Veterans news update for March 4

Veterans news update for March 4

Veterans news updateWayne Littrell’s 70-year battle with the VA over benefits claim (Westword)
Like most military veterans, Wayne Littrell is accustomed to the foot-dragging, the red tape, the hurry-up-and-wait mentality involved in dealing with the government. He’s aware of the news reports concerning the scandalous delays and neglect that thousands of vets have endured when seeking medical care and other benefits from the embattled Department of Veterans Affairs. From time to time, Littrell gets a letter from the VA concerning his own requests for treatment and compensation for a terrible injury he suffered in the line of duty. “We are working on your claim,” the letters begin. The VA’s been working on it for the last 69 years. “I hear from them quite often,” says Littrell, who recently celebrated his 95th birthday. “But they still haven’t settled that claim. I think they’re just waiting me out so they don’t have to do anything.” Littrell is quick to point out that the VA hasn’t totally denied his claim for benefits, nor has it ignored him. But the matter remains unresolved after seven decades, and he figures it’s time to raise some questions about the treatment he’s received — and hasn’t received — over the years from the sprawling bureaucracy (current annual budget: $150 billion) that’s supposed to look out for the nation’s soldiers. Littrell’s story is an interesting one. Click on the headline link to read more and see what you think.

Four months in, Veterans Choice Program remains underused (Stars & Stripes)
The four-month old VA program that allows certain veterans to seek medical care from outside facilities has been vastly underused by eligible veterans, according to a VFW report issued Monday. The report’s survey of veterans found that 80 percent of the 1,068 respondents who were interested in and eligible to receive outside medical care through the Veterans Choice Program had not been offered non-VA care. Late last month Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., described the program as “shockingly underutilized,” with only about 30,000 veteran appointments made through the program in its first three months. The program gives veterans who cannot be seen by a VA clinic within 30 days or who live more than 40 miles from the nearest VA facility the option of seeking care from certain approved health care providers. The program was rolled out on Nov. 5. The VFW received 2,511 responses from veterans during its survey of the first three months of the program. Among the survey findings were:
• About a third of 2,157 respondents lived farther than 40 miles from the nearest VA medical facility.
• 35 percent of 746 respondents who attempted to schedule an appointment after Nov. 5 reported waiting more than 30 days for a VA appointment.
• 57 percent of the 97 participants who received non-VA care said they were satisfied with the Veterans Choice Program.
The report said that veterans approved for non-VA care are put on the Veterans Choice List, a database used by outside healthcare facilities to determine whether a veteran is eligible.

Senate follows House with bill to reclaim VA bonuses (Stars & Stripes)
Senators on Tuesday filed a bill that would allow the VA secretary to recoup bonuses paid to employees involved in manipulating patient wait-time records. The measure is being introduced just one day after legislation passed a House vote that would allow the secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs the ability to take back bonus money of senior executives for their role in manipulating wait times or other wrongdoing. The bill would require the repayment of any bonus given out in 2011 or after to those found responsible for the largest scandal in VA history. It is sponsored by Sens. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., and Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H. The two bills have reinvigorated debate over reforming the VA and punishing those responsible for doctoring patient appointment data to mask long wait times at hospitals and clinics across the country. “VA personnel should be accountable for their actions — otherwise the current culture of manipulation will remain,” Moran said in a released statement. “This legislation will help make certain that those who put veterans’ lives at risk will be held responsible and return bonuses they unjustly collected.”

Norovirus sickens nearly three dozen at Phoenix VA (
Norovirus has sickened nearly three dozen patients and staff members in the Phoenix VA Health Care System, prompting the hospital to halt admission of new patients to two mental-health units contaminated with the highly-contagious virus. Department of Veterans Affairs officials in Phoenix said laboratory-confirmed norovirus has infected 16 patients and 19 staff members. All have recovered except three people who are being treated in a medical unit, VA officials said. The Carl T. Hayden Veterans Affairs Medical Center stopped taking new patients at two mental health units with 48 beds on the hospital’s fifth floor. Veterans who need mental health care will be evaluated at the hospital’s emergency department or outpatient clinics. Those who need inpatient care will be sent to other VA units or to mental-health providers in metro Phoenix. Norovirus is a common stomach virus that causes diarrhea, nausea, vomiting and stomach pains. It’s typically spread by infected people, food or water. Most people get better in one to three days, but it can pose a serious health threat for young children and older adults, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. VA officials have embarked on a cleaning regimen to rid the hospital of the highly-contagious virus. Some steps included limiting staff members who are allowed to access the affected floors and using paper trays to deliver food, according to Phoenix VA Health Care spokeswoman Jean M. Schaefer.

Army widow blames VA for husband’s death (WJLA-Washington)
An Army widow is lashing out against the Department of Veterans Affairs. She says the VA is not only partially responsible for her husband’s death, but the troubled agency also owes her $24,000. Kristine Page says her husband was proud to be a veteran. But the level of care and attention he received from the VA toward the end of his life disgusted him. “I think it’s despicable what they are doing to their vets,” said Page. In late 2013, former Army Specialist Donald Page died from congestive heart failure—a result of Agent Orange exposure in Vietnam. During the 69-year-old’s final months, the Purple Heart recipient suffered. Now, after Page’s death, his wife is stuck with $24,000 in medical bills. When the soldier got sick, Page says they contacted the VA for help, but never received a response—forcing the couple to seek medical care outside the VA—and the bills stacked up. “I just want to get reimbursed for the money I dished out,” Page cried out. But a January letter from the VA to Page said she does not qualify for reimbursement, explaining, “We have no records or documentation that your husband attempted to contact … this facility to request assistance.” But Page says that’s not true. She showed 7 On Your Side the paperwork to prove it. She had at least four letters he wrote. Plus, she says, he called. “He called and said he wanted to make an appointment to go there and they never called him back,” stated Page. “They never called him back and he called them numerous times. Nobody would help us.”

VA illegally shifted funds to pay for new IT system (The Washington Post)
In a case of art imitating life, officials at the Department of Veterans Affairs illegally steered agency funding from its intended purpose to pay for an unrelated program. A review by the VA inspector general’s office found that two former heads of the department’s Chief Business Office shifted $92.5 million in medical-support money toward the development of a new claims-processing system, violating federal appropriations laws. The officials wanted to avoid asking Congress for funding, according to a report on the findings released this week. Fans of the Netflix series “House of Cards” will remember a similar stunt from Frank Underwood, the fictional president who drained the nation’s disaster-relief fund in Season 3 to pay for a jobs program without congressional approval. In the VA’s case, the two officials tapped into the agency’s medical-support funds to avoid competing with other IT programs and “in hopes of achieving a faster delivery” of the new claims-processing system, according to the report. Federal law requires agencies to use appropriations for their congressionally designated purposes. Every government-wide appropriations act since 2010 has tied the funding in question to “necessary expenses in the administration of medical, hospital, nursing home, domiciliary, construction, supply and research activities,” the report said.

VFW says ending sequestration is top 2016 priority (
Members of the nation’s oldest veterans’ service organization will be lobbying to end sequestration this week when they appear before congressional committees and meetings with lawmakers in their offices. The Veterans of Foreign Wars has a number of military- and veteran-related issues to talk up, but its top mission is to rid Washington of the automatic, across-the-board budget cuts that are scheduled to go into effect on Oct. 1 if Congress fails to pass a budget. “Our members —  all voting constituents — will use this face-to-face opportunity [with Congress] to demand …  an end to the sequester,” VFW National Commander John W. Stroud said. With the U.S. still at war, the cuts required under the sequester will devastate military readiness, homeland security, the quality-of-life of military families and veterans, he said. The VSO leadership and an estimated 500 members gather in Washington annually to confer on veterans and defense issues and lobby Congress for them. VFW officials will testify before joint sessions of the House and Senate Veterans Affairs committees on Wednesday and Thursday, where they will make their case for proper benefits and healthcare funding for the Veterans Affairs Department.

Shreveport VA chief resigns after year of turmoil (
A top official at the Overton Brooks VA Medical Center is stepping down after a year of turmoil that mirrored scandals erupting at other Veterans Administration medical centers nationwide. Patrick McGauly leaves the hospital’s chief of staff position amid allegations that hospital staff kept secret waiting lists, facing numerous Inspector General investigations and outrage surrounding a shortage of patient essentials. “Our Chief of Staff Patrick McGauly has chosen to pursue an academic and clinical appointment to work in emergency medicine, effective March 15,” Veterans Administration spokesperson Jessica Jacobsen told Watchdog. “Dr. McGauly will continue to serve both the Overton Brooks VA Medical Center and local community. There have been no other permanent leadership changes. Dr. McGualy strongly believes in community service. His passion for serving Veterans and the community as an emergency department physician will benefit the Shreveport/Bossier City area.” McGauly began his VA career in 2010 as an emergency room doctor and was promoted to emergency department director in 2012. He was appointed interim chief of staff in October 2013, a title that was made permanent in 2014, according to Jacobsen.

Minnesota GOP lawmakers eye tax breaks for veterans (
Minnesota House Speaker Kurt Daudt said last week that Republicans would consider tax exemptions for Social Security and veterans benefits as part of their plan to give back more than $900 million of the projected state budget surplus. On Tuesday, lawmakers examined several plans — ranging in cost from $120 million to $290 million for the two-year budget cycle — to do just that. House Taxes Committee Chair Greg Davids, R-Preston, said he has received more than $8 billion in tax-relief requests but that the Social Security and veterans exemptions have a good chance to survive. “I think the committee will look on the bills we heard today very favorably,” he said. Advocates for the bills argued they are needed to stop giving seniors and veterans reason to leave the state. “Whether we like it or not, it’s happening,” Kathy Lohmer, R-Stillwater, sponsor of one of the Social Security bills, said of the exodus from Minnesota. Barbara Linert of Eagan said she and her husband have children in lower-tax states and that their financial planner had recommended they relocate for tax reasons. “Please give us an excuse to stay in Minnesota,” she said to committee members.

Why are we denying Purple Hearts to veterans with PTSD? (The Huffington Post)
Opinion: “I have seen Arthur for psychiatric care for over 20 years. He suffers from severe post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) following his two tours of duty in Vietnam. Arthur attended the University of Massachusetts, and graduated in 1969. Although he was drafted upon losing his student waiver, he chose instead to enlist as a volunteer. Soon he was training to deactivate bombs and improvised explosive devices (IEDs) in the field. Although he proved to be quite talented, and ultimately succeeded in saving countless lives, he also experienced failure. No one can detect and suppress every device in the jungle. Each and every death he witnessed felt like a terrible personal failure. He still dreams of the horrifying scenes he lived through in the war. To this day, Arthur suffers from PTSD and profound survivor’s guilt. While better in many ways, he qualified for total disability based on his diagnosis, and sees me on a regular basis. Arthur received two Purple Hearts for physical wounds incurred in 1970 and 1971, but was denied Purple Hearts for his traumatic brain injury and PTSD because they were not considered obvious physical wounds at the time. I appreciate the profound impact PTSD has had on his life–his daily flashbacks, impaired sleep, obsessions over what he could have done to save more lives, extreme vigilance to protect the ones he loves. Not a day goes by that he doesn’t question himself. It defies me that he has not earned Purple Hearts for these long-lasting effects of PTSD–awards to stand beside the two Bronze Star Medals for Valor he received.”