Another lawsuit filed over VA’s informal claims changes (Military Times)
Another coalition of veterans groups is suing the Veterans Affairs Department over its changes to the informal claims process, saying officials have created “a rigid and veteran-unfriendly system.” Disabled American Veterans and Veterans of Foreign Wars filed suit Thursday, arguing that VA’s decision to end the informal claims process could prevent thousands from receiving benefits they are owed. “Some veterans may be physically, mentally or financially unable to access the correct forms and VA is not providing a reasonable accommodation,” DAV National Service Director Jim Marszalek said in a statement. “This creates an unfair disadvantage for many veterans and places them in a situation where critical compensation will be denied or delayed.” It’s the second major lawsuit against the department on the issue since March, when VA officials announced plans to dump the informal claims process. For years, that process had allowed veterans to use any documentation — including handwritten letters and simple one-line notes — to initiate their benefits claims. The loose nature of the process locked in effective dates for future payouts but also left department officials complaining about the lack of consistent and coherent information to start work on cases. Now, VA requires the claims process to begin with a new standardized form, made available by the department online, by phone or for paper submission. But veterans groups have argued that move places too much of a burden on veterans, noting that individuals filing informal claims are unfamiliar with VA resources and procedures. Just days after the policy shift, a coalition that included the American Legion, AMVETS, the National Veterans Legal Services Program and Vietnam Veterans of America sued to reverse the changes. The new lawsuit follows that same goal.
Marine veteran suspects Agent Orange stored at Futenma air station on Okinawa (The Asahi Shimbun)
Kris Roberts believes his chronic health problems can be traced back to the summer of 1981, when he was a U.S. Marine at the Futenma air station in Ginowan, Okinawa Prefecture. A superior officer ordered Roberts, other Marines and Japanese workers to remove more than 100 steel drums buried near the edge of the runway at the Marine Corps Air Station Futenma. Liquid spilled from some of the damaged containers, and a recent typhoon had flooded the area near where the men worked. Roberts and his co-workers not only had to remove the drums, but they also went neck-deep in the water. Roberts served at Futenma from December 1980 to November 1981. After he was transferred to a base in the United States, he developed various symptoms, such as asthma, heart problems and prostate cancer. He retired from the Marines in 2002. Now 60, Roberts serves as a member of the state House of Representatives in New Hampshire. In 2009, Roberts asked for compensation for health damage from the Veterans Affairs Department. He said his health problems were likely caused by some chemical he came in contact with at a military base. Three years ago, a doctor at the Veteran Affairs Department told Roberts he had all the symptoms of someone who has been exposed to Agent Orange. Roberts believes that the drum containers he helped remove at Futenma contained the defoliant that was used extensively in the Vietnam War. The U.S. government continues to argue that Agent Orange and other defoliants were never stored, buried or used at Futenma, a major base of operations during the war in Southeast Asia. Roberts never saw combat in the Vietnam War, so he was initially surprised by the doctor’s assessment. But he began thinking about his experience at Futenma. He had taken a photo of the removal of the steel drums. “I had that feeling something was seriously wrong,” Roberts said.
VA claims living vet is dead, sends burial check, cuts benefits (Fox News)
A North Carolina veteran very much alive is fighting for his life following a clerical error that resulted in his family getting a document from the departments of Veterans Affairs and Defense stating he had died. The notices, along with the government’s condolences, came with two checks to help pay for burial costs for Robert Pressley — but because the system now says Pressley is deceased, his benefits reportedly have been terminated. Pressley, who supports a small family and is unable to work due to combat-related injuries, cannot afford to lose his benefits, he told WECT-TV. “To prove that I am alive is just insane and it scares me to death,” he said. “That at a touch of a button or because of someone’s clerical error my whole life can be taken away from me and it is.” Pressley also claims duplicate letters were sent to his ex-wife, even though he told the VA multiple times he was divorced and has since remarried. “I mean, what do I do?” Pressley asked, according WECT-TV. “I am not getting any answers, I am not getting any help. I am scared.” Complicating matters is the practice of the Social Security Administration, which does not verify the death reports it receives from multiple sources, including state vital records agencies and seven federal agencies. The VA, the Internal Revenue Service and the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation are among the agencies that report deaths to the SSA. According to a March GAO report, errors forced the SSA to delete nearly 8,200 deaths from its death data between February 2012 and January 2013.
Study: Self-harm, suicide ideation linked in Iraq, Afghanistan vets (MedicalXpress.com)
Non-suicidal self-injury—that is, purposefully hurting oneself without conscious suicidal intent—is relatively common among Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, according to a study published online April 1, 2015, in Psychiatry Research. The research, conducted by Dr. Nathan Kimbrel, a research psychologist at the Durham VA Medical Center, included 151 Iraq and Afghanistan veterans. Of those, 14 percent reported a history of non-suicidal self-injury, or NSSI. Moreover, the study found that those who deliberately hurt themselves were more likely to engage in suicidal behavior. The researchers hope that NSSI could serve as a marker for identifying which veterans are most likely to attempt suicide. For the study, Kimbrel and his colleagues recruited Iraq and Afghanistan veterans at the Central Texas VA Health Care System. The researchers excluded those with schizophrenia or bipolar disorder, but they included a higher-than-average proportion of veterans with PTSD. In the final study group, 35 percent had PTSD, 21 percent had depression, and 8 percent had alcohol use disorder. More than 90 percent of group was male and 67 percent were white.
Post-traumatic stress disorder linked to accelerated aging (MedicalXpress.com)
In recent years, public health concerns about post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) have risen significantly, driven in part by affected military veterans returning from conflicts in the Middle East and elsewhere. PTSD is associated with number of psychological maladies, among them chronic depression, anger, insomnia, eating disorders and substance abuse. Writing in the May 7 online issue of American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry, researchers at University of California, San Diego School of Medicine and Veterans Affairs San Diego Healthcare System suggest that people with PTSD may also be at risk for accelerated aging or premature senescence. “This is the first study of its type to link PTSD, a psychological disorder with no established genetic basis, which is caused by external, traumatic stress, with long-term, systemic effects on a basic biological process such as aging,” said Dilip V. Jeste, MD, Distinguished Professor of Psychiatry and Neurosciences and director of the Center on Healthy Aging and Senior Care at UC San Diego, who is the senior author of this study. Researchers had previously noted a potential association between psychiatric conditions, such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, and acceleration of the aging process. Jeste and colleagues determined to see if PTSD might show a similar association by conducting a comprehensive review of published empirical studies relevant to early aging in PTSD, covering multiple databases going back to 2000. There is no standardized definition of what constitutes premature or accelerated senescence. For guidance, the researchers looked at early aging phenomena associated with non-psychiatric conditions, such as Hutchinson-Gilford progeria syndrome, HIV infection and Down’s syndrome. The majority of evidence fell into three categories: biological indicators or biomarkers, such as leukocyte telomere length (LTL), earlier occurrence or higher prevalence of medical conditions associated with advanced age and premature mortality. In their literature review, the UC San Diego team identified 64 relevant studies; 22 were suitable for calculating overall effect sizes for biomarkers, 10 for mortality.
VA whistleblowers see retaliation in being paid to do nothing (The Washington Times)
Landis Bradfield has a master’s degree in nursing and more than 12 years of experience working for the Department of Veterans Affairs, yet he has not helped a patient in nearly six months. When Mr. Bradfield reports to work at the VA Illiana Healthcare System in Danville, Illinois, he heads to the library at 7:30 a.m. and spends the entire day sitting and doing nothing — just as he has done every day since November. The forced inactivity, he believes, is retaliation for blowing the whistle on poor patient care and other problems at the facility. Mr. Bradfield raised issues with management about practices such as improperly stored medicine and used syringes, poor performance by other employees and other instances of bullying in the workplace prior to being removed from patient care and forced to sit idle in the library. Mr. Bradfield is one of two nurses whom the VA is preventing from seeing patients, doing administrative work or taking classes required to stay current on their nursing credentials. Even if the agency said they could go back to work tomorrow, Mr. Bradfield said, he would have to complete almost an entire new employee-orientation process before he was able to get back to his regular job, as all of his training certifications are out-of-date. “There’s still two of us [who] for six months now have provided no service to the veterans [yet are] drawing full salary. At the very least, that is a waste,” he told The Washington Times. “As an employee, I am glad I’m getting my salary. As a taxpayer, I am very irritated that people get paid to do nothing.” The VA has long been criticized for retaliating against those who bring to light practices it would rather not address publicly. Last month, a House oversight subcommittee on oversight and investigations hearing aired charges of continued whistleblower retaliation within the VA.
Colorado senators insist on deeper oversight at VA medical center (The Denver Post)
Colorado’s senators want Congress to have greater oversight of the $1.7 billion veteran’s medical complex in Aurora, requesting regular financial updates as the troubled project moves forward. In a letter Thursday to the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, Sens. Michael Bennet and Cory Gardner said “rigorous accountability measures” needed to be put into place to ensure runaway costs on the 30-acre, 13-building facility are kept in check. Among them are frequent reports to appropriate congressional committees that show how much has been spent and how much remains on the project. The senators suggested the updates should be at least quarterly. “We share your intense frustration with the way the Veterans Administration has managed construction of the medical center,” the senators wrote committee chairman Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., and Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., the committee’s ranking member. They said they “stand ready to work with you to ensure appropriate steps are taken so a disaster like this never happens again.” Costs to build the VA project exploded past $1 billion after contractor Kiewit-Turner sued the agency when it was running out of funding. Kiewit successfully argued the VA breached its contract by not ensuring the project could be built for about $600 million, allowing the contractor to stop work until additional funding was provided. Since then, estimates to finish the job have topped $1.7 billion, making it the largest VA hospital construction project in history. It’s not expected to open until at least 2017. Its original completion date had been pegged for sometime this year.
Military compensation reform proposals face new critique (Military Times)
The slate of proposed changes to military pay and benefits is facing a new round of criticism for failing to fully tackle the long-term problems confronting the military personnel system. For months, the Military Compensation and Retirement Modernization Commission’s recommendations for reform were scorned by veterans groups that claimed the proposals were too aggressive and threatened retention. Now some military personnel experts are lodging the opposite critique. “The commission did not go far enough,” said Arnold Punaro, a retired Marine major general and chairman of the Reserve Forces Policy Board, a Pentagon advisory group. Punaro joined other military personnel experts and former officers at the Center for American Progress in Washington on Thursday. They offered similar views that the commission’s recommendations, particularly the proposed changes to the retirement system, fail to sufficiently cut manpower costs or lay a substantive foundation for a modern, flexible force of the future. “I think the commission stepped up to the plate and hoped to hit a home run [but] they probably hit about a double, maybe a triple,” said Phil Carter, a former Army officer and Iraq veteran who heads the Military, Veterans and Society Program at the Center for a New American Security. “They had a mandate to think about the all-volunteer force and its future and really grapple with the social contract and what we really owe those who serve and their families,” Carter said. “What they ended up producing is a set of narrow recommendations … to tweak our social contract.” The compensation commission, created by Congress two years ago, issued 15 recommendations in its report released in January. Among them was a retirement reform proposal that would shrink by 20 percent the current pension for those who stay for 20 years or more, while also making government contributions to individual investment accounts for all troops, even those who serve less than 20 years.
Vets hope WWII anniversary celebrations inspire learning about history (USA Today)
Noah Switzer slowly navigated the paths at Arlington National Cemetery swarmed by well-wishers congratulating him on his service and shaking the hand that wasn’t holding the cane. Switzer, 89, of Taylor Mill, Ky., slogged through 36 days of the Battle of Iwo Jima as a hospital corpsman who tended the wounded and helped bury the 6,800 dead. He often found himself up to his elbows in blood. And he lost his hearing for a few days after a mortar shell hit nearby. But the mood was celebratory as three other World War II veterans traveled Thursday from the Cincinnati area for ceremonies honoring the 70th anniversary of the end of war in Europe. Switzer wondered how much the students in loud T-shirts of blue and orange and purple knew about the war. On this trip, Switzer’s goal was modest. He found it etched in the white slab of Vermont marble beneath a shady tree: the grave of Audie Murphy, one of the most decorated soldiers in in the war who went on to star in his own biographical movie, “To Hell and Back.” “I got to see it,” Switzer said with a smile. “How about them apples?” The crowds quieted for the changing of the guard outside the Tomb of the Unknowns. Students and adults parted for the veterans to see the precise marching and crisp inspection of a rifle by members of the elite 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment known as The Old Guard. Watching intently, Walter Kraus, 94, of Ft. Mitchell, Ky., wore a vest covered with patches from a 30-year career in the Navy ending as a submarine commander. But it wasn’t obvious he had survived the sinking of the submarine S-36 near Indonesia during the war. “It’s nice to know that they respect our past,” Kraus said after shaking another woman’s hand. “I hope they learn about what transpired.”