July 22 Veterans News Update

July 22 Veterans News Update

Veterans news updateVeterans exposed to toxic chemicals accuse VA of foot-dragging (The Huffington Post)
Retired Senior Master Sgt. Leslie Howe has battled two cancers — non-Hodgkin lymphoma and prostate cancer, both of which have been linked with exposure to Agent Orange, the herbicide used by the U.S. military to destroy enemy cover and crops during the Vietnam War. Howe, 71, was never actually in Vietnam during the conflict, but in the 1980s he served aboard Air Force planes that contained trace amounts of the defoliant. Still, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs twice denied Howe’s benefits claim, telling him in a letter that it “could not find a link” between his medical conditions and his military service. “I flew in good conscience on that aircraft, not knowing the danger,” said Howe, who recalled a distinct “aroma” at times while he worked in the aircraft as an air medical evacuation technician. “I did it because I wanted to serve my country.” Similarly, retired Master Sgt. Casimir Cerniauskas, a World War II refugee from Lithuania, never hesitated in his decision to serve his adoptive country. He spent 37 years in the U.S. Air Force, including years loading and unloading cargo from contaminated C-123 airplanes — the craft used to deploy Agent Orange in Vietnam — in the U.S. after the Vietnam War had ended. Today, he’s undergoing chemotherapy for myelodysplasia, a type of blood cancer, after already fighting non-Hodgkin lymphoma and being told that he couldn’t qualify for the same Agent Orange-related benefits granted to veterans who served in Vietnam, where they were assumed to have encountered the herbicide. “I don’t regret serving,” said Cerniauskas, whose three sons have all graduated from West Point and been deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan. “But how they make veterans wait, it makes me sick. They are dying. It’s not right.” Howe and Cerniauskas both said they will be refiling their claims, now with renewed hope after what they say was a long-overdue policy change announced by the VA in June. The limits and lags in medical care and disability benefits for veterans are well established. Look no further than a federal lawsuit filed in April by combat-injured veterans forced to wait up to two years or more for required records from the VA before they could apply for benefits. Jon Stewart, host of Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show,” has repeatedly called out the agency for its red tape and backlogs of claims. As The Huffington Post recently reported, nearly one-third of the 847,000 veterans with pending applications for health care through the VA have already died. But perhaps no population of veterans are more frustrated by VA denials and delays than those who believe they were sickened by environmental exposures during their service. Many of those vets have stories and complaints similar to Cerniauskas and Howe’s.

Before asking for money, VA must show real proof of progress (The Virginian Pilot)
Editorial: “On Thursday, the Department of Veterans Affairs will ask a congressional committee for more money to help with the growing demand for services. But the agency’s track record for efficiency and accountability is abysmal. It must show it’s taking serious steps to ensure veterans get the care they need when they need it, and that the VA can spend the money efficiently and wisely. Right now, it’s hard to argue that the VA deserves another $2.6 billion when it can’t say how many veterans have died while waiting for health care, when its waiting lists for treatment are 50 percent higher than a year ago, when a hospital the agency is building in Denver is more than $1 billion over budget. Last week, a manager at a VA medical center in Georgia was indicted on 50 counts of ordering his staff to falsify medical records of veterans waiting for outside medical care. More charges against other VA employees are expected, given the breadth of the scandal over wait times. When VA leaders go before the House Committee on Veterans Affairs for their budget hearing, they will talk about how the agency is handling 2.7 million more appointments than in previous years. Sen. John McCain, a veteran and Arizona Republican who chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee, called the VA “a broken bureaucracy” that “continues to be plagued by a culture of neglect and mismanagement that is denying veterans… access to the quality health care that they were promised.” The agency’s new secretary, Robert McDonald, has asked Congress to release some of the strings attached to the $10 billion allocated for private medical care for veterans. New VA centers are opening, aging Vietnam vets need care, younger servicemembers are returning from Iraq and Afghanistan with physical and mental injuries, the demand for costly treatments for Hepatitis C has exploded. The agency, McDonald said, doesn’t have the money to take care of all these needs. A spokesman for the Veterans of Foreign Wars said the group has confidence in McDonald. “It’s clear that the VA is seeing more veterans than historically or in previous years and they are poorer, sicker and older than the past,” Carlos Fuentes, VFW’s senior legislative associate told The Washington Post. Ultimately, he said, “veterans should not be denied care because of budget questions.” He’s right. But before Congress provides more money, or even the flexibility to move money in its budget, the VA must show how it will reduce waiting times, how it is changing record-keeping and how it is holding itself accountable for meeting the needs of the people who put their lives on the line for our country.”

Obama orders flags to half-staff 5 days after Chattanooga attack (Military Times)
President Obama finally ordered the U.S. flag to be lowered to half-staff Tuesday, five days after four Marines and a sailor were gunned down at two military facilities in Tennessee. Obama announced his decision during a speech to the National Veterans of Foreign Wars Convention in Pittsburgh, following days of intense national criticism of White House silence. “As a grateful nation, we must stand up for them and honor them forever,” Obama said in tribute to the fallen service members, yet did not comment on any reason for delaying the proclamation. Obama immediately issued proclamations to lower the flag following similar attacks on the Washington Navy Yard in 2013 and Fort Hood in 2009, as well as after several other recent mass shootings, but the lack of response to the Chattanooga attack left many service members and veterans baffled. “I was appalled,” Marine veteran and former recruiter Richard Linck told Marine Corps Times after he noticed the flag flying high over Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point, N.C., was not at half-staff following the attacks. “Why? In over 20 years here, I’ve seen flags at half-staff for celebrities, so why couldn’t we do it for these four Marines and the sailor who were murdered? It’s disrespectful,” Linck said. A Facebook page titled “Half-Mast Challenge; Teach Obama Respect,” was launched on Monday. Followers posted photos of their own flags flying at half-staff. Others took to Twitter to encourage the president to order flags to be flown at half-mast.

In wait times scandal, indicted VA manager worked at hospital in turmoil (The Washington Post)
The Charlie Norwood Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Augusta, Ga., was a hospital with systemic failures. Its gastrointestinal clinic was so overwhelmed and mismanaged that close to 5,000 referrals for endoscopies were delayed, auditors found, resulting in the deaths of three cancer patients in 2011 and 2012, hospital officials acknowledged in published reports. Veterans complained of long wait times for other specialty care. Top management was in upheaval after resignations, firings and unfilled vacancies; directors cycled through, with the last departure leaving a vacancy for months. And when a scandal in Phoenix, Ariz., last year revealed that VA employees were manipulating wait times to hide long delays for patients, Augusta became one of 111 medical centers that federal investigators flagged for further review. Schedulers there told investigators they felt pressured to put appointment dates in the system earlier than the real ones, which were later on the calendar and exceeded the reasonable time a veteran should wait to see a doctor. Amid the turmoil, a program analyst in charge of making sure veterans got appointments with outside specialists tried to solve the problems by pretending they didn’t exist, prosecutors alleged Friday when they charged Cathedral Henderson with ordering his staff to improperly close out more than 2,700 consults for outside care. Henderson, 50, a GS-12 in charge of revenue and billing and chief of “purchase care” for the Augusta medical center, pleaded not guilty last Friday to 50 counts of falsifying medical records. His indictment marks the first criminal prosecution in a scandal so serious it cost VA Secretary Eric Shinseki his job. Unlike the six senior executives across the VA system who have been fired or retired after they lied about patient wait times, Henderson is a mid-level employee whose salary is $89,032. His lawyer says his client was acting under pressure from supervisors. “There was an issue with consults, and he was asked to do something about it,” attorney Keith Johnson of Augusta said Monday. A  memo from VA headquarters had instructed local hospitals to close out all requests for outside care. VA “knew delays in care was an issue,” Johnson said, adding, “There was pressure applied to certain staff” to make the delays go away. Prosecutors are not interpreting Henderson’s motives as generously. Henderson “falsely declared the consults to have been completed or refused by the patients, when in truth and fact, as Henderson then well knew, the consults were still pending and unresolved, and the veteran patients were still waiting for the authorized medical consults,” the indictment charges, describing Henderson’s alleged actions over five days in February 2014.

Veterans’ views on Obama legacy decidedly mixed (Stars & Stripes)
During a presidency marked by two wars and an ongoing crisis in veterans’ health care, the policy decisions that Barack Obama has made have acutely affected many in the crowd of thousands of combat vets he addressed here on Tuesday. Those who made it to Pittsburgh for the Veterans of Foreign Wars national convention, where the president spoke about health care, Iran and the recent murder of five service members in Chattanooga, Tenn., had decidedly mixed views about Obama’s legacy on veterans’ issues. Some VFW members were unhappy with Obama’s record, especially the perception that he was trying to cut veterans’ benefits to save money. “Honest to God, I don’t want to listen to the man,” said former Green Beret Ron Johnson, 68, who served in Vietnam. “He’s wanted to balance the budget on the backs of veterans.” One of Obama’s strongest endorsements came from the VFW’s incoming Commander John Biedrzycki. “He went on the offensive about the VA (Veterans Affairs),” he said. “They’re moving in the right direction.” Another pressing concern for the combat veterans at the convention was sequestration, the automatic cuts that threaten to reduce the ranks of the military even more than the cuts already planned — 40,000 soldiers. “Sequestration is the most ridiculous damn thing our government can do to our soldiers,” Biedrzycki said. “How can they be the finest military in the world if they can’t be razor-sharp?” In his speech, Obama decried sequestration, saying he would veto any budget that locks in more sequesters. “These mindless cuts have to end,” he said. When Obama speaks about veterans, his speeches are often punctuated with the repeated refrain: “Hire a vet, hire a vet.” Veterans gave him credit for putting the focus on helping servicemembers find work once they leave the military.

President Obama on VA improvements: ‘I’m still not satisfied’ (National Journal)
President Obama reflected on issues within the Veterans Affairs Department during remarks at the 116th Veterans of Foreign Wars National Convention in Pittsburgh on Tuesday. “Our work is not done,” he said. “We still have a big challenge.” The administration has had to tackle veterans’ issues following revelations regarding long wait times for those seeking care and, later, the resignation of the Veterans Affairs secretary last year. The president followed up on Tuesday with efforts to ensure veterans have the resources they need, including a request to Congress to give the department “more flexibility” to move funds where needed, improvements to health care for veterans, and a reduction in the disability-claims backlog. “Finally, we’ll fight to give Americans the chance to protect our military families against unscrupulous predatory lenders,” Obama said, adding that the department is closing loopholes to protect military personnel and their families from them.

Obama moves to protect veterans from loan sharks (MarketWatch)
The Obama administration and U.S. Department of Defense issued a new rule Tuesday to protect veterans from predatory lenders — with good reason. They’re far more vulnerable to financial problems than the rest of the population. When service members return from active duty, they’re more likely to face severe financial challenges than civilians. That’s why the Obama administration and Department of Defense introduced a new rule on Tuesday to help protect military service personnel from loan sharks. Included in the amendment to the Military Lending Act is a new rule that says creditors may not charge an annual percentage rate of more than 36% on all consumer credit. The Military Lending Act previously applied this rate cap to a small number of loan types, such as payday loans of 91 days or less and auto title loans of 181 day or less, according to the Consumer Federation of America, a Washington, D.C. national organization of consumer groups. But a 2007 rule exempted payday and auto title loans structured as open-end credit. As a result, lenders targeted more than one out of every 10 active-duty service members with high-cost credit, the CFA added. “The Defense Department’s new rule marks an important advance in the process of reining in widespread abuse in the payday and small loan market,” says Nick Bourke, director of the small-dollar loans project at The Pew Charitable Trusts, an independent, nonprofit organization in Washington, D.C. “We’ve seen that previous policies exempting large parts of the market from consumer protections have resulted in evasions as licensed lenders continue to offer harmful loans in exempted parts of the market.”

Veterans protest military recruiting center gun ban (The Washington Times)
A group of veterans has been gathering outside of a Madison, Wis., military recruitment center to protest a law barring active-duty members who work at such sites from being armed. The veterans say they plan to keep showing up at the facility near the city’s East Towne Mall until the law is changed. Their protest follows last week’s killing of five servicemen in attacks on a military recruiting office and a Navy-Marine operations center in Chattanooga, Tennessee. The man who allegedly carried out the attacks later died in a shootout with police. Although there is no indication that the Madison site has been threatened, the veterans say they want to show they stand in solidarity with the active-duty military members who work at such centers, Veteran Dave Walters told WKOW-TV. “We love these guys like they’re our brothers and sisters,” said veteran Dave Walters. At least one of the veterans, who declined to give his name, said he’s armed legally with a concealed carry permit. He said he was hoping to protect the recruiters inside the building, including his son, because they’re not allowed to carry weapons. Troops at recruiting and reserve offices aren’t allowed to have guns. Active service members only are allowed to carry weapons when they’re performing law enforcement duties, like standing guard at the gates of federal military bases, said retired Marine 1st Sgt. Tim La Sage.

Donald Trump launches hotline for veterans (Breitbart News)
GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump – who recently made media headlines with a spat between him and Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) is announcing a move to show he is committed to the military and veterans.First, Trump is calling for all American flags to be flown at half-staff to honor the five military members who were killed in the Chattanooga, Tennessee shooting last week by a “devout Muslim,” as CNN described the shooter. Second, Trump is establishing a hotline and email address for veterans to share their stories on how the Veterans Administration should be reformed. He pledges that if elected president he will take care of the veteran complaints “very quickly and efficiently like a world-class businessman can do, but a politician has no clue.” The hotline is 855-VETS-352 and email is veterans@donaldtrump.com. Trump stated, “This disgraceful omission is unacceptable and yet another example of our incompetent politicians. It is a simple yet meaningful and important gesture that signifies our respect and recognition for these great soldiers who lost their lives. We must do better for all Americans, especially our military. We must Make America Great Again!” A senior member of Trump’s campaign told Breitbart News the hotline is a place for veterans to share their stories. Trump will be personally responding to some of the messages.

Some US troops, veterans barred from Garmisch’s Edelweiss resort (Stars & Stripes)
Some servicemembers and retirees will no longer be able to use an Armed Forces Recreation Center in Garmisch following a recent review of the center’s reservations policies, the military said Tuesday. The review found that rules on who can stay at the Army’s Installation Management Command-run resort were not being followed and that vacationers who were technically ineligible to stay at the resort were still being allowed to do so. As a result, the Edelweiss Lodge and Resort — a vacation destination popular with U.S. servicemembers — issued an update to its website in June defining eligibility. Retirees are among the most affected by these guidelines. For example, military retirees not residing in Germany cannot stay at the resort unless they can prove they have spent at least 30 days in Europe. Those retirees living in Germany can stay at the hotel if they have proper tax authorization from a German customs office. Servicemembers based in the continental United States are also barred from staying at the resort unless they are traveling with a sponsor who lives in Germany or they have been in Europe for longer than a month. Active-duty personnel serving within U.S. European Command aren’t affected by this update and are still able to use the resort. This eligibility extends to National Guardsmen and reserve troops on active-duty status within EUCOM for more than 30 days.

Denver VA halts surgeries over sterilization concerns (The Coloradan)
Denver’s Veterans Affairs hospital is holding off on complicated surgeries and shipping reusable equipment like forceps to Cheyenne for sterilization. KMGH-TV reports Denver VA Medical Center spokesman Dan Warvi says the hospital is looking for a local alternative to Cheyenne as officials resolve quality control issues in the sterilization process. Warvi said heart surgeries and other similarly involved procedures are being postponed or patients are being referred to alternative health care providers at no additional cost. The Denver VA stopped conducting surgeries in August over air system issues. Dozens of veterans had surgeries delayed in September and October over sterilization and contamination concerns. United Veterans Committee of Colorado President Frank McCurdy says this exemplifies the need for a new facility to replace the aging Denver VA.

Man admits stealing $265,000 in checks meant for dead man (Military Times)
A northwest Ohio man has admitted to stealing $265,000 in Department of Veterans Affairs disability checks meant for a man who died in 2006. The Columbus Dispatch reports 46-year-old Dewey Darby pleaded guilty Tuesday in federal court to theft of public money. He faces up to 10 years in prison. Prosecutors say the Toledo man was a caregiver for 80-year-old Donald Strauser and had a bank account in both of their names. Strauser died in 2006, but the VA kept sending checks for eight years that Darby used for his personal use. The VA says the investigation started when the agency realized Strauser was dead.