August 6 Veterans News

August 6 Veterans News

Veterans news updateStudy: Vets taking opioids long-term have higher risk of death (New Haven Register)
Taking certain prescription painkillers or anxiety medications for long periods of time may increase patients’ risk of death, according to a recent Yale School of Medicine study of veterans. Researchers who examined the medical records of about 64,000 veterans found that patients who took opioids or benzodiazepines long-term, for 90 days or more, had a higher risk of death — from any cause — than those who did not. The risk of death was even greater for patients who took both types of medication at the same time. More than a quarter of the veterans studied were HIV-positive, and they had a higher risk of death than those without the virus. Opioids are painkillers that include Vicodin and Oxycontin while benzodiazepines, such as Valium, typically are prescribed to treat anxiety and insomnia. According to the study, published online in June in the Journal of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndromes, there was a 40 percent higher risk of death among patients who took prescription opioids long-term, while those taking benzodiazepines long-term had a 26 percent higher risk of death than those who did not. The findings could have a meaningful impact at a time when prescriptions for both types of medications are on the rise, said Dr. Daniel Weisberg, who led the study. He was a Yale researcher at the time of the study but now is an internal medicine resident at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston and a clinical fellow in medicine at Harvard Medical School. “Opioid prescriptions over the last 20 years have been skyrocketing,” he said, and benzodiazepine prescriptions are on the rise, as well. In addition to the well-documented risks of addiction and overdoses, both types of drugs have sedating effects that can pose additional dangers to patients, he said. Those taking the medications could be at greater risk for falls or motor vehicle accidents, for instance, he said. “We don’t really have good evidence that long-term use is effective,” Weisberg said. “We wanted to see what risks were involved so clinicians could make better choices when prescribing these medications.”

Syracuse Univ. explores new medical school specializing in veterans’ care (
Syracuse University has briefed federal and state officials on a proposal to create a one-of-a-kind medical school on campus to train doctors to care for military veterans at understaffed VA hospitals nationwide. SU officials said they have received encouragement from Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Robert McDonald, U.S. secretary of Veterans Affairs. Graduates of the new school would be required to work at one of the nation’s 152 VA hospitals for a specific period of time. “The greatest challenge going forward is a terrific shortage of health care professionals to help veterans and military families that is only going to get worse as our veterans age and as large numbers of veterans transition out of military service,” said SU Chancellor Kent Syverud.  SU has not estimated the cost of the proposed medical school or where it would be located on campus. Before the university decides whether to go ahead, the idea must be discussed by academic leaders, faculty, SU’s trustees and community organizations, Syverud said. “We will have to get a lot of ducks in a row before that can happen,” he said. SU is working on the idea with outside consultants — including the medical school dean at the University of Central Florida, which established a new medical school in 2006. There are 144 medical schools nationwide. The four-year school would have 160 to 200 students. To start the school, SU would need approval from the state Education Department and federal accreditation agencies. SU has not determined yet where students would get their clinical experience, which usually takes place in hospitals and clinics. The idea is an outgrowth of SU’s growing commitment to address the needs of U.S. veterans. SU’s Institute for Veterans and Military Families runs entrepreneurship programs for veterans and conducts research on veterans issues. Launched in 2011, the institute is the first university program in the nation focused on the social, economic, educational and policy needs of veterans and their families.

Iraq War vet nominated for Army undersecretary job (Army Times)
The first Iraq war veteran elected to Congress has been tapped by the White House to serve as the new Under Secretary of the Army. Patrick Murphy, a Pennsylvania Democrat who served in the House from 2007 to 2011, was nominated Wednesday to take over the role as part of ongoing leadership changes at the Department of Defense. The 41-year-old lawyer has worked as a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and an on-air personality for MSNBC, hosting a show on veterans issues. Murphy served in the Army and Army Reserve for eight years prior to his political career. From 2003 to 2004, he deployed to Iraq as a paratrooper with the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division, where he earned the Bronze Star.  He also deployed to Bosnia in 2002. He was an outspoken critic of the Iraq war during his time in Congress, and was one of the leading lawmakers in the effort to repeal the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” law. If confirmed, he’ll take over the post from acting under secretary Eric Fanning, who assumed the role after Brad Carson became the acting undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness. Fanning is reportedly the favorite to replace Army Secretary John McHugh, who has plans to vacate his post by November. McHugh’s spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Montgomery VARO lacks staff to combat sluggish appeals (Montgomery Advertiser)
The Veteran Affairs Regional Benefits Office in Montgomery has drastically cut both the time it takes to process an injury/disability claim and the number of backlog cases yet to be processed, however, the focus now shifts to the still inefficient appeals process. As VARBO Director Cory Hawthorne said, next year could very well be the “year of the appeal” for his office, but he doesn’t have the manpower necessary to expedite the often lengthy process. The Regional Benefits Office only serves Alabama and is a sort of insurance company for injuries and disabilities sustained by veterans while in service. The process is simple enough. A veteran with an injury they know or believe was a result of their service can file a claim and VARBO’s job is to verify the injury through doctors and “adjudicate” a reasonable stipend should the medical claim be confirmed. But if veterans don’t agree with the financial benefit awarded, they have the right to appeal a decision made on their claim, Hawthorne said. However appeals decisions often take years to complete, and according to VARBO statistics, only 4 to 5 percent of appeals are overturned. In 2014, VARBO averaged 246 days per claim. This year, veterans are receiving claim decisions in 102 days. Any claim lasting 125 days or longer is considered “backlog,” according to Hawthorne, and in the past two years, VARBO has cut the backlog claims inventory by 84 percent. In comparison, the appeals inventory was only reduced by 7 percent over nearly the same time period, and many appeals take years to reach a decision. VARBO has processed over 10,000 claims since 2013, but only 792 appeals. “One of the biggest things you’ll hear in the news media over the past couple years about what we do in the Veterans Benefits Administration is the talk about the disability backlog,” Hawthorne said. “The backlog disability claim is a disability claim that is pending 125 days or more. “Once we make a decision on a claim, a veteran has the right to appeal that decision. When you hear a veteran say ‘I’ve had a claim pending for over seven years,’ in your mind you would know that means they have an appeal that’s been pending. We don’t have any claims in our inventory that are that old.”

GI Bill redefined how America viewed vets (USA Today)
For much of its history, the United States treated its military veterans pretty poorly. Soldiers in the Continental Army were near open revolt in 1783 because their pay was late and their pensions weren’t being funded as they were supposed to be. Only a visit from George Washington prevented a mutiny. The “Bonus Army,” a collection of jobless and destitute World War I veterans, descended on Washington in 1932 during the Great Depression, seeking early payment of bonuses they had been promised for their service. Congress voted down the request, and Army troops commanded by Gen. Douglas MacArthur attacked and burned their camp. The country’s attitude toward veterans reflected the widely held belief that military service was an obligation, says Stephen Ortiz, a historian at Binghamton University. The nation would provide payments to war widows and assistance for veterans who lost limbs, but there was little thought to helping veterans reintegrate into the civilian world. That attitude changed with passage of the GI Bill during World War II. The legislation provided millions of veterans with free education, job training and loans for homes, farms and businesses. Looking back on the legislation from today’s perspective, it’s easy to underestimate just how revolutionary the bill was. “Arguably it’s the most successful social legislation in American history,” says Ortiz, who has written extensively about veterans issues. As World War II was still being fought, lawmakers began worrying about how to reintegrate millions of Americans back into the workforce when the war ended. For the first time, the country was considering going beyond meager veterans pensions and payments to widows. The legislation’s official name — the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act — reflected its far-reaching ambition. Boosting the postwar economy was one aim of the legislation, but it wasn’t the only one. The country’s leaders were worried about the social and political impact of millions of veterans returning to the United States after having gone through intense combat in Europe and the Pacific. It was signed into law on June 22, 1944, a couple weeks after American GIs stormed the beaches of Normandy. Americans were also more accustomed to an expanding role of the federal government after the New Deal and years of all-out war. The impact of the legislation went beyond what its supporters imagined. It not only helped veterans rejoin civilian society, but also profoundly changed that society. It boosted the economy, fueled a housing boom and supercharged the American workforce.

VA launches new no-cost training programs (
The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has launched two new no-cost training programs, Accelerated Learning Programs (ALPs) and VA Learning Hubs, to help transitioning Servicemembers and Veterans from all eras learn skills, earn credentials, and advance in civilian careers following separation from service. ALPs and Learning Hubs are part of VA’s Veterans Economic Communities Initiative (VECI), promoting education and employment opportunities for Veterans through integrated networks of support in 50 cities. VA launched the VECI program in response to President Obama’s August 2014 challenge to help Veterans and families integrate with their communities and find meaningful jobs that can lead to economic success. Under VA Secretary Robert McDonald’s MyVA transformation, VECI is now in place in cities across the United States. ALPs offer transitioning Servicemembers and Veterans the opportunity to build on their world-class training and technical skills gained through their military service, and earn certifications in high-demand fields. VA is piloting ALPs this summer with seven courses focusing on building skills and certifications needed to advance in high-demand careers in information technology (IT), as part of the President’s TechHire initiative. Each ALP course is offered at no cost and includes free referral and support services.. The first ALP cohort includes seven courses covering a range of IT-related topics, including:
• Coding/Programming Boot Camps;
• 80+ IT Certifications in Hardware, Software, Networking, Web Services, and more;
• Network Support Engineer Job Training and Certification;
• Cybersecurity Training and Certification;
• IT Help Desk Job Training; and
• IT Boot Camps for Desktop Support and Windows Expertise.

Calif. senators back plan to move homeless vets to VA campus (The Los Angeles Times)
California’s two U.S. senators will propose legislation Thursday that would move some of the thousands of veterans living in makeshift encampments across the region into housing at the Department of Veterans Affairs’ campus in West Los Angeles. The move comes as Southern California is seeing an increase in the homeless population in downtown Los Angeles and other parts of the region. A count released earlier this year by the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority found a 12% jump in the overall homeless ranks and a 6% rise among homeless veterans.  In a letter to the House and Senate Veterans Affairs committees, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Torrance) said the legislation would grant the VA the authority to enter into leases with local governments and nonprofit groups to provide veterans with shelter supplemented by medical and other services. Critics say that politicians and the VA have dragged their heels on permanent housing for the Westside campus. They say that the agency and its political allies were more interested in the money that had come from other ventures on the sprawling property such as storing rental cars and buses, and operating a laundry service. The legislation would help the VA satisfy the terms of a legal settlement announced in January that laid the groundwork to turn the West Los Angeles campus into a community for homeless veterans. The settlement also called for curtailing the controversial practice of leasing VA property and facilities to corporations, the private Brentwood School and other non-government entities. The deadline to develop a master plan for the 387-acre property is October.

An American Legion post in a tiny New Mexico town could shut down (The Wall Street Journal)
An American Legion outpost in a rural New Mexico town might shut down, facing a bill from a woman who cleaned the social club’s gathering spot for months. The American Legion Bataan Post 4 in Deming, N.M., which has roughly 200 members, filed for bankruptcy nearly a year ago, unable to afford the legal battle with a deceased member’s wife over her effort to keep the place tidy. Charlotte House, whose husband who fought in World War II, said she should have been paid minimum wage for cleaning the club’s facility for more than a year. After hiring lawyers to defend her, she’s now pushing the club to pay her $266,920.80, according to documents filed in U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Albuquerque, N.M. (Court documents didn’t break down the bill.) The club’s lawyers argue that Ms. House volunteered to clean for free. If Judge David T. Thuma decides that Ms. House should be paid the full amount, “it is likely the post will be closed,” the club’s lawyers said. American Legion Bataan Post 4 is the only veterans group left in Deming (population: 14,855), which is located about 100 miles outside El Paso, Texas. A local paper reported that two other veterans groups—the Disabled American Veterans, Tony Viramontes Chapter 2 and the Veterans of Foreign Wars, Claude Close Post 1477—closed after decades of service. “Memberships are dwindling all across the country,” said Post 4 Service Officer Edward Miller told the Deming Headlight newspaper in an article published in May. “Posts are closing, as most of its members are aging and dying off.” Founded in 1945, American Legion Bataan Post 4 takes in money from membership dues and from the Canteen, a private club for members that serves food and drink. Its members take care of the town’s Memorial Day and Veterans Day festivities.

VA reports reduction in Indianapolis patient backlog (WISH-Indianapolis)
There’s a new interim director at the Roudebush VA Medical Center and VA officials say they are on schedule to eliminate a backlog in medical claims there. The people who run the Veterans Administration and the Roudebush Medical Center know that the public and veterans lost trust in them in recent years, so they are now trying to be more transparent in the effort to rebuild that trust. That’s why Dr. Jane Creasman was introduced to reporters Wednesday as the new director at the Roudebush Medical Center. She took over the top post on Monday. The news conference is part of a public relations effort that included a visit by VA Secretary Bob McDonald just two weeks ago. A regional director for the Veterans Administration said that changes in the VA are leading to improvements. “Folks, we’ve reduced the inventory of claims pending here at the regional office here in Indianapolis by 75 percent over the last 3 or 4 years,” said Mike Stephens. “We’ve eliminated 92 percent of our backlog and our backlog is defined by cases that are over 125 days old.” The goal is to eliminate the backlog by the end of this year.

Golden Games inspire, reunite war vets through competition (USA Today)
Entering his final week of training before a big competition, Carmen Schiavoni threw the javelin beside a 62-year-old teammate, fine-tuned his 9-ball skills against a 75-year-old teammate and showed off his table tennis skills against an 83-year-old teammate. “He’s just a kid,” joked Schiavoni, who turns 91 next week and, figuratively speaking, will help carry the torch for the National Veterans Golden Age Games. The multi-event sports competition, which starts Saturday in Omaha, Neb., is expected to include more than 800 veterans ages 55 and older who are receiving care through a veteran affairs  medical facility. For Schiavoni, that includes group therapy for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder stemming from his service in World War II.  Stationed in England at the Royal Air Force Station Rattlesden, Schiavoni flew 30 missions as a crewman on B-17 Flying Fortresses over Germany. On some of those missions he served as waist gunner, firing artillery at enemy aircraft. He later received the Distinguished Flying Cross. Schiavoni said the group therapy for PTSD has helped him open up among other veterans about his combat experiences. Yet he suggests the Golden Age Games has had no less profound an impact on his life. “It opens up my whole environment,” he said. “I have so many more friends.” Schiavoni first competed at the Golden Age Games in 2005 and won three medals — two gold and one silver. He has won no fewer than three medals every year since.

VA chief praises Solar City for hiring veterans (Las Vegas Sun)
Joined by Rep. Dina Titus on a tour of SolarCity’s North Las Vegas facility, Secretary of Veterans Affairs Robert McDonald praised the company for hiring U.S. military veterans. SolarCity, which has hired about 120 veterans in the Las Vegas area and more than 1,000 across the country, is locked in a political fight with utility NV Energy over fees charged to new residential solar customers. “This is a vivid illustration of the thousands of jobs at stake,” said William Craven, director of public affairs for SolarCity. McDonald said SolarCity “understands what every company should — that hiring veterans is great business.” Liz Forrest, an Air Force veteran employed by SolarCity, said she draws on what she learned as a mental health technician serving returning airmen as an incentives coordinator for the solar power company. “Before I joined the service, I worked bagging groceries,” Forrest said. “That was my first real job. I learned to be accountable and responsible.” The visit also comes amid ongoing controversies in Nevada over the department’s performance. After members of the Nevada congressional delegation, including Titus and Sen. Dean Heller, complained about its office in Reno, the agency named a new director there in July. In addition, Sen. Harry Reid today announced the department signed a long-delayed contract with the Pahrump Veterans Clinic to provide services there. McDonald authorized the clinic in August, but the project had been delayed. “I am glad the contract has been signed but it should not have taken this long to approve a clinic for Pahrump veterans,” Reid said in a statement.

UConn expands tuition benefits for veterans (The Hartford Courant)
The University of Connecticut’s board of trustees voted Wednesday to expand a program that gives tuition breaks to some veterans and their dependents. The program provides tuition at in-state rates to veterans who live out of state. “Many veterans are older than their classmates and have had trying experiences in their lives that most of us will never have to face,” said UConn President Susan Herbst. “The more we can do to assist them and ensure their success at the university, the better.” A 2014 federal law, the Veterans Access, Choice, and Accountability Act, had mandated the program, but limited the in-state tuition benefit to the first three years after a member of the military was discharged from the service. The board voted Wednesday to eliminate that time restriction, making the program available to virtually all veterans and dependents who have served over the past 30 years, said Kristopher Perry, UConn’s director of veterans afairs and military programs. That includes dependents of current active duty members of the military, who also were not included in the federal legislation, he said. There are about 900 veterans attending UConn and most of them have Veterans Administration benefits that pay for their tuition at in-state rates. But 21 of those veterans live out of state, and would have had to make up the $19,000 difference in tuition costs out of their own pockets. Perry said the school also wanted to help dependents who are eligible for VA benefits, but whose parents served long before they needed tuition assistance. “If their parent was discharged when they were 10, this benefit would have expired when they were 13,” he said. “Now they are 18 and can take advantage of this.”

Topeka VA to open assisted living building for vets with dementia (Topeka Capital-Journal)
The new assisted living center on the Topeka Veterans Administration health campus will focus on helping veterans with mild dementia to maintain as much independence as possible. VA officials took local media on a tour of the new community living center on the Colmery-O’Neil VA Medical Center campus on Wednesday morning. The building still is getting its finishing touches and will open sometime this fall. The building has 12 private rooms with their own bathrooms, with one designed with a larger layout for bariatric patients, said Colleen Grinage, nurse manager for the Topeka VA’s community living centers. It also has a social area with a kitchenette, a smaller one for quiet visits, a kitchen and dining area, a bathing area with a whirlpool tub, an outdoor courtyard with handrails along the sidewalks and a medical examination room for issues that aren’t emergencies. John Keys, assistant chief of engineering for the VA in Topeka, said the 17,700-square-foot building cost about $8.8 million to design and build. Work started in October 2012, but was slowed when workers found a buried wall and other surprises not in the 1950s blueprints of the site, he said. The facility is designed for veterans who have cognitive impairment or mild dementia, Grinage said. It will operate as much like a home as possible, so the residents will be encouraged to do things for themselves, with supervision to ensure safety, she said. “We focus on what the veterans can do, not what they can’t do,” she said. “If the residents are able to do their laundry with just some setup and prompting, they can do that.”