Senators press VA on Agent Orange benefits (The Hill)
Senators pressed the Department of Veterans Affairs on Tuesday to expand benefits for Vietnam veterans and conduct more research on the effects of Agent Orange. “This nation needs to understand with passion and urgency the importance of this issue,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.). “It affects veterans of every era. “There may be new toxic substances and chemicals on the battlefield, but the principal is the same that anybody in the vicinity of combat and many who may only be near it can be exposed to this type of insidious and pernicious chemical harm,” he added. The Senate Veterans Affairs Committee held a hearing Tuesday on veterans exposed to toxic chemicals and the VA’s response. At issue are so-called “blue water” Vietnam veterans, who served on Navy ships during the conflict. Because they were offshore, many of those veterans are not eligible for some benefits, despite claims that they were exposed to toxins like Agent Orange, which are linked to a number of illnesses, including cancer. The U.S. used Agent Orange, a herbicide, during the war. Senators want benefits extended to blue-water veterans. But VA officials pushed back, saying that allowing them to receive benefits for illnesses presumed to be caused by Agent Orange exposure would increase the backlog already plaguing the VA. Currently, only veterans who served on the ground in Vietnam or about 12 miles offshore are eligible for benefits for illnesses tied to Agent Orange. A bill sitting in the Senate would extend benefits to blue water Navy veterans. In the twenty years of the Institute of Medicine’s Committee on Veterans and Agent Orange, only one epidemiological study has been done that specifically reported on blue water veterans, said Kenneth Ramos, chair of the institute’s committee. The study found a higher instance of non-Hodgkin lymphoma in blue water veterans, but doesn’t address whether that’s a result of exposure. The VA estimates about 80,000 blue water veterans are still alive, said David McLenachen, acting deputy under secretary for disability assistance at the VA. Of that, about 40,000 have been found eligible for benefits, while about 20,000 have been denied benefits. The VA’s current backlog was partly caused by adding three illnesses presumed to be caused by Agent Orange, McLenachen said. Changing the policy to include blue water veterans would increase the VA’s workload, and the department would need more resources, McLenachen said. Senators also asked the VA to conduct more research and supported their colleague Blumenthal’s bill that would mandate the VA to look into Agent Orange’s effect on the offspring of veterans. VA officials said they aren’t equipped to do the multigenerational research called for in Blumenthal’s bill and asked for another agency to be responsible for the work. Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) said the VA should want to do the research, but senators should find an agency eager to conduct the study. “The VA believes, as I understand, there’s insufficient evidence to tie the conditions that we find in children or grandchildren of veterans to the exposure of their mothers, fathers, grandmothers or grandfathers,” Moran said. “And so, if that’s a true statement and the VA can’t find the evidence, the scientific connection, then it seems to me that the VA ought to be terribly interested in making that determination.”
VA hammered for long delay in addressing toxic exposures (The Huffington Post)
The Senate Veterans Affairs Committee heard testimony on Tuesday from senators and advocates who urged the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to remove roadblocks to care and compensation for veterans sickened by environmental toxicants, including contaminated drinking water at North Carolina’s Camp Lejeune. “Agents within the VA system have expended more effort, time and money devising methods to deny Camp Lejeune victims their rightful benefits rather than providing them,” Retired Master Sgt. Jerry Ensminger, who has devoted nearly 18 years to research and advocacy on the issue, said in his testimony before the Senate. His daughter Janey, who was born on the base, died on Sept. 24, 1985, at the age of 9 from a rare form of leukemia. “The 30th anniversary of her death was just five short, painful days ago,” added Ensminger. “Janey is but one example of the multitude of tragedies suffered by former Camp Lejeune families who were exposed by this negligence.” Ensminger is among critics who have accused the VA of dragging its feet with regard to veterans exposed to toxicants — allegedly denying and delaying help, often through the deceitful and faulty use of cherry-picked and outdated science. Hundreds of thousands of former and current military personnel have likely encountered a number of toxicants, from burn-pit smoke in the Middle East to plumes of radiation off the coast of Fukushima to lingering Agent Orange herbicide, which is now believed to have also affected so-called Blue Water Navy and C-123 veterans who never set foot in Vietnam. Any of these exposures, experts say, may take years or even decades to manifest as a medical problem like cancer or respiratory disease. Research even suggests the effects could haunt future generations — with an exposed veteran’s unexposed grandchildren and other future descendants also potentially facing elevated health risks. “We know that the modern battlefield includes perils even for the veteran who hasn’t been engaged in combat,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) said during the hearing. “When a veteran signs up for duty, he or she has not signed up their children or grandchildren — risking their own lives doesn’t mean volunteering the next generation for a neurological condition, cancer or other life-threatening conditions.” The VA responded to the escalating Camp Lejeune concerns in August, announcing it intends to revise how it grants disability benefits for veterans who lived at the base between the mid-1950s and the 1980s, when toxic chemicals tainted the base’s drinking water. Medical care for 15 different illnesses, including kidney cancer and leukemia, is already mandated by a 2012 federal bill named after Janey Ensminger. The VA’s move to establish “presumptive status” for these exposed veterans — that is, to presume that specific illnesses diagnosed in certain vets are a result of their military service — would eventually make it easier for vets to win disability benefits as well. But critics remain frustrated and impatient with what they see as continued foot-dragging. “We got that announcement, but then nothing happened,” said Mike Partain, who was born at Camp Lejeune and developed breast cancer at the age of 39. He attended Tuesday’s hearing but did not testify. The VA is currently conducting a separate series of meetings, planned through mid-October, to determine which health conditions should be included in the presumption, noted agency representatives at the hearing. Once that determination is finalized, veterans who meet the eligibility requirements would receive benefits for those conditions.
American Legion renews call for VA’s Hickey to step down (Military.com)
The American Legion has renewed its call for Under Secretary of Veterans Benefits Allison Hickey to resign or be fired. The Legion, which first sought her removal along with other department officials in connection with a wait-times scandal in 2014, said Hickey now should go because of her connection to officials who used coercion to assume the directorships of regional offices in Philadelphia and St. Paul, Minnesota. The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Washington, D.C., is now weighing criminal charges against the two directors, Diana Rubens and Kimberly Graves. Meanwhile, the VA’s Inspector General’s office has recommended that Hickey be disciplined for reportedly assisting one of the women in the job move. “It’s disturbing to read terms like ‘criminal referrals’ and ‘coerced’ in an official report about an agency that was created to serve veterans,” American Legion National Commander Dale Barnett said on Tuesday. “It is time for Under Secretary Hickey to finally do the right thing and resign.” Following release of the IG’s report, the department issued a statement saying it agreed with a number of recommendations the office made in connection with the latest scandal. “As a result of their findings, VA leadership will conduct a 30-day review of all incentive and relocation procedures in the department,” it stated. “In addition, VA will consider all the evidence presented by the IG, collect any additional evidence necessary, and take appropriate accountability actions.” The department will also fully cooperate with other federal agencies as required, the statement said. Hickey refused to resign back in 2014, when she, VA Secretary Eric Shinseki and Veterans Health Administration Under Secretary Dr. Robert Petzel all came under fire from veterans and lawmakers amid the wait-time scandal that IG officials said contributed to the deaths of some veterans.
IAVA chief criticizes Sanders as ‘apologist’ for scandal-riddled VA (Military.com)
The head of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America said presidential hopeful Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, should explain why he didn’t early and aggressively investigate the Veterans Affairs Department scandal involving manipulated wait times and the deaths of veterans. “If you want to be commander-in-chief, let’s ask some hard questions of Bernie Sanders on why he didn’t do more, why he didn’t hold more oversight hearings,” Paul Rieckhoff said during a panel discussion on Tuesday in Washington, D.C. “We and others called him out for basically being an apologist for the VA as the scandal erupted around him.” Sanders, an Independent lawmaker who caucuses with the Democrat Party, chaired the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee until last year’s midterm elections, when the Republicans regained control of the Senate. His campaign office didn’t immediately respond to an email request for comment. Most of the pressure put on the VA last year came from the House Veterans Affairs Committee, which is now chaired by Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Florida. Rieckhoff made his comments during a discussion of news coverage of the VA, and began by pointing out that none of the questions prepared by CNN during a recent debate among GOP presidential hopefuls dealt with veterans. Only after the widow of a fallen service member raised the issue with the moderator was a veterans-related question asked, he said. Kevin Baron, executive editor of conference co-sponsor DefenseOne, said Sanders “protected the VA … because going after it, really rooting out what was wrong with it, would be admitting that government-run health care doesn’t work. And Bernie Sanders supports government-run health care.”
Congress close to Colorado VA hospital deal (Colorado Public Radio)
Congress is expected to sign off on a plan soon that would allow the Department of Veterans Affairs to complete construction of its hospital complex in Aurora, Colo. The project’s cost ballooned to $1.7 billion earlier this year, three times the original estimates. Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Aurora, said the House could vote Wednesday to increase a spending cap on the project. Then House lawmakers could take a second vote letting the VA shift money in its own budget to find the funds to complete construction. “It’s huge because it doesn’t do the piecemeal funding that we’ve done in the past. It does the whole thing,” Coffman said. “It does the whole $625 million that’s necessary to complete the hospital.” That news is drawing cautious optimism from veterans like Ralph Bozella, an American Legion official who served in the Army in Vietnam. “Well, nothing is ever done until it’s done,” Bozella said. “And until the thing is done, we’re not going to celebrate.” Another bill in the House would require the VA to shift employee bonus money toward the project — a move that the VA opposes and one that could sidetrack the funding plan. Coffman said that bill is still up for consideration. The Senate has already lifted the spending cap and is expected to approve the construction funding this week. Coffman said the agreement would require the VA to relinquish future major construction projects, costing more than $100 million, to the Army Corps of Engineers. Coffman said he doubts thinks there will be any additional requests for funding for the project beyond the $625 million being voted on this week. “Let me tell you, it better not be the case,” Coffman said.
Lawmakers push VA doctor recruitment bill (WSAU-Stevens Point, Wis.)
Legislation designed to encourage doctors to work for the Veterans Administration hospitals and clinics has been introduced in Congress. Wisconsin’s 3rd District Democrat Ron Kind says the bipartisan bill would address recruitment problems in Tomah, Wausau, Wisconsin Rapids, and other parts of the state to help get more care for veterans. “We have seen a number of VA facilities turn our veterans away and stop offering vital services due to a shortage of physicians and health professionals. That is unacceptable. This is a matter of fairness to our veterans – they served our country, and they deserve proper health care.” This bill was co-sponsored by 8th District Republican Representative Reid Ribble. It designates the Department of Veterans Affairs medical facilities as Health Professional Shortage Areas (HPSAs). By making this designation, it allows these sites to compete for National Health Service Corps fellows, which is a program that pays student loan repayment or gives scholarships to doctors, dentists, mental health professionals, nurses, or medical students who pledge to practice in a HPSA for at least two years. Kind says this bill is a positive step towards providing the care our veterans need. “Through more recruiting tools to bring good doctors to Wisconsin, we can better ensure that veterans are receiving the care and treatment that they earned and deserve.” In recent years, a number of VA clinics have been forced to turn away patients due to staffing shortages.
McConnell tees up veterans funding bill (The Hill)
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) teed up a procedural vote on a veterans funding bill, pressuring Democrats to let the bill move forward. The Republican leader filed cloture on proceeding to the legislation, which funds veterans benefits and military construction and housing. Under Senate rules that sets up a procedural vote on taking up the bill for as early as Friday, if the Senate is in session. “[It’s] one of the 12 pieces of appropriations legislation we must pass to properly fund our government. It is a bipartisan bill that does a lot of important things for our country,” he said. “Democrats have said nice things about it in press releases sent out to their various states.” The move came after the Senate passed a short-term spending bill that will fund the government through Dec. 11. Lawmakers will try to reach a longer budget deal before then, with McConnell telling reporters on Tuesday that he has spoken to President Obama. The Republican leader is trying to pressure Democrats to back the legislation, saying that Americans are “ready to see Democrats start supporting, not blocking, the very bipartisan funding legislation they previously voted for and actually bragged about.” “I also said we’d give our colleagues a chance to do so this week, so I’ve just set up a vote that will give them that opportunity,” McConnell added, referring to his remarks earlier Wednesday.
Legislators salute property tax breaks for vets with disabilities (Chicago Tribune)
More than 2,000 veterans with disabilities in Illinois can now pay lower taxes or no taxes on their homes, depending on the severity of their disability, thanks to a new law sponsored by state legislators from Lake County. Gov. Bruce Rauner signed the bill into law on Aug. 17, after Senate Bill 107 earned complete bipartisan support from both houses of the General Assembly. The law became effective the same day At a recent dinner at Midlane Country Club in Wadsworth, Ill., state Sen. Terry Link, D-30, turned to Congressional Medal of Honor recipient Al Lynch, of Gurnee, and said, “This is the best thing I’ve ever done in legislation. When we have the opportunity of helping veterans, it’s something we do.” According to a Lake County Veterans Assistance Commission news release, “Lake County has 35,000 veterans with over 4,500 receiving disability compensation from the VA totaling $92 million annually. The total compensation includes DIC — Dependents Indemnity Compensation for the surviving spouse. Our veterans population has gone down but the number of surviving spouses we are assisting has grown.” Specifically, the new law will allow veterans with service connected disabilities exceeding 70 percent to be exempt from real estate taxes; those with a disability of 50 to 60 percent to have $5,000 off the assessed value of their home, and those with 30 to 40 percent to have $2,500 off the assessed value.
Veteran resource center opened in Phoenix (AZCentral.com)
Homeless veterans can find assistance at a new resource center in central Phoenix that opened Tuesday. A ribbon-cutting ceremony marked the opening of the Department of Veterans Affairs’ Community Resource and Referral Center. Phoenix is one of the 17 cities nationwide with a center offering housing-related services to veterans struggling with homelessness or who are at risk for homelessness. The VA resource center was previously located in a cramped shared space near 12th Avenue and Madison Street. The new location is at least four times the size of the old facility, according to Dennis Reinhardt, a team leader for Homeless Patient Aligned Care Team. In addition to helping veterans find housing, the Community Resource and Referral Center offers onsite treatment and lab rooms where it is able to directly provide medical care. At Tuesday’s opening, Anthony Wilson, an Air Force veteran, spoke about how he had struggled with substance abuse and mental illness since 2001. He was encouraged to enroll in a recovery center, and the CRRC team gave him the foundation to gain control of his life, Wilson said. “Utilizing the resource center tools gave me a sense of normalcy and empowerment,” Wilson said. Anthony Moore said he was forced to resign from the Air Force Academy in Colorado after receiving a DUI while on base. Moore was diagnosed with depression and struggled with alcoholism and homelessness after the deaths of both of his parents as well as being released from the academy. On Tuesday, he spoke of a friend who had helped him go to the resource center’s previous location and later being able to move into his own place. “I never again have to worry about homelessness,” Moore said.