VA struggles with security continues; number of vets impacted rises (FierceHealthIT)
Veterans who saw their personal health information compromised rose once again in April after a sharp fall in March; 987 vets were affected last month, according to a report from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Of the 987 vets affected in April, 738 were in relation to protected health information incidents. The number of cyberattacks against the VA did drop last month compared to March, and zero veterans were impacted by cyberintrusion or malware events. But incidents such as lost devices, lost PIV cards and paper record mismailings still put vets’ infomation at risk. This is especially worrisome on the heels of news that the VA failed its Federal Information Security Management Act Audit for Fiscal Year 2014, the 16th consecutive year it has failed the audit. As the number of attacks on the agency grows, VA CIO Stephen Warren said on a press call that IT networks must prepare for the future, and for the possibility of a worst-case scenario, according to Federal News Radio. Currently, the agency is at an elevated state of cybersecurity, Warren said; he added, however, that his team must be ready to go to severe or critical if the need arises. The team is meeting to discuss what can be done as threats to the system grow, and the VA will also host an internal cybersecurity summit in early June. Other ways the VA is tackling the growing threats includes spending time and money on cyberservices from the Department of Homeland Security, one of the reasons threats decreased in April, Warren said. More funding for fiscal year 2016 also was requested by the agency in February. It asked for about $24 million more than previously requested. But the VA has a lot of work ahead to come back from all the problems it has faced, which not only include the failed audit but criticisms from the Government Accountability Office after the VA’s Office of Inspector General reported that two VA contractors had improperly accessed the VA network from foreign countries using personally owned equipment. That’s in addition to a report the GAO released in November saying that while the VA had taken action to address previously identified IT vulnerabilities, it did not do enough to prevent future problems.
VA Secretary: ‘We can get to zero’ homeless veterans (Military Times)
Veterans Affairs Secretary Bob McDonald said his department’s goal of cutting the number of homeless veterans to zero by next January is less important than making sure that number doesn’t rise again in years to come. “The important thing is not just to get to zero, but to stay at zero,” he said. “How do we build a system that is so capable, that as a homeless veteran moves from Chicago to Los Angeles in the winter, we have the ability to touch them immediately?” On Wednesday, McDonald addressed about 600 community organizers at the annual National Coalition for Homeless Veterans conference, charging them to keep up the progress thus far as his department’s self-imposed deadline approaches. From 2010 to 2013, the number of homeless veterans nationwide dropped more than one-third to about 50,000 individuals, and VA officials expect that number to dip even further when the 2014 estimates are released later this summer. Meanwhile, VA funding for homeless assistance and prevention programs has jumped from about $2.4 billion in fiscal 2008 to nearly $7 billion for fiscal 2016, providing resources that advocates say were nearly nonexistent a decade ago. Despite the positive trends, the effort to end veterans homelessness will need dramatic strides in coming months to come close to the lofty goal of zero veterans on the streets at the end of 2015. McDonald told the crowd that “we can get to zero, and we can stay at zero,” but avoided specifics related to the year-end timeline.
Seattle might be next city to end chronic veteran homelessness (Huffington Post)
Seattle Mayor Ed Murray celebrated Memorial Day by reiterating a vow to house each homeless veteran by the end of next year. The announcement came as mayors across the country have accepted first lady Michelle Obama’s challenge to end veteran homelessness this year, but when Seattle has faced numerous challenges in trying to get homeless people off the streets. An estimated 1,100 veterans are expected to experience homelessness this year, Murray said, according to KPLU. It’s a disappointing figure considering that Seattle had anticipated ending chronic homelessness altogether by 2014, but fell short of that goal. Though Seattle is a wealthy city, with a vocal population eager to spend money on the issue, the city has encountered a number of obstacles it didn’t see coming. For one, Seattle was the fastest-growing U.S. city last year, which drove up housing prices, making it even more challenging for vulnerable groups, according to KUOW. Homeless families in Seattle have it particularly tough, since they wait an average of six months or more to secure housing. Murray said he plans on effectively ending veteran homelessness by improving the way the city connects vets on the streets with existing services. “The resources are there,” Murray told KIRO 7. “In many cases when it comes to veterans who are homeless, it’s not getting them connected to the resources.” Advocates have long called on government leaders to employ the “housing first” method, which has repeatedly proven to work in cities that have succeeded in ending veteran homelessness. The approach pushes giving housing to people in need, and only then addressing their health and employment issues.
VA begins ‘Summer of Service’ to bolster volunteers for veterans (WCTV-Tallahassee)
The Department of Veterans Affairs announced a new nationwide initiative designed to build upon its existing partnerships to grow the number of individuals and organizations serving Veterans in their communities. The Department is renewing its commitment to Veterans and embarking upon a “Summer of Service” that seeks the help of citizens across the country to honor that commitment. “We have made progress over the past year addressing the challenges we face in delivering care and benefits to millions of Veterans and their families,” said Secretary of Veterans Affairs Robert A. McDonald. “While there is more work to do to honor our sacred commitment to Veterans, we also recognize that VA cannot do it alone. We are asking Americans everywhere to join the Summer of Service and help us give back to those who have given so much to our nation.” In the coming weeks, VA will be working closely with Congressional partners, Veterans Service Organizations, Mayors and local communities, private sector and non-profit organizations, and VA employees to identify new and innovative ways to support VA’s commitment to care for those who “have borne the battle” and their families. As part of VA’s Summer of Service, the Department has committed to holding an open house in VA facilities the week of June 28 to spur increased local engagement and welcome members of the community interested in supporting the needs of Veterans. VA has also established the following goals to achieve by Labor Day:
• Increasing Volunteers: Committed to engaging with 100,000 volunteers to support care and benefits programs and local events.
• Increasing Community Partners: Committed to expanding current agreements to provide services and support reaching more than 15,000 Veterans and family.
• Recruiting Medical Professionals: Hiring clinicians and clinical support staff to further expand access to care and homelessness.
• Congress: Host Congressional Members and Staffs at VA facilities across the country.
California congresswoman seeks cash for unsung WWII Merchant Marine vets (AL.com)
About 215,000 American seamen served in the U.S. Merchant Marines during World War II, making a major contribution to winning the war. The Merchant Mariners delivered critical supplies to U.S. armed forces in Europe and the Pacific while facing often-deadly attacks from enemy aircraft, mines and submarines. Anywhere from about 6,500 to about 9,000 merchant seamen were killed during the war, according to various sources. In fact, the Merchant Marines sustained a far higher rate of casualties than did any of the branches of the regular U.S. military. Despite this, Merchant Mariners were not considered to be veterans and so were not eligible for assistance in getting an education or buying a home offered by the federal G.I. Bill. They were also excluded from celebrations of Veterans Day and Memorial Day until about 1970, according to U.S. Representative Janice Hahn (D-Calif.-44). And things are little better as we celebrate the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, according to Hahn. “So it’s now been seventy years and the World War II Merchant Marine veterans still have not been properly honored or recognized for their service,” Hahn said in her Maritime Day speech in San Pedro, Calif., on Friday, according to a text of her remarks supplied to AL.com. But Hahn is trying to change that. In January, she introduced legislation in Congress – H.R. 563, Honoring Our WWII Merchant Mariners Act of 2015 – that would provide a onetime payment of $25,000 to each of the surviving merchant seamen. There are now only about 5,000 of these men still alive, all in their late 80s and 90s, according to Hahn. “Time is running out for us to honor them,” she said Friday in her speech, which was given at the San Pedro Merchant Marine Memorial.
PTSD in veterans may also increase risk of heart failure (Science World Report)
New findings published in the American Journal of Public Health reveal that over 8,000 veterans living in Hawaii and the Pacific Islands are dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder, and nearly 50 percent risked developing heart failure over about a seven-year follow-up period when compared to peers not dealing with the issue. The study illustrates a concerning trend between the mental health issue and exacerbating other health conditions. However, researchers reiterated that a clear cause-and-effect relationship cannot be made at this time. “There are many theories as to how exactly PTSD contributes to heart disease,” Dr. Alyssa Mansfield, one of the study authors, said in a statement. “Overall, the evidence to date seems to point in the direction of a causal relationship.” For the study, researchers tracked over 8,000 veterans who had been outpatients in the VA Pacific Islands system. The researchers then followed them for an average of just about seven years. Findings revealed that those with a PTSD diagnosis were about 47 percent more likely to develop heart failure during the follow-up period, even after looking at other differences between certain groups in health as well as demographic factors. Furthermore, out of the total study group, 12 percent were diagnosed with PTSD. Of the total 371 cases of heart failure during the study, 287 occurred among those with PTSD, whereas only 84 cases occurred among the group without PTSD.
Planners OK blight designation for Nebraska VA campus (Lincoln Journal Star)
The Lincoln-Lancaster County Planning Commission on Wednesday recommended that the Veterans Affairs campus in east Lincoln be declared blighted. A study done by Hannah Keelan Associates determined the 60-acre campus near 70th and O streets meets the qualifications as blighted and substandard under state law largely due to the age and condition of its buildings and infrastructure. The declaration clears the way for a potential redevelopment project to use tax-increment financing to pay for improvements on the site that would benefit the public. Five years ago, Veterans Affairs asked for proposals from private developers to redevelop the site. The VA agreed to lease the land to developers for 75 years in exchange for them building a modern medical clinic. In November 2011, the Seniors Foundation unveiled a plan to build an 80,000-square-foot clinic, other medical offices, housing for veterans and retail and office space. The plan would keep many of the old buildings intact, including the hospital building. Although VA officials would not comment on any details, they and the Seniors Foundation are hopeful a final lease on the property will be completed by this fall, according to Will Ackerman, an acting public affairs officer for the VA. Officials from the foundation declined comment this week on the status of that plan. Urban Development Director David Landis said Wednesday the development group has to have a plan in place by October or it will lose its eligibility to use Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing vouchers. Tax-increment financing uses the increased property taxes generated by redevelopment of a property to help pay for improvements at the site that benefit the public. Even though the VA campus is government-owned and exempt from property taxes, any private development on the site would be taxed.
Veteran’s suicide on VA grounds spurs calls for help (KPHO-Phoenix)
The growing number of veteran suicides is an issue that took center stage at the VA Medical Center in Phoenix on Tuesday. It has been a hot-button issue for veterans for a while, but in Phoenix it was magnified two weeks ago by the suicide of a veteran on VA property. “I think he’s a martyr for what he did,” veteran Brandon Coleman said of Thomas Murphy, who tragically took his life while sitting in the parking lot of the VA administrative offices in downtown Phoenix. “I believe it was a symbolic act and that he did it because he would want us to talk about it,” Coleman said. To spur that talk, a few dozen veterans gathered outside the Phoenix VA Hospital on Tuesday to protest what they say is a lack of help for suicidal veterans. “It should be a serious wake-up call that he took his own life in the parking lot, you know, because he couldn’t get the help that he needed,” Palmer Miller said. “Thanks for nothing VA,” Murphy wrote in his suicide note. He blamed the VA for doing nothing to help him with his chronic pain and said the VA wanted to take away the pain medication he was receiving. “They get denied and then they feel you know like nobody cares and it’s just like I said a spiral downward,” Louis Albin said. The latest VA study shows 22 veterans a day commit suicide. But Coleman, a VA whistleblower who worked with suicidal vets, said the study left out statistics from California, Illinois and Texas and the totals are completely false. “If they gave the American people the real numbers – 45, 50, 60, a day – would you let your kids join the military?” Coleman said. “Absolutely it’s higher than 22,” he said. “They need to do an accurate study that includes all 50 states by someone outside of the VA. VA officials say they’ve made changes since Coleman blew the whistle on issues with how suicidal veterans are treated at the emergency room at the Phoenix VA Hospital.
Lawmakers want to study effects of war on veterans, families (NBC-Bay Area)
How bad are the effects of war on veterans and their families? That’s what a group of bipartisan lawmakers in Washington are trying to figure out. They want research on how chemical weapons can have an impact on the health of children and grandchildren of veterans. The proposal is called the Toxic Exposure Research Act of 2015, which is co-authored by South Bay Congressman Mike Honda. “I do seek treatment for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder,” veteran Omar Teutle said. The former Marine served one tour in Iraq and two in Afghanistan. Now Teutle is dealing with the news lawmakers in Washington want to see if the toxins troops were exposed to in combat — like Agent Orange in Vietnam and neurotoxins in the Gulf wars — can impact their children and grandchildren. If approved, the act would establish a national center for research to study the health of a veteran’s descendants. The Veterans Administration has recognized certain birth defects among the children of veterans of both the Vietnam and Korean wars. Tito Cortez of the Veterans Supportive Services Agency helps veterans fight for military benefits and is glad someone is finally trying to look into this other effect of war. “Had I known there was Agent Orange when I got out of Vietnam I probably would not have gotten married,” Cortez said. “That’s how scary it is — would have thought twice about getting married.” Veterans said they are the ones who were drafted or enlisted, not their descendants. So their children should not have to be scarred by the same war they are trying to leave behind.
Veterans Choice Card program marred by delays, confusion (New Hampshire Union Leader)
The promise was a simple card that would allow nearly all New Hampshire veterans to get their VA health care from their local doctors or hospitals. The reality is a system where veterans — and even a hospital administrator — said they’ve experienced delays, confusion and red tape. “They call it the Choice plan, but there is no choice. You gotta go where they tell you,” said Navy veteran Albert Belhumeur, of Manchester. Nearly 200 veterans and their family members gathered at St. Anselm College on Tuesday to voice their frustrations with the Choice program, which was part of the VA reform legislation that President Obama signed last year. But several told U.S. Sens. Kelly Ayotte and Jeanne Shaheen that their doctors and other health care providers have not signed up for Choice. Some don’t know about it, others want to sign up but face bureaucratic delays. “We’re talking about veterans that don’t know about it — physicians don’t know about it either,” said Dr. Joe Pepe, the president and chief executive of Catholic Medical Center. He said he had to send one CMC heart patient to a VA facility in West Roxbury, Mass., even though CMC has more experience in heart procedures. Sandra Davidson, director of the business office for the New England VA Healthcare System, said one of the challenges is getting doctors signed up, but the VA has now authorized 1,000 New Hampshire providers to accept Choice. Jerry Slagle, a Vietnam veteran, said his therapy for a new hip has been delayed while his orthopedist signed up for Choice. They told him it would take a week. “It’s been two weeks, and I haven’t heard back,” he said. The Choice pilot will end in either three years or when the $10 billion put into the program runs out, Ayotte said. “We want to get this right,” she said.
Operating rooms at Anchorage VA closed until ventilation problem resolved (Alaska Dispatch News)
The Alaska Veterans Affairs Healthcare System has shut down operating rooms in Anchorage amid ventilation concerns and a fix to the problem remains months away, according to a spokesman. Since the two rooms at the Anchorage VA Outpatient Clinic were closed in February and again in March, the VA has moved 50 to 60 outpatient surgeries from the clinic on North Muldoon Road to the nearby hospital at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, said Samuel Hudson, Alaska VA public affairs officer. Hudson said the VA has not canceled or delayed any operations. “They’ve been able to absorb it,” he said of the JBER hospital. “At no point was any veteran in danger or put at risk.” The $76 million, 184,000-square-foot Anchorage VA Outpatient Clinic and regional office building opened in May 2010. On Feb. 3, a nurse at the clinic discovered the ventilation problem when she saw a small amount of dust on a typically clean table, said Douglas Lofgren, Alaska VA chief of facilities management services. The air ducts were cleaned and the operating rooms reopened on Feb. 19. But by March 10, the dust had returned, again forcing closure of the operating rooms, Hudson said. They have not been reopened. Lofgren said the dust came from mineral buildup in the humidification system’s air ducts. Normally, air travels into the ducts from outside. Water is sprayed into the ducts and the air absorbs it. The moistened air flows into the operating rooms, Lofgren said. However, minerals from the water built up in the ducts and eventually blew into the operating rooms, Lofgren said. The humidification system at the Anchorage clinic was designed under VA standards that have since changed, he said. The new standards require steam moisture as the source of water for humidification. The VA will contract out the work for a new steam generator, Lofgren said. He estimated the project will take an additional five to eight months.
University of Texas to modify admission requirements for veterans (KVUE-Austin)
The University of Texas at Austin announced Wednesday it is modifying its admission requirements for veterans, including the automatic admission of some based on time served in the military. The university’s leaders reviewed the admissions process for veterans at the request of UT System Regent Alex Cranberg, according to a release by UT. The state’s current automatic admission law requires UT Austin to admit the top-ranked high school seniors into its freshman class, currently the top 7 percent. The automatic admission eligibility is extended for two years following a student’s high school graduation. Under the change, a student who qualifies for automatic admission but decides to serve a four-year tour in the military can still take advantage of automatic admission. The extension will be available to both freshman and transfer applicants. The change to the program goes into effect beginning with the 2016 summer/fall application cycle. Applications for summer/fall 2016 open on August 1. UT said in its release that it currently serves “roughly 8,500 veterans, active duty service members, spouses and dependents.”
Vietnam vet approved for Illinois veterans post (The Washington Times)
A U.S. Navy veteran who served during the Vietnam War has been confirmed as the new assistant director of the Illinois Department of Veterans’ Affairs. The Illinois Senate confirmed Harry F. Sawyer in a unanimous vote this week. The 33-year state employee will manage special projects and oversee the state-wide field operations of the department. The Lombard man served aboard the USS Agerholm. That included a tour of duty off the coast of Vietnam. Sawyer joined the Department of Veterans’ Affairs in 1982 as a veteran service officer.
Money intended for foundation that aids veterans stolen (Stars & Stripes)
Police are investigating a break-in at the Augusta, Maine, Elks Lodge in which more than $15,000 was stolen, including thousands earmarked for a fundraiser for the Travis Mills Foundation, a nonprofit that supports injured veterans. Lt. Christopher Massey says burglars broke into the lodge Monday night or Tuesday morning. The burglary was reported around 5:40 a.m. Tuesday by a cleaning person. Christine Toriello, executive director of the Travis Mills Foundation, said a portion of the stolen money had been set aside to run a fundraiser for the foundation this summer. The foundation is named for retired Army Staff Sgt. Travis Mills, a Manchester resident who lost parts of all four limbs in Afghanistan in 2012. Gary Cooper, chairman of the lodge’s board of directors, hopes the losses will be covered by insurance.