June 25 Veterans News

June 25 Veterans News

Veterans news updateVietnam vets link Agent Orange to children’s illnesses (Medill News Service)
Forty years after the Vietnam War ended, Agent Orange still casts a shadow over veterans’ lives. And with many now in their 70s and 80s, they want to ensure their children don’t suffer because of their parents’ exposure to the toxic defoliant. “There’s nothing worse than having a child who is ill and you wonder why,” said Bernard Edelman, an Army vet who is now deputy director for policy and government affairs with Vietnam Veterans of America. “The fact that you may have been responsible for that child’s hurt and pain … it’s very difficult to live with.” Edelman spent much of 1970 in Vietnam as a combat correspondent, producing radio broadcasts transmitted worldwide. Years later, he was diagnosed with illnesses connected to Agent Orange. He worked with several lawmakers to draft the Toxic Exposure Research Act of 2015, a bill to create a national research center to study medical conditions that arise in the descendants of those exposed to toxic substances during military service — not only in Vietnam, but also in the first Gulf War, Afghanistan and Iraq. The bill was introduced in April by Sens. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn. and Jerry Moran, R-Kan., and Reps. Dan Benishek, R-Mich., Mike Honda, D-Calif. and Elizabeth Esty, D-Conn., the second time lawmakers have moved to promote research on illnesses stemming from service exposures. Last September, Blumenthal and Moran teamed with Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, to sponsor the legislation, which not only would establish a research center but would declassify documents related to any incident in which 100 or more service members were exposed to a toxic substance that resulted in at least one disability case. “Children and grandchildren did not sign up, but they may bear the wounds of war,” Blumenthal said in reintroducing the legislation this year. “The government owes our veterans so they can better understand the impact these indirect exposures have to guarantee their children and grandchildren receive appropriate treatment.” The legislation has the backing of some powerful veterans groups, including AMVETS, the American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars and Rolling Thunder.

Millions of dollars for veterans sat unspent by VA for 3 years (The Washington Post)
For three years, more than $43 million the Department of Veterans Affairs had set aside to inform veterans about their benefits sat in an account, not a penny spent, until an agency financial manager happened to notice. By then, it may have become too late for the cash-strapped agency to spend the money, a new report says. The Inspector General’s office, in a report issued last week, cited a “breakdown of fiscal controls” and “lack of oversight” in concluding that VA officials had “no need” for the $43.1 million. At least not for the purpose they claimed, which was to print personalized handbooks that explain in detail what benefits a veteran is eligible for. Acting Inspector General Richard Griffin’s audit comes as top VA officials prepare to tell House lawmakers Thursday that they’re facing a $2.6 billion budget shortfall that’s partly responsible for a new explosion in wait times for medical care. Senior leaders say they may have to start a hiring freeze or furlough employees unless funding is reallocated for the federal government’s second-largest department. Now comes the $43.1 million that officials in the Veterans Health Administration “parked” at the Government Printing Office for three years. Investigators discovered that VHA, which runs the sprawling health-care system for veterans, had the money deposited by contracting officials to be “held” for some future use. VHA said the money was earmarked for handbooks, but auditors found no documents to that effect. But the money sat from fiscal 2011 through fiscal 2014 “with no designated purpose,” auditors found, and $2.3 million that eventually was spent did not produce handbooks but business cards, pamphlets and mailings about the Affordable Care Act, instead.

Well-funded vets groups prepare for 2016 battle (Politico)
When VoteVets, the group that helps elect Democratic veterans to Congress, squares off against Concerned Veterans for America, which runs attack ads against vulnerable Democrats, it will be a contest between two of the nation’s brand names among billionaire political activists: Tom Steyer and the Koch brothers. VoteVets doesn’t disclose its donors, but Federal Election Commission records reviewed by POLITICO show it’s received as much as $890,000 from the NextGen Climate Action Committee backed by Steyer, the left-wing environmentalist mega-donor. VoteVets has also received contributions from other environmental groups, including Al Gore’s Alliance for Climate Protection, along with the United Steelworkers labor union and other big-money outfits that largely support Democrats, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Concerned Veterans is bankrolled by the political network run by right-wing billionaire activists Charles and David Koch, according to an investigation by The Washington Post. The effectiveness of the two groups, which are increasingly important to their respective parties in promoting national-security strategy, is a testament to the ability of military issues to sway public opinion — and the willingness of mega-donors on both sides to pour money into causes that tap into that power.

Lawmaker: Fire Phoenix VA chiefs — now (AZCentral.com)
Opinion by Rep. Kyrsten Sinema: “It’s been more than a year since we learned veterans at the Phoenix VA hospital were kept on secret waiting lists, forced to wait months before seeing a doctor, unable to access the care they needed. These revelations were shocking and sickening. Arizona veterans died while waiting for care. That’s absolutely unacceptable, and frankly it’s un-American. Progress to reform the VA has been too slow. We continue to receive reports of failures in staffing, scheduling and training, and there are still 6,000 veterans waiting longer than 30 days for care at the Phoenix VA. We’ve also heard continued stories of outrageous infighting and mismanagement at the Phoenix VA. It’s ridiculous that petty fights among staff have taken precedence over delivering the best possible care to veterans. Not a single VA employee has been fired for wait time manipulation. Two of the employees responsible for the tragedies at the Phoenix VA have been on paid leave since May 1, 2014. According to federal records, these individuals have been paid more than $250,000 while at home under suspension. That’s money that should be spent taking care of veterans. It’s wrong that the VA cannot fire people responsible for poor treatment of veterans. We have to change the system, which is why I introduced bipartisan legislation to give the Secretary of Veterans Affairs new authority to hold VA employees accountable and fire poor-performing employees. Bad actors should be held accountable, and those doing good work should be commended. Dedicated employees working at VA hospitals and clinics all over the country are trying to reform the system, yet fear of retaliation holds many back. That is why our legislation makes it easier to remove bad employees and strengthens protections for whistleblowers.”

Vets’ benefits, VA accountability in new legislation (Military Times)
Senators pressed Veterans’ Affairs Committee colleagues Wednesday to get behind bills that would reform VA and increase benefits for some vets, improving fertility services, expanding support for caregivers and strengthening controls on prescription painkillers. Some of the proposals were endorsed by VA even as the department said it would need more money to implement them. But others, such as a bill sponsored by Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., that would give the VA secretary broader powers to fire employees, ran into opposition from VA officials, who said such a measure would lower morale and hurt VA’s ability to recruit quality employees. Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee members heard pitches on six bills Wednesday, including two from Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., that have been introduced in previous years but never made into law. Murray’s legislation, the Women Veterans and Families Health Services bill and Military and Veteran Caregiver Services Improvement bill, would require VA to cover infertility treatments for veterans with service-related fertility problems, create a child care program to cover baby-sitting during medical appointments and expand benefits to family and friends who provide support and care for ill and injured troops similar to programs available to post-9/11 veterans. Among the concerns that have sunk Murray’s bills in the past are their cost. The price tag for the women’s services and fertility bill is estimated at $117 million while the caregiver bill may range from $1.8 billion to $3.8 billion. But Murray said the nation has an obligation to help veterans injured in wars start families or stay in their homes, assisted by loved ones. “Cost should not be an excuse to deny care to veterans,” she said.

VA official says agency didn’t commit fraud when skirting acquisition rules (Fierce Government)
A Veterans Affairs Department official told a House panel Tuesday that the agency did spend billions of dollars in purchases outside of federal acquisition rules, but only because they needed to quickly meet patient needs. Thomas Leney, executive director of the VA’s Office of Small and Disadvantaged Business Utilization conceded that the VA skirted the rules, but only in the interest of its veteran patients. The hearing was held jointly by the House Veterans Affairs oversight and investigations subcommittee and the House Small Business investigations, regulations and oversight subcommittee. Rep. Mike Coffman (R-Colo.) accused the VA of fraud, but Leney rebuffed the charge. “I am not prepared to say that this is an issue of fraud,” Leney replied. “This is an issue of improper accounting.” Lawmakers also said much of the business that was done outside of federal contracting laws could have gone to both veteran-owned and service disabled veteran-owned small businesses.

Group alleges religious discrimination at Wichita VA hospital (The Wichita Eagle)
Members of an American Indian sweat lodge at a Veterans Administration hospital in Wichita have been subjected to discrimination and “blatant hostility” aimed at shutting down their religious services, according to a letter sent by a religious liberties group Wednesday to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Among the concerns outlined by the Liberty Institute was the recent suspension of a substance abuse counselor at the Robert J. Dole Veterans Affairs Medical Center who also was the spiritual leader of the center’s sweat lodge. The group alleges his suspension came in retaliation for his advocacy work for the sweat lodge after a new supervisor tried to shut it down and that his absence has effectively ended the religious services. Sweat lodges, which have been erected at more than a dozen VA hospitals nationwide, are huts used by American Indians for religious ritual steam baths for purification. “If anybody’s religious liberty rights should be vindicated, it should be those of the veterans who fought for everyone else,” Hiram Sasser, an attorney for the Liberty Institute, said Wednesday. The Liberty Institute, which is representing the sweat lodge members, asked the VA to respond by July 6 about steps it will take to ensure the continued operation of the sweat lodge. Such letters are often precursors to lawsuits. The medical center released a statement that didn’t address the specific allegations but said the center has prioritized supporting the religious practices of its staff, volunteers and veterans. It also said its staff members have “worked tenaciously” to ensure the sweat lodge program was a success, including meeting with a Lakota Nation medicine man.

Opinion: The VA aims for a fresh betrayal (New York Post)
Considering the Department of Veterans Affairs’ recent scandals, you’d think VA top brass would show some humility. Think again. Instead of cleaning up its act, the VA’s trying once again to sabotage the Choice program, which was supposed to allow vets to see a doctor outside the delay-plagued VA system. On Thursday, VA Deputy Secretary Sloan Gibson will ask Congress for permission to raid the $10 billion Choice fund and spend the money elsewhere. It’s an underhanded betrayal, but sadly, it’s no surprise. Since Congress passed the celebrated VA reform law last August, VA administrators, from Secretary Robert McDonald down to union underlings, have been trying to block sick vets from getting outside treatment. The bureaucrats are more concerned with keeping the money inside the dysfunctional agency than caring for vets, even if that means vets languish and suffer on the VA’s notorious waitlists. At the Syracuse VA, for example, more than 800 veterans have been waiting for more than 90 days for medical help. From Day One, the law was designed to promise vets choice — but not deliver.

Marine’s overdose death sparking VA opiate debate (Stars & Stripes)
Nearly a year after his death, Marine Corps veteran Jason Simcakoski was at the center of a debate on Capitol Hill on Wednesday over new regulations for opioid prescriptions at the Department of Veterans Affairs. His parents, widow and daughter watched as a Senate committee weighed an overhaul bill, sponsored by a Wisconsin senator, designed to curb overdose deaths at the state’s Tomah VA and other medical centers across the country. It was a crucial first step for the legislation, though many hurdles remain and its future is uncertain. Simcakoski died at Tomah in August after a toxic reaction to more than 12 medications including opiates. He has become the face of what veteran groups and other advocates say is an epidemic of dangerous opioid prescriptions to VA patients. “I just saw too much medication. My son had an addiction with pain meds and yet they put my son back on pain meds,” said Marv Simcakoski, his father. “They sent him home with 50 some [pills] and told him to take them regularly.” Simcakoski served in the Marines from 1998-2002 and suffered a head injury. Anxiety attacks led him to seek care at the Tomah VA, where his family said he struggled for over four years with no improvement despite a long list of medications. An autopsy found the mix of drugs in system resulted in his death while an in-patient at the facility. His death and years of other whistleblower allegations about over-prescription of narcotics have triggered congressional hearings and investigations in recent months, as well as an earlier probe by the VA inspector general. The bill sponsored by Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., calls for an update to guidelines for the use of opioids for pain management, new safety training for health care providers, and real-time reporting and tracking of veterans’ narcotic prescriptions.

New mission for disabled vets: Help restore coral reefs (South Florida Sun-Sentinel)
Twenty-five feet underwater in the Atlantic, Joseph Deslauriers felt at peace. The pain in his back faded away and his mind cleared out. His wheelchair remained back on the surface, aboard the American Dream Two, bobbing in the waves off the coast of Fort Lauderdale. The Air Force master sergeant, who lost both legs and an arm in Afghanistan nearly four years ago, is one of three disabled military veterans who went scuba diving Wednesday with the help of trained partners. “The only thing that you have to worry about,” Deslauriers later said, “is breathing.” The trip was meant to be therapeutic, but also served a second purpose. It was the test run of a program that deploys disabled veterans to help restore a threatened species of coral. Called Restoring Our Oceans Together, or ROOT, it was launched by Nova Southeastern University and two nonprofits, legal philanthropic dive group DiveBar and therapeutic dive group Diveheart. The idea is to help the environment and at the same time give injured veterans “a new mission.” “That’s what these military guys were trained to do, go on missions,” said Michael Kaufman, who sits on the boards of both DiveBar and Diveheart. He added: “We’ve given them a new purpose in life.”

Senate panel to hold Alaska field hearing on vets’ health care (Military Times)
The U.S. Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs has agreed to hold a field hearing in Alaska on veterans’ health care in the state. Sen. Dan Sullivan’s office announced Wednesday that the hearing will be held in August. Sullivan requested the hearing “to help identify the breakdown” in implementing a new federal program meant to allow veterans access to care at facilities outside the U.S. Department of Veterans’ Affairs system. He and other state political leaders have raised concerns with the rollout of the program and its impact on existing access to care for Alaska veterans. Alaska’s system had been a model for the new federal Choice Program.

VA might cut funding for new veterans clinic in Rochester (RochesterHomePage.net)
Congresswoman Louise Slaughter is calling on the Department of Veterans Affairs to help veterans in our region.  There are reports the VA may cut funding for a new veteran clinic in Rochester and move that money to the troubled Aurora VA hospital project in Denver, Colo. Right now, veterans have to travel long distances for their medical needs. There is a proposed plan to build “the community based outpatient clinic” in Rochester. That plan is currently in the bidding phase. Slaughter says diverting money to another project out of state is unacceptable and it puts local veterans at risk. “We appreciate the need to have this done right away because our money is already allocated,” said Slaughter. “And we’ll be insisting to the best of our ability to not have them take that money away.” There are more than 70,000 veterans in the Greater Rochester Area.

Vets angry over $1.5 million ‘master plan’ for West Los Angeles VA campus (KPCC-Public Radio)
A town hall by Department of Veterans Affairs officials to introduce the three private contractors who will write a new “master plan” for the troubled West Los Angeles campus turned into a shouting match Tuesday night as local vets complained angrily at the pace and cost of reforms coming to the 600-acre site. Wednesday night’s event was scheduled for 90 minutes, but ran for nearly 2 hours as a series of local veterans refused to cede the floor during the question and answer session. Many vets argued their concerns won’t be addressed in the redevelopment plan. “You really don’t want to blow smoke at us, because we’ve been smoked before, man.” said Joe Adamski, of a group called Veteran Advocacy Services.  The agency told the several dozen attendees it will pay Hellmuth, Obata, Kassabaum Inc., the Walsh Group, and Core Companies $1.5 million to develop a development plan for the Brentwood property. The final planning document will be released in October. “One point five million dollars for five months to just talk around a table?” audience member Charlotte Rules said during the meeting. “I mean the Amish put up a barn in one day,” she added. “Do we need to get the Amish here to build a big square rectangle [shelter] to get relief for homeless and disabled people who are on the street? Because the Amish would be a lot cheaper than all of you. And they would do it, and they would do it with spirit and heart and happily.” VA special assistant Vince Kane apologized to the contractors for the question and answer period having turned to issues of homelessness instead of being a discussion of the master plan itself.

Senator: Brooklyn VA unit should stay open (SILive.com)
Sen. Charles Schumer is calling on the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to reverse its decision to close a 25-bed unit of the VA New York Harbor Healthcare System in Brooklyn. Citing a loss of services for Brooklyn residents and Staten Islanders when the 12W medical surgical unit closes in July, Schumer (D-NY) is asking for the decision to be reversed, especially given that it was made without the input of stakeholders and elected officials. “Closing this unit at the Brooklyn VA Hospital will negatively impact the quality and availability of inpatient health care services for our large veteran community in Brooklyn and Staten Island,” Schumer said in a statement. “I am strongly urging the VA to reverse this decision and immediately suspend plans for a July 21st closure, as it will significantly and adversely impact these veterans’ access to nearby, quality health care services.” The closure of the Brooklyn medical surgical unit will reduce the number of beds from 71 to 46. It will stop receiving new patients on July 1 and will cease operations by July 21. Patients will be discharged or transferred to other facilities with the New York Harbor VA Healthcare system.