November 2 Veterans News

November 2 Veterans News

Veterans news updateDeployment environmental reports not in military health records (Military Times)
For more than three years, the military services have been allowed to ignore a Defense Department order requiring the inclusion of environmental assessments of combat environments in troops’ medical records. The Pentagon in 2006 published an instruction requiring the services add occupational and environmental risk assessments generated for locations during a certain period into medical records of troops who served in the affected place and time. Some veterans have developed illnesses they believe may be related to exposure to pollutants released by open air burn pits, heavy metals found in fine dust, exposure to chemical weapons and parasites. Since at least 2012, however, the undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness waived that requirement, and a memo written in 2013 extended the waiver for another two years, with acting Undersecretary of Defense (P&R) Jessica Wright saying the reports, known as Periodic Occupational and Environmental Monitoring Summaries — POEMS — are summaries of “population-level health risks,” and not an indication of exposure to individual service members. According to Wright, including the information in medical records could sway troops to link any illnesses they may have to their deployment environment, which may lead to “biased assessments of exposure and health risk” and possibly provide “support for disability claims for chronic illnesses that may not be due to exposure.” To troops and veterans sick with respiratory illnesses, cancers and unexplained diseases they think are related to pollution, chemicals or other environmental hazards in Iraq and Afghanistan, the memo, initially released online by the law firm Bergmann & Moore, is an outrage, a concerted effort to squelch the truth about deployment environmental hazards, from burn-pit pollution to dust laden with heavy metals. “This is a rationale for denying not only patients, but also their physicians, ready access that DoD — and any reasonable American — should consider relevant to diagnosis and treatment,” said Peter Sullivan, father of a Marine who died of an unexplained illnesses in 2009 following a deployment to Iraq. He is also director of the Sgt. Sullivan Center, a nonprofit that advocates for research on military environmental exposures. “It feels like a slap in the face,” said a retired Air Force master sergeant who suffers a debilitating lung disease and requested anonymity because she works for the federal government and fears retribution for discussing the subject. “We put our lives on the line over there and these are the people trying to deny me disability.”

VA doctor in Wisconsin fired over high painkiller doses (The New York Times)
The chief of staff at a Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Wisconsin, who was nicknamed “candy man” by some patients for allegedly handing out excess narcotics, will be fired, officials said. The administrator, David Houlihan, was placed on leave in January while the Department of Veterans Affairs investigated allegations of overprescribing narcotic pain medications and retaliatory behavior at the medical center in Tomah, Wis. The department told Wisconsin’s congressional delegation that based on results of an investigation, Dr. Houlihan, who is a psychiatrist, was notified on Friday that he would be fired effective Nov. 9. Dr. Houlihan’s clinical privileges were also revoked. He is the second top official to be fired after the investigation into practices at the hospital. The center’s director, Mario DeSanctis, was fired in September. In August, the inspector general of Veterans Affairs said deficiencies in care led to the mixed-drug toxicity death last year of Jason Simcakoski, a 35-year-old Marine Corps veteran. The investigation found that psychiatrists did not discuss with him or his family the hazards of a synthetic opiate he was prescribed, acted too slowly when he was found unresponsive, and did not have anti-overdose medicine on hand. One physician who attended to him was fired.

Generous GI Bill isn’t keeping vets out of student loan debt (
Despite the generous benefits of the latest GI Bill, military veterans attending college are taking out substantial student loans, raising concerns among veterans’ organizations that they are unnecessarily diving into debt. For most veterans, the GI Bill covers four academic years of tuition at public colleges and universities, and has programs to cover the vast majority of expenses at many private institutions. Veterans also receive a monthly living allowance — averaging about $1,300, depending on where they live — to help cover expenses while they attend school. But data compiled for The Los Angeles Times by the Department of Education show that in one academic year — 2012, the latest available — 26% of undergraduates receiving veterans education benefits also took out federal or private education loans. The average loan was $7,400 — slightly more than for students who had never served in the military. The figure suggests that beneficiaries could easily accrue more than $25,000 in debt to graduate with a four-year degree. Veterans groups and lawmakers are concerned about borrowing by GI Bill users, who ideally should be able to graduate debt-free. “It’s a big issue,” said Walter Ochinko, policy director for the nonprofit organization Veterans Education Success. “We hear from a lot of veterans who have debt.” The latest GI Bill is the most generous veteran education benefit since World War II. It took effect in 2009 and is available to veterans who served after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. More than 1.4 million veterans and their family members — veterans can transfer their benefits to their children and spouses — have used the bill, at a total cost of more than $42 billion.

Trump announces plan to improve veterans’ health care (The Washington Post)
Donald Trump, never one to do anything small, on Saturday chose one of the largest battleships the Navy has ever built to roll out his plan to “make the VA great again.” At a rally beside the USS Wisconsin, the leading contender for the Republican presidential nomination promised to remake the troubled Veterans Affairs agency. Billed as “the Trump Plan” in keeping with the billionaire developer’s habit of naming things after himself, the initiative would allow veterans to get medical care from any doctors or medical facilities that accept Medicare. It also would give veterans education benefits, business loans, job training and placement services to ease their transition from battlefield to civilian life. The plan was cheered by veterans in the crowd, which the campaign estimated at more than 5,000. It seemed intended to answer critics who have said that Trump has been long on inflammatory rhetoric and short on realistic policy proposals. Trump did not lay out the details of the plan during his nearly 90-minute speech. He said they were coming in a news release to be issued later in the day. “We are going to make the VA great again,” he said. “And we’re going to do it by firing the corrupt, incompetent VA executives who let our veterans down.” In a nod to female veterans, Trump said he would require all VA hospitals to be fully equipped with obstetrician-gynecologists. “The fact that many VA hospitals don’t …  staff OB/GYN doctors shows utter lack of respect for the growing numbers of female veterans,” he said.

Vets want more specifics on Trump’s VA reform plan (Washington Examiner)
Donald Trump’s plan to reform the scandal-ridden Veterans Affairs department invited mixed reactions from a panel of veterans Monday who wanted more specifics from the Republican presidential candidate. “On the surface, this plan sounds great,” Katie Horgan, a retired Marine Corps captain, told Fox News. “It mentions a lot of the top issues that veterans are facing [and] it calls for increased transparency and accountability in the VA. But at the end of the day, this is an oversimplified solution to a very complex problem,” she added. “There’s no mention in this plan of how [Trump] would accomplish these initiatives. It’s a very aggressive agenda, and I think it’s going to be a lot more difficult to implement than he’s letting on.” Carl Higbie, a former Navy SEAL, said Trump’s history as a savvy businessman and expert negotiator gives him reason to believe the GOP front-runner would ensure his reform proposals are implemented, if he’s elected president. “What is Trump known for? He’s known for the line, ‘you’re fired,’ and there’s no better way to bring accountability to a business than to fire the people who are in charge of it,” Higbie said. He added, “If you have failed as a VA official, he’s going to hold you accountable. If we want to get this done, we need a businessman to get it.” Less confident in the billionaire’s plan to “Make the VA Great Again” was Kieran Lalor, a Republican assemblyman in New York and founder of the Iraq Vets for Congress PAC. Lalor remained skeptical that Trump would be able to work with what is likely to be the strongest opponent of privatizing the VA health system. “The big thing is the union that represents the VA workers is going to resist all of this,” Lalor said, adding, “If you’re not willing to take on that union, you’re not going to be able to accomplish any of this.”

Clinton’s misleading claim that veterans are satisfied with VA health care (The Washington Post)
Fact Checker: “… there have been a number of surveys of veterans. And 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, in part in pursuit of this ideological agenda that they have.Several readers asked us to fact-check this claim, which drew sharp backlash from veterans groups and both Republican and Democratic lawmakers. … A campaign spokesman said that Clinton did not intend to “put too much weight on these surveys other than noting their existence.” … A July 2014 Gallup survey of 1,268 veterans in the broader veteran population found 55 percent of veterans said it is somewhat difficult or very difficult to access care. “The common perception of most veterans about the difficulty of accessing VA care, many of whom have personally used the VA system, confirms that the department is failing to meet the medical needs of many of those it is designed to serve. At the same time, that is not the belief or experience of all veterans, with three in 10 saying it is easy to get access to medical care through the VA,” according to the Gallup report. The Gallup survey is the most relevant to the VA scandal, as it relates specifically to access to care at the VA. While Clinton says numerous surveys show veterans’ satisfaction, the examples her claim is based on are either funded by the VA or a non-scientific survey of veteran attitudes. Independent, scientific surveys show veteran attitudes toward medical care at the VA are mixed. … It’s misleading to make a sweeping generalization about veterans attitudes on this topic and attribute it to “numerous surveys.”

Report: Taxpayers on hook for vet loans at for-profit colleges (Newsmax)
Seven for-profit colleges are under investigation for possibly using deceptive or misleading recruiting of military veterans and receiving G.I. Bill funds while delivering sometimes useless degrees to veterans, Sharyl Attkisson reported Sunday on her program “Full Measure.” Career Education Corporation, Corinthian Colleges, Inc., DeVry University, EDMC, Apollo Education Group, Kaplan University, ITT Tech, are part of the probe. Corinthian shut down in May amid fraud allegations, which it denies. The federal government announced a month later it will forgive loans for students at that school, and taxpayers will end up paying $3.5 billion. Attkisson talked to one veteran who later got a job recruiting other vets to DeVry. The school encouraged high-pressure sales tactics on the vets, Chris Neiweem said. “Working in the industry at that time truly reminded me of the film ‘Glengarry Glen Ross,'” he said “There is this scene where a corporate sales manager is brought in to improve the performance of the sales floor – played by Alec Baldwin – and that was similar at the company.” Members of “Team Camo,” as his division was called, were called on the carpet if they let vets out of their classes – even when they were called to active duty and couldn’t take the online classes. “The company didn’t care. They just wanted to make sure that they stayed in their classes and so the university could continue to be paid and they would continue to be on the enrollments books,” Neiweem said. Illinois Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin told Attkisson the schools are big political donors, and that has had an affect on the unsuccessful bills he has introduced to rein in the practice. “If these schools that are enticing kids into loans for educations that are worthless had some ‘skin in the game,’ some responsibility for default, they’d think twice about it. But they don’t,” Durbin said. “They could care less.”

San Francisco big shots forcing vets out of building, suit says (
Swords to Plowshares, the celebrated charity that works with homeless and low-income veterans, is being squeezed out by the upscale landlords of San Francisco’s newly renovated War Memorial Veterans Building. That’s the thrust of a lawsuit filed by the local American Legion over the War Memorial board’s refusal to provide Swords with free office space at the landmark building across from City Hall — while carving out square footage aplenty for high-society tenants like the San Francisco Opera that have the money to pay. The American Legion is challenging the way the board — which includes such big names as city protocol chief Charlotte Mailliard Shultz and former Presidio Trust Chair Nancy Bechtleis interpreting a city attorney’s 2009 decree that only “patriotic organizations” are entitled to free rent at the Veterans Building. The city’s lawyers defined those as membership-based veterans groups. Because Swords to Plowshares doesn’t require those who use their services to join as members, the trustees who run the building say, it’s not eligible for freebies. “It’s nothing new — we we are used to being treated like second-class citizens,” said Michael Blecker, Swords to Plowshares’ executive director and a Vietnam War veteran.

Fayetteville VA Health Center set to open (The Washington Times)
The new Fayetteville (N.C.) Veterans Affairs Health Center is set to open. The Fayetteville Observer reports patients will begin seeing medical providers Monday at the 259,600-square-foot center, which will become the new home for most of the local VA’s outpatient care. Fayetteville VA Director Elizabeth Goolsby says the center will be a big improvement over the Fayetteville Veterans Affairs Medical Center and will eventually lead to long-awaited relief to patient waits. The medical center will continue to house administrative offices, in-patient care and some specialty care. Officials say the new center will treat 38,000 veterans and their families each year, providing primary care, specialty care, day surgery, audiology, pharmacy and radiology services.