Veterans news update for April 1

Veterans news update for April 1

Veterans news updateNew VA benefits forms prompt anger, legal challenge (Military Times)
Veterans Affairs officials insist recent changes to how individuals can file benefits claims are nothing more than an efficiency move to clean up their files. But groups like the American Legion and AMVETS are accusing the department of abandoning their promise to help veterans get the benefits they deserve, and have filed a lawsuit to reverse the changes. “We will not stand by silently as our government places further obstacles in front of our injured and disabled veterans and their families, undermining our nation’s pledge to care for those who have borne the battle and their families,” said John Rowan, president of the Vietnam Veterans Association. The nasty fight comes over a relatively minor change in the department’s massive, complex claims system, which paid out nearly $73 billion to 4.5 million veterans and family members in fiscal 2014 alone. VA officials have been vague on specifics of which veterans could be affected by the changes. Internal estimates put the total in the tens of thousands of cases annually, but veterans groups worry the figure may stretch well above 100,000 claims in the coming year.

Japan PM to address Congress on Hirohito’s birthday; WWII vets angry (The Washington Times)
U.S. military veterans are angered that the Japanese prime minister will be addressing a joint session of Congress on the birthday of Emperor Hirohito, who ordered Japan’s bombing of Pearl Harbor that precipitated the U.S. entry into World War II. For many World War II veterans who suffered through torture and imprisonment in Japanese detention camps, “the wounds are still healing — and some may never heal,” said Jan Thompson, president of the American Defenders of Bataan and Corregidor Memorial Society, which represents surviving American prisoners of war and their families. House Speaker John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican, extended an invitation to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to speak to Congress on April 29, which happens to be Showa Day in Japan, a national holiday celebrating the birthday of Hirohito. Under the leadership of the emperor, revered as a divine figure at the time, Japan joined Hitler’s Germany, engaged in multiple invasions in China, Southeast Asia and the Pacific, and tortured and killed thousands of U.S. and other Allied prisoners of war. “The members of our organization are fully aware of the significance of the date chosen for Prime Minister Abe’s address. The POWs [70 years ago] all had to bow in the prison camps to honor the emperor on that date,” Ms. Thompson said.

Thousands of Michigan veterans miss out on benefits (The Detroit News)
Hundreds of thousands of Michiganians who qualify for veteran benefits aren’t using them, and many vets don’t know they’re eligible. As a result, Michigan ranks among the bottom five states for federal spending per veteran. Veterans’ benefits can include health care, monthly disability checks, life insurance, home loans and education through the GI bill. Benefits at the state and local levels include vocational training and the Michigan Veterans Trust Fund. Only 22 percent of Michigan’s estimated 660,800 veterans used their health benefits from the U.S. Veterans Administration in 2013 — the most recent year for which data is available. Roughly 13 percent of Michigan veterans received disability checks, according to federal data. Officials are trying to reverse the trend by raising awareness of how and where veterans and their families can access the benefits they earned. Advocates have seen progress, they say, but funding, misinformation and reticence by veterans can be a challenge. “I never really took the time to look into it because I was told you had to be a dismembered person in order to get these benefits,” said Thomas Kline, a 66-year-old Vietnam veteran in Wayland, who recently began receiving compensation for post-traumatic stress disorder. Michigan has more veterans from the Vietnam War than any other era, and those demographics help explain why the state historically had such low VA enrollment, said Suzanne Thelen, director of veteran engagement for the Michigan Veterans Affairs Agency. Like Kline, many vets returned from overseas and got pensions and insurance through jobs in the automotive or other industries. They didn’t sign up for government health or education benefits because they didn’t need them. Others spurned the agency after a bad experience.

Ernst offers bill to improve veterans’ access to mental health care (The Hill)
Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) has introduced legislation to strengthen veterans’ mental healthcare by making it easier to get help outside of the Department of Veterans Affairs. The proposal would amend the Veterans’ Access, Choice, and Accountability Act, to allow veterans access to non-VA mental healthcare if they can show the agency is not giving them “adequate or timely” care. It would also roll back a requirement that veterans must live more than 40 miles away from a VA facility or have waited longer than 30 days before accessing non-VA mental healthcare. “There is no acceptable VA wait time for mental health care treatment for our veterans,” said Ernst, also a veteran, in a statement. “The limits to how much suffering a veteran can endure simply cannot be accurately measured by the VA or any medical professional.” The legislation, which is Ernst’s first bill since joining the Senate, also presses the VA to hire more mental health professionals. Pete Hegseth, CEO of Concerned Veterans for America, said Ernst’s legislation would give “veterans more control over their own health care.” “The Prioritizing Veterans’ Access to Mental Health Care Act of 2015 addresses the unacceptable wait times for mental health care at many VA facilities by giving veterans more control over their own health care – not VA bureaucrats,” he said in a statement. “It is outrageous that even after the implementation of the Choice Card program, veterans are still waiting on average over 30 days for a mental health care appointment.”

VA secretary to Montana veterans: We need to do more (Montana Standard)
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs needs to do more to make sure Montana veterans get the health care they need in a timely fashion, VA Secretary Robert McDonald told veterans in Helena on Tuesday. “We recognize the importance of Montana, the second highest per capita of veteran population in the country,” he said. McDonald said efforts are underway to hire health care providers in the state, a cardiology nurse was recently hired in Billings and several urologists for Billings and Helena. He said they’re working to recruit and hire primary care doctors and those specializing in mental health, particularly in rural areas of the state. McDonald spoke and answered veterans’ questions along with U.S. Sen. Jon Tester at the Montana National Guard headquarters near Helena’s Fort Harrison VA hospital. An audit released last year showed patients seeking care through the Fort Harrison Veterans Affairs Medical Center had been waiting an average of 48 days for their first appointment with a primary care doctor — more than three times longer than the department’s goal of 14 days.

New $30M grant announced to help end L.A. veteran homelessness (Los Angeles Daily News)
The Department of Veterans Affairs Tuesday announced a $30 million award for nonprofit agencies dealing with homeless veterans in the Los Angeles area. VA Secretary Robert A. McDonald said the grant program is effective “because it allows VA staff and local homeless service providers to work together to effectively address the unique challenges that make it difficult for some veterans and their families to remain stably housed.” The three-year grant will go toward private, nonprofit organizations and consumer cooperatives that provide services to very low-income veteran families living in — or transitioning to — permanent housing. “With the addition of these crucial resources, communities across the country continue an historic drive to prevent and end homelessness among veterans,” said Matthew Doherty, acting executive director of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness. He added that the program “gives veterans and their families the rapid assistance they need to remain in permanent housing or get back into permanent housing as quickly as possible.” Los Angeles County has more than 4,200 homeless veterans, the most in the nation. Mayor Eric Garcetti has promised to house every homeless veteran in the city by the end of the year, part of a national effort led by the Obama administration to get those who served off the streets.