June 11 Veterans News Update

June 11 Veterans News Update

Veterans news updateColorado VA hospital could get boost from sale of Paris hotel (The Denver Post)
As Congress and the VA search for money to pay for a new hospital in Aurora, one piece of property has caught the eye of legislators: a building in Paris owned by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and leased to a private company. U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Aurora, said he recently was told the current lessee, LA Partners, was interested in buying Pershing Hall, which now operates as a boutique hotel. According to Coffman, selling the property could yield about $30 million if LA Partners buys out the remaining 82 years on the lease, which expires in 2097. “Sell the hotel in Paris; build the hospital in Aurora,” Coffman said in a statement. “The VA needs to make hard decisions to fund their mismanagement, and selling a five-star foreign hotel is a great place to start.” Pershing Hall, however, is not without history. It was used by Gen. John J. Pershing during World War I before being purchased by the American Legion, according to information provided by Coffman. Later it was frequented by U.S. soldiers during World War II. Memorials to U.S. troops remain at the site, which the VA took over in 1991. VA spokeswoman Victoria Dillon said the issue is not cut and dried. Not only would the VA need Congress’ approval to sell the hotel, it also would need lawmakers’ approval to use that money for the Aurora project.

Lawmakers weigh cutting medical care for vets to pay for VA boondoggle project (The Washington Post)
Congress and the Department of Veterans Affairs could be heading toward a showdown in coming days over whether to slash spending across the agency –including on medical care for veterans — to cover runaway costs for a new hospital in suburban Denver that’s now widely viewed as a boondoggle. Just days before the troubled construction project runs out of money to keep workers on the job, House and Senate lawmakers are weighing a plan VA Secretary Robert McDonald sent them late last week to cover the remaining cost. The money could come from spending cuts across the sprawling agency of close to 1 percent, or from shifting money from dozens of construction and maintenance projects planned in members’ home districts. Early this spring, VA officials asked Congress to allow them to spend $830 million to finish the hospital — but pared that to $625 million after lawmakers were aghast at the number. The 184-bed medical center in Aurora, Colo., now estimated to cost taxpayers $1.7 billion, three times its original budget, is the most expensive project in VA history. Several lawmakers are concerned that “across the board cuts will not be palatable” to appropriators or House and Senate leaders, who are being briefed this week on VA’s proposal. “Congress is going to want to put VA on a very short leash here, because there’s a fear of giving them a lump sum,” one aide said. “We don’t trust them enough to give them hundreds of millions of dollars at one time.” A Band-Aid approach, rather than an infusion of cash VA is pushing for to finish the hospital, reflects a continuing mistrust lawmakers have expressed in the agency that serves veterans.

VA prescription crackdown raises new concerns (Military Times)
The number of veterans prescribed opiates and other pain medications through Veterans Affairs has declined under a drug safety initiative but the aggressive monitoring program may have deadly consequences for some who turn to street drugs or suicide to stop their pain. Congressional representatives and veterans advocates on Wednesday raised concerns that VA physicians often over-prescribe addictive opiate painkillers but also may now be underprescribing them as VA hospitals and clinics move to crack down on their use for chronic pain and mental health conditions. Both approaches can be harmful. “[Under these measures] veterans are now required to see a prescriber every 30 days, but at the El Paso VA, they are unable to get an appointment, so they go without, or they do something they shouldn’t — they buy them on the street,” Rep. Beto O’Rourke, D-Texas, said. “Too often we hear stories of veterans who are prescribed what seems like an assortment of antipsychotic drugs and opioids with very little oversight. … On the flip side, there are some stories of veterans with enormous pain and doctors who won’t consider their request for stronger medication,” Jacqueline Malfucci, research director for the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America told the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee. According to VA, the number of veterans prescribed opioids since the VA-wide implementation of its Opioid Safety Initiative in 2013 has dropped by nearly 110,000, and the number receiving opiods and benzodiazepines together — a mix that can cause respiratory distress and accidental death — declined by nearly 34,000. No statistics are available regarding the number of veterans in chronic pain who take to buying opiate-based prescription painkillers or heroin on the illegal market.

VA nomination on hold in Senate over Agent Orange dispute (Navy Times)
Two Democratic senators are holding up a confirmation vote on President Obama’s nominee for Veterans Affairs’ top health post, citing the department’s delay in extending disability benefits to Air Force reservists possibly exposed to Agent Orange. Sens. Sherrod Brown of Ohio and Ron Wyden of Oregon said Thursday they will block a vote on David Shulkin’s nomination in the full Senate until the Department of Veterans Affairs provides a more comprehensive update on its efforts to help roughly 1,500 to 2,100 reservists who served from 1972 to 1982 at military bases in Ohio, Pennsylvania and Massachusetts. Brown, Wyden and five other senators requested such feedback in a letter to the VA in April, with no adequate response to date, they said. Any senator can anonymously place a hold on a nominee for any reason, preventing a vote. “These veterans have waited too long to receive the health care and disability benefits they deserve,” Brown told The Associated Press. “Dr. Shulkin is extremely qualified, but we can’t move forward to confirm an undersecretary for health at the VA until this pressing veterans’ health issue is addressed.” The VA did not immediately respond Thursday morning to a request for comment. The department has been mulling a plan to grant a presumption of Agent Orange exposure to reservists who flew or worked on C-123 aircraft, many of which contained residue from the herbicide in the years after the Vietnam War. Such a move would give them easier access to disability benefits. Since at least 2012, the VA has denied that the reservists could have been exposed to dioxin from dried Agent Orange, but it agreed to reexamine the issue after an Institute of Medicine report in January concluded many reservists were exposed and suffered higher health risks.
Related articles:
VetsHQ’s page on C-123 veterans and herbicides
Institute of Medicine: C-123 veterans exposed to Agent Orange
What happened to the contaminated C-123 aircraft?

Investigation into Iowa vet’s suicide finds VA did not deny service (Des Moines Register)
A federal review found the Veterans Affairs Medical Center did not deny services to a veteran who was found dead in a Des Moines park five days after seeking mental health services there. However, it noted the hospital should not have discontinued the case management services it had been providing him. U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst called for the investigation in February after a passerby found the frozen body of 41-year-old Richard Miles in Water Works Park. The Iraq war veteran suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety and depression and had a history of suicide attempts. He had sought care at the center five days before he was found dead. An autopsy later confirmed his suicide. The report was conducted by the Department of Veterans Affairs office of Inspector General. It investigated claims that Miles did not receive services he requested and that he had received a poor quality of care. The investigation also reviewed all aspects of the mental health programs available at VA Central Iowa Health Care System. The report found that Miles had not requested long-term mental health services and that his clinical condition at the time did not warrant inpatient admission. However, the report’s authors did note that Miles had previously been assigned a case management worker who should have been checking in with him. A program manager told inspectors that in 2011 there was an influx of veterans, so they had been instructed — against Veterans Health Administration policy — to contact all patients who were receiving case management services only on an annual basis to see if they needed continued service. Those veterans were either bumped up to a more frequent case management schedule or were removed from the program if they were doing well. They chose to remove from the program veterans who could not be contacted. According to the report, Miles’ case worker made one attempt to call him and sent him one letter before removing him from that program.

VA may be saving veterans from suicide (The Los Angeles Times)
Military veterans who receive healthcare through the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs commit suicide at lower rates than those outside the system, according to government data. VA researchers said the data suggest that the agency’s suicide prevention programs are working for veterans who use them — though they also acknowledged that the lower rates may also reflect an underlying willingness to seek help. The differences were especially stark among women, whose overall suicide rates are only now becoming clear. The Times reported this week that female veterans commit suicide at nearly six times the rate of other women, based on a government analysis of all 173,969 adult suicides — men and women, veterans and non-veterans — in 23 states between 2000 and 2010. Age-group breakdowns provided to The Times showed that the rates remained elevated across all generations of women who served. In contrast, the rates for men were elevated only for those under 50. To counter criticism that it is not doing enough to stop suicide, the VA is trying to draw attention to one bright spot in the data: lower suicide rates for veterans enrolled in healthcare there. “I think it’s important to understand that the enhanced care that we provide at VA is making a difference,” Dr. Caitlin Thompson, deputy director for suicide prevention, said in an article posted Tuesday evening on the VA blog. Suicide rates are typically expressed in the number of deaths per 100,000 people each year. The figure for women who didn’t seek VA help started out at 29.9 in 2000 and climbed steadily, reaching 43.6 in 2010. For male VA users, it fell from 37.3 to 29.1. In contrast, it rose from 27.5 to 38.3 for male nonusers. For female veterans using the VA, that number held relatively steady over the 11 years included in the data, averaging 10.3.

VA launches employment service for homeless veterans (KGWN-Cheyenne)
The Department of Veterans Affairs has announced a new employment program aimed at helping job-ready Veterans exiting homelessness, and those on the brink of homelessness, gain stable and long-term employment. The new program, Homeless Veteran Community Employment Services (HVCES), relies on Community Employment Coordinators (CECs) who know their communities and can work with local employers to identify suitable jobs based on a Veteran’s skills and abilities. “Securing long-term, stable and fulfilling employment is important for Veterans who are exiting homelessness or are at-risk of becoming homeless,” said VA Secretary Robert A. McDonald. “We know that finding gainful employment can change the life of a Veteran. This new program is a key component of the overall strategy to prevent and end Veteran homelessness.” Each VA Medical Center (VAMC) will have a dedicated CEC who will be responsible for connecting homeless and at-risk Veterans to appropriate VA and community-based employment services. The goal is to establish relationships with employers who may be able to hire Veterans while VA provides the necessary support services to ensure each Veteran’s transition back into the workforce is successful. CECs also will work with existing VA employment programs and local workforce development organizations to identify other employment-related resources for this subset of the Veteran population.

VA whistleblowers unite to push reform of veteran health care (WMAZ-Macon)
Whistleblowers from Veterans Affairs medical facilities across the country are banding together to keep pressure on the VA to fix the agency, protect whistleblowers and improve veteran patient care. The group, “VA Truth Tellers,” has a Facebook page, an email group and plans for several members to speak at a whistleblower panel in Washington next month. Their ranks include roughly two dozen current and former VA employees from medical centers in 10 states that serve more than 600,000 veterans annually. “I think that all of us coming together will send a message,” said Germaine Clarno, a social worker at the Hines VA Medical Center near Chicago. “The message is, ‘VA, you’ve got to change.'” Individually, they have blown the whistle on manipulated patient wait times and mismanaged care of suicidal veterans in Phoenix; secret appointment wait lists in Shreveport, La.; malfeasance in Montgomery and Tuskegee, Ala.; and poor veteran care in Wilmington, Del. They reported veterans are being subjected to unnecessary heart surgeries at the Hines VA hospital and prescribed dangerous amounts of drugs in Tomah, Wis. In many cases, the problems they exposed led to veteran harm and even death. Now, the whistleblowers want the public to know the taxpayer-funded VA is still riddled with dysfunction, almost a year after VA Secretary Robert McDonald took over the agency following the resignation of his predecessor amid the Phoenix wait-time scandal. The whistleblowers say change isn’t happening fast enough. Members of the group, which includes doctors, nurses, social workers, and administrators, say issues they exposed are still ongoing, including lengthy and manipulated wait lists for veteran health care, mismanagement, short-staffing and poor and negligent care. And they say there is little hope of uncovering and fixing the litany of problems, because even with new leaders at VA medical centers across the country, many of the managers and supervisors who ignored or failed to fix problems before are still in their jobs.

What veterans need: A career, not a job (The Hill)
Commentary: “As a leader frequently involved in hiring decisions, I’m often asked by clients and competitors alike “Where do you find good people?”  Candidly, finding good people has never been an issue. However, one key and overlooked group have been those that transition out of the military. But, as technically competent as they are, veterans need our help to transition from military life into the civilian workforce in meaningful, measurable, lasting numbers. Military personnel often don’t have the social and professional networks within the industry, profession, and region in which they would like to work, so too often they take a job and do not build a career. Personal networks can be key to professional success. We need to ensure that our veterans have the social capital to complement their intellectual capital. We need effective and efficient veteran outreach programs and educational endeavors that pull former service members into our professional ranks.”

Unanimous agreement on property tax break for Illinois disabled vets (Chicago Tribune)
While it may seem that Democrats and Republicans are at war in Springfield, at least one piece of legislation has received unanimous support from lawmakers of both political parties. A bill that would provide a variety of property tax breaks for veterans with military-related disabilities passed the Illinois Senate and House without a single dissenting vote. The legislation must still be signed by the governor to become law. The measure provides tax breaks to veterans who make accessibility improvements to their homes, such as wheelchair ramps and handicapped accessible bathrooms to their residential properties. Under the legislation, such improvements would not increase the assessed valuation of the property for a period of seven years after the improvements are completed. More significantly, if a veteran has a service-connected disability of 30 percent but less than 50 percent as certified by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, that individual would qualify for an annual property tax exemption of $2,500. Tax exemptions would be given by the county the veteran lives in. If the veteran has a service-connected disability of 50 percent but less than 70 percent, again determined by the Department of Veterans Affairs, the annual property tax exemption climbs to $5,000. And if a veteran has a service-connected disability of 70 percent or more, “then the property is exempt from taxation” under the property tax code.

GOP veterans demand Arizona state senator release his military files (AZCentral.com)
A dozen Arizona veterans have written to top Arizona Republicans calling on state Sen. Jeff Dial to release his full military records or face an ethics investigation. The letter, sent to Gov. Doug Ducey, Senate President Andy Biggs, House Speaker David Gowan and Arizona Republican Party Chairman Robert Graham, said the veterans were concerned about a recent story in The Arizona Republic regarding the “questionable military service” of Dial, a Republican. “It is rare that a Veteran cannot remember his rank at discharge, the unit assigned or name of a commanding officer,” the letter stated, referring to statements that Dial made to The Republic. “Questions surround Senator Dial’s level of participation while serving.” The letter requests that Dial release his military records from the U.S. Army Reserve “so the issue can be truthfully reported.” If he is unwilling to do so, the letter calls for an ethics investigation “to determine if Senator Dial is truly a veteran and can continue to use the title as he has for political and financial gain.” Dial met with The Republic on Wednesday to show his military records. He would not provide copies or allow the documents to be photographed. Bert Coleman, Dial’s political consultant, said he did not want Dial’s documents “floating around.” The documents did not include records that military experts said would typically be in a veteran’s military file, including counseling statements, annual training orders, drill-account statements, pay records, evaluations or reprimands. Dial said he did not keep any military records because his lifestyle is minimalist, and he didn’t need any of them.

Vets find former Fla. legion official lied about service, heroism (Jacksonville.com)
John “J.J.” Lavoie enjoyed an honorable career of more than 20 years in the United States Marines. Though the retired master sergeant never stepped foot on Vietnamese soil, he had a solid service record of which he could be proud. So why Lavoie frequently and publicly sported a slew of medals he never earned — including the Silver Star, Bronze Star with Valor and Purple Heart — is anyone’s guess. The issue of stolen valor has risen to the forefront in the military and veterans community. Photos and videos of those caught fraudulently wearing uniforms or military awards regularly make the rounds on veterans websites and Facebook feeds, prompting disdain and anger among those who served. Stolen valor is especially important to them because many knew friends who died earning the same medals the impostors wear dishonestly. Two veterans who noticed discrepancies in the medals and ribbons displayed notified Lavoie’s American Legion Post 88 about their suspicions. As is standard practice, the post denied the men’s request to provide Lavoie’s military records and didn’t investigate the matter any further. Brian Gibson, the post’s commander, said he doesn’t question a member’s honor if there is only suspicion involved and no evidence. Gibson acknowledged Lavoie was a former commander of the post and often represented it at ceremonies across the city, “All I can do as commander is try to take care of my members and address the facts that are in front of me,” Gibson said. “Until Saturday, all I had was someone’s suspicions.” One vet, Bob Adelhelm, decided to pursue the matter on his own. He reached out to the Times-Union to find out how to obtain Lavoie’s records — those results came back Saturday from the U.S. National Personnel Records Center. The records lay out a career that spanned 1972 to 1993. Lavoie’s time was spent mostly with maintenance battalions. His highest awards were three Navy commendation medals.  After receiving the records, the American Legion’s 5th District commander who oversees the Jacksonville post, Tom Gora, said a full investigation is underway. “Nobody in the American Legion is happy with what we’ve seen,” Gora said. “I don’t think that post commander probably realized the seriousness of it.”

Veteran’s dirty laundry mailed to his family — two years after his death (WTAE-Pittsburgh)
The family of a local World War II Air Force veteran is trying to make sense of a box it recently received in the mail. A box of food and urine-stained clothing was addressed to Staff Sgt. John Peter’s wife. John Peters died in 2013. His wife died before he did. Before he died, Peters was treated at the VA Pittsburgh Health Care System. The hospital returned the dirty clothes to his family two years after he died. His daughter picked up the box from where her parents used to live in Bellevue. “It’s disgusting. It smelled terrible,” said Peters’ daughter, Sue Kremmel. Some of the clothes in the box did not even belong to Peters, according to his daughter. “It was stained, it looked like food stains and urine stains,” said Kremmel. Inside the box was a packing slip that did not even match the items in the box. She considered delivering the box back to the hospital. “I was thinking about delivering it to them personally,” Kremmel said. The delivery came after the family’s three-year battle to secure veteran’s benefits for Peters during his time in a nursing home. Peters died before the VA processed his paperwork. The box of dirty clothes brought back many bad memories of that battle with the VA. An administrator at the hospital apologized to Peters’ family and offered a possible explanation. “It could have been put away soiled by another employee, extra clothing brought in and stuck with the clothing,” said John Brewer, program manager for environmental services at the hospital. “Something like that could have happened. Again, I apologize, it should have never have happened this way and I’m sorry.” Brewer also said the hospital is changing its policy to require all patents’ clothing to be carefully inventoried and cleaned before they are returned to family members.

New delay in getting health clinic for veterans in Louisiana (NOLA.com)
There’s yet another delay in opening up a new Veterans Affairs medical clinic in Lafayette. The latest delay results from an impasse over a contract to open a temporary clinic at a building operated by Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital in Lafayette. The dispute is over the Catholic hospital’s insistence any lease respect its religious and ethics policy that bar services, including counseling, related to contraception or abortion, according to congressional sources. Plans were to open up the temporary facility while a permanent clinic is readied for occupancy. Development of a new clinic has been delayed for years over a funding problem that was remedied by Congress in 2013. The announcement of a problem opening up a temporary clinic drew immediate criticism from Rep. Charles Boustany, R-Lafayette and Sen. David Vitter, R-La. “South Louisiana veterans have experienced delay after delay, but this news is just another example of the VA’s stunning incompetence,” Boustany said. Said Vitter: “The VA absolutely should have known about religious freedom requirements with Catholic hospitals—it has even had to address these issues in Baton Rouge before. This isn’t a legitimate delay. It looks like a deliberate attempt by the VA to conceal its continued inability to get this desperately-needed facility built in Lafayette.” There was no immediate comment from the Department of Veterans Affairs.

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