Veterans news update for May 7

Veterans news update for May 7

Veterans news updateTexas Medical Association calls VA Choice Program a failure (KVUE-Austin)
The Texas Medical Association is calling a program intended to reduce treatment delays for veterans a failure. Congress created the Veterans Choice Program last year after veterans were found waiting too long for treatment. John Rodgers is one of about two dozen veterans who attended a town hall meeting in March at the VA Hospital in Temple, Texas. At the time, the former Army helicopter mechanic needed a chiropractor for back pain. Despite waiting for more than 30 days, he claims he has not been able to use his Veterans Choice card. “You may as well throw it away. It’s not worth the plastic that it’s written on,” said Rodgers holding his card. Under the Veterans Choice Program, veterans can qualify to see a private doctor if they live more than 40 miles from a VA facility or are unable to schedule an appointment within 30 days. There are more than 98,000 veterans in Texas who use the VA for their healthcare. Records obtained by the KVUE Defenders show 982 veterans have received appointments in Texas using the program. Appointments total 1,872 from October 2014 to February 2015. The Texas Medical Association says that’s not enough. “There’s really been just a drop in the bucket,” said Dr. Austin King, former president of the TMA. Last month, the TMA released a statement saying the “Veterans Choice Program is not working.” King added that it’s confusing for veterans; it’s filled with bureaucratic red tape and it hasn’t hired enough new staff. “We contacted all the regional VAs in Texas, [and said] ‘We got this list of doctors in your area and see patients.’ We didn’t get a single call back,” said King.

Veterans groups hit Feds on old discharge records (Courthouse News Service)
Veterans groups claim in Federal Court that the military is trying to keep a lid on “bad-paper discharges” it handed tens of thousands of service members who likely suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder before the medical community recognized that condition. Vietnam Veterans of America and the National Veterans Council for Legal Redress brought the complaint on Monday against the U.S. Department of Defense and three military branches. They say that the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs denies disability compensation and other benefits to veterans who received other-than-honorable (OTH) discharges, but that many who received such “bad-paper discharges” are the tens of thousands of service members suffering from undiagnosed PTSD. PTSD was not recognized as a medical condition until 1980, according to the complaint. While Congress has created internal boards to consider applications by veterans seeking to revise their discharge papers, the veterans say these boards “have collectively failed to prioritize or take seriously discharge upgrade requests from veterans diagnosed with PTSD stemming from military service.” From 1993 to 2014, the Boards for Correction of Military/Naval Records approved fewer than 5 percent of these type of applications from Vietnam veterans, according to the complaint.

Bill introduced for benefits for Blue Water vets exposed to Agent Orange (
U.S. Senator Gary Peters (MI) announced he is cosponsoring the Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act of 2015, bipartisan legislation that would ensure Vietnam veterans who served aboard deep-water naval vessels, known as “Blue Water” veterans, are eligible to receive the disability and health care benefits they earned for diseases linked to exposure to Agent Orange. Under current law, only veterans who served on Vietnamese soil or aboard a craft in its rivers receive presumptive coverage of illnesses linked directly to Agent Orange exposure. “Agent Orange has affected the health of thousands of service members who fought in the Vietnam War, and it is unacceptable that some are being denied health care and disability benefits for diseases resulting from their military service,” said Senator Peters. “My office has heard from Michigan veterans affected by this issue, and I am proud to cosponsor this bipartisan, commonsense bill that will ensure Navy veterans who have fallen victim to Agent Orange-related conditions receive the long overdue care they have earned through their service.” In 1991, Congress passed a law requiring the VA to provide presumptive coverage to Vietnam veterans with illnesses that the Institute of Medicine has directly linked to Agent Orange exposure. However, in 2002 the VA determined that it would only cover Veterans who could prove that they had orders for “boots on the ground” during the Vietnam War, excluding thousands of sailors who may have been exposed to Agent Orange while serving aboard Navy ships. The Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act of 2015 would clarify existing law so that Blue Water veterans would be fully covered by the VA if they served within the “territorial seas,” or approximately 12 miles offshore of Vietnam. The bill would make it easier for VA to process Vietnam War veterans’ claims for service-connected conditions and alleviate a portion of the VA’s backlog by extending presumptive coverage of Agent Orange benefits to these veterans.

Helman faces a legal battle in lawsuit to regain VA job (
Former Phoenix VA Health Care System Director Sharon Helman is suing in federal court to get her job back, but the Department of Veterans Affairs argues she will have to overcome a law written specifically to bar such appeals. In a one-page petition, Helman’s attorneys asked the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C., to review an administrative-law judge’s decision that upheld Helman’s firing. Neither that filing nor follow-up materials in the court docket explain the grounds for her appeal. However, a response filed April 27 by the VA argues that the request should be thrown out. It says the Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act of 2014 was drafted by Congress in part to expedite the firing of VA executives for misconduct or negligence, and includes a provision that chief administrative judge rulings are “final and shall not be subject to any further appeal.” The VA also contends that, even if the court ignores that provision of law and accepts the case, Helman’s appeal is moot because it was filed after a 60-day deadline imposed by statute. In an e-mail statement, Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, told The Arizona Republic: “I think Sharon Helman’s arguments will be about as successful in a court of law as they were in the court of public opinion. Nevertheless, I still have serious concerns about the overwhelming lack of accountability at VA in the wake of the biggest scandal in the department’s history.” In response to inquiries, a VA spokeswoman noted that, since last June, 91 percent of the department’s medical facilities have new leaders or leadership teams.

Casualties of care: Doe the VA promote pill popping? (KUSA-Denver)
The number of Colorado veterans who have died from accidental overdoses has tripled since 2000, prompting some veterans to question whether the VA is too quick to hand out a pill and too slow to offer individual therapy. Army veteran Nick Carey, of Bailey, is one of more than 90,000 veterans prescribed both Benzodiazepine tranquilizers and opioid painkillers by VA doctors. Carey showed 9Wants to Know his 27 medications, saying some are supposed to help him sleep and control nightmares. Carey and his wife, Becky, are constantly on alert for the side effects of all those pills. “When they gave me the psych med and the pain med, they didn’t check. And I went into respiratory arrest three times,” Carey said. Death is constantly on Carey’s mind. In Iraq and Afghanistan, soldiers he served with died. Now home, some are still dying. Carey attended another friend’s funeral this spring. “In the last two years, I lost five friends who killed themselves,” Carey said. He said he is speaking publicly in the hopes his story can save someone. According to a 9Wants to Know analysis of state death records, a Colorado veteran dies by suicide once every other day. Their suicide rate is double the non-veteran rate. 9Wants to Know also found the number of veterans to die because of accidental drug poisoning increased from 20 to 72 over the past 14 years. The total number of veterans has not increased over the same period. Becky Carey worries whether young combat veterans are receiving insufficient mental health treatment from the Veterans Health Administration. “They would rather give you a pill than talk to you like a human being,” she said. For several reasons, Carey says he hasn’t received a one-on-one session with a VA therapist in over a year. He says he would like to be assigned to a provider.

VA officials were warned about Colorado project before work began (The Denver Post)
U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs officials in Washington knew about management problems with the VA’s hospital project in Aurora as early as May 2011 — seven months before construction began — yet two years passed before any changes were made, documents show. By then, in mid-2013, issues at the site had spilled into the public arena. The medical center complex was years behind schedule and hundreds of millions of dollars over budget. The high-ranking officials who received the warnings either still work for the VA or have retired. One remains in a senior-level position overseeing the project. E-mails and memos sent among VA employees assigned to oversee the medical center’s construction reveal a project mired in distrust, discord and concerns of cronyism. VA engineers warned higher-ups that key managers on the project lacked the experience and know-how to handle the job. In one case, the VA’s top engineer on the project rebuffed efforts of a colleague to take concerns to the agency’s highest levels, saying they could be handled locally. But they weren’t. By 2013, after one year of construction, the price tag had climbed $200 million, to $800 million. This year it exploded to more than $1.7 billion, the most expensive hospital project in VA history, with the opening delayed to 2017 at the earliest.

Are bungled claims systemic? Senators want agency review (The Charlotte Observer)
Troubled by delays in handling veterans claims, a bipartisan group of senators on Wednesday urged a wide-scale, independent review of the Department of Veterans Affairs for mismanagement and changes to improve budgeting and speed up applications. A report released by nine senators acknowledged recent efforts by the VA to reduce disability and pensions claims backlogs but said it wasn’t enough. Pointing to the VA’s worst performers such as the Philadelphia regional office, the lawmakers were announcing legislation that would require the Government Accountability Office to investigate all 56 regional offices for problems. It was the latest sign of congressional concern that recent findings of mismanagement at the Philadelphia VA — including neglected mail, manipulation of dates to make old claims look new and alteration of quality reviews — might point to a broader, department-wide problem. “The VA system again finds itself engulfed in another scandal,” said Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., co-chairman of the Senate’s VA backlog working group. VA offices nationwide are suffering from poor management, he said, proving “it is time for an overhaul of the entire system.” Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., the other co-chairman, said he too was worried that problems were not isolated to Philadelphia. “It’s simply unacceptable to have a veteran with a disability wait hundreds of days for their claim to be resolved,” he said. The VA says there are 161,000 disability and compensations claims on backlog, defined as pending more than 125 days. That’s down from a peak of 611,000 in March 2013. But the VA inspector general has questioned the accuracy of the data. Based on a review of VA records, the Senate report said the 10 worst-performing regional offices as judged by wait times were Baltimore; Jackson, Mississippi; Reno, Nevada; Philadelphia; Los Angeles; Chicago; Oakland, California; Indianapolis; Boston; and St. Petersburg, Florida.

St. Petersburg VA among the slowest at processing claims (
Florida’s veterans endure some of the nation’s longest waits for benefits claims, according to a U.S. Senate report that lists St. Petersburg’s regional office as the country’s 10th worst-performing in terms of wait times. Veterans here waited an average of 231 days for their claims to be processed, according to the bipartisan report released Wednesday that called for a wide-scale review. “It’s a disgrace. It’s unbelievable. I can’t believe our government allows it to happen,” said Mike O’Dell, 61, president of the Tampa chapter of Vietnam Veterans of America. “They keep saying that they’ve put more people into the system now to work on these claims, but I don’t know how they’re ever going to dig themselves out of the hole that they got themselves into.” U.S. Rep. David Jolly, R-Indian Shores, announced in April that he secured money in a bill to hire hundreds of employees at the Veterans Benefits Administration and at regional offices, including St. Petersburg, to ease the backlog. Claim delays, the Senate report said, “can devastate a veteran financially and emotionally.” The report urged an independent review of the Department of Veterans Affairs for mismanagement and changes to improve budgeting and speed up applications. Nine senators, troubled by delays in handling veterans claims, announced legislation that would require the Government Accountability Office to investigate all 56 regional offices for problems. The worst performer, according to the report, was Baltimore’s office, with an average of 280 days to complete claims. In contrast, Providence, R.I., completed claims in 60 days.

VHA nominee pledges to use private sector experience to improve VA health care (
President Obama’s nominee to lead the Veterans Health Administration told legislators that he would lean on private sector best practices as he works to transform the way healthcare is administered to veterans. David Shulkin told the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee that he would use his experience as a private sector hospital administrator to help turn around the beleaguered healthcare system. “The VA needs change. It needs more doctors, more nurses and greater efficiency in its systems,” Shulkin said, during a May 5 hearing. “It needs to advance its culture of accountability and eliminate those from the system who have lost their commitment to do what’s right for veterans.” Shulkin actually trained as a physician at a Veterans Affairs Department hospital before moving on to head up Beth Israel Medical Center in New York and the hospital at the University of Pennsylvania. He told the committee that if he’s confirmed, his first priority would be to follow through on promises already made by the VA to get veterans quick access to medical care. “This is what I’ve been doing throughout my career. This is basic operations,” he said.

How can we end homelessness among female veterans? (USC News)
A new report offers a four-pronged approach to address homelessness among female veterans. Researched by the USC Center for Innovation and Research on Veterans & Military Families and the Jonas Center for Nursing and Veterans Healthcare, the report is a pointed call to action for government organizations, non-governmental agencies and philanthropic entities to collaborate and provide resources to fill the gaps that make these women vulnerable to homelessness. The four key actions are:

• Initiate prevention and early intervention efforts.
• Provide health care/child care support for children of female veterans.
• Broaden definitions of “veteran” and “homeless,” thereby increasing eligibility for care and benefits.
• Improve awareness of and dispel myths related to the issue.

“The opportunity to end this grave problem is within reach through coordinated, collaborative and visionary actions,” said co-author Carl Castro, assistant professor and research director of the USC Center for Innovation and Research on Veterans, which is part of the USC School of Social Work. “Though significant progress has been made, too many of our female veterans and their families continue to suffer from homelessness,” the 33-year Army veteran added. “We need a shift in approach — one that directs efforts and resources on preventing the problem. In this case, prevention is worth a pound of cure.”

WWII vets will get an aerial salute over Washington skies (The Washington Post)
Reagan National Airport will be closed to commercial traffic for an hour Friday as the skies over Washington fill with the roar of an antique air armada buzzing the capital in honor of World War II veterans. The “Arsenal of Democracy Flyover” is scheduled to bring scores of World War II vintage aircraft in a 50-minute aerial salute to veterans and mark the 70th anniversary of the end of the war in Europe on May 8, 1945. Fifty-six bombers, fighters, dive bombers and trainers are scheduled to fly over the Potomac River, the Lincoln Memorial, the National World War II Memorial and the Capitol, starting at 12:10 p.m. The airport will be closed from noon to 1 p.m. to accommodate the flyover, organizers said. The planes — P-51, P-40 and P-38 fighters, as well as B-17, B-25, and B-29 bombers, among others — will fly in 15 separate formations at 90-second intervals. The flyover, which is dependent on the weather, will start at the American Legion Memorial Bridge, which connects Fairfax and Montgomery counties. The airplanes must have cloud cover no lower than 2,000 feet and visibility of five miles. The rain date is Saturday. The flight will be the climax of a rain-or-shine ceremony and wreath laying at the World War II Memorial. The ceremony is scheduled to start at 10:30 a.m. Hundreds of World War II veterans as well as foreign dignitaries are expected. Former secretary of state Madeleine Albright is scheduled to speak. The term “arsenal of democracy” was used in a 1940 address by President Franklin D. Roosevelt when he urged that the United States provide Great Britain material help in the fight against Nazi Germany. The United States was not yet in the war then.

Decades later, Vietnam veterans finally welcomed home (Fort Worth Star-Telegram)
The hostile reception is still vivid for Bill Ray. When he came home to Hobbs, N.M., his father, a World War II veteran, had arranged for him to join the local VFW post. But as Ray sat down to have a beer with his dad, an older member of the post let him know he wasn’t welcome. “He said, ‘You can’t be a member here.’ And I said, ‘Thirteen months in Vietnam, I damn sure can,’” Ray recalled. “He said: ‘No. You lost the war, and you’re a baby killer.’” It was too much. Ray turned to his father, who said he wasn’t finished with his beer. “I said, ‘Well, I’ve got three choices: I can leave with you. I can walk out of here. Or I can have the police haul me out after I knock this son of a bitch on his butt,’” said Ray, who chose to walk out. Ray, who lives in Arlington, quickly learned not to talk about his time in Southeast Asia. Vietnam veterans say the negative treatment intensified after the North Vietnamese launched the Tet Offensive on Jan. 31, 1968. The coordinated attack targeted more than 100 cities and towns in South Vietnam. Though U.S. and South Vietnamese forces eventually repelled the attacks, political support for the war eroded back home. The Paris Peace Accords would be signed with North Vietnam on Jan. 27, 1973, which brought the remaining U.S. troops home. Saigon would fall to the North Vietnamese on April 30, 1975. Like many other veterans of the unpopular war, Ray kept his emotions bottled up for years. Then, in 2005, he attended a reunion of the 39th Engineer Battalion alumni group in San Antonio. “That was probably the best thing that ever happened to me,” Ray said. “I probably pulled over five times on that drive to San Antone. I had my doubts, but once I walked in there, it was entirely different.”