Commentary: A new beginning for the VA (The Hill)
By Pete Hegseth, Concerned Veterans for America: “When will we get good news out of the Department of Veterans Affairs? Last month we learned as many as 307,000 veterans died before their applications for health care were completed, according to a report by the agency’s inspector general. This is only the latest in a long line of sad discoveries over the last year. When you dig a little deeper, each of these stories has self-serving VA employees cheating the system or hiding embarrassing facts from the public. Some of those 300,000 veterans went unheard of until now because a select few VA employees were hiding unprocessed documents in their desks. That’s reminiscent of the secret wait-list scandal first discovered in Phoenix last year. The lesson is clear: Congress must give the VA the power to find and deal with the employees who betray veterans’ trust. Supporting the VA Accountability Act is the first step in that direction. This bill, introduced by Rep. Jeff Miller (R-Fla.) in the House and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) in the Senate, would create new incentives for VA employees to uphold their mission and give veterans the reliable service and care they earned. A federal agency is only as good as the people who work in it. VA employees can be separated into two categories. The first category consists of poorly performing, unethical individuals who put themselves first—and veterans last. The second is made up of highly motivated, disciplined, and conscientious professionals. To be clear: the vast majority of VA employees are in this second category. … It’s high time we start heeding and respecting those who want to serve and protect veterans. It’s also time we stop protecting those who are only interested in preserving their reputation and benefits. The VA Accountability Act (H.R. 1994, S. 1082) … streamlines the disciplinary process within the agency, making it easier to replace unmotivated or criminally negligent employees. Whereas bureaucracy currently makes such decisions drag on, this bill makes discipline timely and effective, so that it can make a real difference. This is sorely needed: Only three employees were fired in the wake of last year’s horrific wait-list scandal. The act also gives whistleblowers and good VA employees some of the strongest employee protections possible. Any VA employee suspected of retaliating against or obstructing the work of a whistleblower would be punished accordingly. If Congress finds the will to pass it, the VA Accountability Act will help create a VA culture where nothing less than 100 percent honesty and integrity is acceptable.”
Senators form unlikely alliance on veterans’ education (Roll Call)
When it comes to veterans issues, a seemingly unlikely partnership is emerging in the Senate between Ohio Democrat Sherrod Brown and freshman Republican Thom Tillis of North Carolina. Tillis and Brown have already introduced a trio of bills related to education and vocational training for veterans, including those fresh out of the armed forces. The most recent measure, filed last week, would direct the Department of Veterans Affairs to put together an action plan to improve rehabilitation services so disabled veterans can receive enhanced job training. Brown said he often develops proposals of this nature after holding a town hall meeting or other communication with his Ohio constituents. Then, given the Senate’s rules making it difficult to advance legislation regardless of whether the author is in the majority or not, he seeks a partner in the GOP. “That’s how we get stuff done,” Brown said in an interview with CQ Roll Call. “Sometimes it’s legislative, other times it’s … working directly with the secretary of the VA or other people, other administration people, [to] figure out how to do it.” The alliance between Brown and Tillis might appear unusual — Brown, in the middle of his second term, is a staunch liberal, and Tillis has a decidedly conservative slant — but alliances such as this new one are necessary to get legislation through the Senate’s procedural hoops. One of the issues often cited by current and former members is that lawmakers of different parties no longer have the same opportunity to get to know each other as they did when more of them lived in Washington. But Brown and Tillis have the advantage of both serving on the Veterans’ Affairs Committee, and the Democrat said he quickly identified his Tar Heel State colleague as a potential ally. “I sit straight across from him in [the] veterans committee. I listen to his comments. I see that we look at a number of the veterans issues the same way, and I’m very aware of the military presence in North Carolina, which suggests huge numbers of veterans in his state,” Brown said. “I’ve made a big part of my agenda in Congress, in the Senate, to look out for veterans, and I’m always looking for allies.”
Texas veterans first to test new cyber rehab technology (Austin American-Statesman)
Starting in November, 25 Dallas-area veterans will be the first to try cutting-edge rehabilitation technology designed to transmit sensations of physical touch over the Internet, according to researchers at the University of Texas at Dallas who are leading the initial six-month trials. The project, dubbed the Multi-modal 3D Tele-immersion Research Project, seeks to provide enhanced access to physical therapy for disabled veterans who cannot commute to the doctor’s office by combining recent advances in 3-D cameras, high-speed Internet connections, video game engines and the rapidly evolving field of “haptic,” or sense-of-touch, technology. “We’re bringing the sense of touch to telemedicine,” said Dr. Balakrishnan Prabhakaran, computer science professor at UT-Dallas and the project’s principal investigator. Patients would go to the Dallas Veterans Affairs Medical Center and perform upper-arm exercises with a haptic device, which will transmit the location and force of the patient’s motions over the Internet to an identical device used by a therapist at the UT-Dallas campus, about 20 miles away in Richardson. The research received $2.4 million from the National Science Foundation in 2010 and an additional $300,000 last year from U.S. Ignite, a partnership between the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and the foundation.
Homeland Security to create parole program for Filipino WWII veterans (Asian Journal)
The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is gearing up to implement a program that allows certain family members of Filipino and Filipino-American World War II veterans to receive parole to come to the United States. Following President Barack Obama’s executive actions on immigration announced last November, a White House report recommended a few ways that federal agencies can “modernize and streamline” the immigration system. A July 2015 report entitled “Modernizing and Streamlining Our Legal Immigration System for the 21st century” stated that certain family members can be eligible to come to the United States to provide support and care for aging Filipino veterans who are US citizens or lawful permanent residents. “Parole, as provided for under the Immigration and Nationality Act, gives DHS discretion, on a case-by-case basis, to permit individuals to come to the United States for a temporary period of time based upon urgent humanitarian reasons or for significant public benefit,” the US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) said in a statement on Friday, Oct. 2. However, the parole does not grant the family member any permanent right to remain in the United States. Estimates indicate that as many as 26,000 Filipino veterans (of the over 260,000 Filipino soldiers who fought) are US citizens, after long being excluded from a law that granted citizenship to foreign soldiers serving in the US forces. Some of the veterans have petitioned family members from the Philippines to join them in the United States; however, wait times can last years, often times exceeding 20 years, due to statutory visa caps. With the population of veterans rapidly aging—the White House estimates around 6,000 veterans are still alive in the US today—having family members by their sides would provide them with the necessary support and care.
Study details prevalence of PTSD in Vietnam War women vets (MedicalXpress)
Women who served in Vietnam have higher odds of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) than women stationed during that era in the United States, and this effect appears to be associated with wartime exposures including sexual discrimination or harassment and job performance pressures, according to an article published online by JAMA Psychiatry. During the Vietnam era, approximately 5,000 to 7,500 American women served in the U.S. military in Vietnam, at least 2,000 were stationed at nearby bases in Japan, the Philippines, Guam, Korea and Thailand, and 250,000 were in the United States. Most of the deployed women were nurses, although others filled clerical, medical and personnel positions. Although women were excluded from combat, women in Vietnam were still in a war theater and many of those stationed near Vietnam were exposed to casualties and other stressors. Kathryn Magruder, Ph.D., M.P.H., of the Johnson Veterans Affairs Medical Center, Charleston, S.C., and coauthors report the main findings from the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Cooperative Study 579, the Health of Vietnam-Era Women’s Study (HealthVIEWS). Among the 4,219 women (48.3 percent) who completed a survey and telephone interview, 1,956 served in Vietnam, 657 were near Vietnam and 1,606 served in the United States. Most of the women who served in Vietnam and in the United States were in the Army, while most of the women who served near Vietnam were in the Air Force. Women in Vietnam were more likely to be nurses. The lifetime prevalence of PTSD was 20.1 percent for women in Vietnam, 11.5 percent for women near Vietnam and 14.1 percent for women in the United States. The prevalence for current PTSD active within the past year was 15.9 percent for women in Vietnam, 8.1 percent for women near Vietnam and 9.1 percent for women stationed in the U.S., the study reports. Wartime exposure increased the odds of PTSD, especially exposure to sexual harassment and job performance pressure, according to the results. Sexual discrimination or harassment, which is not thought of as a unique war zone exposure, was higher among deployed women and related to PTSD in every model of analysis.
Delays in evidence gathering slow VA medical records trial (The Augusta Chronicle)
The hoops and red tape in the defense’s path to evidence at the Charlie Norwood Veterans Affairs Medical Center have caused a delay in the court proceedings for a former hospital bureaucrat. Cathedral Henderson, of Martinez, has pleaded not guilty in U.S. District Court, where he faces a 50-count indictment that accuses him of making false statements relating to health care matters. Henderson was indicted in July. He is free on bond. Henderson was the supervisor of the revenue department and chief of fee basis from 2012 to 2014. The office helped coordinate medical care to eligible veterans. According to the indictment, after news broke in 2013 that veterans nationwide had been unable to access necessary medical services, Henderson was the person in Augusta responsible for ensuring that more than 2,700 veterans awaiting approval for care outside the VA were properly handled. Personnel at all VA hospital were required to have all unresolved consults for outside medical care handled by May 1, 2014. Each case had to be investigated to determine whether services were provided or no longer needed, or whether the patient declined the services. According to the indictment, Henderson ordered employees to falsify medical records to show each case had been properly closed. Henderson’s attorney, Keith Johnson, was in court Tuesday to talk about discovery materials provided to the prosecutor, Assistant U.S. Attorney Lamont Belk. Belk told U.S. Magistrate Judge Brian Epps that Johnson recently turned over the documents he has discovered so far. Belk said he understood Johnson was turning over information as soon as possible, but he had to get it first. Johnson said Tuesday that talking to witnesses and getting copies of evidence has been difficult. Any request to interview a VA employee has to go through the general counsel’s office first, and to obtain documents he has been required to file Freedom of Information requests, Johnson said. After discovering e-mail correspondence that could be helpful to Henderson’s defense, Johnson was told his request for copies has to go through a regional IT office, Johnson said.
Military vets ‘decompress’ with special duck hunting program (MLive.com)
In the early morning of an autumn day in early October, gunshots aimed at the ducks flying overhead can be heard in the distance as a group of veterans and guides cast off into the mouth of Lake Hamlin for a weekend of duck hunting. The hunting group was part of an organization called Veterans and Sportsmen United. Founded in 2015, Veterans and Sportsmen United is a non-profit organization aimed at bringing military veterans together in fellowship through the Great Outdoors. The main goal of Veterans and Sportsmen United is to help veterans escape the hustle and bustle of everyday life and spend quality time with like-minded friends and fellow veterans. Activities for the group come in all sizes; from a weekend-long hunting trips with 13-15 attendees to day hikes with smaller groups. Veterans get to take part in outdoor actives such as hunting, fishing, hiking, camping, bush-craft survival and pretty much everything else outdoors. The most important role of the group is simply to bring veterans together, and to give those recently returning from tours of duty a chance to decompress in nature. “If you’re back home from overseas, and you’re in the city, it doesn’t give you time or a good atmosphere to decompress in,” said Adam Slinkman, president and Chief Executive Officer of Veterans and Sportsmen United. “But if you get out in the field with guys that have the same stories as you, you have a chance to ease your mind a bit. There’s a rehabilitation to it.” Slinkman founded the group after a group with a similar mission disbanded. “You can’t change the world without changing the world around you,” Slinkman said.