get a complete picture of what medications the veteran is taking, Gadea said. Pamela R. Redmond, a spokeswoman for the VA Connecticut Healthcare System, declined to comment on Gadea’s criticisms, saying “collaboration in state prescription monitoring programs is governed by VA national policy.” The VA says concerns about privacy have kept many of their doctors and facilities from participating in state prescription-monitoring programs, but it is working to eliminate those barriers.

Avoidance coping strategies linked to depression, anxiety in student veterans (PsychCentral)
A new study has found that military veterans who have started or gone back to school have a more difficult time when they use avoidance coping strategies (denying or minimizing negative thoughts and emotions). In fact, these strategies are linked to greater symptoms of depression and anxiety. The findings show, however, that emotional help and support from family members reduces the negative impact of these conditions. The researchers suggest that counseling and wellness centers at colleges and universities, where student veterans may seek help, should offer more outreach to veterans’ families, including couples counseling. The VETS, or Veterans Experiencing the Transition to Students project, is directed by Dr. Shelley Riggs, University of North Texas (UNT) associate professor of psychology. For the study, Riggs and her team surveyed 165 veterans who were currently enrolled in one private and two public universities in Texas, including UNT. The majority (117 participants) had been deployed in Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan or Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation New Dawn in Iraq. There were participants from every military branch, with nearly half serving in the Army and more than 83 percent being non-commissioned officers. In addition to being asked about post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other psychological symptoms, the student veterans responded to questions about their academic, emotional, personal and social adjustment to college, coping styles, social support and romantic relationship functioning, as well as their sense of being connected to their universities. The findings showed that avoidant coping strategies, in particular, tend to interfere with the veterans’ successful adaptation and psychological functioning in a school setting.

Lt. Col. Robert Hite of ‘Doolittle Tokyo Raiders’ dies at 95 (Military Times)
Lt. Col. Robert Hite, one of the famed World War II “Doolittle Tokyo Raiders,” has died. He was 95. Wallace Hite told The Associated Press that his father died Sunday morning at a nursing facility in Nashville. He was battling Alzheimer’s disease. “Today he decided to go home and be with his wife,” Wallace Hite said. Hite was among 80 men aboard 16 B-25 bombers whose mission was to strike Japan in April 1942. While the attack inflicted only scattered damage, it was credited with boosting American morale while shaking Japan’s confidence and prompting strategy shifts less than five months after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Eight Raiders were captured and three were executed; one more died in captivity and three others were killed after crash-landing or ditching at sea. Hite was among the Japanese captives and was imprisoned for 40 months. He was liberated by American troops in 1945. In 1951, he returned to active duty during the Korean War and served overseas before relief from active duty in 1955.