Showdown over government shutdown set for next week (Military Times)
Congress wants a budget deal to fund government operations through late 2016, is working on a deal to keep programs running until December, but worries it may not have any deal that will last past Oct. 1. With a few dozen hours left before a possible government shutdown, Senate lawmakers on Thursday advanced plans for a straightforward continuing resolution that would extend federal spending at fiscal 2016 levels until Dec. 11, hopefully giving political leaders a few more weeks to reach a long-term budget deal. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., repeatedly has promised to avoid a shutdown, even in the face of what he considers stonewalling by Senate Democrats. The latest budget solution attempt came after those Democrats halted an effort to strip away funding for Planned Parenthood operations from another budget extension measure, a solution preferred by most House and Senate Republicans. Conservative House members have vowed to strip away that funding at any cost. But Senate leaders are hopeful that, with the controversial proposal’s defeat, House lawmakers will relent and come together on the simpler budget plan. They’ll know whether that’s the case by midnight Wednesday, the end of the fiscal year. The “clean” $1.02 trillion continuing resolution would maintain defense spending at this fiscal year’s levels and offer a slight increase in temporary war funding, keeping federal programs from being interrupted. If an agreement isn’t reached, about half of the Defense Department’s 720,000 civilian employees and around 15,000 Veterans Affairs Department staffers would face immediate furloughs, and a series of military and veterans programs would be shuttered or delayed until a new budget deal could be reached. During previous government shutdowns, VA hospitals and clinics remained open but saw some administrative staffing shortages. Several information and assistance hotlines were temporarily closed. Benefits checks continued, but officials warned some could have been slowed or stopped if the shutdown had lasted longer.
Commentary: It’s time to shut down the VA (New York Post)
“There is only one guaranteed way to get fired from the Department of Veterans Affairs. Falsifying records won’t do it. Prescribing obsolete drugs won’t do it. Cutting all manner of corners on health and safety is, at worst, going to get you a reprimand. No, the only sure-fire way to get canned at the VA is to report any of these matters to authorities who might do something about it. That, at least, is what the U.S. Office of Special Counsel recently reported to the president of the United States. The Special Counsel’s Office is the agency to which government whistleblowers go to report wrongdoing. “Our concern is really about the pattern that we’re seeing, where whistleblowers who disclose wrongdoing are facing trumped-up punishment, but the employees who put veterans’ health at risk are going unpunished,” Special Counsel Carolyn Lerner recently told National Public Radio. Now, obviously, this shouldn’t happen. Everyone, except perhaps the managers at the VA, probably agrees with that. So by all means, let’s have some reforms and further protections for whistleblowers. But that’s not a real solution. The real fix is to get rid of the VA entirely. The United States has an absolute obligation to do right by veterans. It does not have an absolute obligation to run a lousy, wasteful, unaccountable, corrupt and inefficient bureaucracy out of Washington. Of all those adjectives, the one that gets to the core of the problem is “unaccountable.” ”
One Senator’s push to fund Hepatitis C treatments for veterans (The Hill)
Many veterans who fought to protect and defend our country are still fighting to get the support they need from the federal government. Fortunately, help may be on the way for veterans living with hepatitis C, one of the greatest threats facing former servicemen and women. Recently, the Senate Appropriations Committee followed the lead of Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) and approved a budget for the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) that included an additional $200 million to fund critical hepatitis C treatments for a total of more than $1.5 billion for hepatitis C over the next two years. The measure is now on its way to the full Senate for a final vote. This means that Kirk’s pathway to securing these needed treatments for the veterans community may come in contact with federal budget cap debates and be blocked as the next federal fiscal year approaches. It will make a big difference if veterans of all generations contact their members of Congress to insist that veterans’ healthcare priorities must be left untouched during spending debates. Veterans have sacrificed enough — especially those living with hepatitis C — than to have to stand by while Congress fights about the numbers. While hepatitis C has reached epidemic levels nationwide, the veterans community has a hepatitis C infection rate that is nearly double the national average. For veterans, this deadly, blood-borne disease is a leading cause of liver failure, catastrophic liver damage and liver cancer. It impacts veterans disproportionately due to a variety of factors, including battlefield blood exposure, emergency transfusions and mandatory vaccinations in the era before hepatitis C testing became common. Today, there are at least 174,000 veterans who are infected with hepatitis C, and up to 50,000 more may be unknowingly carrying the potentially fatal virus. This population is in desperate need of screening and treatment, but until recently, the only medications available to treat hepatitis C involved harsh side effects and were effective just half of the time. New treatments are now offering the greatest hope for a cure. They carry minimal side effects and cure rates of well over 95 percent. Veterans who are able to access these new, lifesaving treatments will not only live longer and healthier lives as a result of surviving this disease, but the treatments could also save the VA and taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars over the course of each veteran’s life by avoiding long-term disease management costs, which often include expensive liver transplants and continual hospitalizations.
U.S. Army’s combat patch for ISIS conflict draws flak over design (Military.com)
A combat patch worn by U.S. soldiers who served in Iraq on the mission against Islamic State is drawing flak from service members and veterans who say the patch — with its palm wreath, stars and crossed scimitars — looks like something the enemy would wear. The patch isn’t new. Soldiers serving in Operation Inherent Resolve have been sewing it onto their uniforms since April, shortly after the Army authorized it. There is also a medal version for wear on the Army Service Uniform, service spokesman Wayne Hall said on Thursday. Army Secretary John McHugh approved the patch on March 23 and the service announced it in a message to troops four days later. But a story on the patch posted on Army Times’ Facebook page has drawn a long string of criticism from readers who say the design makes it look more like a unit patch of a Middle Eastern military — or even something ISIS would wear. The article, which ran in USA Today, quotes from an Army document stating that the crossed scimitars symbolize the twin goals of the U.S.-led coalition — to defeat the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS (also known as ISIL), and to restore stability in the region. “Will these be issued to Iraqi troops so they can desert again and leave these patches for ISIS?” asked Army veteran Michael Daunais, a reference to instances in which Iraqi troops have gone over to the jihadists rather than fight them. “You can keep that ISIS patch featuring swords that chop off our heads,” wrote David Clay, a former Army chief warrant officer.
DOD resists Hill push to roll back compound drug rules (Stars & Stripes)
Thirty-one House members, most of whom, public records show, got campaign dollars from compound drug lobbyists, are pressing the Defense Department to soften rules set in May that block Tricare coverage of compound medicines when medical efficacy is unproven or prices extreme. Defense officials say they don’t intend to relax the rules created to protect Tricare from aggressive marketing and abusive pricing that have polluted the compound drug industry. Indeed, Tricare has had to tweak the new rules five times since May 1 just to close more loopholes that industry seemed ready to exploit, possibly sending Tricare drug costs soaring again. Compound pharmacies combine more than one ingredient to create drugs not available from commercial manufacturers. Medicines in different strengths or forms can be critical for meeting individual patient needs. In recent years, however, compounding labs have popped up to produce lotions and ointments for pain or scarring that often are marketed deceptively, wildly overpriced and tout benefits not medically proven. The most nefarious marketers began targeting Tricare two years ago after commercial insurance plans got wise to their tactics and tightened coverage. Tricare saw compound drug costs jump from $23 million a year in 2010 to almost $550 million — a month — by last April. The cost explosion punched a $2 billion hole in the Tricare budget, forcing DoD to seek permission from Congress to reprogram more than $1 billion from other defense accounts just to sustain health care operations through this month. Examples of abuse are plentiful and stunning. Last fall, Tricare beneficiary Renee Turley of Panama City, Fla., got a prescription from her civilian gynecologist for a compound to fade scarring after the birth of her child by Cesarean delivery. Over the next three months a company called Florida Pharmacy Solutions sent her three different creams, no instructions on how to use them, and billed Tricare $93,878. Alarmed, Turley suspected a billing error until Tricare officials verified the charges. “No woman getting a C-section should have been allowed to get this scar cream,” Turley said, blaming Tricare in part for being slow to curb the abusive practices. “And to make matters worse I never used the cream, because of the ingredients, since I was breastfeeding.” When retired Coast Guard Cmdr. James A. Granger of Poquoson, Va., had three toes aching from arthritis, his podiatrist prescribed a compound cream, with automatic refills. A week after receiving “240 grams of this miracle goo,” Granger said, the first refill arrived. Like Turley, Granger faced only a $17 co-pay but he saw Tricare billed more than $3000 per refill.
Federal investigators call out Fort Detrick VA clinic manager (Frederick News Post)
Incidents reported by whistleblowers at Fort Detrick’s Veterans Affairs clinic are prime examples of the culture of misconduct that has permeated the VA, a federal investigator wrote to President Barack Obama. The manager of a local Veterans Affairs clinic inappropriately listened in on employees’ private conversations with investigators who were looking into chronic problems at the clinic, according to a Sept. 17 letter from the U.S. Office of Special Counsel. The office is an independent investigative agency that protects federal workers, including whistleblowers, from improper personnel practices. The head of the office, Carolyn N. Lerner, wrote to the president on Sept. 17 about the Fort Detrick clinic, as part of a long list of examples of retaliation against whistleblowers and inadequate discipline of supervisors in the VA system. According to Lerner, the VA “confirmed serious misconduct brought to light by whistleblowers, yet failed to appropriately discipline responsible officials.” The manager of an outpatient clinic under the Martinsburg Veterans Affairs Medical Center system is part of that list of officials. The manager’s actions created “a chilling effect” on employees’ willingness to speak up during investigations and for changes that would promote better care for veterans, Lerner wrote. A clinic staff member, who asked not to be identified for fear of retaliation, confirmed that the manager is James Burger, coordinator of the VA Community-Based Outpatient Clinic at Fort Detrick. Burger has managed the clinic since it opened four years ago. The manager’s offense, Lerner said in the letter, was that he monitored employees’ private conversations with investigators who were obtaining testimony at the clinic last September. When reached by phone Monday, Burger referred questions to the Martinsburg center’s media affairs team, which declined to comment.
Ex-employees claim University of Phoenix illegally recruited veterans (Phoenix New Times)
Recruiters at the University of Phoenix deceived prospective students and surreptitiously recruited military veterans to enroll at the school, a new lawsuit filed by two former employees alleges. Marlena Aldrich and Kristen Nolan worked as military liaisons at a U of P learning center in Louisville, Kentucky, where they were tasked with recruiting members of the military to enroll at the Arizona-based online institution. In their lawsuit, filed this summer, Aldrich and Nolan claim they were asked to make “substantial misrepresentations” to veterans to persuade them to attend the school. They say U of P recruiters were trained to lie to students about their future employment prospects and the sort of jobs they would be eligible for upon graduation with a U of P degree. Students also were misled about the ability to transfer credits, while recruiters declined to disclose the university’s purportedly inferior accreditation, the suit alleges. “In truth there is no guarantee, indeed no evidence, that the UP degree will result in a better job, better wages, or otherwise operate as a ‘fix’ for the prospective student’s income concerns,” the complaint states. “In fact, the opposite is true . . . ‘gainful employment’ statistics reflect that a UP degree likely will have little or no impact, indeed perhaps a negative impact, on the student’s employability.” Recruitment of veterans occurred regularly on military bases and at U of P-sponsored job fairs, the suit alleges. Aldrich and Nolan say they were required to “gain access to military bases surreptitiously” under the guise of seeking veterans to fill job positions within the college, in violation of Kentucky labor law, according to the suit. Instead, they courted veterans to enroll in the school, and they encouraged them to use their taxpayer-funded military tuition reimbursement to pay for college
For veterans, many prefer a video or phone call with a doctor (Medical Daily)
If you’re going in for some form of surgery, chances are you’re more nervous about the surgery itself than the postoperative visit you have lined up afterward. New research on veterans has found many prefer to skip the postoperative visit to a clinic and instead use telehealth systems like video conferencing or phone calls. According to a study published in JAMA Surgery, veterans who underwent low-complexity operations preferred speaking with their doctor afterward via telephone or video conference rather than going into the clinic to meet with the doctor face-to-face. The research also showed that telehealth systems may be better at identifying a patient in need of in-person assessments or continued care down the line. Telehealth allows for easier access to care while also saving patients the cost of getting to and from their doctor’s office, especially if the doctor who specializes in the patient’s needs isn’t close by. According to study author Dr. Michael A. Vella, of the Veterans Affairs Medical Center and Vanderbilt University, the rise of telehealth is especially important when it comes to the wellbeing of our veterans. Vella and his colleagues conducted the study to find out how veterans preferred to receive postoperative care — either through video, telephone, or in person — and how good the telehealth visits actually were. Between May and July 2014, Vella and his team recruited 35 veterans who were in the process of receiving low-complexity operations suitable for postoperative telehealth visits. Each veteran was evaluated during an in-person visit, a telephone call, and a video conference. These visits all addressed four factors: general recovery, follow-up needs, wound care needs, and complications. Twenty-three veterans completed all three visits. When it came to general recovery and follow-up needs, all 23 agreed that in-person, telephone, and video conference visits were beneficial. Ninety-six percent stated that wound needs and complications were handled well, with one case of an infection popping up during a telephone call but not appearing in either the in-person or video conference visits. Between telehealth and in-person visits, 69 percent of veterans said telehealth was better. However, those who preferred telehealth would have had to drive a much greater distance (162 miles) to see a doctor than those who preferred in-person follow-ups — these veterans would have only had to drive an average of 75 miles.
Veterans needed for University of Alabama study on PTSD (Tuscaloosa News)
A University of Alabama doctoral student and Army veteran is seeking combat veterans for a study exploring the relationship between transformational leadership and post-traumatic stress and depression. Mike LaRocca, a doctoral student in the clinical psychology at UA, is searching for about 100 more combat veterans of any age or service branch for a survey in support of his dissertation work. LaRocca’s study is titled “The Impact of Posttraumatic Growth, Transformational Leadership, and Self-efficacy on Psychological Symptoms Among Combat Veterans.” LaRocca is looking at whether transformational leadership during a veteran’s military service in combat affected their ability to make meaning of their experience. LaRocca is looking at whether the interaction can offer indicators of veterans’ long-term physical well-being. It’s an exploration of the veteran’s post-traumatic growth. LaRocca used the example of assessments, such as personal growth or growth in relationships or spirituality. “It is kind of a unique study because they are thinking back to the quality of the leadership they had in combat and how they are doing now,” LaRocca said. LaRocca is looking at depression and post-traumatic stress on a continuum, noting, predictably, some veterans are more stress-hardy than others, as well as the variety of experiences in a combat theater. “Suffice to say there is a lot of individual variations in combat experience … and how well they recover afterward,” LaRocca said. LaRocca has about 30 participants so far, including World War II, Korean conflict and Vietnam War veterans, since launching the survey. The search began with veterans on campus, but recently spread off campus. He hopes to find the remaining 100 needed for the study within the next few months. LaRocca is looking for combat veterans from any conflict who have finished their military service.
New Charlotte VA center will expand veterans’ health care in N.C. (Charlotte Observer)
Charlotte’s new Veterans Affairs Health Care Center won’t open officially for more than six months. But contractors and VA officials led a tour for local news outlets Thursday, offering an early look inside the five-story building that has changed the landscape along Tyvola Road west of Interstate 77. The brick-and-glass health center, on a 35-acre site at West Tyvola Road and Cascade Pointe Boulevard, will be one of the largest in the country and will give veterans the ability to get most of their care “all in one place,” said Kenneth Mortimer, the health center’s new director. “It’s really a nice, central location.” Construction of the $104 million outpatient center is expected to be finished by early winter, according to Ken Cornell of J. E. Dunn Construction Co., based in Kansas. The VA will then take over, adding furniture and equipment before accepting the first veteran patients in April. “We have had massive growth in the number of veterans we serve in the Charlotte area,” said Mortimer. “This is a great opportunity to expand our reach.” Mortimer, who previously worked at the VA’s central office in Washington, said the new building “looks like a hospital,” but it’s not. Veterans should not plan to go there for emergency care or for more serious illnesses that require hospitalization. The closest VA hospital is the W.G. (Bill) Hefner VA Medical Center in Salisbury. But the VA does operate another outpatient clinic in Charlotte, at 8601 University East Drive. The new Charlotte VA health center has 295,000 square feet for clinical use and will have the capacity to serve about 40,000 veterans annually, whereas the University-area clinic, with 67,000 square feet, served about 26,000 in 2014.
VA buys 15 acres in Indianapolis for a national cemetery (Navy Times)
The Department of Veterans Affairs has purchased nearly 15 acres at Indianapolis’ historic Crown Hill Cemetery for a planned cemetery only for veterans and relatives who have been cremated. The VA said it acquired the 14.75 acres a few miles north of downtown Indianapolis for $810,000. The new cemetery that will be built there will be a columbarium, an above-ground structure into which cremated remains are stored in urns. The initial project will build columbarium walls with about 2,500 niches for urns, but the VA says there’s space in the plot it acquired for at least 25,000 niches for cremated remains of veterans, their spouses and eligible relatives. The Crown Hill columbarium will become the only VA national cemetery in the state only for cremated veterans and their relatives.
Anti-poaching battlefield draws U.S. veterans (KING-Seattle)
In the last decade, poachers have killed more than half of central Africa’s elephants. Now, a group of U.S. veterans is rallying to stop the illegal killing of animals on the continent. Kinessa Johnson served as an Army mechanic in Afghanistan. A knee injury sent her back to civilian life early. “I got out. I was really confused. I kind of became a nomad for a month,” she said. She modeled for gun companies and worked as a firearms instructor. She moved to Western Washington, always searching for the sense of purpose she’d known in the military. That’s when she met Marine Corps veteran Ryan Tate. “It’s time that we start using those skills and putting them back to work,” said Tate. While traveling to Africa, Tate crossed into a new battlefield. Some estimate nearly 100 elephants are killed by poachers every day. A rhino horn is worth more than gold. Tate believed he had the solution for two problems. He founded VETPAW — Veterans Empowered to Protect African Wildlife — and teamed up with Army medic Azad Ebrahimzadeh to make it work. “Veterans make sense,” said Ebrahimzadeh. Ebrahimzadeh and Tate knew that park rangers in Africa are overwhelmed by work, and yet American veterans often feel overwhelmed by the exact opposite. “They were a part of something bigger. They felt like they were contributing to something, that they were making a difference,” said Ebrahimzadeh. Post 9-11 veterans are using their skills to train anti-poaching rangers, increasing efficiency and skill set. “That’s the best decision I ever made,” said Tate. “I mean, it was kind of like jumping off a cliff. The group quickly grew, and Johnson joined as their first — and only — woman. “You can ask any of these guys. I have earned my place on this team,” she said. “I don’t complain. I don’t act like a prima donna. I sit here and I bust my butt.”
Veterans rush to apply for VA’s IT pilot program (Military.com)
The Veterans Affairs Department said it will be months before it knows if a pilot program for teaching information technology skills to veterans of all generations will be made permanent and expanded. But it already knows that veterans are interested in the so-called Accelerated Learning Program, which it first announced in early August. “We … had significant interest in the program and received over 1,000 applications the first day” applications were accepted on Aug. 17, VA spokeswoman Monica Smith said. She said the department stopped taking applications by the end of the month — after it received a total of 3,500 — though it continues to receive queries and some veterans believe the VA should have made a greater effort to advertise the pilot. Smith couldn’t say how many vets will be selected for the pilot program because officials are still vetting applications. She said they are expected to know that number in October. The VA developed the program using data from the Labor Department showing a growing employer demand for IT skills that typically require less than six months of dedicated training, said Rosye Cloud, senior adviser for veteran employment and acting director for the Office of Transition, Employment and Economic Impact. The training is free and does not count against a veteran’s GI Bill. The initial program includes seven IT courses, among these coding and programming boot camps and more than 80 IT certification programs in hardware, software, networking and web services. Veterans also will receive training and certification in network support engineering, cybersecurity, IT help desk, and IT boot camps for desktop support and Windows. The program also includes job placement for the graduating veterans, as well as monitoring to track employment, retention and advancement.