June 15 Veterans News Update

June 15 Veterans News Update

Veterans news updateVA moving to extend benefits to some C-123 vets (Air Force Times)
Reversing a long-held position, the Department of Veterans Affairs now says Air Force reservists who became ill after being exposed to Agent Orange residue while working on planes after the Vietnam War should be eligible for disability benefits. The VA said it has been working to finalize a rule that could cover more than 2,000 military personnel who flew or worked on Fairchild C-123 aircraft in the U.S. from 1972 to 1982. Many of the Vietnam-era planes, used by the reservists for medical and cargo transport, had sprayed millions of gallons of herbicide during the 1955-1975 military conflict in Southeast Asia. If the White House Office of Management and Budget approves the change, it would be the first time the VA had established a special category of Agent Orange exposure for military personnel without “boots on the ground” or inland waterways service in Vietnam. That could open the VA to renewed claims by thousands of other veterans who say they were exposed to Agent Orange in less direct circumstances, such as on the open sea. The announcement is expected as early as this coming week. An Institute of Medicine report in January concluded that many C-123 reservists had been exposed to chemical residues on the aircraft’s interior surfaces and suffered higher risks of health problems as a result. The institute is part of the National Academy of Sciences, a private organization chartered by Congress to advise the government on scientific matters. Using that report, the department “determined that potentially exposed veterans would be eligible for Agent Orange-related benefits,” the VA said in a statement.
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?

Help wanted: VA can’t fill 30 key director positions (KMOX-St. Louis)
Faced with complaints of shoddy healthcare and long waits, the Veterans Administration now admits its scrambling to fill 30 vacancies of medical center directors around the country. The problem first came to light in St. Louis, where VA healthcare has been run by seven acting directors in two years. None of the acting VA directors here quit or were fired. All were assigned to short stints of 120 days or so. The VA in Washington has now revealed that a long list of major cities–including Baltimore, Denver, Indianapolis, Phoenix and San Antonio– all have VA medical centers run by acting directors while the search continues for permanent directors. U.S. Senators Roy Blunt and Claire McCaskill of Missouri have criticized the policy of acting directors at the St. Louis VA. Blunt calls it “mismanagement at the highest level.” McCaskill says the policy may be linked to inadequate patient care. “Why is this a continuing revolving door of acting directors?” McCaskill asked, “There is no way we’re going to get the consistency and standards we need for our veterans with that kind of revolving door.” It’s not clear from a VA statement released Friday whether its acting directors nationwide are also serving only three month terms of duty. But the VA statement defends its acting medical directors as “qualified:” “These experienced executives are working to ensure that each facility maintains continuity of operations and implements critical improvements to the delivery of care to Veterans.” Asked to justify seven acting directors in two years in St. Louis, the VA responded that that its policy is “in compliance” with federal guidelines. “VA Heartland Network wants to fill this position as quickly as possible and agrees that it is critical to hire a Director at VA St. Louis Health Care System… (The VA Heartland Network ) has done everything within its scope to find the best candidate and actions taken to expedite the hiring process during the last two years.”

Student loan refunds for troops, veterans are in the mail (Military.com)
If you’re a servicemember or veteran who took out student loans, make sure to check the mail because you might have some money coming your way. As part of a settlement over inflated interest rates, Sallie Mae is sending out nearly 80,000 checks, which were mailed Friday, worth $60 million, according to a statement from Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn. Compensation will range from $10 to more than $100,000, with the average check being about $771. The size of the check depends on how long and by how much the interest rate exceeded 6 percent. The settlement came after the federal government filed suit against Navient Corp., formerly part of Sallie Mae, for violating the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act, which caps student loan interest rates for servicemembers at 6 percent. The lawsuit claimed that violations went back to 2005. The settlement includes Navient’s full range of student loans, including private loans, direct Department of Education loans, and loans that originated under the Federal Family Education Loan Program, according to a Department of Justice news release. In addition to sending compensation checks, Navient agreed to pay a $55,000 fine and request the three major credit bureaus delete negative credit history entries connected to the overcharges. Servicemembers and veterans who have questions about their eligibility for compensation can call (855) 382-6421.

Colorado VA hospital mess again gets a last-minute reprieve (Military Times)
For the second time this year, lawmakers passed a budget extension for the controversial Denver Veterans Affairs medical campus project just a few dozen hours before funding shortfalls would have forced contractors off the job. The latest move, approved by the Senate on Thursday evening and the House on Friday afternoon, would authorize another $150 million in spending on the overdue and overbudget project. It follows a monthlong authorization extension last month by lawmakers. The new spending cap is expected to keep work on the project solvent through the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30, and give VA officials a few more months to present a long-term funding plan for the embattled project. Planners expect the final cost of the medical campus to rise another $625 million to a total of over $1.7 billion, more than double the project’s original estimates. Lawmakers expressed concerns about VA mismanagement of this and other construction projects, and earlier in the year pushed the department to turn over management of the work to the Army Corps of Engineers. But they also said that the construction project needs to continue to ensure the best possible care for the almost 400,000 veterans in the greater Denver area. Contractors on the project had threatened to leave the job as early as Monday if agreement on a funding extension could not be reached. “VA’s mismanagement of this project is inexcusable and we intend on holding those responsible for the mistakes accountable,” said Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Colo., one of the leading critics on the issue. “But our veterans should not suffer for VA’s mistakes and I am proud that we were able to keep this project going through September while we develop a long-term solution.”

Editorial: Congress should cover in vitro for military vets (Tampa Bay Times)
Access to in vitro fertilization should be provided to every service member injured in battle. The U.S. military has seen a dramatic increase in reproductive injuries due to the use of improvised explosive devices in Iraq and Afghanistan, preventing thousands of young veterans from starting families. Many of those wounded consider IVF their only hope for conceiving children. Yet they find little help from the federal government, since the Department of Veterans Affairs enforces a ban on paying for the procedure. Congress should change this outdated policy and make treatment available for all veterans who seek it. Between 2003 and 2013, more than 2,300 service members suffered genital wounds in combat, according to the Defense Department. These soldiers return home from battle with little hope of having a child and barely enough money to undergo IVF treatment, which can cost between $7,000 and $12,000 per cycle. If prospective parents choose to undergo IVF despite the costs, there are few coverage options available. The VA does not cover the procedure because of a policy stemming from a 1990 law backed by conservatives concerned about assisted reproduction and the possible destruction of fertilized embryos. The Defense Department offers money only while a service member is still considered on active duty, from injury to military discharge, an intense time when most families are dealing with surgeries, recoveries and adjustments to post-combat life. It is unreasonable to expect them to decide about IVF in such a chaotic time.

Restoring public trust challenges Pittsburgh VA (Pittsburgh Tribune-Review)
Restoring public trust could take a decade for the Veterans Affairs Pittsburgh Healthcare System because of a fatal disease outbreak and months-long delays in care, the outgoing interim director warns. Dr. David S. Macpherson says the two-campus system has begun regaining that confidence through town hall gatherings, regular meetings with veterans advocacy groups and a more transparent approach from the top down. “If you don’t trust your health care system — your physician, your nurse who’s taking care of you — that’s a very, very bad situation,” said Macpherson, 59, who will step aside Sunday after a yearlong appointment leading the VA Pittsburgh. Deputy Director Barbara Forsha will become interim director. “If you don’t trust your health care provider, you may choose not to take your medicine. You may choose not to follow through with important tests,” Macpherson said. The Department of Veterans Affairs chose him last June as a temporary successor to Terry Gerigk Wolf, whom the VA fired for mishandling a Legionnaires’ disease outbreak in 2011 and 2012. At least six veterans died and 16 were sickened at the campuses in Oakland and O’Hara. Federal investigators found systemic management problems led to the outbreak, fueled by waterborne Legionella bacteria that appeared at alarming levels as early as 2007. When Macpherson took over, the VA Pittsburgh had another embarrassment: Lawmakers had discovered an internal list that kept nearly 700 veterans waiting for up to a year or more for care. Similar problems cropped up at VA hospitals across the country.

VA demos prototype for new patient record system (NextGov)
The Department of Veterans Affairs is designing a new platform that can pull patient records from disparate hospital systems into one virtual place, potentially giving physicians a more complete look at a patient’s history. The Enterprise Health Management Platform, or eHMP, is still in its early stages. Pilots in a few cities including Portland, Oregon and San Antonio, Texas, are scheduled to begin in July. But during a briefing with reporters Thursday, VA officials were eager to demonstrate progress on the prototype, though it’s still buggy — a pop-up information box lingers after the user moves the cursor away, for instance. The current version of eHMP is read-only, meaning clinicians can use it to view patient records from VA, the Defense Department and community health partners through an electronic health information exchange. But it’s an improvement on VA’s current platform — the Computerized Patient Record System — because it lets clinicians search beyond files stored at their location, Neil Evans, ‎co-director of connected health at the Veterans Health Administration, said during the demonstration. Currently, a care provider must use a remote-viewing application to access records from other facilities. A more integrated system could help care providers see which drugs a patient has been prescribed and filled and in which location. This approach shows physicians a broader look at possible drug interactions among other risks, said David Waltman, VA’s senior adviser to the undersecretary for health. VA plans to give all VA facilities access to eHMP by 2017, and to phase out CPRS by 2020, Waltman said.

What makes a college veteran-friendly? (Task & Purpose)
While colleges claim to be veteran friendly, here are four signs that a school is truly committed to providing quality education to former service members. Members of the military transitioning back to civilian life face a bewildering array of colleges at which to use their hard-earned G.I. Bill benefits. Many claim to be “veteran friendly,” but are they? Numerous organizations publish annual lists ranking the most military-friendly schools. Military Times publishes the best-known list, but it is also one of the most dubious. In 2015 Best for Vets rankings, 6 out of the top 10 ranked schools had a less than 50% average graduation rate. So what truly makes a college veteran friendly, and what can other colleges do to improve? Here are some clues to look for when seeking out a veteran-friendly school. Colleges that genuinely value diversity will make an active, sustained effort to attract veterans, because they recognize the value of their presence in the classroom. In 2011, Princeton University came under fire for having only three veterans enrolled out of more than 5,000 undergraduates, despite the fact that veterans make up 1 out of every 30 undergraduate students nationwide. In response, Shirley Tilghman, the president of the university, said that they “do not discourage veterans from applying to Princeton.” A university spokesman added that Princeton has “no prohibition against veterans, and we encourage and consider their applications like all others.” However, a lack of active discrimination is very different from going out on the streets to recruit veterans.

N.Y. state bill would create system to track veteran-owned businesses (TWC News)
It’s been a lifelong love for Bill Abbott. “I started drawing when I was very young,” he said. He stuck with it through more than two decades in the Navy. “I deployed quite a bit in the service, and it’s tough to start a business when you’re always leaving,” said Abbott. After his last deployment in 2008, Bill Abbott Cartoons was born. Like most businesses, he faced his share of challenges. “The most difficult part, I think, for any business I’ve been involved in, it has more to do with how to put the word out about your business so that people know that you’re there,” he said. State Sen. Tim Kennedy says finding out how to help businesses like Abbott’s is the goal of a bill he sponsored that recently passed the Senate and Assembly. “Right now, this is going to be a compiling of information, a tracking and an identifying of veteran-owned businesses…and then that report is going to be put forward,” said Kennedy. Kennedy says the report from the State Division of Veterans Affairs would include research to help legislators determine what supports to put in place. “That’s really going to help us to focus in on veterans, disabled veterans and their businesses, and allow New York State to put resources in place,” said Kennedy.

Court rejects Veterans Day sentence for Navy charity scammer (CBS News)
A man convicted of masterminding a $100 million, multi-state Navy veterans charity fraud won’t have to spend every Veterans Day in solitary confinement as indicated in his prison sentence, an Ohio appeals court ruled. The man identifying himself as Bobby Thompson was convicted in 2013 of racketeering, theft, money laundering and 12 counts of identity theft. A Cuyahoga County judge sentenced him to 28 years in prison, with solitary confinement each Veterans Day. In a unanimous ruling Thursday, the 8th District Court of Appeals said the trial court had no authority under Ohio sentencing law to impose the solitary-confinement punishment. The court also reduced Thompson’s sentence by one year, acknowledging Ohio courts didn’t have jurisdiction over some of the identity-fraud charges against him. The fraud occurred in more than 40 states, according to trial testimony, and Thompson was indicted in Ohio in 2010. He disappeared for nearly two years and was arrested in Portland, Oregon, in 2012. He was charged with looting the United States Navy Veterans Association, a charity he ran in Tampa, Florida. Only a fraction of the $100 million was found. Authorities discovered fake IDs and a suitcase with $980,000 in cash when he was arrested.