Veterans news update for May 5

Veterans news update for May 5

Veterans news updateMilitary retirement plan would reduce pensions, create matched 401(k) (
Congress is considering changing, for the first time in decades, the way service members get retirement pay. Military retirement now carries an all-or-nothing pension plan that requires a minimum of 20 years of service. The new plan would cut those pensions to 40 percent of pay from 50 percent, and create a matched 401(k)-style plan open to all service members. The new retirement rules would affect all troops enlisting after the new plan is put in place in October 2017, Military Times reported. Troops already in the ranks could opt into the new plan or stick with the current “cliff vesting” system, it said. The current system has to change in light of budget cuts being made after 14 years of war, says Col. Bryan Hilferty of Sumter, who retired last August from U.S. Army Central, formerly Third Army. “We have to modernize and economize the system,” said Hilferty, U.S. Army Central’s former director of communications. “This is one hack at it.” Part of the goal of the proposal is to help attract and retain young cyberwarriors who might want to hone their high-tech skills in the military but do not plan to stay for 20 years. The plan is still at the subcommittee level in both the U.S. House and Senate. With the end of major ground wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. military is drastically cutting personnel and budgets. The 401(k)-style savings plan was recommended by the Military Compensation and Retirement Modernization Commission. It recently was embraced by the House Armed Services Committee, and a version is being considered by the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Plan to protect whistleblowers has risks (Stars & Stripes)
David Tharp, a Department of Veterans Affairs psychologist, says he was so distraught by retaliation he suffered as an agency whistleblower that he went to war for relief. After his complaints about research deception and other corruption at a VA facility in Waco, Texas, “the pressure of hostilities was so intense, my wife and I decided my only options were to quit the VA or deploy to a war zone,” said Tharp, who also is a lieutenant colonel in the Air Force Reserve. “At least in Kandahar, Afghanistan, I knew who my enemy was. At the VA, I come back and it’s been a minefield ever since — and continues.” Tharp’s story is another in a long list from VA whistleblowers who suffered management reprisals after exposing agency problems. “Incredibly, even as the department has reached legal settlements with whistleblowers who endured retaliation, those who retaliated against them have gone unpunished,” said a statement from the office of Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., chairman of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee. He wants to change that with legislation that could set a precedent for the rest of government. If his proposal becomes law, it could be a breakthrough in providing protections for whistleblowers. But it also could backfire. The Veterans Affairs Retaliation Prevention Act provides penalties for supervisors who take revenge against whistleblowers. Retaliators would be suspended for at least 14 days for the first offense and fired for the second. It also would give preference to transfer requests from whistleblowers. One important provision would require supervisors to notify whistleblowers about the specific actions taken to address their complaints. This should help stop some of the coverups. A coalition of good-government groups praised Miller for proving “a major breakthrough in the struggle [of] VA whistleblowers to have credible rights when defending the integrity of the agency mission.” VA doesn’t think so. The department appreciates the committee’s efforts, but “we believe the specific whistleblower disclosure and protection procedures provided by this bill would be unworkable,” a VA statement said. The legislation also would duplicate other long-standing “remedies and programs specifically created to address claims of improper retaliation in the workplace. … We believe these current whistleblower protections are effective, and VA is working closely with OSC [Office of Special Counsel] to ensure the Department and its employees are gaining the maximum benefits from its remedies and protections.

Most veterans say new program offers no choice (KUSA-Denver)
At the weekly Pagosa Springs Veterans for Veterans meeting, nearly everyone in attendance said they should qualified for the Veterans Choice Card program, but a 9Wants to Know review of Veterans Affairs data shows only a handful have managed to get an appointment. “The Veterans Choice Card is so hard to use,” said Archuleta County Veterans Service Officer Raymond Taylor. “The veteran gets frustrated so quickly that they are not going to try to use it,” he added. Congress created the $10 billion program last year through the Veterans Choice Act. It was enacted in reaction to reports of secret VA waiting lists, which hid substantial delays in veterans’ medical care. 9Wants to Know has been investigating delays in Colorado veterans’ care for the last year, exposing a secret patient list used in the Sleep Lab and calculating what top hospital administrators received in bonuses. VA patients began receiving their Choice cards in November, which would allow them to access private doctors in their own communities at VA expense. In its first four months, the Choice program has sputtered. As of Feb. 28, Colorado veterans were able to schedule just 403 Choice appointments, according to VA data obtained by 9Wants to Know. Nationwide, 21,439 veterans booked appointments. The Veterans Health Administration has 8.6 million total enrolled patients. Patients can use the Choice Card if they meet one of two eligibility criteria. The veteran must either be waiting more than 30 days beyond the “desired date” for a specific VA appointment, or the veteran must live at least 40 miles from the nearest VA clinic. 9Wants to Know obtained nationwide Choice program patient data from the VA’s Central Business Office through a Freedom of Information Act request. 9Wants to know asked for the data in early March, and received it seven weeks later. The data shows nearly 13,000 veterans qualified because of the waiting times. Oregon, Washington, California, Florida and Arizona have the largest numbers of veterans qualifying under this provision. Another 8,500 Choice veterans qualified because of the distance rule. Colorado is one of 19 states where the majority of veterans qualified under that provision. Many of those states, including Montana, Alaska, and Hawaii, are mostly rural or have significant geographical barriers.

Lawmaker lashes out at VA secretary’s ‘rampant lack of accountability’ (The Washington Times)
A top House Republican is accusing the Department of Veterans Affairs of a “rampant lack of accountability” and secrecy as the embattled agency faces more scrutiny by lawmakers over shoddy services for veterans and mistreatment of employees. House Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller told VA Secretary Robert McDonald in a letter that “it was your own misstatements to the media” about supposedly firing dozens of agency employees that prompted the panel to release data showing that Mr. McDonald hadn’t fired anyone over last year’s scandal involving bogus waiting lists for veterans at the VA hospital in Phoenix. “As you know, the number of people VA has actually fired for manipulating wait times is zero,” wrote Mr. Miller, Florida Republican. A copy of the letter was obtained Monday by The Washington Times. Mr. McDonald said in an interview on “Meet the Press” in February that the VA had fired 60 people involved in manipulating wait times to make it appear that veterans were receiving care faster than they actually were. After that interview, VA officials revised those numbers, saying only 14 employees had been fired. Internal VA documents showed last week that the actual number of people removed from their jobs was three: one firing for accepting gifts improperly, one retirement and one termination pending. That prompted complaints from the VA secretary about leaks, but a House Republican source said the committee “rightly pointed out to the press” that Mr. McDonald’s assertions about firings over the Phoenix scandal were “blatantly false.” The House committee issued subpoenas last week for personnel and complaint files at the VA’s Philadelphia office, part of an expanding probe into mishandling of veterans’ disability and pensions claims. It was only the third time in the committee’s history that lawmakers issued subpoenas, an indication of growing impatience with the agency and the leader tapped by President Obama to clean up the sprawling bureaucracy. Mr. Miller said his panel has encountered repeated “stonewalling” from the VA as the committee probes accusations of mismanagement and whistleblower retaliation. “The department’s continuing and pathological aversion to provide prompt, complete, and accurate responses to our request can only be judged as an attempt to cover up bad information,” he told Mr. McDonald.

Nation can do more to help its veterans (
Commentary: “One man from Marlton, Pa., described it as “something you always live with.” Another said: “Trying to live with this stuff . . . it’s hard. It’s really hard.” They’re not talking about physical afflictions. These men are both veterans of our Armed Forces, and they’re talking about their post-traumatic stress disorder. For them, it’s the constant reminder of their time in Vietnam more than 40 years ago. “When I first got home, my parents sent me to a psychologist, and he said I was suffering from malaise,” one former Army sergeant told me. “I didn’t know there was anything available to help me. Nobody ever told us that. I didn’t talk to anybody.” A former Marine corporal explained it this way: “I know what it’s like to spill blood for your country, and when you come home with problems, you’re smacked in the face and told, ‘There’s nothing wrong with you. Come on, suck it up, you’re a Marine.’ ” These are the voices of the people I represent, and they speak for veterans all across the country. These are the voices of the people I represent, and they speak for veterans all across the country. We are facing a growing crisis. Too many of these men and women are still suffering, despite a better understanding of mental health and more advanced treatments. According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, 22 veterans commit suicide every day. If that’s not disturbing enough, there is this: 17 of those 22 never accessed care at a VA facility. Over the last year, our country faced a crisis of confidence in Veterans Affairs. We were stunned by revelations of systematic failures nationwide that led to outrageous wait times, lost medical records, inadequate care, and avoidable deaths. In response, Congress instituted a number of reforms aimed at increasing VA oversight and expanding flexibility and choice for veterans. During this session of Congress, we passed the Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for American Veterans Act to evaluate and expand suicide prevention and mental-health programs. Thanks to bipartisan efforts, President Obama signed this bill into law. These are all good steps toward ensuring better care for our returning veterans, but more can and must be done.

Illinois medical marijuana approved for PTSD (ABC7-Chicago)
Illinois residents could use medical marijuana to treat chronic migraines and post-traumatic stress disorder, but not anxiety or diabetes under recommendations that an advisory board agreed to on Monday. The board, which is made up of doctors, nurses, patients and a pharmacist, held a public meeting in Chicago to consider whether to expand Illinois’ nascent medical marijuana program to include the treatment of additional diseases and disorders. The state Department of Public Health will consider the recommendations. Besides chronic migraines and PTSD, the board voted to recommend adding osteoarthritis, irritable bowel syndrome, peripheral neuropathy and diabetic neuropathy to the list of qualifying conditions for the medical marijuana program. Board member Jim Champion, who is a military veteran, announced the board’s unanimous approval for adding PTSD, saying he was “very, very proud.” Most experts agree that the evidence on marijuana and PTSD is limited to anecdotal reports from people who say the drug helps them. Meanwhile, gold-standard research has been stymied by federal barriers. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs states on its website that there is “no evidence at this time that marijuana is an effective treatment for PTSD. In fact, research suggests that marijuana can be harmful to individuals with PTSD.”

Tuscaloosa VA earns praise for diminishing veteran homelessness (Tuscaloosa News)
The Tuscaloosa Veterans Affairs Medical Center has set a model for the nation in workplace cooperation and eliminating veteran homelessness, a high-ranking VA official said Monday. But Deputy Secretary of Veterans Affairs Sloan Gibson added that the Tuscaloosa VA stands to improve in lowering wait times for veterans seeking care and in other aspects of healthcare, such as screening, prevention and chronic disease management. Gibson visited the Tuscaloosa facility on Monday as part of a national tour of VA hospitals across the country. “We’ve been working over the last several years to eliminate veteran homelessness, and there’s been an awful lot of progress made,” said Gibson, who was scheduled to visit the Birmingham VA hospital today. “Tuscaloosa, I think, is a great model for what’s happening around the country.” Gibson was referring to Valor Grove, the $11 million apartment complex that opened on the Tuscaloosa VA campus last year. Completed with a combination of federal and local funding sources — the city of Tuscaloosa contributed $210,000 — along with the cooperation of public and private entities, the 50-unit, 83-bed project has helped to all but eliminate homelessness for veterans in this area, Gibson said.

U.S., British veterans team up on aid for Nepal earthquake victims (Stars & Stripes)
U.S. and British veterans are teaming up with ex-Gurkhas to bring aid to Nepal earthquake victims. Team Rubicon — a group of U.S. veterans who use their military training to help people after disasters — has sent several teams to Nepal in recent days. About 20 members are working with eight British military veterans, the Gurkhas and Nepali doctors in quake-hit villages. Gurkhas — whose name comes from Nepal’s Gorkha region — have served with British forces for more than 200 years. They participated in both world wars and have been involved in numerous other missions, with multiple deployments to Afghanistan in recent years. There are about 3,000 Gurkhas serving with the British army today. They have a reputation for being disciplined, loyal and friendly, said British army Lance Cpl. Hasta Gurung, 46, a former Gurkha who is helping guide Team Rubicon in Nepal. The death toll from the April 26 earthquake surpassed 7,200 over the weekend as search-and-rescue workers reached into more remote parts of the Himalayan country. Gurung, who still serves as a military policeman in Britain, said his home village, near the quake’s epicenter in the Barpak region, was leveled. “My village is completely wiped out. Two people died, and my close relatives are homeless. The surrounding villages were destroyed, too,” he said Sunday as he helped U.S. and British veterans plan an aid mission. Team Rubicon has brought medical supplies from the U.S. and has set up camp at another company’s office in Kathmandu.

Veterans program pairs job services with mental health treatment (The Baltimore Sun)
After Wallace Clayton served in the Army Special Forces in the mid-1970s, he says, he bounced from job to job for more than a decade. He worked in electronics assembly and repair, landscaping and home renovation — and never understood why he was having so much difficulty getting his life together. “It was hard to hold a job,” Clayton said. “It was kind of rough going. … My mind was somewhere else.” He didn’t know it at the time, he says, but he was struggling with more than the switch from military to civilian life that challenges many veterans. Only after moving to Maryland nearly two years ago and getting help that led to a diagnosis of post traumatic stress disorder and depression, then to treatment and a job, did the years after he left the Army in 1983 begin to make sense to him. “It’s like night and day,” said Clayton, 58, a technician at a Jiffy Lube in Pikesville. Clayton was one of 675 military veterans referred last year to a Veterans Affairs program in Maryland with a dual focus: helping veterans diagnosed with mental health disorders continue treatment while getting them trained for and placed in jobs. The Compensated Work Therapy program, run by the VA Maryland Health Care System, identifies veterans who have trouble getting and keeping jobs due in part to mental health disorders and illnesses such as depression, anxiety disorders and PTSD. The staff works with veterans and the companies that hire them, offering training for specific jobs and certifications, job matching, case management and consultations. They offer the program at the Baltimore and Perry Point VA medical centers and take referrals from VA rehab centers and outpatient clinics. “Veterans are really just looking for an opportunity to use transferable skills and to support their families as they supported their country,” said LaVerne Harmon, who manages vocational rehabilitation services for the program. “What they need is an opportunity. Once they get in there they can sell themselves.”