Lawmakers set to question VA on latest funding crisis (Stars & Stripes)
The Department of Veterans Affairs is likely to face tough criticism Thursday when it breaks the news to Congress of its massive new financial crisis – $2.7 billion short on health care funding. The shortfall is drawing fire from some key lawmakers, who said they are surprised and frustrated by continued VA failures. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said Congress has pumped billions in new funding into the department in just the past year and increased its budget every year for 14 years. The VA’s second in charge, Deputy Secretary Sloan Gibson, is set to testify Thursday before the House Veterans Affairs Committee on the current budget situation, after telling The New York Times last week about the shortfall and blaming it on surging demand for health care at its nationwide network of hospitals and clinics. The VA saw its overall workload increase by more than 10 percent over the past year as well as increased costs due to a new, expensive Hepatitis C drug, according to a memo sent to members of Congress and obtained by Stars and Stripes. The financial problem came as a surprise in the House, said Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., chairman of the Armed Services Committee. “Secretary [Bob] McDonald has testified four times within nearly as many months about VA’s budget, without ever mentioning a shortfall of this magnitude,” Miller said in a statement Tuesday. It is the latest in a string of crises and big emergency spending at the department – especially over the past year as the VA attempted to emerge from one of the worst scandals in its history. Congress passed a massive $16.3 billion emergency overhaul law that included $10 billion for the Veterans Choice program, which provides outside care to veterans who cannot get an appointment at their local VA. But the department is struggling now to pay for a $1.73 billion Denver hospital construction project with huge cost overruns due to mismanagement. McCain said the new crisis shows the department cannot manage federal money and provide treatment to veterans. This year, lawmakers granted the VA an additional $6 billion to hire more health care staff, he said. “Congress has approved every budget increase for the VA since 9/11 – in many cases going above and beyond increases requested by the VA – and yet the Department continues to tell us how it is short of funding,” McCain said in a statement.
VA response: We’ll try to contact 1,200 WWII vets exposed to mustard gas (NPR.org)
The Department of Veterans Affairs has responded to an NPR story that the U.S. military exposed thousands of American troops to mustard gas in secret chemical weapons experiments during World War II. NPR’s Caitlin Dickerson reported that “When those experiments were formally declassified in the 1990s, the Department of Veterans Affairs made two promises: to locate about 4,000 men who were used in the most extreme tests, and to compensate those who had permanent injuries. But the VA didn’t uphold those promises, an NPR investigation has found.” In response the VA said: “The Department of Veterans Affairs appreciates the service and sacrifices of those World War II Veterans who may have been injured in mustard gas testing. VA recognizes that disabilities may have resulted due to full body mustard gas exposure. VA has established presumptions of service connection for certain disabilities that may have resulted from this exposure. The NPR story rightfully points out the sacrifices that Veterans and their families have gone through during the years when they were sworn to secrecy. VA is prepared to assist any Veteran or survivor who contacts us in determining their entitlement to benefits. Additionally, if NPR is willing to share with us the list of 1,200 or so Veterans who they have been able to identify as having been exposed, VA will attempt to contact them to ensure they are receiving all the benefits and services to which they are entitled under the law.”
Pentagon admits race-based mustard gas experiments in WWII (Inquisitr.com)
National Public Radio announced the United States Department of Defense admitted to conducting mustard gas experiments on minority American soldiers during World War II. In 1993, declassified documents show that 60,000 soldiers took part in this secret program. The Pentagon mustard gas experiments were done on African-American, Puerto Rican, and Japanese-Americans. The purpose of the mustard gas experiments was to discover if mustard gas had a different effect on darker pigmented skin as opposed to the skin of whites. White soldiers were used as a control group during these Pentagon mustard gas experiments. Rollins Edwards is a 93-year-old World War II veteran. Edwards is one of the African-American soldiers who took part in the Pentagon mustard gas experiments. He talks about what it was like to be exposed to this weapon of mass destruction. “They said we were being tested to see what effect these gases would have on black skins. You had no choice. You did not know where you were going. They didn’t tell you anything.” Edwards also mentioned that his mustard gas exposure is “still causing me problems even now. It’s very itchy. I doubt it will ever go away.” Edwards’ story is just one of many from living World War II veterans that were experimented on with mustard gas.
Veterans’ ID bill passes Senate, advances (Sarasota Herald Tribune)
Legislation sponsored by U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan, R-Sarasota, to extend veteran ID cards to all former service members cleared the U.S. Senate Monday evening. The bill now goes back to the House because the Senate version is not identical to the one House members passed 402-0 last month. But Buchanan’s office said the legislation is expected to quickly pass the House again and head to President Barack Obama for final approval. Currently, only veterans with 20 years or more of service, or those who have a disability related to their service, can qualify for an ID card. Buchanan sponsored the legislation to make it easier for all veterans to prove their military service and avoid having to carry around their discharge documents. “A simple, standardized ID card will make life easier for our veterans,” Buchanan said in a news release. The paperwork problem is not an issue in Florida because veterans already can apply to have a “V” put on their driver’s license as proof of service. State Sen. Nancy Detert, R-Venice, advanced the driver’s license provision in 2012. There are an estimated 85,000 veterans living in Sarasota, Manatee and Charlotte counties. “Veterans who have honorably served their country deserve to have a simple, straightforward way to prove their veteran status,” said Bradenton resident Anthony Hardie, director of Veterans for Common Sense.
Senate bill aims to retool VA prescription drug policies (Ripon Advance)
U.S. Sens. Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV) and Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) introduced the Jason Simcakoski Memorial Opioid Safety Act on Monday. The legislation aims to reform the Department of Veterans Affairs to provide safer and more effective pain-management services, especially the use of prescription opioids, to the nation’s veterans. On Aug. 30, 2014, U.S. Marine veteran Jason Simcakoski died at the Tomah Veterans Affairs Medical Center as a result of mixed drug toxicity. The Jason Simcakoski Memorial Opioid Safety Act would make policy changes and add restrictions to provide the VA with the tools it needs to help prevent this type of tragedy from occurring to other veterans and their families. “Too many of our nation’s veterans have returned from overseas only to fight another battle here at home,” Capito said. “Tragically, stories like Jason Simcakoski’s exist all around the country, including in my home state of West Virginia. Far too many young West Virginia veterans have faced the horrors of PTSD and failed to receive the quality of care they deserve.” The Jason Simcakoski Memorial Opioid Safety Act was designed after intense discussions with medical professionals, veterans’ service organizations and Simcakoski’s family. The bill focuses on strengthening the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs’ (VA) opioid-prescribing guidelines while improving pain-management services by putting a number of reforms in effect, including:
- Requiring stronger opioid-prescribing guidelines and education for VA providers, including stricter standards against prescribing dangerous combinations of opioids with other drugs and for prescribing opioids to patients struggling with mental health issues
- Increasing coordination and communication throughout the VA with medical facilities, providers, patients and their families surrounding pain management, alternative treatments for chronic pain and appropriate opioid therapy
- Holding the VA system accountable for appropriate care and quality standards through consistent internal audits, as well as General Accounting Office reviews and reports to Congress.
Senate approves new VA health care chief (NJ.com)
The U.S. Senate on Tuesday confirmed Dr. David Shulkin, president of Morristown Medical Center, as undersecretary for health at the scandal-plagued federal Department of Veterans Affairs. Shulkin fills a position that had been vacant for more than a year. His predecessor left before his scheduled retirement date and the VA secretary resigned following reports that extra-long wait times at Phoenix VA hospitals were covered up while veterans were dying waiting for appointments. He was confirmed by voice vote without debate. Nominated by President Obama in March, Shulkin pledged to overhaul the agency’s health-care programs if confirmed. “We all agree: The status quo is not acceptable,” he told the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee last month. Shulkin had been president of the Morristown, N.J., hospital since 2010 and also served as a vice president of its parent company, Atlantic Health. Shulkin previously was president and chief executive officer of Beth Israel Medical Center in New York.
Marine veteran with PTSD gets discharge status changed (Military.com)
Conley Monk Jr. of West Haven tried three times to have his less-than-honorable discharge from the Marines overturned because he has post-traumatic stress disorder. Two weeks ago, as a result of a new guideline issued by then-Navy Secretary Ray Mabus, Monk had his status upgraded, to “a general discharge with honorable conditions,” he said Monday. Monk, 66, was one of five veterans who sued Mabus in federal court over their discharges, which was issued in Monk’s case because he went AWOL after serving in Quang Tri, Da Nang and other Vietnam War battlefronts. The less-than-honorable discharge is “effectively a bar to most of the benefits that the VA provides to veterans,” including the GI Bill, education assistance and housing loans, said Virginia McCalmont, who volunteers with the Veterans Legal Services Clinic at Yale Law School. PTSD was not considered a valid medical condition to enable a veterans to receive benefits until 1980, years after the Vietnam War ended. On Sept. 3, 2014, then-Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel issued guidelines to the discharge-review boards that they would have to “take these applications seriously,” McCalmont said. That resulted in the five veterans’ lawsuit being dismissed without prejudice to determine if the new ruling will solve the problem. After leaving the service in September 1970, Monk worked as a counselor at the APT Foundation and volunteered at the Columbus House shelter. He is on disability benefits because of a stroke suffered 10 years ago and diabetes. Until the recent ruling, he did not have access to military benefits through the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. There are about 80,000 other veterans who also will benefit from Mabus’ ruling, but Monk said “a lot of them may not be aware of it or a lot may not be here anymore.” U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., said “This triumph for justice gives Conley Monk what he’s due four decades late and it should give encouragement and it should embolden and empower 80,000 other vets who suffer from post-traumatic stress and still have less-than-honorable discharges to also seek justice.”
Officers suing VA, claim boss secretly recorded them at D.C. medical facility (WJLA-Washington)
A group of officers at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in northwest DC are suing the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, claiming they were secretly videotaped and recorded by their boss. The 7 On Your Side I-Team reviewed the lawsuit filed yesterday, which claims cameras were placed all over offices, including inside a changing room. The suit involves a group of 24 officers from around the DC area who claim the recordings were then used to hand out discipline. Court filings claim the cameras and hidden microphones were being used as far back as May 2013. The officers claim the secret devices were installed in various locations including a control room, a break room, the Watch Commander’s office and a changing room. The suit claims the cameras were feeding back footage in real time to Jerry Brown, listed in the filing as Chief of Police Services with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. He was stationed at the VA Medical Center according to the filing. The attorney representing the officers, Ken Gauvey, tells the 7 On Your Side I-team the cameras were still in use as of Monday, when the court papers were filed. The officers claim conversations recorded by the cameras and microphones were used to issue discipline, including a two-week suspension without pay against one officer. Additional officers could be included in the lawsuit filing in the future. ABC7 reached out to the Department of Veterans Affairs for comment. We have not yet received a response.
Rubio weighs in on Haley VA rat infestation (Tampa Bay Times)
With dead rats falling from the kitchen ceiling at the James A. Haley VA Medical Center, Sen. Marco Rubio Monday urged the hospital’s interim director to resolve pest control issues. Rubio said he was “alarmed” by a recent Tampa Bay Times report that revealed how three dead rats fell through the ceiling of the hospital’s kitchen last week during work to install new fire sprinklers. Internal hospital emails from the facility’s infection chief also said the Department of Veterans Affairs hospital has a cockroach infestation. “Improved conditions at” Haley “are critical for veterans in the Tampa Bay area,” Rubio wrote in a letter to Haley interim director Sallie Houser-Hanfelder. “I respectfully ask you to direct your full attention to ensuring that the facility’s pest issues are resolved and that you do everything in your capacity … to improve the conditions for all veterans who come to your facility.” The Miami Republican and presidential candidate pointedly reminded Houser-Hanfelder that last year, he introduced legislation to give the VA greater authority to fire or demote managers responsible for poor care. President Barack Obama subsequently signed that legislation into law. “Stories such as this remind us of how much work remains ahead for the VA in order to adequately meet its obligation to our veterans,” the letter said.
Veterans weigh in on proposed Guam VA investigation (Pacific Daily News)
Several veterans on island appeared before lawmakers yesterday afternoon to weigh in on a legislative resolution that would call for a federal investigation into the Veteran Affairs outpatient clinic and Guam Vet Center. Resolution 111-33, written by Sen. Frank Aguon Jr., D-Yona, asks Congresswoman Madeleine Bordallo to call on the VA Office of Inspector General to investigate mismanagement allegations at VA facilities. “There have been allegations from veterans claiming instances of clinically significant delays in care associated with access to care or patient scheduling,” the resolution states. “The effects of these delays are unacceptable.” Aguon said an investigation would be beneficial to clarify what’s happening at the Vet Center and VA Guam Community Based Outpatient Clinic. “At least we can know in fact that we’re getting the level of services being provided equally across the nation or we perhaps are getting shortchanged,” Aguon said during the hearing. Senators heard from several veterans who had raised complaints and issues regarding the VA facilities. While many of them were in support of measure, some didn’t feel it was necessary. Juan Finona said he “somewhat” supports the resolution, but doesn’t want there to be a town hall meeting with Congresswoman Bordallo. He said he’s tired of going to town hall meetings that haven’t accomplished much. “We don’t want to go back to having a town hall meeting for your bill, I have attended plenty of town hall meetings,” Finona said.
Norfolk pastor sentenced for fraudulent benefit claims (Military Times)
A Norfolk, Va., pastor has been sentenced to 10 months in federal prison for submitting fraudulent claims for disability benefits for veterans. The Virginian-Pilot reports that 56-year-old Michael Blanchard was sentenced Tuesday in federal court. He pleaded guilty earlier this year to one count of making false statements. Blanchard has served as pastor of the Corner Stone Christian Center in Norfolk since 1992. Authorities say he submitted disability compensation claims to the Veterans Affairs Department on behalf of 90 veterans. Blanchard acted without the veterans’ knowledge and forged their signatures on the applications. He asked that checks be mailed to his address. No checks were ever sent. At the sentencing hearing, Blanchard told the judge: “I was wrong. I lost my way.”
A building boom for veterans cemeteries (WUNC-Public Radio)
Most people expect their eternal rest will be peaceful. But not the ones who want to be buried in the Eastern Carolina State Veterans Cemetery now under construction in Goldsboro. North Carolina’s newest veterans cemetery is right under the flight path of Seymour Johnson Air Force Base. On some days, the roar of low-flying fighter jets and aerial tankers overwhelms the cemetery every few minutes. But that’s kind of the whole point. The state and county governments specifically decided to build the cemetery near Seymour Johnson to accommodate the large local population of former service members. The cemetery – scheduled to open in November – is designed to accommodate more than 11,000 graves. The unusual architecture of its buildings symbolizes its military connection. “It looks like airplane wings,” said Teresa West, who helps oversee the four cemeteries run by the North Carolina Division of Veterans Affairs. “All of our cemeteries are different as far as architecture, so I think this one is very special.” Wayne County officials worked more than a decade to bring the cemetery to Goldsboro. Federal, state, and local dignitaries broke ground in November after the project received a $5.4 million grant from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. West’s state agency will handle burials and maintain it in perpetuity. In the next few years, a lot more families around the country are going to be able to avoid that burden. The National Cemetery Administration, part of the Department of Veterans Affairs, has embarked on a building boom to put cemeteries close to more veterans. It’s the largest expansion of veterans cemeteries since the Civil War. The Department’s research has found that families are unlikely to use a cemetery more than 75 miles from their homes. “We have opened 19 new national cemeteries since 1999 and will be doing an additional 17 between now and the near future,” said Ronald Walters, the acting head of the National Cemetery Administration. “That’s an amazing expansion and unprecedented for our system.”
‘American Sniper’, ‘Modern Family’ honored for accurately portraying military, vets (Variety)
“American Sniper” and an episode of “Modern Family” are among the first projects feted — as part of the Got Your 6 campaign — for accurately depicting veterans in the media. The formal recognition is part of the “6 Certified” initiative, started by Got Your 6 to challenge Hollywood executives to create more considerate narratives surrounding the military and their families. The initiative was highlighted by First Lady Michelle Obama at an event earlier this year. “Through ‘6 Certified’ we can battle the stereotypes and misconceptions about veterans that so often dominate popular culture, while drawing attention to projects that portray veterans reasonably and accurately,” said Chris Marvin, executive director of Got Your 6. “Each of the selected projects helps to craft a new cultural narrative with an asset-focused view of veterans.” In order to become “6 Certified” a program must adhere to at least one of the following six rules:
1. Research or consult with real veterans, family members, or subject matter experts in an effort to create accurate representations
2. Hire a veteran actor to play a substantial role
3. Employ a veteran writer to contribute to the narrative
4. Develop a multi-dimensional veteran character
5. Develop a narrative with meaningful and accurate veteran themes
6. Have veterans present for consultation throughout the filmmaking process
The other programs to be honored are “Amira and Sam,” the 20th season of “Dancing with the Stars” and episodes of “Hawaii Five-0″ and NBC’s “The Night Shift.”
Disabled vets find new purpose in National Veteran Wheelchair Games (CBS-DFW)
Disabled Veterans from across the United States are in North Texas this week for the 35th National Veteran Wheelchair Games. The annual event has been two years in the making for Dallas. It is a big deal for Dallas and an even bigger deal for the participants, giving new hope and purpose to those disabled during their time of service. The Games have made a noticeable difference in the personality and life of veteran Untyon Shallow. While Shallow was stationed in Afghanistan, his Christmas visit home to Dallas turned tragic. He was carjacked and shot in the spine, causing him to lose the use of his legs. “When it first happened… I blamed everyone, you know,” Shallow said. After years of depression, his therapist introduced him to the rugged sport of Quad Rugby. “Ever since then, I fell in love with the sport,” Shallow said. Shallow has participated in the National Veteran Wheelchair Games for six years as a Paralympic athlete. He is now training in the hopes of making the National Paralympic Quad Rugby Team. Athletes can stay active during this week-long event by participating in several different sports like archery, basketball, bowling, swimming and weightlifting to name a few. The games are a multi-sport and rehabilitation program for all U.S. military veterans who use wheelchairs for sports competition. Many of the participants have suffered from spinal cord injuries, neurological conditions, amputations or other mobility impairments. The National Veteran Wheelchair Games continue through Friday.