Veterans news update for May 19

Veterans news update for May 19

Veterans news updateHouse passes six bills aimed at helping veterans (The Hill)
The House approved a package of legislation on Monday to enhance federal assistance programs for veterans. A look:

  • One of the bills, passed 404-0, would authorize the Secretary of Veterans’ Affairs (VA) to give preference to entities that employ veterans on a full-time basis when awarding federal procurement contracts. The measure’s sponsor, Rep. Kathleen Rice (D-N.Y.), said it would provide an incentive for companies to employ veterans returning from wars in Iraq or Afghanistan who are struggling to find work.
  • Another bill passed by voice vote would exclude payments provided by the VA for health expenses, like assisted living or nursing home care, from calculations of veterans’ gross income when contemplating eligibility for federal public housing programs.  Rep. Joe Heck (R-Nev.), who authored the legislation, said it would help more veterans obtain housing assistance. The Department of Housing and Urban Development found that there were 49,933 homeless veterans in 2014.
  • Heck’s bill would further limit the total number of bonuses for VA employees to $350 million, down from $360 million, for each fiscal year through 2020.
  • The House also passed a bill by voice vote that would reauthorize the Homeless Veterans’ Reintegration Program through fiscal 2020. The program, currently authorized at $50 million per year, provides grants to organizations like nonprofits and local agencies to assist veterans with job training and finding employment.
  • Another bill would require that written reprimands and admonishments received by VA employees be kept on file for as long as the person works for the VA. Under current policy, an admonishment only remains in an employee’s file for two years and a reprimand for three years. Lawmakers said this hurts the VA’s ability to get a true picture of an employee’s performance history.
  • Another bill would allow all veterans to receive official identification cards through the VA. Rep. Vern Buchanan, R-Fla., said the bill on ID cards responds to veterans who have expressed frustration over their inability to document their service without carrying around official military records. Under current law, veterans who do not qualify for a VA-issued ID card must carry other documents to prove their veteran status. Some of the documents contain sensitive personal information, including Social Security numbers and service details that put veterans at risk for identity theft, Buchanan said.

The bills now go to the Senate for consideration.

Funding decision looms in Colorado VA hospital predicament (Military Times)
The new Veterans Affairs hospital under construction in Denver is already behind schedule and hundreds of millions over cost, but it could become even more of a mess if Congress does not reach a compromise this week on possible fixes for the project. Lawmakers must authorize new funds to continue work on the infamous site by the end of May and avoid another work stoppage by construction contractors. The project’s costs have ballooned from under $400 million to more than $1.7 billion in recent years through a combination of poor planning and lax management of the work. But last week, the chairmen of the House and Senate Veterans’ Affairs committees rejected plans by VA officials to shift about $800 million from money set aside for health care access expansion, putting the Denver project’s future in doubt. “VA to this day has refused to take this project seriously,” Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., and Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., said in a joint statement. “Instead of putting forth a realistic plan … VA has essentially demanded that taxpayers subsidize the department’s incompetence.” Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., the Senate committee’s ranking Democrat, echoed that sentiment, noting that the Denver disaster is just one of a series of major VA construction projects currently over budget. He said the department “must go back to the drawing board” to find a new way to pay for the project. But VA officials say there isn’t time for that. According to documents obtained by Military Times, VA will come back to Capitol Hill this week with a slightly modified request for lawmakers, to re-allocate about $200 million in spending authority to keep money flowing to the project into the summer. Without the money, the memo warns, “some subcontractors would likely not return to the project in the future, leading to substantial further delays and cost increases.”

How well is America serving its veterans? (Los Angeles Daily News)
Editorial: ” “Thanks for your service” is the refrain veterans often hear from other Americans, said to the eldest who served in World War II and the still-youthful combatants of Iraq and Afghanistan. But as Memorial Day approaches, the question that needs to be asked is: How well are we serving all of America’s veterans? There’s been a national push to open more job opportunities to veterans. President Obama has the noble but elusive goal of eliminating veteran homelessness by 2015. And yet shameful reports of mismanagement and waste at Veteran Affairs continue. There remain serious questions about the intent of well-meaning programs and their reality. And many non-veterans still have difficulty understanding what it means to have served. California is home to the largest number of veterans in the nation, while Los Angeles County has the most homeless veterans. Despite renewed federal and local efforts, the number of homeless are not abating. What does that mean for services here? And who should get priority? Earlier this year, veterans and their supporters earned a hard-fought victory when federal officials agreed to provide supportive housing services at the sprawling West Los Angeles veterans’ campus. A plan is scheduled to be released in October. But are we doing enough to help? Is there a sense of urgency? What do policy makers need to hear or understand that they don’t know? What actually should be done to help more, and what priorities are scrambled, missing or still needed? Are you a veteran? And if you are, or family member of one, how do you feel that your experience is understood or misunderstood by fellow Americans? What do you think is lacking from the conversation on Memorial Day?”

23 U.S. veterans ready to embark on battle against ISIS (
A U.S. Army Iraq war vet plans to take a team of veterans back to the Middle East to fight the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Sean Rowe, of Jacksonville, Florida, served on active duty in the Army for 8 years, which included two tours in Iraq. He said he can no longer sit by and do nothing. “This is something I feel compelled to do,” Rowe said. “Women and children are being slaughtered over there. They need our help. I know we can make a difference.” Rowe started Veterans Against ISIS to take the fight to the terrorists on their own turf. So far, Rowe has commitments from 23 fellow vets to join him; and he is only accepting those who have four or more years of military service. Rowe has given his team some reasons their mission will be more dangerous than when they served in the military. Medics will be part of the group, but injured fighters will not have ready access to medical care beyond what’s provided or any helicopters available to evacuate them, if any are seriously wounded.  Further, since they will not be fighting as members of the military, they will not be covered under the Geneva Convention regarding the treatment of enemy combatants. “It is going to be very dangerous, but that’s a risk that anyone who’s signing up for this is voluntarily taking,” Rowe emphasized. “I am not scared of these guys,” he asserted. “They can come for me if they want. I want to take the fight to them. That is my goal. I want to take the fight to them.” The Florida Times Union notes: “The men will face a rough time before ever reaching the fighting. They will be leaving with limited funds, depending upon shadowy resistance fighters with uncertain allegiances to take them to a country where crucifixions and beheadings are once again commonplace. Rowe, at least, appears to be OK with that.”  He trusts the contacts he has on the ground among the resistance fighters. Rowe plans to head over with a team of nine soldiers in the very near future, with others to join in the next 3 to 6 months. Veterans Against ISIS’ greatest funding requirement is for travel expenses for the trip to Iraq.

In-state tuition for vets delayed (Inside Higher Ed)
The Obama administration has delayed a new federal requirement that public colleges and universities receiving GI Bill funding provide recent veterans with the benefit of in-state tuition, regardless of their residency. Secretary of Veterans Affairs Bob McDonald on Friday announced that he was pushing back the deadline for public institutions to comply with the in-state tuition provision of the Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act that Congress passed last August. The provision will now take effect Jan. 1 of next year instead of July 1, 2015. The law requires public institutions that want to continue receiving veterans’ benefits to charge in-state tuition to any veteran who has come off active duty within the past three years, regardless of whether he or she has established legal residency in the state. Veterans’ spouses and dependents must also receive the benefit. Without the waiver, the VA would have had to stop the flow of veterans’ educational benefits to colleges and universities that charge recent veterans and their families above the institution’s in-state tuition rate starting on July 1. As of Friday, only 21 states fully complied with the new requirement, according to the VA. Some of the nation’s most populous states as well as those with large veteran populations were not in compliance, according to the list posted by the VA. Those states included California, Florida, Illinois, Maryland, Michigan, North Carolina, Ohio and Pennsylvania. McDonald said he was pushing back the deadline in order to give states more time to change their laws and policies governing veterans’ eligibility for in-state tuition.

VA whistleblower on veteran suicide: It’s systemic (Breitbart News)
After a veteran committed suicide in the parking lot of the Phoenix Veterans Affairs regional office earlier this month, more and more VA employees are speaking out about the ongoing problems and inefficient care at the Phoenix VA. In an exclusive interview with Breitbart News, whistleblower Brandon Coleman said the improper care at the emergency room for suicidal veterans is a huge problem, potentially placing liability on poor management at the facility. Coleman, a former Marine and now an addiction specialist at the Phoenix VA, has been speaking out since late 2014 about the lack of care available for suicidal veterans at the Phoenix VA. Veteran suicide has been a problem plaguing the United States, with more than twenty veterans committing suicide each day, according to government statistics. Coleman said, as a VA employee, if he had a suicidal veteran that needed a higher level of psychiatric care, he would take them to the emergency room and hand them off to the staff there. “However often times they were not watched and were able to simply walk out of the hospital without receiving proper treatment,” Coleman explained. He said he also has an audio recording, which he provided with the Office of Special Council where, according to Coleman, Laurie Shea, an ER social worker states, “Five suicidal veterans were able to walk out of the hospital this past week.” The Chief of Social Work David Jacobson responded to Shea, “We are just lucky nothing bad has happened yet.” Coleman said he has lost six veterans under his care to suicide. “After each of my six vets committed suicide, no supervisors ever once asked me how I was doing, or how I was holding up? However, after I came forward as a whistleblower, they started questioning my mental health,” Coleman told Breitbart News. Coleman also provided Breitbart News with an audio recording, made by a VA employee who wished to remain anonymous, of Assistant Chief of Social Work Michael Leon at a meeting held at the Phoenix VA Hospital earlier this year in which Leon says one of his top priorities at the VA facility is “making sure we all get paid effectively.” Coleman told Breitbart News, “We get paid very well for what we do and employee pay should NOT be a top priority at the Phoenix VA as vets continue to slip through the cracks.” Upon speaking out in December of 2014, Coleman said he has been illegally placed on administrative leave even though he is in “good standing” as an employee at the Phoenix VA.

Tomah VA announces action plan to improve morale, care (LaCrosse Tribune)
The beleaguered Tomah VA Medical Center in Wisconsin released a short-term plan for reform Monday. The so-called “30-Day Plan” outlines steps for addressing cultural change, improving relations between leadership and workers as well as offering more tools for health care providers and improving access for veterans. Among other things, it calls for hospital managers to conduct listening sessions and meet with employees and union leaders. An employee ethics fair and “morale and engagement” task group also are on the agenda. Tomah VA spokesman Matthew Gowan said the plan is Acting Director Dr. John Rohrer’s “attempt to move the medical center forward” and fulfill its mission to provide veterans with quality care. “This is how we’re going to measure ourselves beyond the normal quality measures,” Gowan said. “This is over and above that.” The facility has been under fire from members of Congress since a Jan. 9 story by the Center for Investigative Reporting detailed high levels of opioid prescription — which was connected to patient deaths and crime in and around the facility — as well as a pervasive culture of intimidation and retaliation against employees who spoke out. Dr. Carolyn Clancy, the VA’s interim under secretary for health, was called on to investigate and testified at a congressional hearing in March that “an apparent culture of fear at the facility compromised patient care and impacted staff satisfaction and morale.” The plan also calls for improved access for veterans. To that end, the VA will begin “tele-health” services with the Madison VA and will open its outpatient clinic in Owen, Wis., five days a week instead of four.

Despite new evidence, VA still denies veteran benefits (KJRH-Tulsa)
After fighting for our country more than 60 years ago, Edward Cannon is still fighting a battle. This time it’s over his benefits. He has boxes and boxes of medical and VA documents. Still, the Department of Veterans Affairs says it needs more evidence to prove Cannon should receive benefits. Then Cannon made a discovery. “I finally ran across a letter that was written by my Commander,” said Edward Cannon, who is still waiting for benefits. The letter is from 1955. It says Cannon was hit by a car in a military convoy and injured his pelvis. As a result of the wreck, he was hospitalized. KJRH took the letter to an expert in VA benefit claims: John Wayne Cloud. He is a service officer who volunteers for the American Legion Post 1 in Tulsa. He’s helped hundreds of veterans with benefit claims. “This is fantastic evidence. Obviously, it shows the incident occurred, that he was run over,”said John Wayne Cloud, Volunteer Service Office for American Legion Post 1. KJRH sent a copy to the Muskogee VA, who re-opened Cannon’s case based on the new evidence, but soon after, we learned the letter wasn’t enough. A spokesperson for the benefit division of the Muskogee VA told us Cannon’s lower back pain was associated with a different accident years later. Cloud says that’s irrelevant. He says if you’re injured while on duty, serving our country, you get benefits, end of story. Plus, he said a benefit to the pelvis in the 1950s could cause you to have lower back pain years later, especially given the type of medical care that was provided then, verses now. “That’s what turns veterans off automatically from the VA, when they get letters like this,” said Cloud. Cloud is now going to help Cannon with his appeal. Cannon says he hasn’t seen a penny.

VA must hold all workers accountable for misconduct, poor performance (The Hill)
Commentary: “One year ago this month, Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Secretary Eric Shinseki resigned following a series of scandals exposing management failures, fraud and corruption throughout the department he led. It was an honorable step taken to allow new leadership to begin repairing what had gone so wrong at the dysfunctional department. Little did we know, as the New York Times recently reported, that Shinseki would be virtually the only VA employee to face repercussions for the scandals. One year later, not only have things failed to improve—they’ve grown worse. In fact, only a handful of VA executives have been removed from their job—and none fired for cause for the wait list scandal. It is painfully clear that the dynamic will not change at the VA until the department embraces an ethic of true accountability for failing and underperforming workers. A new bipartisan reform effort in Congress, led by House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller (R-Fla.), is a step in that direction. Even longtime critics were taken aback when department whistleblowers revealed in April 2014 how veterans in VA hospitals were kept on secret waiting lists and denied care from doctors for months, while department officials pocketed hefty bonuses for “performance.” What has been even more shocking, though, has been to learn how deep the rot goes. Day after day, we continue to see a relentless stream of new revelations of VA failures, abuse and shoddy service to veterans. Unfortunately, very little has changed at VA. How has such a toxic culture arisen in the second-largest federal department? The answer is that this is what happens in a culture where there are no consequences for misconduct or poor performance. It’s time for real accountability at the VA. Last summer, Congress passed a landmark VA reform bill that included stronger accountability provisions empowering the VA secretary to fire senior employees who failed to perform. President Obama signed that bill into law in August with great fanfare. It’s now clear those reforms did not go far enough. Congress should take the next logical step to expand this firing authority to all VA employees, not just senior executives. Only when those at the top, middle, and bottom are held to the same simple and fair standard of basic accountability can the culture start to change.

The Army’s new plan to help soldiers with PTSD (
Even though fewer troops are now going into war zones, Army officials are still struggling to connect soldiers with the appropriate treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder amid a surge in PTSD cases in recent years. However, an impending overhaul of the Army’s mental health care system could help extend immediate, personalized care to those who need it most. The proposed reforms would bring an influx of mental health specialists to meet the growing demand among soldiers. On-base intensive mental health resources would replace private psychiatric hospitals, and counseling teams would work closely with troops. Doctors who tag along with soldiers in these units regularly meet with commanders to discuss the progress of the people whom they consider to be high-risk cases. Mental trauma counts among the top issues affecting members of the Armed Forces. Last July, a national survey of more than 2,000 members of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America — which includes members of the Army, Marines, Air Force, and Navy — found that more than 60 percent of respondents said they have been diagnosed with PTSD or traumatic brain injuries. More than 30 percent of respondents also said they have thought about taking their own lives since joining the military. Now, Army officials want to be more proactive in addressing mental ailments, meeting soldiers in the very environment where anxiety festers. Under the new model, specialists’ offices will be within walking distance of army barracks — which officials say could help soldiers feel more inclined to seek treatment from doctors closely familiar with the environment that’s taking a toll on their psyche. Lt. Col. Phillip Holcombe, chief of behavioral health at Madigan Army Medical Center, located on the Joint Base Lewis-McChord (JBLM), told the Seattle Times that this embedded health behavioral approach is “very well received by soldiers and commands.”