November 24 Veterans News

November 24 Veterans News

VetsHQ News UpdateVA spends millions promoting Obamacare, little cutting wait times (The Washington Examiner)
Officials with the Department of Veterans Affairs spent millions of taxpayer dollars promoting the Affordable Care Act to veterans who didn’t even need the coverage, but have dedicated relatively few resources to helping veterans on the agency’s long waiting list get access to their benefits, internal documents show. The VA spent $6.125 million on brochures, letters and posters in an outreach campaign for Obamacare that ended last year, according to internal reports obtained by the Washington Examiner. Scott Davis, a program specialist at the Atlanta VA enrollment center, said the VA likely spent much more than that on the Obamacare promotion campaign, given that the Atlanta enrollment center hired at least 40 additional staffers to push the health care legislation. Records indicate the VA also spent money on Google advertisements, Spanish-language promotional materials and videos in an effort to spread the word about Obamacare. However, veterans enrolled in the VA healthcare system are not subject to penalties imposed on the uninsured under the Affordable Care Act and thus didn’t need to change anything about their coverage to comply with the legislation. “If a veteran is already enrolled, what else do you need to tell them?” Davis said, noting the VA “used every form of communication” to contact veterans about Obamacare between 2013 and 2014. An August document indicates the VA sent 2.8 million Affordable Care Act “buddy” letters in Aug. 2013. Two years later, in August of this year, the VA sent just 10,000 letters warning combat veterans that their eligibility for health care benefits was about to expire.

Study: Today’s U.S. veterans are worse off than vets 20 years ago (Business Insider)
Congress has been debating changes to the types of retirement benefits that veterans receive, including a switch to a corporate 401(k)-style plan. According to researchers, however, reforms should consider the economic and health realities of veterans approaching retirement now. Alan Gustman and Nahid Tabatabai of Dartmouth, along with Thomas Steinmeier of Texas Tech, broke down the economic and health outcomes for veterans age 51 to 56 in 1992, 1998, 2004, and 2010, measuring how the government’s services have helped over time. “Among those 51 to 56 in 1992, veterans were better educated, healthier, wealthier, and more likely to be working than nonveterans,” said a new study. “By the 2010 cohort, 51- to 56-year-old veterans had lost their educational advantage over nonveterans, were less healthy, less wealthy and less likely to be working.” Using data from the “Health and Retirement Study,” the researchers tracked outcomes, adjusting for rank, years of service, and a variety of other factors. (The findings were limited to male veterans, because female veterans in the data did not have a large enough sample to be reliable.) In terms of service, the researchers pointed out that only the 2010 cohort had been a part of the All-Volunteer Military, instead of the Korean and Vietnam War drafts of the earlier cohorts. This meant that a much lower number of the total population served (16% of the total male population in 2010 versus 50% in 1992) and a higher percent serving more than 10 years (13% in 2010 versus 8% in 1992).

Opinion: The VA treated my PTSD all wrong (Stars & Stripes)
By former Marine infantry officer David J. Morris: “The first time I saw war up close was in May 2004, on a reporting trip to Iraq where I watched the first battle of Fallujah winding down. I had resigned my commission in the Marine Corps a few years before and had gone to Iraq out of a sense of obligation. As a reporter who understood a thing or two about tactics, who better to write about it than me? Ten years later, I was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder by the Department of Veterans Affairs. I had been having nightmares and was sleeping poorly. One day after taking a walk near my mother’s house, I became convinced that I was hearing the Muslim call to prayer echoing down the winding streets of suburban San Diego. I called the VA soon after. After suffering through the usual bureaucratic indignities — in my case sitting on a waiting list for three months — I started treatment at the big VA hospital in La Jolla, which included weekly appointments with a therapist who was finishing up his doctorate. Oddly, whenever I brought up the issues that bothered me the most — the catastrophic mismanagement of the war by the Bush administration, the pointless slaughter I’d seen in Fallujah, the casually bloodthirsty way Americans would talk about Iraq and about Arabs in general — my therapist would change the subject. I was admonished for “intellectualizing” my trauma and encouraged to focus instead on an improvised explosive device ambush I had survived in Baghdad in 2007, as if that one event were the key to unlocking all my feelings about the war. Eventually this made my insomnia and anger issues worse, so I quit. … Seeing how coldly scientific and divorced from its moral roots PTSD has become, it is hard to not conclude that modern psychiatry has completely betrayed the original intentions of the Vietnam veterans who fought to have their struggles recognized and morally neutered their original argument.”

Expensive Hepatitis C drugs may be cost-effective—even for early disease (Reuters)
Treating hepatitis C with expensive new medicines at the earliest signs of liver damage improves patients’ health and is also cost-effective, a new computer simulation suggests. “Going into this, I expected to find it did make sense to wait until there was a limited amount of liver disease, but what we found to our surprise is that it makes sense to start treatment at the earliest change in the liver,” said senior author Dr. James Kahn, of the University of California, San Francisco. Hepatitis C virus (HCV) is spread by blood. For most people, the infection becomes chronic, and about 20 percent of HCV infections result in liver damage, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Liver damage from HCV can lead to liver cancer or liver failure severe enough to warrant a liver transplant. Over 3 million people in the U.S. have chronic hepatitis C, the researchers write in JAMA Internal Medicine. Older drugs to fight hepatitis C required almost a year of treatment, had harsh side effects and didn’t always work. A new class of drugs cuts treatment time to 12 weeks or less and works in most people with the virus, but cost about $1,000 per day, they add. While other studies found the new drugs to be cost effective, the new study looked at whether that’s true at each stage of liver damage. Some insurers won’t let patients take the drugs until their liver disease is advanced.

Demoted VA senior executives still eligible for relocation benefits (GovExec)
Two Veterans Affairs Department senior executives who were demoted and reassigned because they used their positions of authority for personal and financial gain are still eligible for relocation benefits for their new jobs, according to the VA. The department reassigned Diana Rubens and Kimberly Graves to General Schedule assistant director positions within the Veterans Benefits Administration, according to a Nov. 20 statement. The Associated Press reported that the department reassigned Rubens to the Houston facility, and Graves to the Phoenix regional office. Their new jobs will come with a pay cut since they are being demoted from the Senior Executive Service to the General Schedule pay system. But the two, who originally got into hot water over relocation benefits and improper reassignments, are still entitled to “seek reimbursement for appropriate costs” associated with their latest reassignments “in accordance with government-wide statutes and regulations that require federal agencies to pay for the geographic relocation of an employee directed to relocate,” said a VA spokesperson. Those reimbursable relocation expenses would not include the Appraised Value Offer, a government-wide housing buyout program that helps reassigned federal employees sell their homes faster. The AVO program, managed by the General Services Administration, is separate from what’s known as the three R’s—recruitment, relocation, and retention incentives—that are available to the federal workforce. The VA indefinitely suspended its AVO program after the department’s watchdog in September concluded that Rubens, who was director of VBA’s Philadelphia regional office, and Graves, who led VBA’s St. Paul regional office, improperly helped create vacancies at their respective offices and volunteered to fill them.

Vets in Phoenix help Afghan interpreter settle into a new life (Fronteras)
In 2012, Aaron Marquez was stationed in Afghanistan as a civil affairs officer for the Army. He relied on a young Afghan man to translate for him. It was a dangerous job. “They knew that as soon as we left, their protection would be limited and their families would be at risk,” Marquez said.That’s why Marquez asked us to refer to his interpreter as Alex, the Americanized version of his first name. It’s to protect Alex’s family who is still in Afghanistan. Marquez returned to Phoenix in the fall of 2012 and works in real estate. He’s currently a captain in the Army Reserve. Once they were back here, Marquez and other soldiers from his unit began helping Alex secure a Special Immigrant Visa, a visa for those who worked with U.S. military. The program was slow to get off the ground, but as of 2014, almost 30,000 Iraqis and Afghans who worked with the U.S. military, and their relatives, resettled in the U.S, according to the Congressional Research Service. An additional 38,000 Iraqis and relatives who worked for U.S. organizations — including the military, NGOs and American journalists — were also resettled in the same period. Long delays are typical. In the case of Afghan interpreters, it is a separate way into the country from the refugee program that is now under debate here in the U.S. in the wake of the Paris attacks. Iraqi interpreters, on the other hand, could face new barriers under a bill passed last week by the House of Representatives to change the way refugees from Syria and Iraq are admitted. Finally, last week, Alex flew from Europe to Phoenix. Marquez waited at the airport for Alex to arrive. “You know it has been three years since I have seen Alex and I am excited to help him get his start here in Phoenix,” Marquez said. “But also nervous. I’ve never had somebody from another country come and me be one of their only contacts to help start a new life.”

Senator touts telemedicine bill for better access to care for veterans (FierceHealthIT)
In testimony before a hearing of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee last week, Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) called the Veterans E-Health & Telemedicine Support Act of 2015 (VETS Act), which she introduced in October with Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii), “straightforward, commonsense.” Ernst said the bill–which would allow providers to practice across state lines–will help veterans in rural areas, where they might not easily be able to get to a VA facility. In addition, she said, it also will “ensure policymakers have up-to-date information on the VA’s telehealth program.” Currently the VA can only waive state licensure requirements if both the patient and physician are physically at a VA facility. Ernst’s bill has support from 12 lawmakers, as well as organizations including the American Legion, Concerned Veteran’s for America, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, the American Telemedicine Association and Health IT Now, she said during the hearing. Committee Chairman Johnny Isakson said during the hearing that the bill “addresses a critical need” and “solves a problem in the most economical way.” The Senate bill mirrors one introduced in the House last spring. That legislation is being sponsored by Reps. Glenn Thompson (R-Pa.) and Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.) and has 11 co-sponsors from both parties.

Massachusetts governor signs veterans protection bills into law (
Gov. Charlie Baker signed five laws on Monday to help Massachusetts’ veterans, three of which were proposed by Western Massachusetts representatives. “In Western Massachusetts, we have a lot of veterans…These are obviously issues that are near and dear to our heart,” said state Rep. John Velis, D-Westfield, a captain in the U.S. Army Reserves. The so-called Stolen Valor Act, sponsored by Velis, will make it illegal to impersonate a military member for financial gain. State Rep. Aaron Vega, D-Holyoke, sponsored a law that will give Purple Heart recipients free access to Massachusetts state parks and recreation areas. State Rep. Todd Smola, R-Warren, sponsored a law that will require anyone convicted of willfully damaging a war memorial or veteran’s gravestone or marker to pay restitution to the property owners. The other new laws make it a crime to steal commemorative flag holders from veterans’ or first responders’ graves and to buy or sell stolen headstones or monuments from veterans’ or first responders’ graves. “It’s very important for all of us to make sure that we remember the sacrifices and the commitment that our veterans, especially here in the commonwealth, make, and that we continue to think about them when we have opportunities to improve their quality of life and their experience in Massachusetts,” Baker said.

Donations to help women vets in Phoenix area disappear (KPHO-Phoenix)
After nearly a year of shopping sales and collecting donations, Tammie Fisher said she had a 10-by-15 foot storage unit nearly full of items to be given to women who served our country. “Last year we helped 273 homeless female veterans, and out of that three-quarters had families,” she said. “We were able last year to give them one bra and three pair of panties. This year we were planning on five sets of panties and three bras to last them throughout the week, to get a new pair of shoes, a new pair of boots.” Fisher said all those items, worth more than $10,000, were cleaned out of the storage unit. They were meant to be distributed at Maricopa County StandDown, an annual outreach event to help homeless and at-risk veterans. “There’s really no logical explanation,” Shane Groen, who oversees the StandDown event, said. “We involved the police and filed a report, and we’re looking for the items, but it’s heartbreaking when people donate items and for them to get stolen like this — it’s a heartbreaking deal.” The general manager of the storage facility told us that the company donated the unit and there was no sign of a break-in. She said the only way someone could get into the unit was by using the group’s code and key.  Glendale police said a burglary report was filed on Nov. 20 based on a complaint and video surveillance that showed “unknown persons entered the unit.” While the video shows a red full-size truck and a red SUV, Fisher told us the license plates were not visible. “It just made me feel empty,” she said. “It was like my own house getting broken into.”

7-Eleven introduces discounts to recruit vets as franchise owners (
There’s always plenty of talk about getting veterans back into the workforce after their tours of duty are over. And resources for veteran entrepreneurs also abound. The iconic mini-market 7-Eleven is going a step beyond that. 7-Eleven proposes that many returning vets would make excellent small business owners. They also propose to give them up to a 20 percent break on the cost of obtaining a franchise. On the company’s website, Joe DePinto, 7-Eleven’s president and CEO (and also a veteran of the U.S. Army), says, “A 7-Eleven franchise is a natural fit for veterans. As Franchisees, they add solid leadership skills and strong discipline to the creativity, energy and spirit of entrepreneurship. They are good at dealing with people and with day-to-day challenges.” 7-Eleven has set aside $2 million in discounts for the purpose of recruiting one hundred vets to take franchises by the end of 2016. 7-Eleven differs from most franchises in that it takes a percentage of the gross income, rather than from all the sales. For that percentage, the company provides bookkeeping, payroll and a personal business consultant. Startup costs, including the franchise fee, average $239,000.