Veterans news update for June 5

Veterans news update for June 5

Veterans news updateVA Choice changes gives veterans more access to care (Military Times)
Emergency legislation approved May 22 to fund a troubled Veterans Affairs construction project in Denver included a gift for some ill and injured veterans — a change to a rule that barred them from seeking private health care if they live within 40 miles of a VA facility — even if it didn’t provide the services they need. Public Law 114-19, passed by both the House and Senate the day before Memorial Day weekend, changed the VA Choice Program to ensure that veterans within 40 miles of a facility can access medical care if their nearest VA facility has limited services. The legislation had been in the works since March, when lawmakers discovered that some vets, especially those in rural areas, needed to travel long distances for medical care because their local VA clinics didn’t provide services such as laboratory tests, radiology, chemotherapy, surgery and more. The 2014 Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act created the VA Choice program to let veterans see a private physician if they couldn’t get an appointment at VA within 30 days or if they lived more than 40 miles from a VA facility. But many veterans learned they still needed to travel to major VA facilities for much of their care because they lived near VA clinics that only offer basic care for acute or noncomplex chronic conditions. VA first amended the 40-mile rule in April, changing the measure from a straight-line distance to driving distance — a move that allowed veterans with geographic barriers between their homes and a VA facility to use VA Choice. The most recent legislation should allow more veterans to get the medical care they need, said bill sponsor Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan. “The legislation passed unanimously by the Senate … aims to help thousands of veterans who are currently being forced to choose between traveling hours to a VA medical facility, paying out of pocket, or going without care altogether,” Moran said.
Also: Live within 40 miles of a VA facility? Use our locator calculator to find out

Senate adopts plan to bar Pentagon’s ‘Paid-for-Patriotism’ program (Roll Call)
A trio of senators, including the chairman of the Armed Services Committee, have won the support of their colleagues to block the Pentagon from spending taxpayer dollars to honor troops at sporting events. The proposal would bar the use of federal contracts to have members of the armed services honored at sporting events. The practice came to light when Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., highlighted an agreement between the NFL’s New York Jets and the New Jersey National Guard. Armed Services Chairman John McCain, R-Ariz., has joined with his home-state colleague and Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., in drafting the amendment to the fiscal 2016 defense authorization now on the Senate floor. Blumenthal is the ranking member of the Veterans Affairs Committee. The amendment was adopted by unanimous consent Thursday. “Football fans across America learned last month that several NFL teams were honoring U.S. service members not out of a sense of patriotism, but for profit in the form of millions of dollars from the U.S. Department of Defense,” the three senators said in a joint statement. “Our amendment would put an end to this practice, and ask professional sports leagues like the NFL to donate to charities supporting American troops, veterans and their families.” Flake initially sought additional information from the Defense Department about the scope of the federal funding for efforts to get sports teams and leagues to honor troops. He said the authorization might be the appropriate place to take legislative action to curb what he called “paid-for patriotism.” McCain’s office said the National Guard alone has spent roughly $7 million on marketing and advertising with NFL franchises over a three-year period. The office highlighted in particular the “True Patriot” promotion run by the New England Patriots. The Patriots have received a total of $675,000 from the National Guard over the three years, according to the Armed Services chairman.

VA data breaches up 158 percent (Health Data Management)
The Department of Veterans Affairs saw a 158 percent spike in data breaches in the month of April, with 987 veterans affected by the data breaches—of which almost 75 percent of those incidents involved the exposure of protected health information. VA reported the 738 PHI-related incidents to the Department of Health and Human Services in accordance with the HITECH Act, according to the agency’s monthly report to Congress.  The department states in its report that it uses a “defense-in-depth” approach to information security and, while this strategy protects data from inbound threats, VA “relies on employees to protect Veteran information they handle and transmit.” The largest data breach in April involved the Patient Business Office at the VA Long Beach Healthcare System, which mishandled information affecting 300 veterans. The report details how a veteran found medical files dated between 2007 and 2011 in a dumpster which contained some personally identifiable information. The documents were believed to have been accidentally left behind when the office moved and were believed to have been trash. “There were a total of 358 documents and each one contained the Veteran’s SSN,” states the report. “There is no way to determine if any documents are not accounted for. It has further been verified that 77 of the Veterans are deceased. 229 Veterans will be offered credit protection services and 77 letters will be sent to next of kin.”

Senate approves GAO probe into VA construction practices (Denver Business Journal)
The U.S. Senate Thursday morning approved by voice vote an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Bill that directs the Government Accountability Office to launch an investigation into construction practices at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. The amendment was proposed Wednesday by Colorado Sens. Michael Bennet and Cory Gardner, both of whom spoke on the Senate floor for the measure. “For years, the VA has grossly mismanaged the construction of major VA medical facilities, including the calamity we face in Aurora,” Bennet said. “The VA has failed to acknowledge the problem and come up with a plan to fix it, and veterans throughout the Rocky Mountain region continue to wait for this new medical center. We must ensure that the mistakes made on the Aurora project never happen again. This study will help us learn more about what happened and how we can prevent it from happening again.” “As we continue to push ahead to make sure that our veterans in Colorado receive the best care possible, we must be sure that the extreme mismanagement of the construction of the VA hospital in Aurora never happens again,” Gardner said. “This amendment is about accountability and transparency, but most importantly it’s about those who have sacrificed so much for our freedom.” The investigation will focus on the construction practices at the VA as a whole, but the Aurora VA hospital project is likely to be the focus of the investigation because of the project’s overblown budget for $1.73 billion and years-long construction delay.

Pennsylvania police officer wrongly accuses veteran, 75, of ‘Stolen Valor’ (
An Army soldier attending Artsfest on Memorial Day thought something was fishy with the Marine uniform worn by 75-year-old Robert Ford, who was strolling along Front Street. Ford’s hat bore some wrinkles, according to the soldier’s assessment, and his belt buckle looked too ornate for his rank. The soldier enlisted the help of a Harrisburg police officer working at the event, who was a Marine, and together, they accused Ford of being a fraud. “He’s not a real Marine!” the officer shouted to the crowd gathered for the PennLive/Patriot-News Artsfest of Greater Harrisburg. “Stolen valor!” “I was humiliated,” said Ford, of Marysville, Pa. The only problem is Ford did serve in the Marines from 1958 to 1964. He earned the rank of lance corporal. “He’s as legit as you can get,” said Doug Sterner, a Vietnam veteran and archivist from Pueblo, Colo., who is nationally recognized for detecting military fraud. Sterner confirmed Ford’s military service this week through Headquarters Marine Corps. The incident in Harrisburg, Sterner said, represents a troubling trend across the country of veterans becoming vigilantes. Veterans are angry, Sterner said, after a federal law about “stolen valor,” was struck down in 2012 and a meeker version passed in its place. Under the new law, few cases are being investigated or prosecuted against people who falsely claim military awards or service, Sterner said. “The veteran community, frustrated and upset, is saying, ‘OK. We’ll do it ourselves,’ ” Sterner said. “But what it’s leading to is a bunch of hot heads. … There’s a lot of bullying going on in the community now. It’s almost like hunting game, going out looking for phonies.”

Navy veteran sent to prison for making, using fake military ID cards (San Antonio Express-News)
The sentence for a western New York man convicted of producing and using counterfeit military identification cards includes having to buy 500 flags for veterans’ graves. The U.S. Attorney’s Office says 54-year-old Mark Kelly of Rochester was also sentenced to three months in prison and 300 hours of community service. Prosecutors said he claimed to be a U.S. Navy officer and regularly wore uniforms to work and around town, allowing him to get a military discount on his rent and other financial benefits. Investigators say Kelly was in the Navy for 2 ½ years but was discharged in 1981 for misconduct. Federal Judge Frank Geraci also ordered Kelly to apologize to the parents of a Marine killed in Afghanistan. Kelly wore a uniform and medals to the soldier’s funeral and presented the parents with an American flag.

Senate minority blocks same-sex marriage veterans benefits (Roll Call)
A Senate minority successfully blocked an amendment aimed at ending discrimination against same-sex marriage benefits for veterans Thursday. With the Supreme Court set to rule on gay marriage, 53 senators voted for the amendment sponsored by Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., seven shy of the 60 needed under the rules. Her amendment would have deferred the definition of marriage for qualifying for veterans benefits to the state where the marriage was issued. Eight Republicans joined Democrats: Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia, Susan Collins of Maine, Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, Mark S. Kirk of Illinois, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Jeff Flake of Arizona and Rob Portman of Ohio. Ayotte, Johnson, Portman and Kirk all face competitive reelections in 2016 in states won by President Barack Obama. Ayotte said she supported a similar amendment in the Senate’s budget and that in her opinion, “this is an issue of equal treatment under the law.” Johnson, who said that he believes marriage should only be between a man and a woman and that it’s for states to decide, noted his vote is just “recognizing the reality of the situation,” with the court’s prior United States v. Windsor ruling. “It’s basically current law,” Johnson said. “The Supreme Court ruled that same-sex couples qualify for federal benefits. I think it’s putting veterans, who are legally married in a state where it’s legal move to another one, that’s unequal treatment under the law and puts our veterans in a tough position.”

“Appalling” law prevents IVF coverage for veterans (CBS News)
Servicemen and women who are wounded in war have to rebuild their lives, and the goal of having a family keeps many of them going. But an act by Congress decades ago is still preventing some veterans from achieving that goal, reports CBS News correspondent Jan Crawford. Some of the stories are heartbreaking; veterans who have sacrificed almost everything for our country, and now have life-changing injuries that prevent them from having children naturally — and a law from 23-years ago that forces the VA to say, esssentially, you’re on your own. As they looked toward their future, Alex and Holly Dillmann always dreamed it would include children. But in his second tour in Afghanistan, Alex, an Army Staff Sgt. and squad leader, was critically injured by a roadside bomb. He had 25 surgeries and spent more than a year in the hospital. “We can’t even try to have kids on our own, because of his injuries,” Holly said. “We can’t. We have got to utilize the technology offered to us by in vitro fertilization.” The Dillmanns are not alone. The wars of the last decade have seen thousands of veterans like Alex return home with devastating injuries from bomb blasts, leaving them unable to conceive naturally. Coming home with hopes of rebuilding a normal life, they instead face a harsh reality: the government does not cover the expense of in vitro fertilization, known as IVF. “Having to accept and then deal with the fact that they have these types of injuries is one thing, but then saying that you’re not going to be given the help that you need to be able to work with what you’ve got, I mean… it’s very insulting,” Holly said. The VA can’t help because conservative opponents in Congress 23 years ago passed a law blocking the VA from paying the costs of IVF treatment for veterans. Democratic Sen. Patty Murray of Washington has worked for five years to change the law. “It’s appalling,” Murray said. “I am so frustrated because it just seems like this is something that is so common sense, so right, so what we, as a country, should be doing.” The Pentagon pays for fertility treatment for service members in active duty, but it’s a benefit many wounded warriors can’t take advantage of during their recoveries.

Some veterans battle mental health issues after Iraq, Afghanistan (U.S. News & World Report)
Since U.S. military operations began in Iraq and Afghanistan, more than 2.7 million men and women have served or continue to serve there. Some have been deployed two, three, four or more times. More than 6,800 service members have sacrificed their lives in these conflicts. Untold others have forfeited their well-being. A vast majority of these surviving veterans will carry the wounds of war, both visible and invisible, with them long into their lives. In the last few years, researchers have made great progress capturing the downstream consequences of coping with injuries sustained in the theater of war, but the emerging picture is shadowed in grays. Taken together, a series of recent findings and statistics presents a bleak portrait of the cost of modern war to service members, their families and their health care providers. Of particular concern is a study just published in JAMA Psychiatry that showed, for the first time, that the risk for suicide increases once a person leaves active military service. Our recent review of the literature reveals unsettling findings from several other studies, signaling catastrophe for the nation’s veterans and the systems that care for them if the problems identified are not addressed soon. For instance, individuals with post-traumatic stress disorder are at risk for early onset of hypertension, cardiovascular disease and dementia. And among service members previously deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan who are not seeking treatment, an estimated 5 to 20 percent have PTSD. This means that Department of Veterans Affairs and civilian medical systems will increasingly be called upon to care for two or more chronic illnesses in a single veteran patient.

Military policy keeping some vets’ names off Vietnam memorial wall (WIVB-Buffalo)
The names of 74 veterans are missing from the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in the nation’s capital. But a push from a New York senator and a local family are trying to change a longstanding military policy that’s allowed the practice for years. Buffalo native Terry Lee Henderson died on a training exercise in the South China Sea in 1969.
And although he’s a veteran of Vietnam, his name has been left off the National Memorial because the training wasn’t considered to be linked to war. Sen. Charles Schumer,, D, N.Y. and Henderson’s family, who still live in Chautauqua County, are pushing the Department of Defense to memorialize Henderson and the other veterans who died in the same accident. In June of 1969, the USS Frank E. Evans collided with an Australian vessel and went down. Schumer said the government decided the South China Sea wasn’t a combat zone, despite its proximity to Vietnam, and despite the fact members of the military were training for combat in Vietnam. Schumer said anything to give families of the fallen, like Henderson’s mother, some sense of solace is worth it. “If it gives her some solace to be able to see her son’s name on the memorial wall here in Washington and to be able to go down, and like the other 50,000 families touch it and see that he’s remembered, we should do it,” Schumer said. “When somebody is in the military, and they’re preparing for combat, but they’re not exactly in combat, they should be afforded many of the same rights that many of those lost in combat were. And we have to revamp the whole way the military looks at this.”

Opinion: Capital crimes have no place in VA cemeteries (Stars & Stripes)
By Rep. Lou Barletta: “In 1997, with the nation still reeling following the Oklahoma City bombing, many were rightly concerned that convicted terrorist Timothy McVeigh — a Gulf War veteran — would be buried with honors in a military cemetery. To address those fears, Congress passed a law prohibiting those convicted of capital crimes from being buried in Department of Veterans Affairs national cemeteries or Arlington National Cemetery. Unfortunately, that law has not always been followed, resulting in the hallowed ground of national military cemeteries being tainted by the burial of murderers. Another case has arisen in Pennsylvania, which prompted me to introduce legislation to ensure that current law is being observed and enforced. On Oct. 15, 1969, Bertha Smith, known to everyone as “Bertie,” was shot and killed at an outdoor shopping center in Harrisburg, Pa. An old boyfriend, George Emery Siple, who had violated protective orders, was convicted of the murder and sentenced to life in prison without parole. After 30 years of imprisonment, Siple — a veteran — died in custody in 1999 and was buried in Indiantown Gap National Cemetery in Pennsylvania with full military honors, despite the existing law that should have prevented his interment. Siple remains there to this day. Jackie Katz, Bertie’s daughter, has called it “hell” and a “horror” to live with the fact that Siple was memorialized and buried with full military honors. For Bertie Smith’s family, this is a traumatic, ongoing reminder of a murder from more than four decades ago. After consultation with Jackie Katz and friends of the family, I introduced the Bertie’s Respect for National Cemeteries Act to rectify the situation.”

VA hospitals gain access to private-sector medical records (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)
Clinicians at VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System soon will be viewing local medical records from outside of the hospital’s institutional walls, a technological achievement that could improve the treatment of thousands of Pittsburgh-area veterans.  On May 27, the VA health system gained access to the multi-hospital health information exchange known as ClinicalConnect, which shares medical records among UPMC, St. Clair Hospital, Heritage Valley Health System, Butler Health System, ACMH Hospital, Excela Health, Washington Health System and Presbyterian SeniorCare. Doctors and veterans are still learning about the new data link, but once everyone is up to speed, a physician treating a veteran at the VA’s University Drive campus in Oakland — or at any other VA hospital across the country — can check ClinicalConnect for limited local records, including allergies, immunizations, procedures, medications and lab results. “There’s enormous advantages” to sharing records between hospitals, said VA Pittsburgh acting director David Macpherson in a phone interview. “It’s a patient-safety issue … we can get almost real-time information,” which can improve decision-making and cut down on duplicate tests.  Phase two of the data swap, now being tested, will reverse the flow of information — a UPMC or Excela clinician could peer into the vast VA records system. When that part of the system goes live, some 20,000 ClinicalConnect-affiliated providers will be able to see a veteran’s VA health care record, as long as the patient opts into the data-sharing.  About 6 million of the nation’s 21.6 million veterans get regular VA care, and there are about 192,000 living veterans in Pittsburgh’s seven-county region, with as many as 100,000 veterans receiving VA clinical care in the Western Pennsylvania service area.

Jury gives Marine vet prison term for failed attempt at ‘suicide by cop’ (San Antonio Express-News)
Officers fired 177 bullets at a troubled Marine veteran, Victor A. Valdez, after he shot toward them during a convenience store robbery in Fredericksburg, Texas, but he was arrested with only a minor buttock wound, according to testimony here this week. The day after the Dec. 18, 2013, incident, Valdez had “said he wanted to go out in a firefight” and initiated the conflict in hopes that police would kill him, Texas Ranger Kevin Wright had testified. Valdez, 25, could have received life in prison after pleading guilty Tuesday to 12 counts of aggravated assault on a public servant and two charges of aggravated robbery. He asked a jury to assess punishment. After deliberating less than three hours, it sentenced him Thursday to 10 years in prison on the assault charges and 10 years of probation for the robbery, officials said. Valdez, a lance corporal honorably discharged in 2013 after four years as a Marine, suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder due to two tours in Afghanistan, his family said. “I had a death wish, sir,” he testified Thursday, answering questions by his lawyer, Pat Pattillo. “Nobody deserved to have to live through what I put them through. It was my fault.” Testimony described Valdez, drunk and high on LSD, eating and drinking merchandise at the Valero store at 516 S. Adams St. in Fredericksburg.

Bill would undermine protections for all VA workers (The Washington Post)
Congressional efforts to significantly cut workplace protections for Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) employees — with clear implications for the rest of the federal workforce — are moving apace even as the largest federal union mounts a vigorous attack on the legislation. At the same time, the Obama administration is telling agency heads to rein in the use of paid administrative leave that at times has left non-working employees on the payroll for months. These events signal a sense among Republicans and Democrats that procedures to punish wayward feds either are not strict enough or are not strictly enforced. Legislation and a memo from the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) also indicate a growing belief on Capitol Hill, within the administration and among good government types that the civil service system needs reform. Last week’s memo from OPM Director Katherine Archuleta included a fact sheet on paid administrative leave that said “supervisors often place employees on administrative leave rather than utilizing other options that may be more appropriate.” Currently, most of the action is centered on the VA because of the scandal over the cover-up of long wait times that erupted last year. One response to that was a law that allowed VA senior executives to be fired with very little ability to appeal. Now, Rep. Jeff Miller (R-Fla.) wants a similar law for all VA employees, even those not involved in the scandal or with little connection to patient care. As chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, he continues to lead a relentless probe into the department and deserves credit for setting the stage for significant improvements the new leadership there is attempting to implement. But his approach to personnel management would significantly undercut due process rights that have kept the VA’s civil service civil instead of political. “H.R. 1994 would provide the secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs with yet another tool to remove any VA employee for poor performance or misconduct,” he told an economic opportunity subcommittee hearing Tuesday. “This provision is simply an extension of this same authority that was provided to the secretary last summer in the Choice Act to remove senior executives.”