Veterans news update for May 26

Veterans news update for May 26

Veterans news updateSenate tweaks veterans health care choice law to boost access to specialized care (U.S. News & World Report)
Veterans would get specialized medical care from private doctors more easily under a bill the Senate approved Friday. The measure relaxes a rule that makes getting specialized care from local doctors difficult for some veterans, especially those in rural areas. Senators approved the bill by voice vote as they rushed to wrap up legislative work before a weeklong Memorial Day recess. The Senate bill would open up private care to veterans who live within 40 miles of a medical facility run by the Department of Veterans Affairs, so long as the VA site does not offer the care required. Senators said the measure was needed because some veterans were unable to get federally paid medical care from private doctors under the new Veterans Choice Act. The law blocks veterans from getting private care if they live within 40 miles of a VA medical facility, even if the veteran needs specialized care that is farther away. Lawmakers from both parties have criticized the 40-mile rule, which they say goes against their intention to put the needs of veterans ahead of all other concerns, including cost. Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., said the VA was deliberately interpreting the 40-mile rule to deny veterans needed care. The VA recently tweaked the rule so it measures 40 miles by driving distance, rather than in a straight line. Moran, who sponsored the Senate bill, said it “puts the veteran first and provides the fix the VA says they need to make certain that veterans are not dismissed or forgotten just because of where they live.”

Colorado VA hospital dubbed ‘biggest construction failure’ gets $100M bailout (ABC News)
A project dubbed the “biggest construction failure” in the history of the Department of Veterans Affairs — already $1 billion over budget and more than a year behind schedule — is getting another $100 million taxpayer bailout. Construction will continue on a new veterans medical center near Denver, expected to serve 400,000 former military service members and their families. Ahead of Memorial Day, contractors had prepared to stop work on the project as approved funding dried up after repeated overruns and delays. The Republican-led Congress approved the cash infusion this week before leaving Washington, D.C., for the holiday; President Obama on Saturday morning signed on the dotted line. The fix is only a stop-gap measure: The $100 million funds just three more weeks of work. “I am pleased that Congress has taken action to ensure that construction at the site of the Denver Replacement Medical Center will continue,” VA Secretary Robert McDonald said in a statement. “I look forward to working with Congress in the coming weeks to determine a path forward to finishing the campus.” The costs to taxpayers for the project have already ballooned from an initial $328 million price tag in 2005 to $1.73 billion, with years more construction to go, according to government watchdog groups.

What VA won’t pay for: A chance for the wounded to have children (The Washington Post)
After Army Staff Sgt. Alex Dillmann was paralyzed from the abdomen down in a bomb blast in Afghanistan, the Department of Veterans Affairs paid to retrofit his Chevrolet Silverado truck so he could drive it and bought him a handcycle so he could exercise. But the agency that cares for former troops won’t pay for what the onetime squad leader and his wife, Holly, ache for most: a chance to have children. VA will not pick up the bill for in vitro fertilization, which fertility experts say offers those with spinal cord and genital injuries the best hope for a biological child. Under a 23-year-old law, VA is prohibited from covering IVF. Congress adopted the ban as the result of conservative opposition to assisted reproduction and concern that some fertilized embryos might be discarded. Now, however, veterans and lawmakers from both parties are pushing to overturn the ban. They argue that it is outdated and that IVF is widely accepted and performed worldwide. The law also predates the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, where widespread use of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) in attacks on U.S. forces has caused far more reproductive injuries than in past conflicts. The Dillmanns are among thousands of young post-combat couples who are struggling to start a family after blast injuries left them unable to conceive naturally. But IVF costs tens of thousands of dollars and often takes multiple tries to produce a viable pregnancy. Combat-wounded veterans say the financial burden and emotional toll are often overwhelming, especially on top of learning to live as an amputee or in a wheelchair. Some say that they have to take on debt or skip getting an education afforded them under the GI Bill so they can rush back into the job market, or that they have to rethink plans to start a family altogether. “At the end of the day, I’m so lucky to be alive. Part of that is this dream to be a parent,” said Alex Dillmann, 30, whose dirty-blond hair is still cut high and tight and whose tan arms are buff from years of exercise. “But this is a big pill to swallow for all veterans facing combat injuries, which have hurt their chances to have children.”

One year after VA scandal, House committee chairman wants more progress (Tampa Bay Times)
Whenever U.S. Rep. Jeff Miller attends a public event, veterans and Department of Veterans Affairs employees find him for short, intense conversations about one VA issue after another. It happened after his Memorial Day speech at the Bay Pines Veterans Cemetery, where a short line of people waited to get a minute with the chairman of the House Veterans Affairs committee. This is life for one of the VA’s biggest Capitol Hill critics, who told the Tampa Bay Times on Monday he remains frustrated by the slow pace of reform at an agency hit in the past year by the worst scandal in its history. “The VA did not get into the situation that exists today overnight,” Miller said. “And it’s not going to be resolved in a year’s time. It is going to take an entire culture change within the department. There has to be transparency and accountability.” And too often, he said, those two qualities are still lacking. The Pensacola Republican has been in the forefront of debate since the VA scandal erupted in April 2014 when a doctor at a Phoenix VA hospital said that 40 veterans there had died after delays in care and that the hospital kept a secret patient waiting list to hide its shortcomings. What followed was a series of revelations about the VA’s widespread tactic of manipulating hospital performance measures nationally, its retaliation against whistle-blowers and patients lost in VA red tape. The scandal has lifted Mil­ler’s profile as he has become a sought-after quote by journalists reporting on the agency’s deficiencies. And Miller, 55, is considering a 2016 Senate run for the seat expected to open as Marco Rubio seeks the presidency. The VA has always posed a thorny political challenge. Florida has one of the nation’s largest population of veterans, and railing against the VA’s failings gets attention with a big bloc of voters. But politicians who become too critical risk alienating tens of thousands of VA employees. “I don’t want to be the person who is always critical of VA,” he said. “If they are doing something good, I want to highlight that. And I believe there are tens of thousands of employees who go to work every day for the right reasons — that is, to serve the men and women who put on the uniform to serve their country. But I will also be the VA’s harshest critic when it’s necessary.”

The front lines of care for our veterans (The Washington Post)
Opinion: “An occasion like the 70th V-E Day anniversary, celebrated this month, would normally have spurred lengthy conversation between my armchair historian father and me. But not this year. My father, a Vietnam veteran, recently died of health complications related to his combat PTSD. For nearly 20 years, my family and I tried without success to prevent his self-destruction. We spent three years attempting to identify what plagued him, six years convincing him to get help, two years fighting to get him treatment from Veterans Affairs, and another eight years navigating the byzantine VA system. Yet in just 10 minutes we obtained VA approval for his burial in a national cemetery. But this isn’t surprising. Lawsuits filed in April against VA over disability claims, coupled with the Justice Department’s 2014 criminal investigation of VA facilities nationwide, highlight the chronic obstacles veterans face in obtaining treatment. Less obvious is the reality that, absent an effective VA system, it is families who are fulfilling the government’s responsibility to care for our vets. They face their own daunting challenges and desperately need support. Congress has long acknowledged this but has taken minimal action. In a little-publicized 2008 congressional hearing, the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs discussed changing the paradigm of veteran care. Committee members and experts who testified argued that families play a pivotal role in the veteran recovery process. Care, therefore, should focus on the family as a whole — not the veteran in isolation. But seven years later, this shift hasn’t occurred. During the hearing, congressional members recognized that families are often first to detect combat-related problems. My father’s PTSD surfaced 30 years after his deployment. Seemingly overnight he morphed from a successful businessman and community leader into someone who struggled to hold a job, abused alcohol and avoided human contact. Then more distinctly service-related symptoms emerged. Returning home from high school basketball practice one night, my brother found himself staring down the barrel of a rifle. In the midst of a flashback, my father had mistaken his son for a Viet Cong soldier. In retrospect, though, subtle signs of illness had existed for years. Had we known what to look for we could have intervened sooner. While VA has added educational tools and resources to its Web site, that’s not enough. Lifelong communication and outreach with the veteran and family members are crucial.”

Marijuana laws put veterans with PTSD in bad spot (The Chicago Tribune)
Commentary: “Before he tried marijuana, he thought of trying suicide. Heavy drinking hadn’t helped. Nor had various pills prescribed by Veterans Affairs doctors. He was still angry, still depressed, still could not sleep. But he found that marijuana helped. It took the anger and depression away. It took the sleeplessness away. Most of all, it took the 11-year-old boy away. Pfc. Jared Hunter never knew the boy’s name. He was just some Iraqi kid who liked to hang around the Army base outside Baghdad. “He didn’t really speak English or nothing. He would just kind of follow us around and would point things out or tell us if there was somebody there who shouldn’t have been.” The soldiers adopted him as a mascot. Hunter bought him a soccer ball. The boy was with the soldiers when they came under fire while patrolling an alley. When the shooting was over, he was dead. If combat does nothing else, it hardens you to indiscriminate death. “You just learn to deal with it,” says Hunter. “Something like that happens, at that time you just walk on past it and forget about it. Of course, later on,” he adds softly, “it may come up a little bit or something somewhere.” It came up with a vengeance on Hunter. He’s a 30-year-old Arkansas native living near Daytona Beach, Fla., who joined the Army in 2003 right out of high school and served two tours. He was discharged with a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder, a neat, clinical term for night terrors, heart palpitations, rage and the seductive lure of suicide. Hunter was almost seduced. He says he was sitting there with gun in hand when his father found him. Finally, a friend suggested something he had never tried: marijuana. He says pot worked like magic. “It calmed the anxiety. I wasn’t having near as many anger problems. … The suicide stuff went away. I didn’t really feel that desperate to do anything like that again. I’ve got a bad back and a bad neck; it relieved any kind of pain that I had. It just helped so tremendously that it was unbelievable. Nightmares. … I could actually go to sleep. I didn’t have insomnia. I wasn’t scared to go to sleep. I could actually lay down and … get a halfway decent night’s rest.”

PacSun feels wrath of customers, veterans over T-shirt (The Blaze)
Retailer PacSun is feeling the wrath of customers and military veterans after a photo of a T-shirt on display in one of its stores on Memorial Day weekend went viral. The shirt features an upside-down American flag, a symbol that U.S. Flag Code makes clear is only to be used “in instances of extreme danger to life or property.” The shirt was reportedly first spotted at the store’s location at Tanger Outlets in Foley, Alabama. “Screw you PACSUN,” one Facebook user wrote in reply to the company’s “buy one, get one 50% off” Memorial Day promotion post. He signed his comment, “veteran.” “As a combat veteran I refuse to step into your store ever again,” another apparent veteran wrote. “Not shopping here anymore,” a disgruntled Facebook user added, echoing the sentiment of hundreds of others. “Is this how you “kick off” Memorial Day?? By disrespecting the reason the holiday exists?” another user asked. Before Memorial Day was over, PacSun announced it will stop selling the T-shirt featuring an upside-down American flag. A photo of the shirt on display in Foley, Alabama, quickly went viral, forcing the retailer to respond.

Veterans frustrated by presidential debate on Iraq War (Yahoo! News)
Veterans of the Iraq War have been watching in frustration as Republican presidential contenders distance themselves from the decision their party enthusiastically supported to invade that country. Some veterans say they long ago concluded their sacrifice was in vain, and are annoyed that a party that lobbied so hard for the war is now running from it. Others say they still believe their mission was vital, regardless of what the politicians say. And some find the gotcha question being posed to the politicians — Knowing what we know now, would you have invaded? — an insult in itself. “Do-overs don’t happen in real life,” said Gregory Diacogiannis, 30, who served as an army sniper in Baghdad trying to spot militants laying roadside bombs and chased high-value targets in the city of Baqouba. “I have trouble with the question itself just because it lends itself to disregarding the sacrifices that have been made.” Diacogiannis left the army in 2008, but says even now he feels such a strong attachment to Iraq that he’s thought about going back to fight as the country has plunged into chaos since U.S. troops left. The war became a campaign issue when likely presidential contender Jeb Bush was asked about the invasion ordered by his brother, former President George W. Bush. After days of questioning, Jeb Bush said that in light of what’s now known — that Saddam Hussein did not have WMD stockpiles — he would not have invaded. Other possible Republican hopefuls including New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Sen. Marco Rubio, Sen. Ted Cruz and Ohio Gov. John Kasich all later gave similar responses.

Texas House votes to keep free tuition for some veterans’ kids (Texas Tribune)
An effort to overhaul the state’s tuition-for-veterans program dissolved in the Texas House on Sunday, with the sponsor of the bill offering an amendment that would leave the program virtually unchanged from its current form. The action by Rep. John Zerwas, R-Richmond, would gut Senate Bill 1735, which would have made many children of veterans ineligible for free tuition. Zerwas had been pushing the bill at the request of universities, which have said that the “legacy” benefit was costing them too much. But after more than two hours of debate on the day before Memorial Day, the bill was temporarily pulled down because of a procedural challenge. And while the House moved on to other business, Zerwas notified opponents of the bill that he had relented. SB 1735 didn’t appear to have the votes, he said.  “My sense from the House votes is that it was pretty clear that they didn’t want to change the legacy program,” Zerwas said. Zerwas then offered an amendment that would only slightly tweak the existing Hazlewood program to prevent people from all over the country from trying to reap the benefits in Texas. Under Zerwas’ proposal, children of veterans would only be able to reap legacy benefits in Texas if they have lived here for eight years. With Zerwas’ amendment, the bill was tentatively approved by a 139-0 vote. Opponents of the bill were thrilled with the last-minute change.

Trying to house L.A.’s homeless veterans is a lengthy, complex process (The Los Angeles Times)
Editorial: “As we honor the dead on this Memorial Day, it’s worth remembering as well the living veterans of military service who have no homes except sidewalk encampments or the occasional shelter bed, whose lives are so wracked by mental illness, addictions or physical disabilities that they are essentially dying in the streets. At an event in Los Angeles last year, Michelle Obama challenged mayors across the country to house homeless veterans by the end of 2015, and Mayor Eric Garcetti was one of many who pledged to do so. The problem is that the population of homeless veterans in L.A. has increased since then. Although the number fluctuates daily as some fall into and out of housing and others become newly homeless, Garcetti’s office now says the city needs to house 3,154 homeless veterans by the end of the year. We could say it was foolish of the mayor to assign himself the goal of housing an unknown number of people by a specific date. But he reasoned that a deadline would create a sense of urgency. In fact, the city did wrangle Veterans Affairs vouchers for supportive housing sooner than usual this year. It also helps that the VA is under its own deadline — not just to fulfill the Obama administration’s goal but to comply with a legal settlement by securing more housing for veterans on its West L.A. campus and in communities across the county. So what must Garcetti and VA officials do? First, find veterans who are homeless. Some do show up at the VA or on service providers’ doorsteps, but most are on the streets. The city and the VA, to their credit, are increasing the number of outreach workers to coax veterans into the system.”

NY lawmaker backs state benefits for gay veterans (The Washington Times)
A New York lawmaker says the state should ensure that military veterans discharged for their sexual orientation under the U.S. military’s old policies are eligible for the 53 state programs, benefits and tax breaks other vets can get. State Sen. Brad Hoylman says he’ll sponsor legislation to do that for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender New Yorkers among the estimated 114,000 service members discharged since World War II for their orientation or gender identity. That estimate includes 14,000 discharged under the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy established in 1993 and repealed in 2011. Hoylman says many of those veterans received an “other than honorable” discharge costing them benefits. His bill would establish a simple certification within the State Division of Veterans’ Affairs for LGBT veterans to clarify their discharge status.

New York City Council seeks agency to provide veterans services (New York Daily News)
City Council members are pushing a bill that would create a new city department to provide veterans services. The legislation, which would replace the current Mayor’s Office of Veterans’ Affairs with a full-fledged city agency, has gained 41 sponsors in the Council — a majority of the body. But Mayor de Blasio has not gotten onboard, and the bill remains stuck in a Council committee. “We have an overwhelming amount of bipartisan support,” said City Councilman Eric Ulrich (R-Queens), the sponsor and Veterans Committee chairman, who is negotiating with the administration in hopes of gaining its backing. He said the current office with its $600,000 yearly budget is too small to provide the jobs, housing and other services the city’s 225,000 veterans need. “New York should be leading the day in being a veteran-friendly city, and we are consistently ranked among the worst places in the country for veterans to live and work and raise a family,” Ulrich said. “The Mayor’s Office of Veterans’ Affairs is woefully underfunded and not up to the task.”