Senate bill would block VA from cutting aid to homeless vets (Tacoma News-Tribune)
The Senate on Thursday passed a bill that would prohibit the Department of Veterans Affairs from cutting off services to homeless veterans who left the military with disciplinary discharges. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., wrote the bill last summer after the VA began denying housing vouchers to homeless veterans who served in the military for short periods or who were given less than honorable discharges. The VA had that policy on its books for years, but it had not implemented it until 2014. The VA suspended the policy after public outcry last year, but it could be reinstated. Murray’s bill must clear the House and receive President Obama’s signature before it can become law. “My bill makes it clear that our country takes care of those who have served, and that we don’t allow bureaucracy to dictate who gets a roof over their head and who doesn’t,” Murray said on the Senate floor. About 50,000 veterans remain on the streets nationwide despite aggressive efforts in recent years by the VA to connect them with housing, according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness. Troops who leave the military with disciplinary discharges face the highest risk of homelessness among the nation’s veteran population, according to the VA’s National Center on Homelessness Among Veterans. In some cases, losing VA benefits is intended to be part of the punishment for criminal offenses in the military. Murray and others argue that those veterans should not be trapped in homelessness, particularly if they acted out because of stress or trauma they experienced while in uniform. “I believe that even one veteran sleeping on the streets in the United States is one too many,” Murray said Thursday.
VA vows to cooperate with mustard gas data request (KMBC-Kansas City)
As Veterans Affairs Secretary Bob McDonald took part in a “jobs for veterans” summit in Kansas City amid questions from Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill about tests on soldiers during World War II. In the 1990s, the government declassified reports about tests on U.S. troops to determine the effects of mustard gas, a dreaded weapon in World War I. Earlier this year, National Public Radio reported thousands of soldiers involved in that testing had trouble getting their medical claims processed by Washington. McCaskill said neither the Pentagon nor the Veterans Administration will give her the mustard gas test records. “They will not give me information out of your mustard gas database without a letter from my chairman,” she said. “I don’t understand why this is so hard.” McDonald was asked about the mustard gas list during a meeting with reporters at Kansas City’s National World War I Museum Thursday. “I know we have a list of mustard gas veterans. We need to get in touch with them and find them and make sure they get the veteran benefits they have earned,” he said. “The VA has not done a good job with this,” said McCaskill. “But they’re pointing to the Department of Defense that actually has the database. That would allow a more granular approach to reaching out individually.” McDonald said he would support McCaskill’s request.
Expansion of vets’ online shopping privileges gets support (Military Times)
The idea of expanding online exchange-shopping benefits to all honorably discharged veterans is moving closer to reality, with all three military-exchange services supporting the idea. The Defense Department’s deputy chief management officer is addressing the related issues, Army and Air Force Exchange Service CEO Thomas C. Shull confirmed. Once the concept is approved, the online benefit could be rolled out to veterans within as little as six months. At a session of the American Logistics Association’s annual convention Tuesday, DoD Deputy Chief Management Officer Peter Levine did not directly talk about online exchange privileges for veterans, but he did say the department is looking at ways to expand the customer base in the military resale community. The Navy and its Navy Exchange Service Command support the idea, said NEXCOM CEO and retired Rear Adm. Robert J. Bianchi. There are details to be worked out, but “in general, we all believe we can get there,” Bianchi said in an interview. “It’s a nice way to provide a version of a nonpay benefit to those who have served,” Bianchi said. The benefit would be for online shopping only; honorably discharged veterans would be able to shop at the Navy Exchange website, Mynavyexchange.com, as well as the AAFES website, Shopmyexchange.com. While Shull has been the point man on the idea, Bianchi said, “we’ve been working collaboratively.” “Frankly, [veterans] would go back and forth between [the sites] and have freedom of choice,” Bianchi said, “And Veterans Canteen Service would continue to have an online presence.” Cindy Whitman Lacy, director of the Marine Corps’ Nonappropriated Fund Business and Support Services Division, said the Marine Corps Exchange is also supportive of the veterans online-shopping benefit.
McCain defends for-profit colleges, University of Phoenix (Huffington Post)
Senator John McCain (R-AZ), in a speech on the Senate floor Thursday afternoon, charged that fellow Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) has “orchestrated” a “shameful … vendetta against for-profit universities.” McCain upped the ante by asserting that Durbin has a “well-known record of not supporting the men and women who are serving in the military.” Alleging a larger conspiracy, McCain repeated accusations in a recent Wall Street Journal editorial that “the Obama Administration’s military tribunal is punishing” the biggest for-profit college, the University of Phoenix “for being a target of the political left” and that “General Durbin has commanded the Education Department and Department of Veterans Affairs to ‘take appropriate action’ against the company. Bombs away.” In fact, it is McCain, by using his power as chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee to pressure the Department of Defense to back off a legitimate investigation of the University of Phoenix, who is doing a disservice to service members and veterans, who deserve to be protected against deceptive recruiting, poor quality programs, and other predatory practices. In his own floor speech yesterday, Durbin encouraged the Pentagon to continue its investigation. Durbin noted that Paul Rieckhoff, founder and CEO of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, said that the University of Phoenix was the “worst by far” for-profit college in terms of taking advantage of the vets who are members of his organization. Remarkably, McCain, in his speech, defended not only his home state-based University of Phoenix but also the disgraced, collapsed Corinthian Colleges. Even some for-profit college executives stopped defending Corinthian after it shut down; they started saying Corinthian was the one bad apple in the bunch. But McCain repeated the Wall Street Journal claim that the U.S. Department of Education, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, and California attorney general Kamala Harris “mounted a coordinated campaign that drove for-profit Corinthian College out of business.” McCain claimed these agencies acted “without any proof of misconduct.”
Clinton doubles down on VA comments as more veteran deaths emerge (Washington Examiner)
A government watchdog uncovered further evidence of delays in care at the Department of Veterans Affairs the same day Hillary Clinton’s campaign doubled down on comments blaming Republicans for exaggerating the VA’s problems. After Clinton took fire for suggesting last week that the VA wait-time scandal has “not been as widespread as it has been made out to be,” her campaign spokesman called it a “systemic problem” and an “outrage.” The spokesman’s contradictory words came within hours of the release of a VA inspector general review that detailed a familiar failure in veterans’ healthcare. A veteran in his 70s who was having difficulty swallowing died after his doctors failed to schedule an appointment for him, according to an inspector general report made public Wednesday. The veteran “experienced poor access to care” at a California VA outpatient clinic when a physician ignored his condition for nearly a year before ordering a neurology test that did not take place for another six months. When the veteran finally did get to see the VA’s neurologist, the doctor requested surgery to place a feeding tube in the veteran’s throat. “The neurologist classified the request as ‘routine’ despite documentation that the patient could not eat,” the inspector general found. The surgery was then scheduled for three weeks after the neurology appointment, but the veteran died waiting for his feeding tube. The watchdog noted it was unable to “substantiate that the patient died as a result of the failure” because no autopsy was performed and no records were made after the veteran in question died in his home. But the review uncovered a six-week minimum waiting period for neurology patients at the Los Angeles clinic in a finding that mirrored problems at VA facilities around the country. Brian Fallon, Clinton’s campaign spokesman, attempted to clear the air Wednesday by touting Clinton’s intention to reform the VA. “At this point, Republicans are trying to exploit the scandal to try to score partisan points and push an ideological agenda to privatize the VA,” Fallon said, according to The Wall Street Journal. “Hillary Clinton has said repeatedly that the systemic problem of excessive wait times at the VA is an outrage, but she refuses to believe the VA is beyond fixing.”
Montana vets, VA voice frustration with Choice program (Helena Independent Record)
The assistant director of the regional Veterans Affairs hospital says the intent of recent changes in veteran health care seems to have backfired in rural states like Montana. “We’re in the painful stages of that,” Rebecca Keough told a group of veterans gathered in Helena on Thursday night. The Veterans Choice Act was enacted into law last year to address extended waits for doctor visits and long distances vets had to travel to clinics by making health care more accessible within communities. The main issue with this, Keough said, is that providers are not signing onto the program. Keough said she had spoken with representatives at St. Peter’s Hospital in Helena as recently as Wednesday. She said the VA is working on informing providers such as St. Peter’s their options for interaction with Veterans Choice. “That’s one organization that has not yet signed up for Choice,” Keough added. The town hall at the library was one of many held across the country. Its purpose was to improve communication, explain benefits and help rebuild trust with veterans, organizers said. About 25 veterans attended. One veteran asked why the VA was insisting he travel to Salt Lake City for an appointment with a specialist when he had one in Great Falls with whom he has been seeing for years. “Has Veterans Choice become VA’s choice?” he asked. Many in the audience applauded his question. John Ginnity, VA Montana Health Care System’s director, said he’s heard from higher-ups in Washington, D.C., that it will take time to work out the kinks in rural states. “Montana is different. It’s not going to happen over night,” he said. “Even in the VA we’re frustrated with the process,” Ginnity added. “We know there’s people behind the policy.”
Commentary: Rubio right to push for VA workforce reform law (The Hill)
“Over one year after Americans awoke to headlines revealing that veterans died while waiting for care on secret Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) waitlists, little has changed to safeguard against future scandals. Recently, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) called up his version of the VA Accountability Act (an iteration similar to a bill the House passed back in July) to be considered on the Senate floor. The bill would give VA Secretary Bob McDonald the authority to fire any VA employee who engages in serious wrongdoing and misconduct and includes a provision to protect whistleblowers who report problems within the agency. The legislation was unfortunately blocked on the Senate floor by Democrats, who are concerned that the bill does not include enough protections for VA employees. This is not good news for the vast majority of the VA workers who are doing their jobs properly and are sincerely dedicated to serving our veterans. To the contrary, this is good news for labor unions and the “bad apple” employees who rely on them to keep their jobs despite serious violations of law and ethics. These opponents of this accountability reform bill continue to argue that allowing the VA secretary to more easily fire the worst of the worst VA employees will negatively impact recruiting at VA. … The time has come to finally and emphatically support veterans over the powerful labor unions and the few bad employees who cause most of the problems — including veterans’ deaths — at the VA. The time has come for every senator to support Sen. Rubio’s VA Accountability Act, for the Senate to unanimously pass this bill and for President Obama to enthusiastically sign it into law.”
Cruz, Cornyn urge VA to move on wait times in San Antonio (Texas Insider)
U.S. Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and John Cornyn (R-Texas) sent a letter to Secretary of Veterans’ Affairs Robert McDonald Thursday urging him to address the long wait times for veterans seeking health care in San Antonio. “We are troubled that the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) continues to struggle with providing timely health care to many of our nation’s veterans, even after Congress provided the VA with enhanced authorities and additional funding to hire new employees and implement the Choice Card program,” the Senators wrote. “In order to help the VA improve access to care for our veterans, Congress needs a full understanding of the current challenges faced by the VA and the actions that have already been taken to mitigate these problems.”
Prince Harry to injured U.S. vets: Afghanistan changed my life (Inquisitr.com)
Prince Harry took time to visit injured U.S. veterans as part of his tour of the nation’s capital, and told them in no uncertain terms that his deployments to Afghanistan “changed my life.” It is well documented that Prince Harry and his brother, Prince William — second in line to the British throne — are strong supporters of injured veterans. In 2014, the 31-year-old royal started the Invictus Games Foundation, a Paralympic-style competition for disabled veterans in the U.K. and is bringing the event to the U.S. According to the foundation’s website, the inaugural Invictus Games — held in London in 2014 — used the power of sports to “support rehabilitation and generate a wider understanding and respect for wounded, injured and sick Servicemen and women.” In the same spirit, Prince Harry — joined by First Lady Michelle Obama — told U.S. veterans at Virginia’s Fort Belvoir that his two deployments to Afghanistan changed the direction of his life. Prince Harry told the wounded veterans his calling came after a trip back home with his injured comrades, after his first deployment to Afghanistan as an Apache helicopter pilot in 2012. At the time, it was reported that the Taliban was attempting to kidnap the royal for ransom, but Harry refused to stay home and went to the front lines with his unit. “From that moment, I knew I had a responsibility to all veterans, who had made huge personal sacrifices for their countries, to lead healthy and dignified lives after service,” Harry said.
N.Y. governor’s veto of veterans pension bill draws frustration (PressConnects.com)
A bill that would have sweetened pension benefits for military veterans has again drawn a veto from New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo. For the second consecutive year, Cuomo rejected legislation that would have allowed all honorably discharged veterans who now work for the state or local government to purchase up to three years of credit toward their pension. Currently, only veterans who served during certain periods of combat are eligible for the credit. The legislation was denied on Monday along with more than 20 other bills, making it the second time the governor vetoed the bill after he first sent it back to the Legislature last November. In vetoing the bill, Cuomo said the measure— along with four other pieces of legislation related to the retirement system — had no viable funding source to pay for it and should be negotiated as part of the state budget. Had Cuomo signed the measure, the state would have put aside $24.8 million to fund it. “I vetoed similar or identical bills in 2014 because the costs imposed were not accounted for in the state’s financial plan and the unfunded costs and expenses would impose a substantial burden on New York State taxpayers,” Cuomo wrote. Cuomo’s veto drew frustration from the bill’s sponsors, who have pushed the legislation for several years. Assemblywoman Amy Paulin, D-Scarsdale, Westchester County, said she was “deeply disappointed,” but vowed to continue pushing. She said the state’s current system doesn’t properly recognize all veterans’ service. Paulin said she intends to push the issue as parts of next year’s state budget negotiations, which kick off in January.
Some Colorado veterans can’t find housing, even with vouchers (The Denver Channel)
Dozens of homeless veterans in a Colorado county have vouchers for affordable housing, but dwindling apartment options have kept them on the streets. The Colorado Springs Gazette reports that as of Tuesday, 38 homeless veterans in El Paso County who received government housing vouchers had not leased apartments. AspenPointe, a nonprofit that issues the vouchers for program, says eight of those people have been searching since July and another eight have been looking since August. AspenPointe senior manager of adult services Cheryl Stine says one person is nearing the 120-day deadline to find housing, but could get a 60-day extension to continue looking. The program is run through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Vet to receive Bronze Star at Fort Knox for Vietnam heroics (Army Times)
The Army is giving a Bronze Star Medal to a Vietnam War veteran who saved a fellow soldier’s life after a helicopter crash. Fort Knox says Vernon Rose will receive the high military honor Friday. The award is for his heroics after a Huey helicopter was downed by enemy fire Jan. 22, 1968. After the crash, Rose made his way through thick brush and enemy small arms fire to get to the helicopter. The award citation says he carried a wounded crew member to safety, saving his life. The award was approved in 1968, but Rose never collected it.