Veterans news update for March 6

Veterans news update for March 6

Veterans news updateVFW demands Agent Orange benefits be given to C-123 airmen (
The National Commander of the Veterans of Foreign Wars of the United States added his support to Westover Air Reserve Base veterans who were exposed to Agent Orange while flying planes formerly used in Vietnam to spray the chemical over enemy territory. In testifying before a joint hearing of the Senate and House Veterans Affairs Committees Wednesday, Commander John W. Stroud demanded that the veterans from Westover, in Chicopee, and three other bases receive the same benefits of those who fought in the Vietnam War and later become ill with one of about 20 diseases known to be caused by dioxin, the toxic chemical in the Agent Orange defoliant. His comments came during a speech that also called for an end of sequestration, improved medical care through the Department of Veterans Affairs and other help for veterans. “The VFW will not accept any action short of granting C-123 veterans the care and benefits they deserve. This includes amending VA regulations so veterans who served as pilots and aircrews on these contaminated aircraft receive equitable treatment when applying for VA disability compensation,” he said. Following the Vietnam War, hoses and tanks used to spray Agent Orange were removed from a number of C-123 Provider planes and they were sent to Westover, the Pittsburgh Air National Guard and Rickenbacker Air National Guard Base in Ohio. They were also used for a short period of time at Hanscom Air Force Base in eastern Massachusetts.

Agent Orange benefits announcement for C-123 reservists delayed (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)
An anticipated announcement regarding new Agent Orange benefits for Air Force reservists who flew or worked on C-123 transport planes in Pittsburgh and two other air bases in the 1970s has been delayed until next week. Allison Hickey, undersecretary of benefits for the VA, was expected to hold a news conference on the issue Thursday in Washington. But the event has been pushed back, probably to next Tuesday or Wednesday, according to VA correspondence with Wes Carter of Colorado, head of the C-123 Veterans Association. Many of the huge C-123s were used in Vietnam to spray Agent Orange defoliant, then sent back to the United States after the war for use at the 911th air base in Pittsburgh, Rickenbacker Air Force Base in Columbus and Westover Air Reserve Station outside of Springfield, Mass. About 2,100 crew members, flight nurses and mechanics who flew on the planes from 1972 to 1982 have long maintained that the planes were contaminated with dioxin, the toxic chemical in Agent Orange. 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.

Isakson vows to ease 40-mile limit on VA Choice Card (Stars & Stripes)
Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., new chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, promises to push for two critical changes to soften a restrictive 40-mile rule on user eligibility under the VA Choice Card program. If Isakson succeeds, thousands more veterans would gain routine access to government-paid healthcare in the private sector.  His challenge is that the changes sought could drive up health care costs for the Department of Veterans Affairs by billions of dollars annually. Isakson said he believes Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, also will support softening the 40-mile rule.  Miller indicated as much, but suggested it could be paid for using the same $10 billion Congress approved last year to expand private sector care to veterans, thwarting VA plans to divert some of that to other priorities. Representatives of veterans’ service organizations predicted last summer that many veterans would be angered and confused by the arbitrary way Congress shaped a 40-mile rule for use of new Choice Cards under the Veterans Choice, Access and Accountability Act of 2014. The predictions are now reality as members of Congress are swamped with complaints from frustrated veterans who find they can’t use their cards to get care from local doctors and hospitals, even though they live more than 40 miles from VA health care or face waits for care longer than 30 days.

Lawmakers work to end VA disability backlog, increase accountability (The Washington Times)
Congress says more still needs to be done to reform the Veterans Affairs Department nearly a year after the waiting list scandal was exposed, and despite a bill last summer designed to correct the bureaucratic flaws that led to veterans getting poor care. The House voted earlier this week to let the VA secretary take back bonuses from senior executives who are later found to have manipulated wait-time data, which was a key ingredient of last year’s scandal. And lawmakers introduced a bill Wednesday that would help end the VA disability claims backlog, a problem officials say should be solved by the end of this year despite more than 200,000 current claims that have been pending more than 125 days. “After these brave men and women put their life on the line for us, the least we can do is ensure they are getting the benefits they have earned in a timely manner,” said Rep. Timothy Walz, Minnesota Democrat and co-sponsor of the bill. “I recognize this problem was not created, nor will it be solved, overnight, but we can and must do better.” The backlog bill would allow private doctors to perform a disability exam. Under current law, veterans must go to a VA facility for this appointment.

At VA health facilities, whistleblowers still fear retaliation (The Washington Post)
After five suicidal veterans walked out of the emergency room without getting help during a single week in January, Brandon Coleman brought his concerns to his supervisor at the VA Hospital in Phoenix. Coleman, a therapist and decorated veteran, urgently warned that there was a broader problem with how suicidal patients were being handled. Six days after he spoke with his boss, Coleman recalled, he was suspended from his job. He believes it was in retaliation. At a time when top officials at the Department of Veterans Affairs are pledging to end the agency’s pervasive culture of punishing whistleblowers, Coleman’s experience is evidence of what reformers are up against. VA Secretary Robert McDonald came to office in July in the midst of the largest scandal in the agency’s history. He announced that he wanted to make “every employee a whistleblower” and create a fresh culture that “celebrates them.” Yet despite promises from Washington, retribution against VA whistleblowers continues. The OSC, an independent federal agency that investigates whistleblower claims, said it has received 111 VA reprisal cases involving health and safety issues across 36 states plus the District and Puerto Rico since McDonald became secretary in July. “VA’s leadership is sending a positive message,” said OSC head Carolyn Lerner. “But when you’re trying to change the culture in a system as large as the VA, it’s not surprising that it may take longer for change to happen on the ground.” Coleman, who has filed a complaint with the OSC, recounted in an interview that he was blindsided by his supervisor’s rebuke after he raised his concerns about the handling of suicidal veterans. After all, Coleman had successfully graduated 51 people from a program he had designed to help high-risk veterans stay sober, stay out of jail and cope with suicidal thoughts. “After I came forward, the director wanted a meeting with me. I thought: ‘This is great. We can fix this. No suicidal veteran should leave the VA without talking to somebody — that shouldn’t be allowed to happen,’ ” Coleman said. “But, instead, the meeting was just eerie.” He was put on paid administrative leave.

VA calls for its own BRAC process to close outdated facilities (Federal News Radio)
On Capitol Hill, there are few four-letter words that are quite as unspeakable as “BRAC” these days. Nonetheless, the Department of Veterans Affairs has come to the conclusion that it needs something similar to the Defense process for closing excess bases so that it can offload hundreds of crumbling buildings and bring its medical infrastructure more in line with what it takes to run a modern health system. In contrast to DoD, VA’s problem is not mainly about a raw overabundance of unused real estate: Indeed, it’s asking for a $493 million increase in 2016 from its previous $1 billion construction budget in order to build new hospitals and clinics. Rather, the department says, too many of its existing facilities are in places where a lot of veterans used to live but don’t anymore, were built in a bygone era of different health care delivery models, or have crumbled so badly that they’re beyond the point of economical use. Robert McDonald, the VA secretary, told the House Appropriations Committee Wednesday that 900 of the department’s 5,600 facilities are more than 90 years old, and overall, 60 percent its buildings have passed the half century mark. “VA cannot be a sound steward of the taxpayers’ resources with the asset portfolio we carry. No business would carry such a portfolio, and veterans deserve better,” he said. “It’s time to close VA’s old substandard and underutilized infrastructure. We currently have 336 buildings that are vacant or less than 50 percent unoccupied. That’s 10.5 million square feet of excess space, costing an estimated $24 million annually to maintain. These funds could be used to hire roughly 200 registered nurses for a year, pay for 144,000 primary care visits for veterans, or support 41,900 days of nursing home care for veterans in community living centers.”

Air Force veteran’s suicide sheds light on female soldiers and PTSD (Yahoo News)
It’s a chilling statistic: Twenty-two United States veterans commit suicide a day, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. One recent victim: Thirty-year-old Air Force Reserve Capt. Jamie Brunette. Capt. Brunette, the youngest of five children from Milwaukee, had served two tours of duty in Afghanistan during her 11-year Air Force career. On Feb. 9, police in Tampa, Fla., found her dead from an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound. Her family and friends came together this week to honor Brunette’s memory and raise awareness about posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), something Brunette’s friends say was hard for her to talk about. “Our whole friendship was based on conversations,” says Brunette’s friend Jessica Aguiar. “She never really opened up about her professional life. She’s actually extremely humble about it and all of her achievements.” Brunette’s friends and family gathered this week in Tampa to celebrate her life, but talk quickly turned to depression and PTSD, parts of Capt. Brunette’s life her roommate says she rarely spoke about. “Jamie was very private, so she only opened up to me about her experiences if I had asked about it,” Brunette’s roommate, Heather Milner, says. “I was considering joining the Air Force last year, and I asked Jamie to tell me what a normal day was like in Afghanistan. She told me it was pretty scary. Her troop would be under mortar attacks on a daily basis, where they would have to run to the bunkers and death was just like a normal thing.” Her friends say Brunette was getting help from the VA for PTSD. “I knew that she was at one point getting counseling from the VA, but I didn’t know when she started going or how often she was going,” Milner says. “She never once gave me the inclination that she was suffering heavily from PTSD,” Aguiar says. Research suggests that female veterans are far less likely than their male counterparts to take their own life, but female veterans are three times more likely to kill themselves than women who have never served.

State VA secretary: Oklahoma will improve care for veterans (
The Oklahoma Department of Veterans Affairs plans to expand mental health services, improve its seven long-term care facilities and increase educational and employment opportunities for veterans, the state’s new Secretary for Veterans Affairs said this week. Ret. General Myles Deering said Thursday he would identify “as many veterans as possible” in Oklahoma and develop new programs to provide better health care, support and employment opportunities. “I want to leave this agency in better shape than I found it,” Deering said. Deering – named state VA Secretary four weeks ago by Gov. Mary Fallin – also serves as executive director of the Oklahoma Department of Veterans Affairs. Deering is the department’s third executive director since May 2012. In February, he replaced former chief John McReynolds, who served about two years at the post. McReynolds became chief after long-time executive director Martha Spear was forced to retire in 2012. Spear was forced out after reports surfaced that detailed cases of rape, abuse, neglect and premature deaths at several state veterans centers. Deering acknowledged the agency’s rocky history. He said any abuse of veterans wouldn’t be tolerated. “My intent is to right the ship,” he said. “If the agency has been in a bad situation, (I want) to do my best to correct everything I can.”

Illinois Sen. Durbin wants to expand VA caregiver program (WICS-Springfield)
From the front lines, to the home front, Senator Dick Durbin wants fewer Illinois veterans in VA hospitals. “I saw a poor fella in a bed, paralyzed, and I said how long have you been here and he said I served in Vietnam,” said Senator Dick Durbin. Durbin wants to expand the VA family caregivers program so more injured veterans can stay at home. The program offers families nursing training, a visiting nurse twice a year and if a family is facing financial hardships $600 to $3,000 a month. Since 2009, the program has only been offered to post 9/11 veterans, but Durbin hopes to expand it to all veterans injured in combat. “I have so many things that I can’t do anymore, so I need help,” said Vietnam Veteran Gene Walker. Walker served in Vietnam in 1966 and was exposed to agent orange. His first side effect came in 1975 when he was diagnosed with diabetes. Now, Walker could be one of more than 400 veterans in Illinois who could benefit from the caregiver expansion. “I am an Illinois farmboy, I am hard headed. I don’t want to go into a nursing home, I don’t want to go in a care home. I don’t want to go to Quincy,” said Walker. Which is why Senator Durbin calls on both parties to pass the expansion. “If you get hurt, serving our country on the front lines. We are going to be there when you come home,” said Senator Durbin. Senator Durbin says the expansion of the program would save taxpayers money.  The VA spends more than $330,000 per veteran, per year on nursing home costs.  If veterans stayed at home, and enrolled in the program, the most that could be spent if they receive a stipend is $36,000 per year.

Senators want to strengthen military mental health screenings (The Hill)
Sens. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) have introduced legislation that aims to bolster mental health screenings for troops.  The Medical Evaluation Parity for Servicemembers, or MEPS, Act would require mental health screenings for incoming recruits. Portman said despite advances made in recent years to improve mental health care in the military, more needs to be done. “Too many of our men and women in uniform still suffer from the effects of Post-Traumatic Stress, Traumatic Brain Injuries, and behavioral health conditions,” Portman said in a statement. “While we’ve made great strides in the way we treat these invisible wounds of war, the steady persistence of this problem demonstrates the need for more action.” More than 300,000 troops were diagnosed with traumatic brain injury from 2000 through late 2014, according to the Defense Department’s Defense and Veterans Brain Injury Center. Meanwhile, the Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that between 11 to 20 percent of post-9/11 veterans suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. Heinrich suggested screening military recruits would help provide a “baseline” for a servicemember’s future mental health assessments.

Patient who died at Young VA had bacteria that causes Legionnaire’s Disease (Tampa Bay Times)
A pneumonia patient who died on Feb. 20 at the C.W. Bill Young VA Medical Center tested positive for the strain of bacteria that causes Legionnaires’ Disease. And hospital officials said they expect test results Friday to confirm whether the facility’s water system was contaminated. The Young VA did not identify the patient, 64, who died after a 10-day hospitalization. Jason Dangel, a Department of Veterans Affairs spokesman at the hospital, said no other patient has tested positive for the bacteria, Legionella pneumophila, and no danger is posed to patients or staff. “Most people who are exposed to the bacteria never become ill,” Dangel said in a written statement. The Young VA water system was last tested in December and was not contaminated with the bacteria at that time, Dangel said. Dr. Glenn Morris, director of the Emerging Pathogens Institute at the University of Florida and a specialist in infectious disease, said one case involving the Legionnaires’ bacteria would be of little concern from a public health standpoint unless the hospital proved to be the source of the contamination.