September 16 Veterans News

September 16 Veterans News

Veterans news updateAMVETS formally backs plan to overhaul VA health care (Military Times)
Officials from AMVETS are endorsing plans for a radical overhaul of the Veterans Affairs Department medical system, stating that “VA’s self-determined role as the gatekeeper of veterans’ health care choice must stop.” The proposal, unveiled by a Concerned Veterans for America task force earlier this year, has drawn mostly public criticism and apathy from traditional veterans service organizations until now, in part for its suggestions to have VA hospitals compete for patient business with private health care providers. But AMVETS, the fourth largest veterans group in the country, called the ideas “a necessary first step” in reforming the department in light of ongoing concerns over care delays and patient wait times. “The task force’s proposals give veterans true health care choice, whether they want to keep using the VA system, or use their benefits at a provider better suited to their needs,” the group said in a statement Wednesday. “Ultimately, veterans should be able to choose where, when and how to get their quality health care.” The move is likely to renew political fights over VA reform efforts, already a topic among the Republican presidential hopefuls running in 2016. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush have endorsed parts of the CVA report, while neurosurgeon Ben Carson has called for merging the Veterans Health Administration with the Defense Department. But critics on the left have called the ideas tantamount to privatizing VA, while department officials have accused CVA of working to “dismantle” government-backed health care for veterans. Paralyzed Veterans of America attacked the proposal as limiting veterans’ options, rather than expanding them. The task force plan would allow veterans to use their “earned health care funds” to access VA services or civilian physicians, as part of a broader expansion of the concept behind the current VA Choice Card program. Veterans seeking private care would have to pay additional co-pays and deductibles in some cases. The Veterans Health Administration would be restructured as an independent organization forced to compete with private providers, but still focused on veterans with service-connected disabilities and military-related injuries.

FBI’s role in Tomah VA case under Senate scrutiny (Military Times)
A Senate committee has asked the FBI to explain why a veteran who died at the Tomah, Wisconsin, VA Medical Center contacted law enforcement before his accidental overdose death in August 2014. Heather Simcakoski, the widow of Marine veteran Jason Simcakoski, testified in March that her husband sent texts and left voice messages with law enforcement agencies charging that some patients at the hospital were selling their prescription pain medications. The Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee verified that Simcakoski had placed multiple calls to administrators at the Tomah VA, the Tomah police department and the FBI field office in Lacrosse, Wisconsin, in 2013. Committee Chairman Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., wrote to FBI director James Comey on Monday asking for more information on the nature of the communications as well as the bureau’s response. Heather Simcakoski told committee members that her husband’s complaints went unheeded and his reports disappeared. “Some patients were making so much money that they had saved enough … to put a down payment on a house,” Simcakoski testified. “I would like to understand who was responsible for [Jason’s] reports, where they are and why no one did anything.” The Center for Investigative Reporting published a report in January on problems at the Tomah VA hospital, finding that the number of pain prescriptions quintupled from 2004 to 2012, with rates rising sharply after Dr. David Houlihan, a psychiatrist, was hired as chief of staff. The report said the facility had earned the nickname “Candy Land” among veterans for its profuse prescribing practices and Houlihan was known as the “Candy Man.” According to the report, the number of prescriptions for four common opiates — oxycodone, hydrocodone, methadone and morphine — soared from 8,370 in 2006 to 24,135 in 2014.

Judge blasts bureaucrats, reinstates benefits for wounded vet (McClatchyDC)
A former Navy corpsman badly wounded in Iraq will have his federal benefits restored, following a judge’s ruling that repeatedly blasts bureaucrats for their rigidity. In a remarkably sharp-edged opinion, U.S. District Judge Richard J. Leon ordered the Office of Personnel Management to restore benefits to 21-year Navy veteran Glenn Minney. Minney was left nearly blind following a mortar attack at the Haditha Dam in April 2005. When Minney retired from the Navy and federal service and started working for the Blinded Veterans Association, federal officials cut his government benefits because of his private salary. Minney said he wasn’t adequately informed that his disability payments were at risk; the letter sent to him, for instance, was not in Braille. Leon called the move a “profound injustice committed by the federal bureaucracy against a blinded veteran.” In his 18-page decision, Leon granted Minney’s request for a preliminary injunction and directed the OPM to reinstate Minney’s disability payments under the Federal Employee Retirement System. “Indeed, it is difficult to imagine a situation more extraordinary, or an individual more deserving, of such relief,” Leon wrote.  After leaving the Navy, Minney worked for the Department of Veterans Affairs but was unable to continue. Rather than take a low-paying VA job as a greeter, he retired. Under federal law, disability payments are stopped if outside earnings reach 80 percent of the individual’s last government salary. Minney, though, said he wasn’t informed of the law when he retired and started working for the Blinded Veterans Association. In June 2015, the OPM terminated Minney’s benefits. Leon concluded the government’s general publication of the 80 percent rule was “simply inadequate for a blind veteran who would have had no cause to examine the statute before losing his sight.” Leon further denounced as inadequate the OPM’s “rubber stamp” process. “One can only imagine what the reaction would be of the president whose profile adorns the Purple Heart Medal if a court were to side with OPM and allow such ‘process’ to trump the property interests of a severely wounded war veteran!” Leon wrote. The president whose image is on the Purple Heart is George Washington.

NFL players partner on military-civilian divide outreach (Military Times)
New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady usually focuses on blitz packages and football inflation rates, but in coming months he also could be the go-to expert on Bronze Stars and post-military employment numbers. On Tuesday, officials from the veterans advocacy group Got Your 6 announced a new partnership with the NFL Players Association, designed to use the limelight of America’s most popular sport to highlight the lives and challenges of America’s returning war heroes. “Simply saying ‘thank you’ is not enough to recognize the sacrifices our country’s veterans have made through their service,” NFLPA President Eric Winston said in a statement. “This partnership gives the players of the NFL the platform to help change the dialogue and truly help those who have protected our freedoms.” Specific events and outreach programs will be rolled out in the months to come. Rob Gordon, president of Be The Change Inc., the parent organization of Got Your 6, said the efforts will focus on drawing attention to veteran reintegration and working to “ensure veterans are seen as the civic assets that they are.” In the past, Got Your 6 officials have used partnerships within the entertainment industry to push for more accurate, less stereotypical portrayals of veterans in movies and television shows. Gordon said the new work will include interactions between NFL players, veterans and fans. It will also include a push for veterans to “continue their service and be the leaders and civic assets they were trained to be.” A report released by the group in April found higher rates of volunteer work and civic engagement among veterans than peers without military experience, but also lingering public misperceptions of veterans as isolated or detached from their civilian neighbors.

DoD/USDA team up to help vets start farms, ranches (
Lots of veterans are looking for structure, purpose and a sense of community when they leave the military, and more and more are turning to farming to find it.  About 5 million veterans live in rural areas of the U.S. – a higher concentration than any other part of the country – so it makes sense that a viable career path after the military is to work in agriculture in some way. But what if you’re not an experienced farmhand, or you don’t know how to start such a business? Well, you’re in luck. The U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Department of Defense are teaming up to expand the reach of the USDA’s Transition Assistance Program, which sees about 200,000 veterans a year and offers career training tools and incentives needed to start a farm or ranch. “Rural America disproportionately sends its sons and daughters to serve in the military,” Agriculture Deputy Secretary Krysta Harden said. “When service members return home, we want them to know that rural America has a place for them, no matter where they’re from.” According to the USDA, lots of veterans have shown interest in agriculture, thinking that farm-related work can be a holistic way to ease back into civilian life. It’s also a way to put their logistical training to work, renew their sense of purpose, continue serving the community and even be their own bosses if they want to. “Our transitioning service members leave the military with a variety of essential skills, including leadership and discipline that could be directly applied to a career in agriculture,” said Dr. Susan S. Kelly, Director of the DoD’s Transition to Veterans Program Office.

Groups call on Senate to adopt VA whistleblower protections (
On Tuesday, more than 35 organizations and whistleblowers called on Senate leadership to adopt strong whistleblower protections for Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) employees and contractors. On July 30th, National Whistleblower Appreciation Day, the House passed robust protections for VA whistleblowers as Section 4 of the VA Accountability Act of 2015 (H.R. 1994). On September 14th a diverse spectrum of organizations, ranging from the Taxpayers Protection Alliance to Veterans for Common Sense and American Civil Liberties Union, sent a letter to Senate leadership and VA Committee leadership that urges the Senate to adopt similar reforms. The letter states: Section 4 of H.R. 1994 is a major breakthrough in the struggle for VA whistleblowers to gain credible rights when defending the integrity of the agency mission and disclosing quality of care concerns. Further, it would provide a system to hold employees accountable for their actions when they retaliate against those exposing waste, fraud, or abuse. The letter raises concerns, however, about language in H.R. 1994 that would in fact weaken due process rights for non-whistleblowers. It asserts, “Along with whistleblowing, due process rights exist to protect the merit system as the essential foundation for non-partisan, professional public service.” Despite 2012 passage of the Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act – legislation that overhauled protections for federal whistleblowers – the need for additional VA rights couldn’t be more urgent. On National Whistleblower Appreciation Day, Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) highlighted the unprecedented workload at the Office of Special Counsel (OSC), which has received a near 70% increase in whistleblower complaints since 2008. He was joined by Senator Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), who called for a sea-change in culture at the VA and acknowledged the OSCs proactive efforts to protect whistleblowers, including 40 disciplinary actions against responsible officials at the VA.

Veterans battle over military coffin photo in Rob Portman ad (
Democratic-leaning veterans are criticizing GOP Sen. Rob Portman for using a photo of flag-draped coffins in an online ad that bashes former Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland for backing the pending nuclear deal with Iran. Portman’s campaign defends the ad and accuses Democrats of playing politics. Portman’s online video says the deal will let Iran continue its nuclear enrichment programs and give Iran money it can use to support terrorist groups. The coffin photo appears on a split screen with a photo of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, with a news headline that reads: “Iran linked to deaths of 500 U.S. troops in Iraq, Afghanistan.” “Instead of standing up for our security, Strickland is standing up for President Obama on Iran,” the ad says of the former governor who is seeking the Democratic party’s nomination to oppose Portman next year. Former Democratic congressman John Boccieri of Alliance, an Air Force Reserve Lieutenant Colonel who pilots C-130 cargo planes, issued a statement Tuesday that said Portman’s use of the flag-draped coffins in the ad “crosses many lines of decency.” He urged Portman to “immediately apologize to veterans and discontinue the ad.” “Using sacred images of our heroes to further a political agenda is not only vulgar, but cheapens the sacrifice of those young men and women who gave it all,” said Boccieri, noting that Portman voted to go to war in Iraq and Strickland voted against it when both served in the U.S. House of Representatives. The chairman of a “progressive” veterans organization called also called upon Portman to “apologize to the families of the fallen for using the photo of their loved one’s casket for his own political purposes.”

How many Tuskegee Airmen are still alive? (
It has been 72 years since the Tuskegee Airmen fought their first battle in the skies over North Africa. Today, too often we hear news that another member of the Redtails, America’s first black combat pilots, has passed away. All black military pilots who trained in the United States during World War II trained in Tuskegee. In all, almost a thousand black pilots trained there from 1941 to 1946. Of that number, 450 were deployed overseas and 150 lost their lives, including 66 killed in action. Of the roughly 450 who went overseas with the 332nd Fighter Group, about 32 are still alive, said Brian Smith, president of the Tuskegee Airmen National History Museum in Detroit. Counting all pilots and support staff — mechanics, cooks — about 15,000 to 20,000 were part of the “Tuskegee experience,” Smith said. Today, about 600 are alive, Smith said. However, another Airmen historian, Ron Brewington, said earlier this year there are only about 200 known survivors left, though he acknowledged the number may be higher, CNN reported. Regardless of how many are left, the Airmen, like all other WWII veterans, are dwindling in numbers. As of September 2014, the Department of Veterans Affairs estimated there were 1 million living WWII veterans in the U.S. with an average of 514 dying each day.

Another Legionnaires death at Illinois veterans home makes 13 total (WFLD-Chicago)
Legionnaires’ disease has claimed the life of a 13th person in Quincy following the death of another Illinois veterans’ home resident. The state Department of Veterans’ Affairs on Tuesday reported the overnight death from the water-borne illness. Twelve of those who have died from Legionnaires since August in the Mississippi River city lived at the 129-year-old state veterans’ home. Dozens more have been sickened by the bacteria, including five workers. Public health officials say four other cases of Legionnaires’ disease in Quincy, including the additional fatality, are not connected to the larger outbreak. All of the elderly residents who died had underlying health conditions that made them more susceptible to the severe form of pneumonia. The source of the outbreak remains unknown as environmental tests continue.