Hillary Clinton’s take on VA crisis spurs backlash (AZCentral.com)
A declaration by Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton that the national crisis in care for American military veterans has been overblown by Republicans has stirred a backlash from advocacy groups and members of Congress from both major political parties. During an appearance Friday on MSNBC, Clinton was asked by interviewer Rachel Maddow whether she had new ideas on how to solve patient-care and scheduling problems at the Department of Veterans Affairs. Clinton did not answer the question directly but said surveys indicate veterans are happy with their care and that she believes the scandal has “not been as bad as it has been made out to be.” Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, said in a written statement Monday that anyone who denies rampant problems in the VA “isn’t paying attention.” “Whether it’s continued delays in veterans’ medical care, the blatant waste of billions of taxpayer dollars or a rampant lack of accountability throughout every corner of the organization, there is simply no denying that the problems of the Department of Veterans Affairs are indeed widespread,” Miller said. “The VA scandal was caused by dishonest bureaucrats who chose to whitewash the department’s problems rather than solve them. Those who repeat that same shameful pattern of behavior are only shortchanging veterans.” U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., issued a terse, written demand for an apology: “Hillary Clinton’s remarks … show a total lack of appreciation for the crisis facing veterans’ health care today. Secretary Clinton owes an apology to the families of the veterans who lost their loved ones due to mismanagement and corruption in the federal government.” Clinton and her campaign did not respond to a request for comment. In the MSNBC interview, Clinton said opinion surveys show that, “overall, veterans who do get treated are satisfied with their treatment. … Now, nobody would believe that from the coverage that you see, and the constant berating of the VA that comes from the Republicans.” Clinton possibly was referring to a 2013 study, commissioned by the VA, that said 83 percent of patients admitted to veterans hospitals reported a satisfactory experience. The poll did not include those receiving outpatient services or those who were unable to get treatment at all. In a Gallup poll last year, 55 percent of military veterans said getting VA care is somewhat difficult or very difficult.
Taxpayers hit with hundreds of millions to pay school fees for drop-out vets (The Washington Post)
The Department of Veterans Affairs is overpaying hundreds of millions of dollars to schools and veterans under the post-9/11 GI Bill when students drop a class or leave school, letting $416 million go uncollected in fiscal 2014 alone, a newly released report says. The program works like this: When a veteran enrolls, the government sends money for tuition and fees to the school and begins sending housing and living stipends to the veteran. If a student drops or fails to complete a class, the VA is supposed to scale back the benefits accordingly. The student becomes responsible for any overpayments. These debts often come as a surprise to students because the VA, which administers the massive education program for service members and veterans who served after the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, has not been clear about the rules, the Government Accountability Office found. “Because VA is not effectively communicating its program policies to veterans, some veterans may be incurring debts that they could have otherwise avoided,” auditors wrote. One in every four students getting GI Bill benefits — about 225,000 veterans — incurred a debt to the government that averaged about $570, the GAO said. And more than 7,000 veterans owed more than $5,000 to the government after they withdrew from school or continued to get housing benefits when they shouldn’t have. In most cases, veterans are responsible for repaying the debt resulting from government overpayments, with schools responsible in a small number of cases. VA officials have recouped more than half of the overpayments from fiscal 2014, but another $110 million from previous years is still uncollected, most of it from veterans. “Unless VA expands its monitoring of overpayment debts and collections, it will not be able to ensure that it is taking appropriate steps to safeguard taxpayer funds,” said the report, requested by Sen. Tom Carper (Del.), the top Democrat on the Senate’s government oversight panel.
Army veteran ‘dying of cancer’ files $50M lawsuit against Phoenix VA (Phoenix Business Journal)
Steve Cooper, a 44-year-old Phoenix Army veteran dying of cancer, has filed a $50 million lawsuit in federal court against the Phoenix Veterans Administration alleging delays in getting appointments and poor urological care. The lawsuit was filed in the U.S. District Court in Arizona against the U.S. government for problems Cooper had at the Carl. T. Hayden VA Medical Center in Phoenix. According to the lawsuit, Cooper claims he was denied access to medical care at the VA hospital, and when he finally was able to get in to see a doctor, he was provided with negligent medical care resulting in the delayed diagnosis and treatment of prostate cancer. His attorney, Greg Patton, said Cooper — who served 18 years in the Army — is now dying of prostate cancer because he didn’t receive proper treatment when he should have gotten it. “If caught early, it’s completely treatable,” Patton said. “Letting it go up to two years like the VA did allowed it to spread. Now it’s incurable. He is facing a terminal diagnosis of prostate cancer at the age of 44 — all of which is preventable. It’s a horrible case.” Patton said Cooper did everything he was supposed to do, seeking care since 2009. Cooper served in the Army from 1989 to 2007, according to court documents. “Unfortunately, this VA system and their health care providers just took it all away from him,” Patton said. “They took his life.” Officials at the VA Hospital in Phoenix could not immediately be reached for comment regarding the lawsuit.
Marines’ women in combat study ‘flawed,’ researchers say (Stars & Stripes)
A Marine Corps study examining the impact of integrating women into combat occupations is “inherently flawed” for failing to establish basic standards for such positions, say researchers who obtained the report, which has not been publicly released. About 400 male and 100 female Marines participated in the Ground Combat Element Integrated Task Force study, which was conducted from October 2014 to July 2015 at Camp Lejeune, N.C., and Twentynine Palms, Calif. In September, the Marines released an executive summary that said women in the study sustained significantly higher injury rates than men, were less accurate with infantry weapons and had more difficulty moving “wounded” troops off the battlefield. The release of the synopsis immediately led to questions about its methodology and calls for publication of the full report, particularly after reports that the top Marine Corps command recommended keeping some combat positions closed to women. There has been bipartisan pressure to release the full report from two Marine Corps veterans in Congress, Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., and Rep. Seth Moulton, D-Mass. Klein has called for its immediate release for “review by members of Congress and the American people.” Maj. Chris Devine, a Marine Corps spokesman at the Pentagon, told Stars and Stripes: “We plan to release our studies as soon as practical.” Navy Secretary Ray Mabus, who has seen the full study, wrote in an opinion piece published in the Washington Post in late September that the analysis relied on “1992 language,” even as “the way we fight and the landscape of our battles has significantly evolved from a quarter-century ago.” The study, he wrote, did not evaluate the performance of individual female Marines and instead used only averages that “have no relevance to the abilities and performance of individual Marines.” Defense Secretary Ash Carter has received recommendations from the service branches on which positions should remain off-limits to women; he is expected to make a final decision early next year.
Army officer’s military surplus bag company in line for Super Bowl ad (Stars & Stripes)
Emily Núñez Cavness grew up the child of an Army officer and would often wonder what happened to surplus items that she saw piled up across the bases where she lived. Much of the clothing, bags, tents, and other items were destined for the landfill, she learned, and that sparked an idea. So Emily sat down with her sister, Betsy Núñez, for lunch one day in 2012 and sketched out a plan to put all of those condemned threads to use. “She was the spunky, fun-spirited inventor of the family,” said Núñez, 28. The meal stretched for hours and led to the sisters to starting Sword & Plough, a company that makes bags and apparel, such as backpacks, totes, and caps, out of old military gear. The Denver-based operation has gained national attention since 2013 and is now a finalist to win a free Super Bowl Ad in the Small Business Big Game challenge, a contest organized by software company Intuit, which focuses on small business needs. Sword & Plough was one of 10 businesses picked out of roughly 15,000 that entered. Intuit will pay for the winner to produce an ad. More importantly, it will pony up for 30 seconds of the most coveted air time on television, which cost about $4.5 million during the last Super Bowl. “We were just blown away when we found out we were a top 10 finalist,” said Cavness, 25, a first lieutenant with 10th Special Forces Group and an Afghanistan veteran. “It would truly be the chance of a lifetime for Sword & Plough – it would be something that we could never do on our own.”
Vets for Bernie Sanders: Why the anti-war candidate is beloved by former soldiers (Salon.com)
When then-freshman Vermont Congressman Bernie Sanders first arrived in Washington, D.C., he didn’t first tend to the great social democratic causes that he spent his life working on: a national living wage, health care for all, or expanding labor unions. Rather, the very first bill he introduced was H.R. 695 – the Guard and Reserve Family Protection Act of 1991. The purpose of the bill was to make sure that reserve and National Guard soldiers who were deployed to serve in the Gulf War were entitled to any pay they may have missed as a result of going to war, to ensure that their deployment wages were equal to their civilian wages. Sanders’ career in Congress has been living testimony to the fact that opposing wars but supporting our soldiers are not mutually exclusive goals. He has been a consistent advocate for both active duty military and veterans, and there are now signs that those veterans are returning the favor, organizing for his campaign. “He works for veterans. He’s not just saying that. He does do the work,” said Brenda Cruickshank a retired Army nurse who served as the past commander of the Vermont Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW), over the summer. Indeed, last spring the national VFW presented Sanders with its 2015 Congressional Award. That award came after Sanders forged a successful compromise to overhaul the Veterans Administration (VA), which had been plagued in scandals over its inability to handle its intake. “Last year when we had the scandal at the VA, he was incredibly effective, engaged in getting the legislation passed, in getting it funded. Frankly, without him, I don’t think we would have gotten it done because there was a lot of name-calling but there wasn’t a lot of constructive, ‘OK, here’s the resources. …’ And he did it,” said Senator Jack Reed (D-RI), noting how crucial Sanders was to the overhaul. The praise for Sanders for his leadership on the VA issue was bipartisan. The deal wouldn’t have gone down without the support of Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), who worked closely with Sanders. “I found him to be honorable and good as his word. And his word was good,” said McCain. “Senator Sanders understands what it takes to get legislation across the goal line,” said Sen. Richard Burr (R-NC) of the VA compromise. “I think he’s very outspoken in terms of where he is ideologically. But when he gets down to the need of get legislation into law, then I find him to be one who’s willing to sit down and compromise and negotiate to get a final product.”
Senator seeks full account of VA’s ‘troubled record’ on paid administrative leave (KIOW-Forest City, Iowa)
Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa continues to drill down on agencies’ use of extensive paid administrative leave, now focusing on the Department of Veterans of Affairs (VA). In a letter to the agency, Grassley cited its “troubled record” on paid leave, including reportedly placing employees on such leave pending investigations into their inappropriate actions related to secret VA waiting lists, as well as accusations of using administrative leave as retaliation for employees who objected to instructions to manipulate appointment times or other improper practices. Grassley’s letter to Secretary Robert McDonald said the Government Accountability Office reported that the VA placed nearly 6,000 employees on administrative leave for between 1 and 6 months in fiscal years 2011-2013, comprising nearly 2 percent of its workforce. And, in fiscal year 2014, the VA outspent all other agencies surveyed with respect to employees on administrative leave for a month or more. “As such, oversight of the VA’s use of administrative leave is critical,” Grassley wrote to McDonald. In response to a letter sent to all major agencies from Grassley and Rep. Darrell Issa last October, the VA reported that it placed 46 employees on paid administrative leave for a year or more. “The agency’s explanations for doing so were largely vague, incomplete, or incoherent,” Grassley wrote. “The VA’s responses suggest it may be placing some employees on administrative leave for inappropriately long periods of time and that it does not adequately track or manage use of administrative leave. Further, the VA’s incomplete responses to this inquiry make it impossible to fully evaluate the agency’s use of administrative leave, and thus frustrate meaningful oversight.” Grassley asked for a full accounting of the agency’s reasons for putting employees on paid administrative leave for extended periods. Last week, Grassley asked the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) for a full accounting of why each of 88 employees has been on paid administrative leave for more than a year. Grassley’s request came after an inadequate explanation from the agency on its use of paid administrative leave.
Christie signs law to toughen N.J. penalties for impersonating veterans (NJ.com)
People who imposter members of the U.S. Armed Forces in New Jersey to obtain perks reserved for veterans and active duty servicemen and woman will be hit with prison time and a steep fine under a bill Gov. Chris Christie signed into law Monday. Violators will face fines that will support the Military Dependents Scholarship Fund, created by a bill Christie also signed into law on Monday. The legislation (A4104) was inspired by reports of a growing trend in which veterans and active-duty troops confront people they believe are impersonating military service members and post their interactions online. One video that attracted 5 million hits on YouTube last year portrays a veteran at the Oxford Valley Mall in Pennsylvania confrontinga man in army fatigues who claims to have served with the Army Rangers in Iraq and Afghanistan and cannot answer questions about basic military protocol. The Stolen Valor bill passed the Assembly in March and the Senate in June. “Anyone who attempts to obtain any financial benefit or perks by knowingly lying about their military or veteran status really stoops to a new low,” said state Assemblyman Vince Mazzeo (D-Atlantic), one of the bill’s prime sponsors. “These examples of Stolen Valor demean those who have served in the military and those who have sacrificed and lost their lives in defense of our nation. It is my hope that this legislation and its harsh penalties will help dissuade anyone from continuing this heinous practice.” The “New Jersey Stolen Valor Act” makes impersonating a veteran or military member “with intent to deceive for the purpose of obtaining money, property, or other tangible benefit” a third-degree crime. Violators face a mandatory minimum fine of $1,000 and a three- to five-year prison term, according to the bill. It’s already a fourth degree crime under state law to wear a military uniform “with the intent to deceive,” though not necessarily for personal gain. Fourth degree crimes are punishable by up to 18 months imprisonment.
4 veterans from one Indiana guard unit have committed suicide (Military.com)
April James spent hours at Justin’s grave. In Iraq, the two National Guard soldiers needed each other to survive. That continued, in a different way, after they came home. Overwhelmed and grieving, they leaned on each other. But it wasn’t enough. In November 2013 Sgt. Justin Williams killed himself. He was 25. On a warm spring day 18 months later, April spent a laughter-filled evening with friends, then curled up with her three dogs to watch TV. Around 3 a.m., she walked to her backyard with a pistol and shot herself. With that, Sgt. April Lynn James, 32, became the fourth Evansville veteran from the Indiana Army National Guard’s 163rd unit to commit suicide since returning from their 2008 tour in Iraq. Ronald Zeller was the first. He died on March 18, 2011. Then William Waller, July 5, 2013; Justin Williams, Nov. 3, 2013; and April James on May 24, 2015. “They were all the same,” said Justin’s father, John Williams. “All of them. Why? Why is there four from one platoon?” To the families, the suicides seemed to come with little warning. Now they see there were subtle signs all along.
Arizona doctor studies causes of dementia in veterans (KPHO-Phoenix)
An Arizona doctor is researching the link between dementia among veterans and conditions including post-traumatic stress and traumatic brain injury. “We’re hoping to get as many veterans as possible,” Dr. John DenBoer said at an information session held in Surprise on Monday night. “It’s a disease we can help treat and prevent.” DenBoer said the program is designed for people with PTS and TBI, and aims to prevent dementia from setting in or getting worse. While the program was designed for aging veterans, those involved say they have seen many veterans of more recent wars struggle with the same memory issues. “It doesn’t matter age-wise, it’s what they’ve seen in conflict, and how many times they’ve been near explosions, and the trauma to the brain because of that. They could be in their 20s,” said Debbie Lee, whose America’s Mighty Warriors program is helping to sponsor the research study. DenBoer’s research revolves around workbooks, which will be given to the veterans who enroll as patients. “They’re full of cognitive exercises and puzzles. There are no right or wrong answers. By exercising the brain, you reduce the possibility of dementia,” he said. Veterans will complete the workbooks over the course of several weeks alongside volunteers. Organizers hope younger veterans will volunteer to partner with patients going through the puzzles. They promise the program is completely free of red tape. “This does not affect your Medicare or healthcare. We don’t collect any information. We’re simply giving it away for free,” DenBoer said.
Veterans accuse Washington State Patrol of ignoring preference law (KING5-Seattle)
The Washington State Patrol is looking for current or past members of the military who applied for and did not receive jobs with the agency. The public cry is the result of a lawsuit claiming WSP did not give proper preferential treatment to those with military histories. Last year six military veterans sued the Washington State Patrol, claiming they did not receive preferential treatment guaranteed to them by law. Law enforcement agencies are required to give members of the National Guard and Reserves or those who have been honorably discharged from the military what are called “veteran preference points” in the application and promotion processes. Sgt. Tina Martin, with the WSP’s Homeland Security Office, said the points should have earned her a chance to be promoted to lieutenant last year. She spent a year in Iraq with the Washington National Guard. Martin said she’s not suing over the money she would have made as a lieutenant. “I don’t want to see employees or potential employees have to fight for what’s rightly theirs,” said Martin. WSP Capt. Monica Alexander said it’s too early in the legal process to say if any mistakes were made. She said WSP is trying to reach out to any members of the military or veterans who applied for, and didn’t get, jobs with WSP between 1994 and 2013.
Proposal in Montana calls for EMTs to aid in veterans’ health care (The Washington Times)
A 2016 ballot initiative proposal has been submitted that would allow emergency medical technicians to be licensed to provide basic health-care services to Montana military veterans. Helena resident Ed Lesofski filed the proposal Sunday with the Secretary of State’s office. It must pass a legal review before the sponsor is allowed to gather signatures. Lesofski says in his proposal that veterans’ basic physical and mental health needs are not being met. Lesofski says EMTs could provide those services with additional training. His proposal calls for a test for EMTs to be licensed as community veteran emergency medical technicians under the direction of a doctor or physician’s assistant. Among their duties, they would be able to conduct health assessments, suicide interventions, mental health support, chronic disease monitoring, nutritional education, palliative care and even acupuncture.
Medical training provides a transition to civilian career (Houston Chronicle)
As a U.S. Army Ranger, Ali Shah had an advantageous skill: He could speak passable Pashto, the national language of Afghanistan, learned from his mother. He used that ability during his six years with the 3rd Ranger Battalion, deployed to Afghanistan. However, Rangers are multi-skilled. One of Shah’s other military occupation specialties involved medical training as a Special Forces Medical Sergeant. Returning to Texas after his service, Shah gravitated to paramedic work. The Army had given him the training, but he still had to transition those skills to civilian life. While he was working on his bachelor’s degree, Shah was also working part-time as a paramedic. The military background of discipline and staying cool under pressure align with the job requirements for staff on the frontline of medical emergencies. “What attracted me to the career is the ability to have immediate impact in someone’s life,” Shah said. “The difference in my decisions can be life and death for patients. Also, I don’t have the same day twice.” In 2009, Shah accepted a full-time instructor role in the Emergency Medical Services Program (EMSP) at San Jacinto College’s North Campus. About 25 percent of his students are veterans, he estimated. The different levels of EMT certification are attractive to veterans because many have learned basic combat life-saving techniques as part of their service, which helps in the EMSP courses. Also, veterans aren’t typically put off by long shifts, enjoy being around other veterans, and the EMSP credentials can be earned and stacked relatively quickly. Shah said that one frustration for veterans has been that though they learned the skills in the military to be a basic EMT or higher, they still have to go through the civilian courses to work in the United States. However, Shah is enthusiastic about the strides both military and civilian organizations are making to standardize training so that veterans get college credit for the skills achieved during their service. “I want the word to spread that we are working toward closing the gap and that it is much better than it was 10 years ago when I transitioned,” Shah said. The military is working internally to align training and have personnel sit for the required exams so that when they muster out, they can receive credit and begin classes at a higher level, Shah said. In Texas, San Jacinto College was one of the first community colleges in the state to be designated a College Credit for Heroes school, which in the initial phase is focused on health professions.