July 14 Veterans News

July 14 Veterans News

Veterans news updateNearly one-third of 847,000 vets in health care backlog already died (The Huffington Post)
More than 238,000 of the 847,000 veterans in the pending backlog for health care through the Department of Veterans Affairs have already died, according to an internal VA document provided to The Huffington Post. Scott Davis, a program specialist at the VA’s Health Eligibility Center in Atlanta and a past whistleblower on the VA’s failings, provided HuffPost with an April 2015 report titled “Analysis of Death Services,” which reviews the accuracy of the VA’s veteran death records. The report was conducted by staffers in the VA Health Eligibility Center and the VA Office of Analytics. Flip to page 13 and you’ll see some stark numbers. As of April, there were 847,822 veterans listed as pending for enrollment in VA health care. Of those, 238,657 are now deceased, meaning they died after they applied for, but never got, health care.  While the number is large — representing nearly a third of those listed as pending — some of the applicants may have died years ago. The VA has no mechanism to purge the list of dead applicants, and some of those applying, according to VA spokeswoman Walinda West, likely never completed the application, yet remain on the pending list anyway. West said the VA electronic health record system has been in place since 1985, suggesting some of the data may be decades old and some of those people may have gone on to use other insurance. About 81 percent of veterans who come to the VA “have either Medicare, Medicaid, Tricare or some other private insurance,” said West. “Consequently, some in pending status may have decided to use other options instead of completing their eligibility application.” But Davis disputed West on every point. For starters, an incomplete application would never be listed as a pending application, he said. Beyond that, the health records system West is referring to is just that: general health records, not pending applications for enrollment in health care. The VA has only required enrollment in health care since 1998, he said, and there was no formal application process before that. As for some vets having other insurance, Davis said it is “immaterial and a farce” to suggest that means VA shouldn’t be providing vets with the health care they earned. “VA wants you to believe, by virtue of people being able to get health care elsewhere, it’s not a big deal. But VA is turning away tens of thousands of veterans eligible for health care,” he said. “VA is making it cumbersome, and then saying, ‘See? They didn’t want it anyway.'”

Deadline to plug VA budget shortfall looms for Congress (Military Times)
Congress has about three weeks left to sort out a $3 billion hole in the Department of Veterans Affairs budget or else risk shutting down some VA hospital operations. Officials from the department and key congressional committees have said they’re confident a plan can be worked out before the end of July, preventing any disruption in services to veterans. But ongoing political squabbles over problems with VA and unrelated budget fights could sideline the work, creating significant problems for patients. The department first requested a funding fix for the budget gap three weeks ago, but has yet to see progress on the issue on Capitol Hill. On Monday, VA officials submitted their latest update to the plan for shifting existing funds to cover shortfalls in the department’s Care in the Community program — outsourced medical care for veterans — and for underfunded hepatitis C treatments. Together, the two items have already pulled more than $2.5 billion from other VA accounts, including money previous assigned to clinical salaries, medical equipment and operational requirements. “If these program funds are not restored, VA will face shutting down hospital operations during August 2015,” VA Deputy Secretary Sloan Gibson warned in a letter to lawmakers accompanying the funding proposals. VA officials want to use about $10 billion authorized by Congress last summer to pay for the shortfall, but that money is tied only to outside services provided through the department’s new Choice Card program. Gibson testified last month that getting all of the new demand for outside care shifted to that program will take time, and the department needs more flexibility with the walled-off funds to ensure veterans can get needed care in the short-term. At that hearing, House Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller, R-Fla., promised he would work “to give VA the flexibility it’s seeking to use a limited amount of Choice funds for non-VA care, and ensure that no veteran suffers as a result of VA’s mismanagement.”

Camp Lejeune veterans: Are VA experts qualified? (WKMG-Orlando)
Thousands of Camp Lejeune veterans are still fighting for disability benefits after being diagnosed with illness they say are from the toxic drinking water on base. Many claim the doctors that are reviewing their cases from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs may not be qualified to do it. Franklin McArthur, Jr. spent 730 days at Camp Lejeune. Nearly 50 years later, he was diagnosed with a rare form of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma called mycosis fungoid. “I had no idea where it came from,” said McArthur. “At the time, I didn’t know about the Camp Lejeune water contamination situation. Nobody contacted me, nobody sent me a letter or anything.” He said it wasn’t until he saw a news program about the exposure did everything make sense. McArthur said because non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma is one of the conditions covered under the Honoring America’s Veterans and Caring for Camp Lejeune Families Act of 2012, he filed for disability benefits with the VA. But his Camp Lejeune benefits claim was denied. “It had to be the exposure. It had to be,” said McArthur. But the VA’s doctor didn’t agree. McArthur said he was shocked about the doctor’s reasoning. “He couldn’t have done any research, because anyone could have done what he did,” said McArthur. “Plagiarize Wikipedia and make a decision on my claim.” He said it appears the doctor cut and pasted information on mycosis fungoid from Wikipedia in his report. “Then made to look the way that person wanted it to look,” said McArthur. “Even instances where they said it wasn’t genetic and he said it was. So he outright lied, actually.” McArthur is referring to a line in his denial that said: “While the causes remain unclear, most cases are genetic or hereditary.” The sentence in the Wikipedia page includes the word “not”, indicating most cases are not genetic or hereditary. Local 6 has asked the VA why a subject matter expert would need to use Wikipedia. “The audiences for medical opinions are the Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA) raters, the Veteran and potentially the Board of Veterans Appeals judge,” said Meagan Lutz, a VA representative, in an email. “The medical opinion should be written in a manner that clearly explains the elements of the case using non-technical language. The subject matter expert uses multiple sources to gather information to complete the medical opinion.”

More than 150 headstones for vets’ graves plundered to build worker’s floor (The Washington Post)
When headstones on the graves of fallen servicemen crack or fade with age, they’re hauled away to be honorably destroyed. Then the Department of Veterans Affairs replaces them. But at a veterans cemetery in Rhode Island, an employee who was supposed to be taking care of the graves pillaged more than 150 granite headstones, many of them still inscribed with the names of the veterans. Then he took the markers home to build a floor for his carport. When investigators arrived at Kevin Maynard’s house in Charlestown, R.I., this spring, they come upon an eerie scene, according to a federal affadavit: The grave markers, most with the inscriptions face down, were serving as the foundation for two makeshift carports held up by aluminum poles and plastic tarps. In one carport, Maynard’s red, late-model Ford truck was parked on top of the stones. The rest were scattered about the property. On one, the inscription honoring a World War II veteran and his wife were intact:

JUL 51919 JUN 21 2011
OCT 31925 JAN 231991

Authorities suspect that Maynard had been taking the headstones from a secured area on cemetery grounds since 2009, a few stones at a time. Maynard, 59, was arraigned on Monday in U.S. District Court. He is scheduled for sentencing later this summer on one count of theft of government property under a plea agreement that will allow him to serve one year’s probation and 500 hours of community service, according to documents filed with the U.S. Attorney in Rhode Island.  Two of Maynard’s co-workers turned him in to the Rhode Island State Police, court documents show. The employees told investigators for the police and VA’s inspector general that he bragged about stealing the gravestones and using them at his home. One co-worker had visited the house and seen Maynard’s truck parked on top of as many as 75 gravestones. Maynard, who has since resigned, had been a state employee with the Rhode Island Veterans Memorial Cemetery since 2006.

The simple fix that could improve life for thousands of veterans (Fox News)
Commentary by Rep. Sean Duffy (R-WI): “I frequently see my father sitting and smiling at conversations. He will ask for a conversation to be repeated only once and then just nods. Frustrated that he is not able to participate, often he will just go to bed. He is a great family man and this is hard for all the family to watch.” The daughter of Dilbert Neitzel, a World War II Veteran, recalling her father’s daily reality before he passed away earlier this year. This is a familiar reality for thousands of our veterans – and their families. Veterans, both old and young, are seeking help from the VA for hearing loss and tinnitus more than any other disabilities facing them today: the demand for audiology services is growing at nearly 10 percent every year. Since the Phoenix VA scandal broke last year, the number of veterans on wait lists for appointments has increased by 50 percent. According to the VA, nearly half of all patients on the lists are waiting for audiology services. The VA simply does not have the capability to keep up. Why is that? As it stands today, the VA is only allowed to use audiologists to provide hearing services to veterans. While audiologists are a great resource for the VA and provide good service for veterans, there are not enough of them to keep up with the demand. Rep. Tim Walz (MN-01) and I introduced legislation to change the system and get veterans more timely access to the care many of them desperately need. H.R. 353, the Veterans’ Access to Hearing Health Act, would allow the VA to use hearing aid specialists, of which there are many more and often they are easier to get to. Hearing aid specialists have gone through a 1 to 2 year apprenticeship-training period, have completed a comprehensive written exam, and are certified by the state to fit and sell hearing aids. They are qualified to support the specialized services of audiologists by fitting, adjusting, and making minor repairs to hearing aids. By allowing hearing aid specialists to serve in their licensed role at the VA, the current burden audiologists have of performing all hearing services will be lifted. With the provisions of H.R. 353 in place, VA audiologists can turn their attention to specialized cases and complex conditions, and people like Mr. Neitzel will not have to wait months at a time for simple hearing adjustments. H.R. 353 has the support of the National Guard, the Retired Enlists Association, Veterans’ Health Council, the American Academy of Otolaryngology, the Wisconsin American Legion, and I am very glad to note that Tuesday it will be considered before the House Veterans Affairs committee.”

Impasse deepens over tainted water at Wilmington VA (Wilmington Star-News)
Months into a water-quality issue that resulted in the suspension of some services, Cape Fear Public Utility Authority and the building owners of the Wilmington Veterans Affairs Health Care Center don’t agree on whether the facility’s water is safe and clean. Mike P. Fortune, attorney for the Wisconsin-based company that leases its building to the VA for $280,000 a month, wrote in an email to the StarNews on Friday, “My client believes that the water situation has been completely and fully resolved as plentiful safe, clean water is being supplied to and available in the Wilmington VA Clinic.” “That’s certainly not our position,” VA spokesman Jeffery Melvin said Monday, adding that the building owners thinking the situation is resolved is news to him. CFPUA Executive Director Jim Flechtner reiterated concerns about the “potential risk to public health and safety” at the Wilmington Veterans Affairs Health Care Center in a letter to Fortune dated July 10. Flechtner was responding to a July 6 cease-and-desist letter from Fortune to CFPUA questioning the local agency’s authority to place a “do not use the water” notice on the center’s doors and requesting CFPUA remove itself from the water quality matter at the Wilmington Health Care Center. After the VA accepted an offer from the CFPUA to conduct independent sampling at the facility, the authority collected 30 of its own samples on June 29 and sent them to a private laboratory. According to Flechtner’s letter, the results show lead and copper above EPA actionable levels. “It is reasonable to infer that the underlying problem had not been fully located and repaired as of June 30,” he wrote.

Colorado health officials to decide whether marijuana can be prescribed for PTSD (The Denver Channel)
The Colorado Board of Health will vote Wednesday on whether to add post-traumatic stress disorder to the list of conditions that can be treated with medical marijuana. Nine other states already include PTSD in their medical marijuana programs, but in the past, efforts to make the change in Colorado have failed both at the board of health and in the state legislature. “The irony is that Colorado has legalized recreational cannabis and bypassed or forgotten its veterans,” said Navy veteran John Evans. Evans successfully petitioned the state of Michigan to allow doctors to prescribe pot for PTSD, and came to Colorado to try to do the same. “I thought it’d be easy,” he said. Evans uses cannabis for pain, and believes PTSD sufferers should be able to do the same. “It takes away their nightmares, allows them to sleep,” Evans said. “A lot of the issues we hear about are literally from sleep deprivation. Veterans will go four to five days without sleeping.”  He pointed out it’s not just veterans, but sexual assault and domestic abuse survivors that could also benefit. Pushback has come from some in the medical community who argue that research is very limited on marijuana’s effects on PTSD, and cannabis can exacerbate mental illnesses. “The chance that marijuana can make mental illness worse is well-studied and well-documented for both adolescents and adults,” said Dr. Jennifer Hagman with the Colorado Psychiatric Society. “There’s risk of psychosis, worsening depression and addiction.” While scientific studies on marijuana treatment for PTSD are underway, Hagman said that research should be finished before new policy is put in place.

Survey: Military families carry more debt, have fewer assets than civilians (MyArkLaMiss.com)
Many members of the U.S. armed forces pay a financial price for their service to the country, often carrying higher credit card debt and owning fewer assets than civilians, a new survey shows. The survey done for the National Foundation for Credit Counseling (NFCC) found that veterans and active duty personnel and their families often face unique circumstances, such as frequent relocation and deployment, which can put a significant strain on their finances. “This is a serious problem,” said Susan Keating, NFCC president and CEO. “The issue of financial stability for those who serve our country is a real concern.” The NFCC survey looked at people who took part in the foundation’s Sharpen Your Financial Focus program to deal with debt. They found that when compared to all the participants in the program, the average military family had:

• 7 percent higher unsecured debt balances, or $400-$500 more than the average.
• 16 percent fewer tangible asset ($11,000 less).
• 15 percent higher monthly debt-related expenses ($200 more).

“I think this higher-than-average burden of debt leads to some significant financial constraints on these military households,” said Stephen Roll, an Ohio State University researcher who analyzed the data for the NFCC. And with the continued reduction in forces, the situation may get worse, as more service members try to find civilian jobs. “These families are facing a loss of income from unemployment or underemployment, as well as bad credit from high debt or financial mismanagement,” Roll told NBC News.

Advocacy groups hail military move to study transgender issues (Stars & Stripes)
The military took a big step toward lifting its ban on transgender service members on Monday by forming a working group to review the issue and making it more difficult for transgender men and women to be discharged in the meantime. The announcement by Defense Secretary Ash Carter reflects growing scrutiny on the ban in recent years as the military overhauled other personnel policies, recognizing gay and lesbian troops and opening combat positions to women. “The Defense Department’s current regulations regarding transgender service members are outdated and are causing uncertainty that distracts commanders from our core missions,” Carter said in a statement announcing the change. Advocacy groups and transgender service members and veterans applauded the announcement, which sets a six-month timeline for the group to finish its work and suggested the final result would be a lift on the ban. “Six months is more than enough time to hammer out the details. This isn’t new ground,” said Allyson Robinson, policy director for the gay, lesbian and transgender advocacy group SPARTA. “A number of our military allies deploy transgender troops alongside American forces downrange, as do DOD contractors.” The working group will identify the medical, legal and administrative issues that would accompany a repeal of the ban, according to the announcement. Led by acting Undersecretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness Brad Carson and staffed with representatives of each service and the Joint Chiefs, the group will begin its work from the assumption that transgender men and women can serve openly, Carter said, “except where objective, practical impediments are identified.” Carson will have final authority for any decisions to remove transgender persons from the services, a decision that had rested with each service. The term “transgender” includes anyone who identifies with or expresses him- or herself as a gender different from the one assigned at birth. Some transgender people choose medical procedures as part of their transition. As many as 15,500 current active-duty service members, reservists and National Guard members are transgender, with another 135,000 veterans, according to a 2014 estimate by researchers at the UCLA School of Law.