June 22 Veterans News Update

June 22 Veterans News Update

Veterans news updateWait lists grow as more veterans seek care; funding falls short (The New York Times)
One year after outrage about long waiting lists for health care shook the Department of Veterans Affairs, the agency is facing a new crisis: The number of veterans on waiting lists of one month or more is now 50 percent higher than it was during the height of last year’s problems, department officials say. The department is also facing a nearly $3 billion budget shortfall, which could affect care for many veterans. The agency is considering furloughs, hiring freezes and other significant moves to reduce the gap. A proposal to address a shortage of funds for one drug — a new, more effective but more costly hepatitis C treatment — by possibly rationing new treatments among veterans and excluding certain patients who have advanced terminal diseases or suffer from a “persistent vegetative state or advanced dementia” is stirring bitter debate inside the department. Agency officials expect to petition Congress this week to allow them to shift money into programs running short of cash. But that may place them at odds with Republican lawmakers who object to removing funds from a new program intended to allow certain veterans on waiting lists and in rural areas to choose taxpayer-paid care from private doctors outside the department’s health system. “Something has to give,” the department’s deputy secretary, Sloan D. Gibson, said in an interview. “We can’t leave this as the status quo. We are not meeting the needs of veterans, and veterans are signaling that to us by coming in for additional care, and we can’t deliver it as timely as we want to.” Since the waiting-list scandal broke last year, the department has broadly expanded access to care. Its doctors and nurses have handled 2.7 million more appointments than in any previous year, while authorizing 900,000 additional patients to see outside physicians. In all, agency officials say, they have increased capacity by more than seven million patient visits per year — double what they originally thought they needed to fix shortcomings.

Senator to VA: Now provide benefits to Blue Water vets (East Niagara Post)
New regulations released by the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), expands disability benefits to Air Force Veterans who were exposed to Agent Orange through regular contact with C-123 aircraft that had been used in Vietnam. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), said last week that she was pleased with the decision but that it didn’t go far enough. New York’s junior senator has been pushing for a similar expansion of VA benefits for Navy veterans, denied due to a technicality. “I am pleased the VA has finally ended the wait and will now provide disability benefits for the Air Force veterans who were exposed to Agent Orange,” Gillibrand said in a statement. “However, there are still hundreds of thousands of Blue Water Navy Veterans who are being denied benefits they need and deserve because of a technicality in the law. Congress owes it to the Blue Water Navy Veterans who bravely served our country and have fallen victim to Agent Orange-related diseases to finish the job by passing legislation that would finally solve this problem and provide access to the benefits they deserve.” On March 9, 2015, Senator Gillibrand and Senator Steve Daines (R-MT) introduced the Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act of 2015, which 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.

Washington state says Quicken Loans targeted vets with misleading ads (Detroit Free Press)
Quicken Loans is facing a potential $500,000 fine from the state of Washington over a claim that the loan company targeted military veterans and service members with deceptive advertisements for mortgages. The state’s Department of Financial Institutions claims the Detroit-based mortgage giant sent direct mailings last year to veterans and service members in Washington that had deceptive and misleading statements, including a “bait and switch” tactic for mortgage loans that would be originated by Quicken and guaranteed by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. According to the complaint, Quicken sent the mailings to about 3 million consumers nationwide, including more than 35,000 in Washington. Quicken Loans says it is the nation’s largest lender of VA loans. In total, 13 violations of Washington state’s Consumer Loan Act are alleged in the notice of intent to file a cease-and-desist against Quicken and order the company to pay a $500,000 fine, plus administrative costs. Quicken Loans spokesman Aaron Emerson said Friday that the lender intends to file an official response to Washington state’s allegations. “While we strongly disagree with several aspects of the State of Washington’s assertions and will address each of them in response to their statement, Quicken Loans has proactively taken steps to ensure all mailings reflect our brand and quality standards,” Emerson said in a statement.

As states loosen marijuana laws, vets still face obstacles in treatment (The Baltimore Sun)
As Maryland and other states move to make medical marijuana available to patients, former service members are still barred from getting the drug from the Veterans Administration. Marijuana remains in a legally precarious position, even as public support for its legalization and use to treat illnesses grows. Washington, Colorado and the District of Columbia have legalized the drug for all purposes — Maryland has decriminalized the possession of small amounts — and almost two dozen states, including Maryland, have authorized medical marijuana programs. But the drug remains illegal under federal law, and for veterans that prohibition makes it difficult to get access to marijuana, which can be effective in treating pain and, advocates say, post-traumatic stress disorder. VA doctors do not prescribe marijuana, and a policy established in 2011 prohibits them from signing any paperwork that would recommend that their patients get marijuana treatment through a state program. “It is always illegal under federal law for a veteran to utilize marijuana, regardless of whether there is a state law allowing for use of marijuana,” said VA spokeswoman Walinda West. Annette Johnson, an Army veteran who lives in Baltimore, wants VA doctors to prescribe marijuana to treat pain from illness and an auto accident. The 53-year-old former military police officer has been using the drug for years by herself and says she finds it effective at managing her pain, allowing her to wear the high heels she likes to church on Sunday. “I can walk my dog,” she said. “Have my quality of life.” Johnson used Percocet for many years but didn’t like the way it clouded her mind and found she suffered withdrawal whenever she tried to stop. She said marijuana does not muddle her mind or cause other noticeable side effects.

Editorial: VA changes must not affect vets’ health care (SILive.com)
We can take no chances with the health and well-being of our military veterans, those who sacrificed to protect and defend the liberties that we cherish, the core freedoms that make America what it is. That’s why we will very carefully watch the changes that are being implemented at the Brooklyn campus of the VA New York Harbor Healthcare System. The changes cannot be allowed to diminish patient care. The system is closing one of the inpatient units at the Brooklyn campus as of July 1. The closure of the 25-bed wing will leave the VA hospital with two inpatient units, totaling 46 beds; a 10-bed intensive care unit, and a mental health unit, according to Martina Parauda, director of VA New York Harbor Healthcare. She said the closure is the result of a budget shortfall, and is expected to save $2 million, most of it in staff salaries. Ms. Parauda said that that an examination of occupancy rates showed that on any given day last year, 65 percent of 71 beds in the three units were occupied. This year, the rate has been 62 percent. Not bursting at the seams by any means, but it’s not like nobody is benefiting from the care. There are people using those beds, so we hope the VA has very closely analyzed the situation before embarking on this course. But Ms. Parauda said that the numbers demonstrated that the changes can be made without affecting patient care and services, both on the inpatient and outpatient sides of the ball. We will be holding the VA to that.

Editorial: For Westover and other vets, a long overdue victory (MassLive.com)
It never should have taken as long as it did, but veterans who served at Westover Air Reserve Base and elsewhere will finally be able to collect benefits for exposure to Agent Orange. The Department of Veterans Affairs had repeatedly balked at the request for benefits to veterans who flew or repaired airplanes that had been used in the Vietnam War. But on Thursday, department Secretary Robert McDonald announced that health care and disability benefits for exposure to dioxin, toxic chemical used in Agent Orange, would be made available to an estimated 2,100 veterans. Many worked at Westover, where they were in contact with the planes from 1973 to 1982. More than a decade after the planes were retired, they were tested and most were found contaminated with dioxin. Were it not for an independent study by the Institute of Medicine Committee (IMC), the veterans’ fight for benefits might have ended in defeat. Commissioned by the Department of Veterans Affairs, the committee validated the veterans’ claims. Why it took the Veterans Department so long to grant the benefits is unanswered.

Veterans’ health care program imperils Alaska system (Pittsburgh Tribune-Review)
A new program to deliver health care to veterans across the nation has jeopardized a system it used for a model, triggering outrage from Alaska’s U.S. senators and frustration from vets. Alaska’s network, built of necessity in a gigantic state in which many communities are accessible only by plane or boat, allowed veterans to receive care closer to home, regardless of whether the facilities were run by the federal Department of Veterans Affairs. It meant veterans no longer had to travel to cities such as Anchorage — or even Seattle — for treatment at VA facilities and did not have to endure the long wait times that veterans in other parts of the country experienced. In the face of a national scandal over long wait times and falsified records at VA facilities, members of Congress took note of Alaska’s approach in passing the Choice Act. The law called for establishment of a temporary program that allows veterans across the nation to seek treatment at clinics and hospitals outside of the VA system if they face waits of more than 30 days or live more than 40 miles away from a VA facility. But the Alaska program was temporarily put on hold as the VA attempted to implement the Choice Program, drawing criticism from U.S. Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan as some veterans said it led to complications. Sullivan, a Republican and Marine Corps reservist, called for a congressional hearing to deal with what he called a “rapidly emerging crisis of care for Alaska’s veterans.”

Vietnam vets get long overdue homecoming celebration in Georgia (NBC News)
After serving their country and risking their lives, many soldiers who returned home from the Vietnam War received scorn instead of welcome. Americans who didn’t believe in the war blamed the soldiers, and some took their anger out on service members. Soldiers came home from combat quietly and were told not to wear their uniforms to avoid inviting contempt. But more than 40 years after the end of the war, the Georgia chapter of the Vietnam Veterans of America wanted to rectify the treatment the veterans received after serving. Vietnam veterans were invited to Fort Stewart in southeast Georgia Friday for a largely belated welcome-home ceremony in Cotrell Field. More than 2,000 people, including 800 veterans attended, according to the Army. “It’s been long and hard, but I believe that the people now believe in us, for what we did,” said Terry Browning, who served in the Marine Corps from 1968 to 1972. He said he attended the event because he had “never been in a parade or welcomed home.” Instead, he said, he returned to people who wouldn’t hire him, and some who spit on him. “When we came back, things were very different — different than they are now, for sure,” said Verlin Voram, who volunteered for the Marine Corps in 1965. He said he returned from Vietnam in the dark of night, and was told to get in a cab as soon as he got off the plane. He still encountered people lined along the fences of the airport, who “weren’t very friendly,” he said.

Wounded veterans hunt child predators (McClatchyDC)
A 37-year-old Army veteran from Raleigh, N.C. who lost both legs and part of his right arm to a roadside bomb in Iraq remains in the fight. Only this time he’s hunting those who prey on children. “I can’t be a badge carrying, gun carrying sworn agent. So this is an opportunity to work in federal law enforcement and be around those guys with similar mentalities and mission oriented people,” said Joseph, who asked that his last name not be used because it could be used against him by those he’s investigating. The former military policeman who served in both Afghanistan and Iraq will now sit in front of a computer chasing child predators online for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. On Friday, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson swore in Joseph along with 21 other wounded veterans into the Human Exploitation Rescue Operative Corps program. The program, started in 2013, is a joint effort by ICE, U.S. Special Operations Command, the Department of Defense and the National Association to Protect Children. The 10-month program gives veterans whose military careers were cut short by injuries a chance to continue serving the country. They’re trained as computer analysts and will embed with the Homeland Security Investigations division of ICE to assist with criminal investigations of child pornography and sexual exploitation. Grier Weeks, executive director of the National Association to Protect Children, told the new recruits they’ll carry a heavier emotional burden fighting sexual predators online than they ever experienced in Afghanistan or Iraq. “You’re going to be fighting an enemy who is more cruel than the Taliban and will do more damage to the homeland, to humanity, than ISIS ever could.,” Weeks said.

Union: Pittsburgh VA medical supply system overwhelms workers (Pittsburgh Tribune-Review)
A computer system meant to streamline medical supply deliveries could compromise patient safety at the Veterans Affairs Pittsburgh Healthcare System, where the technology is muddling inventory reports and overwhelming workers, a VA union says. “They’re upset because they’re worried about the patients,” said Colleen Evans, executive vice president of the American Federation of Government Employees Local 2028. “They’re very, very stressed out.” She said the supply management system from Houston-based Shipcom Wireless has workers “begging for it to stop,” although the union did not identify confirmed incidents of patient harm. It demanded last month to bargain with the VA on changes in working conditions, according to an internal letter obtained by the Tribune-Review. VA officials in Washington said patients are not at risk and that switching to updated technology “isn’t always seamless.” “However, we are confident that our hardworking employees can make this transition to deliver even better service to our nation’s veterans,” the department said. Officials did not indicate whether the VA would bargain on workplace conditions but said labor leaders earlier approved a pilot program for the computer system. Logistics workers continue to stock medical supplies as required, according to the VA.

Clinton opposes VA privatization but sees need for choice (PhillyVoice.com)
Hillary Clinton, the Democratic front-runner for the 2016 presidential race, said on Thursday she opposes blanket privatization of military veterans’ healthcare but realizes that vets need choices. In her first substantive comments on the campaign trail about veterans’ affairs, Clinton vowed to win a better deal for vets and protect their education funding benefits. She told a campaign event at a Veterans of Foreign Wars post in Reno, Nevada, that private medicine cannot compete with the Department of Veterans Affairs’ expertise in post-traumatic stress disorders, traumatic brain injury and prosthetics. “We have learned that privatization and outsourcing is not a magic solution for anything, let alone when it comes to the unique obligations we have to our vets, so I do oppose blanket privatization proposals,” she said. Even so, the former secretary of state suggested there was a role for private health care in some areas of veterans’ treatment. “I do believe choice should be part of the solution and if we let the VA work more with communities while preserving what it does best, serving veterans and their unique needs, perhaps we can get better care faster to more vets.”