Jeb Bush unveils VA reform plan for presidential bid (Military Times)
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush hopes to thrust Veteran Affairs reform into the center of the 2016 presidential campaign — and position himself as the most veteran-friendly candidate — with the release of a new policy platform today. The move comes almost six months before the first Republican primary, but also at a time when Bush and others in the large GOP field are struggling to gain the attention and support of likely voters. Bush’s VA reform plan, to be unveiled later today in advance of an appearance with Concerned Veterans for America in South Carolina tonight, includes expanding “choice” options for care outside the department without cutting funding for VA hospitals and medical staff. Instead, he promises that extra funds can be found through “cutting excess administrators (not caregivers)” and eliminating “billions of dollars in waste, fraud, and abuse.” That includes more competitive bidding for department contracts and firing poorly performing employees. “Ample resources exist within the VA budget to improve the quality and scope of care,” Bush’s policy paper states. “In other government agencies, common-sense reforms have saved billions. The VA must get its house in order and send savings into improving veteran choice and veteran care.” He’s also promising better online health care access systems for veterans, calling existing offerings too cumbersome and outdated. Bush is also endorsing plans for would-be veteran entrepreneurs to use GI Bill benefits to insure small business loans, a measure that has already been introduced in Congress and greeted with skepticism from some veterans groups. He’s promising enhanced focus on female veterans care and to roll back President Obama’s plans to cut military end strength by up to 190,000 personnel over the next four years, arguing that plan hurts national security and will overwhelm VA services. And Bush is pledging to use “the bully pulpit of a national election and his presidency to honor the service and character of America’s veterans,” saying that too often their sacrifice and continued contributions to society are overlooked.
Commentary: Agent Orange’s blue water victims (PilotOnline.com)
“During the past year, most Americans have become aware of the multitude of problems within the Department of Veterans Affairs: the excessive backlog in processing medical claims, the unsatisfactory amount of time it takes for veterans to get appointments, the falsified accounting of wait times by VA hospital officials, and the procurement irregularities associated with the billions of dollars in annual expenditures. What has not been reported by the media, and what is also not being addressed by the VA today is the injustice to thousands of Vietnam veterans who have died or are dying from cancers and other diseases caused by their exposure to lethal defoliants while serving on U.S. Navy ships. As a point of reference, the U.S. military sprayed over 20 million gallons of toxic herbicides and defoliants in Vietnam from 1962 to 1971. The goal was to defoliate the jungle to deprive the enemy of food supplies and enemy sanctuaries. The most common of these herbicides was known as Agent Orange — one of the most deadly cancer-causing dioxins ever synthesized by man. Agent Orange found its way into streams, rivers, harbors, bays and the South China Sea where it was ingested by U.S. Navy ships. Warships would suck up this contamination during the shipboard water-purification process conducted while operating just offshore — as it would be ingested by our aircraft carriers operating farther out at sea. Wind-blown Agent Orange contamination also entered the ventilation systems on our ships — just as wind-blown radioactive particles from the damaged Fukushima nuclear reactor covered the USS Ronald Reagan Battle Group operating 60 miles off the coast of Japan following the earthquake and tsunami in 2011. … However in 2002, without medical or scientific basis to do so, the VA changed the criteria for presumption of exposure from afflicted personnel holding a Vietnam Service Medal to only those veterans who served ashore with “boots on the ground” or who served in the “brown water Navy” (on patrol boats or smaller ships operating on inland waterways). This arbitrary decision rescinded the statutory presumption of exposure to those blue water Navy sailors and Marines who served at sea and in the rivers, harbors and bays of Vietnam. The VA’s unilateral decision to support only those who served ashore or in the brown water Navy clearly ignores the intent of Congress, and appears to be funding related.”
The VA’s woman problem (The New York Times)
Commentary: “On Sept. 11, 2001, Desma Brooks was a single mother in her mid-20s who served part-time in the Indiana Army National Guard. Watching the attack on TV, she wondered if she might be called up. She had three kids, so maybe she would be assigned to some kind of support role on the home front. Instead, she served two yearlong deployments, the first to Afghanistan, the second to Iraq. During the second, while driving a military vehicle that was guarding a supply convoy, she hit a roadside bomb. Ms. Brooks returned home with a mild case of and a serious case of post-traumatic stress disorder. Of the almost 22 million veterans in the United States today, more than two million are women, and of those, over 635,000 are enrolled in the Department of Veterans Affairs system, double the number before 9/11. Women are the fastest growing group of veterans treated by the V.A., and projections show that women will make up over 16 percent of the country’s veterans by midcentury. Like Ms. Brooks, many female veterans are returning home with PTSD — the No. 1 complaint among women seeking treatment at V.A. health facilities. Hypertension and depression are the next two largest diagnostic categories for women. And one in five female veterans treated by the V.A. reported having experienced military sexual trauma. Unfortunately, these veterans aren’t always getting the care they require from a system originally designed to serve mostly men. Women have health care needs that are distinct from men; cardiovascular disease, for example, plays out differently in the female body, and particular expertise is required when providers see women in their childbearing years. “For too long, the V.A. has essentially ignored many of the most pressing needs that our women veterans face,” Senator Richard Blumenthal, Democrat of Connecticut, said during a hearing held by the Senate Armed Services Committee earlier this year. Women’s clinics at Veterans Affairs facilities are sometimes located in basements or obscure corners of the buildings, without adequate signage. V.A. facilities still usually do not offer some of the services that women require, such as prenatal care or obstetrics, and very few do mammograms.”
VA’s attempt to curb opioid dependence leaves patients cut off (Task & Purpose)
After the Department of Veterans Affairs scaled back its prescriptions of opioids, many patients were left to deal with their chronic pain by themselves. Anyone who has ruck marched with a heavy pack, performed a parachute landing fall out of a C-130 or worn body armor all day knows that the military lifestyle is rough on the body. Due to the physical requirements of the military, veterans experience a much higher rate of chronic pain than the civilian population. The recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have led to more advanced body armor, saving the lives of thousands of soldiers, Marines, sailors and airmen. These advances in equipment, though lifesaving, mean that troops survive with devastating injuries such as limb amputations and traumatic brain injury that require advanced, coordinated treatment. According to a May 2014 Inspector General study of the Department of Veterans Affairs and its opioid dispensing methods, more than 50% of the veteran population experience chronic pain as well as other contributing factors such as post-traumatic stress disorder. The prevalence of PTSD is especially important to note in treating chronic pain because the two conditions work against each other. According to the National Institute of PTSD, the presence of pain can be a constant reminder of unwelcome memories and a veteran’s increased anxiety can exacerbate his or her experience of pain. More than 2 out of 10 veterans with PTSD also have a substance abuse disorder making it more difficult for doctors to prescribe opioid medication for their chronic pain. Veterans are not alone in experiencing substance abuse, especially when it comes to prescription drug abuse. From 2001 to 2013, 2.5 times as many people died due to an opioid drug overdose, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. A VA healthcare system that was underprepared for wartime casualties initially dealt with the increase in these debilitating injuries by prescribing larger amounts of opioids to help with the pain. From 2001 to 2013, prescriptions for opioid pain medications, such as oxycodone and morphine, increased by 259%, according to a report by the Star Tribune. In order to combat a growing number of accidental overdoses, suicides, and prescription drug abuse, the VA unveiled the Opioid Safety Initiative in 2013. In theory, the initiative promotes alternative methods of pain control, such as acupuncture and chiropractic care, while reducing the dosages and prescriptions for opioid medications. This coincided with a national campaign outside the VA to curb prescription drug abuse. The Drug Enforcement Agency expanded its regulatory authority and tightened the prescribing guidelines on several commonly utilized opioid medications such as hydrocodone. Instead of gradually weaning off veterans who had been on a steady dosage of opioids for several months and even years, patients were abruptly cut off, leaving users in a miserable lurch.
New Reno VA director jumps into political hornet’s nest (Reno Gazette Journal)
Next month, 20-year U.S. Army veteran Sheila Jackson will assume command at the Reno Veterans Administration Regional Office. It may prove to be a near-impossible job. The office is notorious nationwide for its inefficiency in processing disability claims. Two years ago, it led the nation in the amount of time needed for claims to be initially processed and completed with an average wait time of 539.3 days, according to data from the Department of Veterans Affairs statistics. Statistically, the office has improved immensely since then, with the average days to complete processing dropping to 241 days, according to the VA’s July 2015 report. Yet some veterans — and even most of Nevada’s congressional delegation — feel Jackson is stepping into to a difficult situation. “Rome wasn’t built in a day and the problems with the VA wasn’t caused in a day,” said Vicky Maltman, who is the Veterans in Politics auxiliary director for much of Northern Nevada. “This mess has been years and years in the making and I don’t expect things to change anytime soon.” Jackson is billed as one of the VA’s top claims administrators. Still, Maltman is wary about what she can accomplish at the Reno VARO. “I am just not hopeful that anybody is going to be able to come in and clean up the mess that has been made,” Maltman said. “I think it is going to take a couple of years to find out all of the problems in that division.” Besides that, the Reno office is also one of the most politically-charged VAROs in the nation. Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., has openly challenged VA officials in hearings in U.S. Senate committees because of the performance of the Reno office. Nevada’s 1st U.S. House District Rep. Dina Titus, D-Las Vegas, is currently pushing to transfer the Reno’s VARO to Las Vegas because of its poor track record and what Titus calls the VA’s failure to attract quality talent to Reno.
Meditation helping mitigate the effects of PTSD on vets (Houston Chronicle)
Sometimes, when Pedro Meza is confronted by memories he can’t understand, the monster comes out. The former Army Special Operations officer developed post-traumatic stress disorder after witnessing the bombing deaths of children in a Latin American village in 1985. He also suffers from a traumatic brain injury that keeps him from remembering the time, place and circumstances surrounding frightening images in his mind. “There are images in my brain that I can’t explain,” he said. “I’m haunted by things I see but cannot understand.” In March 2014, after years of abusing alcohol to cope with terrifying memories and trying different medications that didn’t help, Meza discovered meditation at a workshop for veterans, and his life changed for the better. A growing number of veterans are discovering how meditation can ease symptoms of PTSD. A study is underway at Joint Base San Antonio-Fort Sam Houston to understand how a form of the therapy, called mindfulness meditation, affects stress levels of soldiers. The need for PTSD treatments in the military is great. Many veterans are affected by the disorder, which is characterized by anxiety attacks, nightmares, flashbacks and depression, among other issues. A June report by the Veterans Health Administration showed that 20.5 percent — or more than 391,000 — of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans received PTSD-related treatments from 2001 to 2014. As much as 30 percent, or 2.7 million, of Vietnam-era veterans had experienced PTSD at some point in their lives, according to one study. “It affects servicemen from all areas. It changes things drastically,” said Emily Bower, a psychologist at Audie Murphy VA Hospital. “They’re more likely to have trouble maintaining work, more likely to abuse substances, more likely to have relationship problems with a spouse or children.” Traditional treatments for PTSD include therapy and prescriptions for antidepressants, antianxiety medications and sleep aids. But these methods don’t always work, so military officials and organizations serving veterans recently started offering meditation as an alternative treatment. Meza meditates at home daily and also attends a weekly group meditation session. He says meditation has brought him peace and allows him to sort through the thoughts he can’t place on a timeline. “Now I can think, and I can catch myself when I feel the PTSD slipping up,” Meza said. “Because of the (brain injury), I have to piece together my identity. I can talk to the monster and figure out what he remembers.”
Veterans help other vets find footing by donating shoes (The Washington Times)
Steve Blevins can’t stand to see veterans go without necessary clothing. But instead of waiting for a guardian angel to swoop in and magically solve the problem, he’s taken matters into his own hands. “These guys are heroes, and most of the time they’re left out.” Blevins said. Blevins, an Army veteran living at the James H. Quillen Veterans Affairs Medical Center, organized Veterans Helping Veterans with several friends in the center’s community living center to raise money to buy shoes and other apparel for veterans in need. The group received some extra help with a $100 donation from Wal-Mart, and members donated their own money to support comrades still trying to find their footing. VA Secretary of Volunteer Service Robert McDilda said a couple of organizations have consistently donated shoes to the department, but they weren’t receiving enough to keep up with the center’s need. “We had a period in the past few months were there were a lot of veterans needing shoes,” McDilda said. “The shoes were falling off their feet.” To date, Blevins and his friends have bought 25 pairs of shoes, a number they’ve accumulated over the past week and a half, and have plans to continue accepting donations to buy clothes and shoes for the winter. “We’re going to reach out to as many people as we can get,” Blevins said. “There’s a need for everything. Sometimes veterans come in and they don’t have a shirt off their back. With winter coming in, these shoes and these clothes and coats and stuff we need are very important.”