Agent Orange law changes as new cost fears surface (Stars & Stripes)
Two weeks ago, the House and Senate veterans affairs committees quietly allowed a provision of the Agent Orange Act of 1991 to expire. How significant that will be for Vietnam veterans and their benefits is disputed. Committee staff and the Department of Veterans Affairs agree the change has not impacted the VA secretary’s authority to decide to expand the list of diseases presumed connected to wartime herbicide exposure. But veteran advocates and at least one lawmaker suggest the change is intended to dampen VA cost risks and perhaps ease political pressure on the secretary and Congress facing a potential tsunami of disability claims. That scenario assumes that a final review of medical science will establish a stronger link between Agent Orange and hypertension (high blood pressure), a condition that the Center for Disease Control says is so common it afflicts a third of the U.S. adult population. VA asked Congress to keep the Agent Orange law intact five more years. Rep. Timothy J. Walz (D-Minn.), a VA committee member, offered a compromise, a bill to leave the law unchanged for two years, long enough so its secretarial review requirements held during VA consideration of a final report of the Institute of Medicine (IOM) of the National Academy of Sciences on health conditions associated with Agent Orange. The VA committees declined to back these delays because, said a House committee staff member, under separate law “the secretary already has authority to make such [presumption] decisions, and we felt he did not need to be compelled by [the Agent Orange] law to do so.” The provision that “sunset” Oct. 1 required the secretary to adhere to certain standards and procedures in determining if additional diseases associated with herbicide exposure should be presumed service connected. Vietnam War veterans diagnosed with ailments on the presumptive list qualify for VA disability pay and medical care. The expired provision also set a timetable for the secretary to accept or reject IOM findings and required him to explain in writing if he declined to add IOM identified conditions to the presumptive list. Walz told colleagues at a hearing last week they effectively “allowed the Agent Orange Act to expire” and “it’s altogether possible” the next IOM report, due in March, will support adding hypertension and stroke to the presumptive list. Consequently, Walz said, “literally hundreds of thousands of people” will be able to point to scientific data showing they experienced health consequences from exposure to Agent Orange.
Department of Veterans Affairs names new regional health director (azcentral)
The Department of Veterans Affairs has named a new health-care director to oversee the Phoenix VA hospital and other facilities in the Southwest, but she arrives with baggage. Skye McDougall was accused of giving false testimony to Congress when she discussed patient wait times during a hearing this spring. McDougall will begin work early next month as director of the Southwest Health Care Network, also known as VISN 18. She currently serves as acting director of the Desert Pacific Healthcare Network, a Veterans Health Administration supervisory office for Southern California. … McDougall previously has served as chief medical officer for the VA health-care network in Southern California and as acting director of the New Mexico VA Health Care System. She will now oversee VISN 18, headquartered in Gilbert, coordinating VA medical services in Arizona and New Mexico.
Social Security benefits to remain unchanged next year (CNBC)
There will be no benefit increase next year for millions of Social Security recipients, disabled veterans and federal retirees, the government said Thursday. It’s just the third time in 40 years that payments will remain flat. All three times have come since 2010. And there’s more bad news. The lack of a benefit increase means that many older people could face higher Medicare costs, an issue that has advocates lobbying Congress. The main reason for no increase next year is low gas prices. By law, the annual cost-of-living adjustment, or COLA, is based on a government measure of inflation. That gauge came out Thursday. As of Wednesday, AAA said the average price of a gallon of regular gasoline was $2.30, about 90 cents less than it was a year ago. “The big story has been the plunging gas prices,” said Dean Baker, co-founder of the Center for Economic and Policy Research. “There’s not a lot of inflation anywhere.” The announcement will affect benefits for more than 70 million people, more than one-fifth of the nation’s population. Almost 60 million retirees, disabled workers, spouses and children get Social Security benefits. The average monthly Social Security payment is $1,224. The COLA also affects benefits for about 4 million disabled veterans, 2.5 million federal retirees and their survivors, and more than 8 million people who get Supplemental Security Income, the disability program for the poor. Many people who get SSI also receive Social Security.
Student creates app for vets to prevent night terrors (USA Today)
A college student, inspired by his Iraq War vet father’s struggles with night terrors, is being recognized for an invention to help those suffering from the condition. Macalester College senior Tyler Skluzacek said he was in sixth grade when his dad, Sgt. 1st Class Patrick Skluzacek, spent a year in Iraq. “Your dad just disappearing for a year and coming back a little bit different and seeing his Army buddies and them coming back a little bit different, too. … I have a real personal connection to the PTSD problem,” Tyler said. Patrick Skluzacek now has night terrors, which according to the Mayo Clinic, “are episodes of screaming, intense fear and flailing while still asleep.” In his case, “at three in the morning all of a sudden I’m startled awake.” Tyler saw the effect on his father and wanted to help. In September, he entered a computer programming contest called HackDC. During HackDC, teams had 36 hours to create mobile apps for PTSD. Tyler decided to “try to create something that will help (his father) sleep better. That’s what it’s all about.” Tyler and his team, “The Cure,” wrote code and created a smart watch app called myBivy, short for bivouac — a temporary camp or shelter. The app tracks heart rate and movement with the goal to predict night terrors. “After a couple weeks of tracking the soldier we can find … the exact symptoms of the onset of the panic attack and try to use the watch or use the Android phone to disrupt that or take them out of the deep sleep but keep them asleep,” Tyler said. Tyler said the app will use sound or vibration to prevent night terrors.
County in Pennsylvania steps up veterans outreach using ‘mobile VFW’ (Daily Times News)
With more than 35,000 veterans on record in Delaware County, the demographic of those who served in the armed forces has been one local and state legislators have worked to represent fairly. The main difficultly representatives in Veterans Affairs Offices and veterans consistently find is a lack of information available to them. Wednesday afternoon, the Pennsylvania Mobile Veterans Outreach Van, described as a “mobile VFW,” parked outside the Delaware County Courthouse to raise awareness and provide assistance to veterans. “Wherever we go we have the target audience of veterans and their families,” said Jim Pearson, of the Veterans’ Service Office with the Department of Military and Veterans Affairs. “We’re trying to make them aware of benefits and services that are available, if they meet the eligibility criteria and if so how do they apply for those benefits.” With servicemen and women and their families filing in throughout the afternoon, it was clear that after discharge many veterans aren’t privy to services for which they are qualified. While many served the necessary amount of time, the transition from active duty to discharge left them in the lurch for whom and what office to connect for benefits entitled to them. “I didn’t know that they had a lot of these different avenues for veterans to reach out for help,” said Brian Snyder, a Delaware County Sheriff and veteran of the conflict in Granada and Desert Storm. He served from 1981 until 1990. “I had never even thought to look into what my benefits were from the government for my service.” While some in the armed forces look to make a career out of it, culminating in more than 20 years of service that included health benefits and retirement packages, those who served and were discharged after completing their enlistment times found themselves at a loss for what qualifications they met. “Most of the veterans go through a process called TAP (Transition Assistance Program) and they’re given a lot of the information, but many of them are ready to go home and it’s in one ear and out the other,” Pearson said. “It’s not until 10 years down the road to they realize that they have issues or health problems and they want to get into the healthcare system.” This is where Veterans Services on Wheels comes into place. Traveling to all 67 counties across the state, both Pearson and officer Brian Maloney, aim to create a visible and accessible point where they can direct vets to their local Veterans Affairs Office.
Pennsylvania Senate OKs veterans care study (CitizensVoice)
The Pennsylvania state Senate adopted a resolution to study options to provide additional care for veterans, according to Sen. David G. Argall, the proposal’s sponsor. Senate Resolution 171 directs the Legislative Budget and Finance Committee to study the potential cost savings and effectiveness of allowing the state Department of Military and Veterans Affairs to partner with the private sector to provide additional care for veterans. “This study will show if the state can alleviate waiting lists at state-owned veterans care homes and allow veterans to be closer to home,” Argall, R-Tamaqua, said in a release. The study will determine how many veterans are on waiting lists to be placed in state-owned veterans care homes, the average cost per day for care and treatment for a veteran at a state-owned veterans care facility compared to a privately owned health care facility, and the projected number of veterans who will require care over the next 10 years in Pennsylvania. The resolution requires the study to be completed within six months.
Effects of traumatic injury, disease on functional brain networks examined (HealthCanal)
New research clearly shows that injury, disease, and related therapeutic interventions can impact critical crosstalk and connectivity between functional networks and brain regions. The effects of traumatic brain injury (TBI), stroke, and repetitive brain stimulation are among the topics examined in articles published in the Injury and Disease special issue of Brain Connectivity, a peer-reviewed journal from Mary Ann Liebert, Inc., publishers. The issue is available free on the Brain Connectivity website until November 14, 2015. In “Investigation of Information Flow During a Novel Working Memory Task in Individuals with Traumatic Brain Injury,” Ekaterina Dobryakova and coauthors from Kessler Foundation, Rutgers New Jersey Medical School, and the Department of Veterans Affairs’ War Related Illness & Injury Study Center, used a novel tool called CapMan to assess brain connectivity and information flow associated with working memory across brain hemispheres. The results of their study showed hyper-connectivity and less coherent information flow in TBI patients compared to healthy individuals.
Organization aims to give veterans evening out (The Suburbanite)
Combat veterans often have special needs after returning from serving in the military. Though he didn’t see combat, Jason Correll said that after serving in the military, his perspective on life changed. He felt uncomfortable eating in restaurants where people sit behind him, so he prefers to sit with his back against the wall. Because of his personal experiences and conversations he’s had with other veterans, Correll decided to create an organization that helped veterans attend and enjoy family events such as baseball, basketball, concerts and shows. Veterans Entertainment Trauma Survivors (VETS), Inc. was founded in December 2014. “It just kind of started by talking to vets,” Correll said. “It pushed me over the edge to say I’ve got to start it. I’ve got to do it.” VETS, Inc. held its first event last month by taking a group of veterans and their families to an Akron RubberDucks game. “We take combat veterans who suffered trauma or have some form of disability and provide them with entertainment, a show or ballgame,” said Devin Flagg, director of fundraising and a junior at Jackson High School. “We give them a full-pack deal. Everything they would need.”
Injured veterans to cycle 516 miles from San Francisco to Los Angeles (UnitedHealth Group)
More than 200 injured veterans and their supporters will set off on Sunday, Oct. 18, on the UnitedHealthcare Ride 2 Recovery California Challenge, a seven-day, 516-mile bicycle ride from the VA Palo Alto Health Care System – the birthplace of Ride 2 Recovery – to the VA West Los Angeles Medical Center. California Challenge cyclists will begin their journey in Palo Alto, ride south to Santa Cruz, and then travel the iconic Pacific Coast Highway along the state’s scenic coastline with overnight stops in Carmel, San Simeon, Pismo Beach, Solvang and Ventura. The ride will conclude Saturday, Oct. 24, at the VA West Los Angeles Medical Center. That afternoon, 95-year-old Tuskegee airman Lt. Col. Robert Friend will join the cyclists for the last several miles of the ride and across the finish line at the VA. The public is encouraged to gather along the daily ride routes or at the hotels to support the cyclists. To see daily stops and events along the route, or to sign up for the California Challenge, visit UnitedHealthcare Ride 2 Recovery California Challenge. Ride 2 Recovery supports physical and psychological rehabilitation programs for injured veterans, featuring cycling as the core activity. From indoor spinning training at military installations to multiday, long-distance rides, Ride 2 Recovery helps injured veterans heal through the challenge of cycling long distances using hand cycles, recumbents, tandems and traditional road bikes.