Veterans news update for March 5

Veterans news update for March 5

Veterans news updateVA chief warns of rising cost of caring for younger veterans (
Veterans Affairs Secretary Bob McDonald told lawmakers on Wednesday that the department is on track to meet two lofty goals set by his predecessor: End the disability claims backlog and veteran homelessness. But McDonald, in testimony before the veterans’ affairs panel of the House Appropriations Committee, offered a laundry list of figures and some projections indicating that whatever victories the VA may achieve in the next year or so, the pieces already are set for the making of another one. “The cost of fulfilling our obligations to veterans grows over time because veterans demand for service and benefits continues to grow as wars end,” he said. “While it’s true that the total number of veterans is declining, the number of those seeking care and benefits is increasing dramatically.” The last 14 years of war have seen increasing numbers of today’s veterans applying for VA care, which is already striving to meet the care demands of the larger and aging Vietnam veteran population, McDonald said. In 2014, for example, 22 percent of Vietnam veterans received service-connected disability benefits, but that figure is expected to increase. From 1960 until 2000, he said, about 8.8 percent of America’s veterans were seeking VA care. In the last 14 years – since the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq – the percentage has more than doubled, to 19 percent. In that time not only has the number of claims grown, but the number of medical issues detailed in each claim.  In 2009, he said, the VA processed 989,000 claims that included some 2.7 million medical issues. McDonald projects that in 2017, the VA will process 1.4 million claims detailing nearly 6 million medical problems.

Choice Card confusion frustrates veterans, Congress (Military Times)
Air Force veteran Mark Gendron lives just a few miles from a psychiatrist who can help treat his post-traumatic stress disorder. But Veterans Affairs Department officials won’t pay for the treatment. “So I’m paying for it myself,” the 55-year-old Minnesota resident said. “I don’t understand why I have to. They sent me a card that was supposed to let me go see any doctor. But VA won’t let me use it.” Gendron is one of tens of thousands of veterans left scratching their heads about the VA’s new Choice Card program, designed to give veterans in remote areas or facing long wait times a chance to easily turn to private care providers. The closest available VA psychiatrist Gendron can visit is 70 miles away in St. Cloud, an unbearable burden for the retired vet who is also his disabled son’s primary caregiver. Private care options are supposed to be open to any veterans who live more than 40 miles from a VA facility. But VA officials say Gendron doesn’t qualify for the private care options, because there is a VA clinic just 12 miles from his home. It doesn’t have the personnel or services he needs, but it’s enough to disqualify him from the program. “I just want to get the care I need,” he said. “I shouldn’t have to deal with this.” Lawmakers and veterans groups have been dismayed with the implementation of the new Choice Card system so far, complaining that program officials seem more focused on keeping individuals out of the program than getting it running. VA officials note that Congress — not the department — set the eligibility rules and needs to make fixes if gaps are emerging.

VA employees say they are ‘prisoner of a system’ they can’t change (
Veterans Affairs Secretary Bob McDonald at a congressional hearing Wednesday laid out a vision for the future of his department that includes far fewer VA facilities and a more “hybrid” approach to veterans health care that will involve both public and private resources. McDonald warned against contracting out VA services, but said he thinks there “will be a hybrid system in the future.” He added VA had seen a 48 percent increase in awarding private care before the 2014 access law was passed. On the staffing front, McDonald said the agency still must add 4,000 physicians and 10,000 nurses to its rolls. Much of the funding for those increases was provided in the 2014 reform law. Since the secretary took over last year, VA has hired 900 new doctors and more than 1,000 nurses. McDonald noted VA has raised pay bands for physicians — which has helped fill vacancies — but the perception that “VA is a terrible place to work” remains a larger issue. The secretary has held town hall meetings across the country with VA staff, where employees told him they were “prisoners of a system they couldn’t change.” Since his nomination, McDonald has emphasized the need to provide better customer service to veterans. He asked Congress to give him the flexibility typically afforded to private-sector leaders so he can attack the problems VA faces more fluidly. He expressed his desire to apply that mentality to rank-and-file personnel as well: “This is your VA too and you can change it,” McDonald said he has told employees.

Bill boosting federal sick leave for vets advances (Federal Times)
Service-disabled veterans who become federal employees would start their careers with paid sick leave available, under legislation passed by the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee March 4. Currently, there is no special accommodation for such employees. The Wounded Warriors Federal Leave Act would give them 104 hours starting out, instead of starting from zero and accruing more leave as federal employees currently do. The House Oversight and Government Reform committee passed its own version of the bill Jan. 27. Now both the full Senate and the full House need to vote on the legislation. The bill’s sponsors said that a lack of sick leave unfairly hurts veteran efforts at getting regular medical care and in treating injuries. The employee must be 30 percent disabled to qualify. The sick leave provided would not carry over into the second year and veterans would then accrue sick leave normally.

First Lady: Mental illness should carry no stigma (
The military reaches out to assist troubled service members, and helping people with mental health issues “is what we’ve got to do for every single person in our own lives,” First Lady Michelle Obama told attendees at a conference Wednesday in Washington, D.C. As part of the White House’s Joining Forces initiative, the first lady addressed mental-health professionals at the “Give An Hour” conference at the Newseum. Give an Hour is a nonprofit organization that develops networks of volunteers to provide free counseling to troops, veterans and their families affected by the nation’s wars and works toward eliminating the stigma attached to seeking help for mental-health issues.. Just as the military community has, Obama said, all Americans should learn to recognize the distress indicators in family and friends. People who need help should not afraid to seek it because of how it will look to those around them, the first lady said. Mental health conditions often are perceived differently from diseases such as cancer, diabetes or asthma, she added. “That makes no sense,” she said. “Whether an illness affects your heart, your leg or your brain, it’s still an illness. “So there should be absolutely no stigma around mental health. None. Zero.” Nearly one in five adults — more than 40 million Americans — experience a diagnosable mental-health condition such as depression or anxiety every year, she noted. “So it is really time to flip the script on mental health in this country,” Obama said. “It’s time. It’s time to tell everyone who’s dealing with a mental health issue that they’re not alone, and that getting support and treatment isn’t a sign of weakness. It’s a sign of strength.”

Families of Vietnam POWs confront a painful set of anniversaries (The Washington Post)
E. Alan Brudno was in the backseat of an F-4 Phantom fighter jet over Vietnam when it began taking enemy fire on Oct. 18, 1965. He and his pilot, Maj. Thomas Collins, were forced to eject, parachuting into what became a horrific 7½-year stay in prisoner of war camps where brutality was common and captives communicated in code. Brudno, a 25-year-old first lieutenant at the time of his capture, endured it all until he was released in February 1973. But he took his own life four weeks later at age 33, unable to grapple not only with his memories, but with the poor way that many Americans treated Vietnam veterans, said his younger brother, Bob. “How do you rat him out? How do you turn him in?” said Bob Brudno of the guilty he felt for not raising concerns about his brother’s mental stability when he returned to the United States. “And then you just wish you had for the rest of your life.” More than 700 Americans were held captive by the North Vietnamese, mostly after U.S. involvement in Vietnam escalated in 1964. In most cases, the families of those taken and the survivors are just now beginning to mark the 50th anniversaries of their capture. The Air Force observed the collective sacrifice Monday with a ceremony at the Air Force Memorial near the Pentagon. It came on the 50th anniversary of the day that Lt. Col. Hayden J. Lockhart was shot down over Vietnam, becoming the first Air Force prisoner of war there. Monday also marked the 50th anniversary of the launch of Operation Rolling Thunder, a sustained bombing campaign against the North Vietnamese that lasted more than three years.

St. Paul to pay $225,000 after violating veterans hiring law (
More than 400 St. Paul employees will get a 1 percent raise because the Department of Veterans Affairs found some of the city’s hiring practices violated state law. The pay increases will cost the city $225,000 this year. The extra money is meant to compensate workers from four unions for giving up long-standing “promotion rights.” Those rights embedded in union contracts gave existing employees first dibs on new job openings in the city. In October, Veterans Affairs Commissioner Larry Shellito ruled that system conflicted with a state law designed to give preference to veterans applying for public sector positions. Brian Balfanz, a Gulf War veteran who works as a research analyst in the St. Paul Police Department, challenged the rules after the city failed to interview him for a higher-paying job as a parks supervisor. After the ruling, he got the interview, but didn’t win the position. “While it doesn’t guarantee my client a job and he didn’t get a job as a result of this, I can’t help but think we got the process right for veterans in the future,” said attorney John Baker, who represented Balfanz in the case. Balfanz still has his old job at the city. San Antonio already receives $3.4 million in annual federal funding to address housing programs for homeless vets, and more than 500 vouchers for permanent housing, as well as other resources.

NC governor to announce veterans employment initiative during Lejeune visit (Jacksonville Daily News)
Governor Pat McCrory has chosen Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune as the venue to announce a veterans employment initiative that would help veterans seek jobs in North Carolina. “Veterans are extremely important to our nation and we must continue to honor and support them in any way we can – and that includes helping them find jobs,” McCory said in a statement. “Veterans are a real selling point for businesses in North Carolina and I want to make it easier to connect veterans to businesses who are looking for hard-working and intelligent men and women. “My mission is to continue North Carolina’s legacy as being the most veteran friendly state in the nation.” McCrory will make the announcement on the initiative following the unveiling of his proposed budget in Raleigh Thursday morning. During McCrory’s 2015 State of the State address in early February, McCrory highlighted several initiatives aimed at assisting veterans including converting military training into college credit or professional licenses, giving credit for military experience when veterans become teachers or educators and creating driver’s licenses that identify veterans. McCrory also proposed the creation of the Department of Military and Veterans Affairs during his speech.