Veterans news update for April 6

Veterans news update for April 6

Veterans news updateJacksonville VA cancelled nearly 60,000 vets’ health appointments in 14 months (
In February, the assistant director of the North Florida/South Georgia VA Health System pointed to canceled appointments as a contributing factor in the Jacksonville clinic’s wait times, which are the worst for any major VA facility in the country. What Nick Ross failed to mention was that the clinic — not patients — was responsible for canceling more than half of those appointments. “We have a fairly high number of folks who either cancel their appointment or no-show, this accounting system really doesn’t take that into effect because it’s cumulative,” Ross said when presented with Jacksonville’s wait times. Then, as now, roughly a quarter of veterans at the Jacksonville clinic don’t get seen within the VA’s 30-day target, more than seven percent higher any other major facility in the nation. “If you take that into account, technically speaking, we can’t do anything about that.” The numbers tell another story. Out of 117,117 canceled appointments from Jan 1, 2014, to March 1, 2015, the clinic canceled 59,661 of them, according to data provided by the VA through a Freedom of Information Act request made by the Jacksonville Times-Union. The VA cited reasons why appointments are canceled. “Any change in provider … requires cancellation of patient appointments and rescheduling,” wrote area VA spokeswoman Cindy Snook in an emailed statement. “We schedule patient appointments 120 days into the future. “Any associated appointments such as lab, X-ray, etc. would also require cancellation and rescheduling.” If a provider is sick or on leave, that would also require an appointment to be canceled, Snook said. Still, the Jacksonville clinic’s cancellation rate dwarfs those at other similar-sized clinics in the state. The cancellations are important because they add to already lengthy waits for veterans attempting to get healthcare.

Veterans’ health records lost in VA-Department of Defense divide (The Washington Times)
When former Marine Sgt. Chris Morey went to the VA for excruciating back pain and migraines, doctors said they couldn’t do anything for him because they had not received his deployment medical history from the military. Sgt. Morey, who separated from the Marine Corps in 2007 after serving four years, was told by the Department of Defense that the VA would be sent a copy of his deployment history that included things like a concussion he’d suffered in an improvised explosive device blast during his third tour in Iraq. But that never happened. “I’m telling you I get headaches; I’m telling you my back is messed up,” he told The Washington Times of his visit to the VA. “You’re telling me it doesn’t matter because it’s not in this record.” Veterans advocates are urging the Defense Department and VA to collaborate better so electronic health records can simply be clicked and dragged from one system to another when a service member transitions to civilian life, eliminating problems like the ones faced by Sgt. Morey. While the new secretaries of the Defense and Veterans Affairs departments have publicly said their priority is providing seamless customer service, advocates say they have seen little progress in solving the decade-old divide between the two bureaucracies. Under the current system, troops are given a compact disc with PDF copies of their health records when they leave the military that they must bring to the VA. The PDFs are essentially just photos of records and can’t be manipulated or updated with current health information. John Stovall, national security director at The American Legion, said implementing a new system to make the transition of medical records easier for veterans should be “a top priority” for leadership. “It’s easy to see in terms of just bureaucratic infighting or protecting their turf, but, ultimately, it comes down to the positive outcomes for our veterans and service members. It’s a very personal issue to them,” he said. Mr. Stovall stressed that in addition to increasing interoperability between Defense and VA medical records, it’s also important for the military to use health records that can also be accessed by private doctors. Sgt. Morey has stopped going to the VA because of “the time commitment that it takes to actually be that squeaky wheel” to get an appointment, but sees private doctors through his employer-provided health care plan. After a VA doctor never followed up on the results of X-rays taken of his back, he has been unable to even get a copy of the X-rays sent to his private doctor.

House to probe the VA’s $1.4 billion construction screwup (The Blaze)
The House Veterans Affairs Committee will hold an investigatory hearing later this month to examine how a new VA medical center in Denver that was supposed to cost $328 million ended up costing $1.7 billion. The huge cost overrun has been a slow-motion disaster for the Department of Veterans Affairs, which watched as the cost of the project went up and up over the last few years, but did nothing but ask Congress for more money along the way. The project was supposed to be finished more than a year ago, but still isn’t. So far, the VA hasn’t don’t much to explain why the project will cost $1.4 billion more than it first estimated. Members of the committee from both parties have asked for an explanation, but according to the committee, “VA hasn’t responded to the request.” The leader of the VA’s Office of Acquisition, Logistics and Construction, Glenn Haggstrom, resigned last month, but even this has been met with criticism from Congress because he wasn’t fired, and was allowed to leave with full retirement benefits. “What’s most disappointing about this situation, however, is that Haggstrom left on his own terms – with a lifetime pension – even though any reasonable person would conclude that he should have been fired years ago,” committee chairman Jeff Miller (R-Fla.) said.

Long fight over military tattoos just hit new phase (The Washington Post)
For Veterans Day last year, a new project was launched to get those who have served to open up about their military experience. The vehicle for doing so was unusual, but common among veterans: tattoos. War Ink made a splash, with coverage by Buzzfeed, PBS, USA Today and other news organizations. It showed veterans discussing tattoos and the circumstances under which they got them, which can range from the celebration of a coveted assignment to the mourning of a fallen friend. It is for all those reasons that ongoing discussions in both the Army and Marine Corps have grabbed attention among service members and veterans alike. Army Gen. Raymond T. Odierno said Wednesday that strict rules on tattoos in his service put in place last year will be rolled back. Marine Gen. Joseph F. Dunford, meanwhile, also said recently that his service is reviewing existing tattoo policies. They were last updated in 2010. The Marine Corps policy bans body art that could bring embarrassment to the service. That includes anything with nudity, vulgarity, references to illegal drugs or extremist groups. But the policy also prohibits half- and quarter-length “sleeves” that wrap around the arm and “bands” that wrap around a body part and are greater than two inches wide. It also limits prospective officers to no more than four tattoos that appear while wearing a T-shirt and shorts. The Army policy, updated last year, went even farther in some ways. It restricted future enlisted soldiers and officers alike from having no more than four tattoos below the knee or elbow, and said those tattoos could be no larger than the soldier’s hand. Like the other services, tattoos on the face, neck, hands and anything considered extremist, sexist or racist also were prohibited. Army officials said this week that the plan has been revised to allow soldiers to have tattoos on their arms and legs as long as they aren’t visible in the long-sleeve camouflage service uniform.

Department of Veterans Affairs’ proposal could cut aid to vets (Pittsburgh Tribune-Review)
A government attempt to close a loophole in a benefit for low-income wartime veterans could hurt many of those it was designed to help, a benefits consultant said. That’s because the Department of Veterans Affairs’ proposal goes beyond fixing a problem that arose from veterans transferring assets to family members or trusts in order to meet income limits for the pension benefit. The proposal would eliminate funding for assisted living services that many poor veterans rely on, said Patty Servaes of Elder Resource Benefits Consulting. “In most cases, these are the poorest of the poor veterans,” she said. A VA benefits official couldn’t be reached for comment on provisions of the proposed regulation. The agency received more than 800 comments on the proposal, VA spokeswoman Megan Lutz said. The agency cannot estimate “when the final regulations will be ready for publication in the Federal Register,” she said. The daughter of a World War II Navy veteran said the benefit had a significant impact on her father’s final months. Having the government pay part of the $4,000 monthly cost of staying at Overlook Green in Whitehall eased Joseph Quinn’s mind, said his daughter, Kathleen Kotula of South Park. “I think it made him feel thankful that they were able to do that for him and his family,” she said. Quinn, 91, of Bethel Park served on a minesweeper during the war. He retired as an industrial engineer from U.S. Steel Corp.’s Clairton Works. He had a good pension, but “once you start looking at a nursing home and that sort of thing, it can eat your money up quickly,” Kotula said. The staff at Overlook Green made sure he took his medications and helped him to take a shower, she said. The benefit covers such minimal care, but the proposal classifies help with medications and daily living as non-medical, Servaes said. “Under these new regulations, that’s not going to qualify you,” she said.

Veterans battle VA for atomic designation (Bangor Daily News)
One of Jeffery Dean’s close Army buddies died two days ago of a cancer that the Belfast, Maine, man has no problem connecting to their stint cleaning up nuclear waste together on a tiny South Pacific atoll. The problem is, that’s not how they see it over at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs — and that makes Dean see red. The VA recently responded to a Bangor Daily News query asking why the men stationed on hot, dusty Enewetak Atoll in the Marshall Islands in the late 1970s are not designated as “Atomic Veterans.” Dean and his buddy Tod Lentini were among a few thousand American troops tasked with rehabilitating the atoll before it was returned to the people of the Marshall Islands. It was the scene of more than 40 nuclear tests. “The data accumulated over the three years of the project do not indicate any area or instance of concern over radiological safety. All doses, internal and external were minimal,” VA spokeswoman Ndidi Mojay said in an email. She said that according to a 1981 report about the Enewetak Atoll cleanup, if a veteran had entered a radiological area during his time on the Marshall Islands, he would have worn a dosimeter — a gadget that measures radiation. Of 12,000 individual records, none showed exposures that exceeded occupational radiation exposure dose limits. “Overall, the radiation protection program at Enewetak achieved its goal of maintaining personnel radiation exposures as low as reasonably achievable,” Mojay said. She said that the majority of veterans who served on the atoll use the VA for either primary or supplementary health care and that the agency continues to care for the nation’s veterans. The designation of Atomic Veteran, narrowly defined by legislation, allows veterans who have developed one of several specific cancers or nonmalignant conditions to be eligible for compensation or free medical care through the VA. They do not have to prove their cancers were caused by radiation.

Feds still struggle to care for Oregon veterans (The Statesman-Journal)
Despite last year’s well publicized Veterans Affairs Department scandal, the federal government continues to provide our nation’s veterans with inadequate access to health care. Veterans — in many cases as a result of being tragically overinsured — are left to navigate a confusing patchwork of government medical coverage plans, which can limit their ability to see a doctor. Luke Miller, a Willamette Law Federalist Society member, is retired military and a disabled veteran. He receives government-provided health care from three separate sources: Medicare, TRICARE and the VA. In theory, Luke has this odd triple-coverage arrangement to ensure that his out-of-pocket expenses are minimized, he receives more medical services, and he retains access to more doctors. In practice, however, Luke is pinned between multiple government programs, incentivized to shift costs away from themselves, thus limiting the quality and quantity of health care to which he has access. The problem is that, under the current Medicare/TRICARE/VA coverage web, young disabled veterans like Luke can be left to fall through the cracks. Here’s how. As a disabled veteran, Luke has learned that, despite the new voucher program, getting a VA appointment and seeing a doctor are still two entirely different things. Likewise, Luke’s experience with Medicare doctors has led to equally disappointing results. For example, many of his in-network Medicare providers only accept patients 65 and older and Luke, 31, is nowhere near that age. TRICARE also is not any better. Most Medicare docs also accept TRICARE; however, under federal law, a doctor commits fraud if, while rejecting Medicare patients under 65, she then turns around and accepts new younger TRICARE patients. As a result, Luke is usually left to drive many miles to the closest military ER and wait several hours before seeing a doctor.

VA secretary talks of progress in recent months, challenges ahead (Stars & Stripes)
During eight months at the helm, VA Secretary Bob McDonald has struggled with a dysfunctional department, a critical Congress and burgeoning rolls of veterans in need of help at a time of belt-tightening across the federal government. The national furor over revelations of patients dying while on secret wait lists at the Phoenix VA Health Care System has not died down since McDonald assumed the VA’s top post July 20. His department faces criticism for over-prescription of narcotics and a new rule that eliminates a long-running informal system to register disability claims. Stars and Stripes sat down with McDonald on the sidelines of the annual Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic, where he met participants and discussed care for wounded veterans. McDonald made the stop following visits to California and Montana, where he was continuing his recruitment push to fill the VA’s shortage in health care professionals. Click the headline link to read highlights of the interview.