December 17 Veterans News

December 17 Veterans News

VetsHQ News UpdateVA to provide robotic legs to paralyzed vets (Fox News)
The Department of Veterans Affairs has agreed to pay for robotic legs that could allow scores of paralyzed veterans with spinal cord injuries to walk again. Veterans have been petitioning the VA to do this because many cannot afford the $77,000 needed to pay for the powered exoskeleton called the ReWalk. The device was approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 2014 for individuals to use at home. VA officials told The Associated Press that that the agency sent a memorandum Dec. 10 outlining its plans to train staff to be able to provide the ReWalk. “The research support and effort to provide eligible veterans with paralysis an exoskeleton for home use is a historic move on the part of the VA because it represents a paradigm shift in the approach to rehabilitation for persons with paralysis,” said Dr. Ann Spungen, who led VA research on the system. The company, ReWalk Robotics, said it has evaluated 45 paralyzed veterans who meet the height and weight requirements for the technology — which consists of leg braces with motion sensors and motorized joints that respond to subtle changes in upper-body movement and shifts in balance. Gene Laureano, 53, is praying his application for robotic legs will go through soon. The former Army corporal remembers the day he first tried the ReWalk at New York’s James J. Peters VA Medical Center in the Bronx two years ago. “The tears came down,” said Laureano, who was left paralyzed five years ago after falling off a ladder. “I hadn’t spoken to somebody standing up in so long. I just kept remembering the doctor told me it was impossible for me to walk, and then I crossed that threshold from the impossible to the possible,” he added. When the study ended, however, so did his ability to walk. He’s been waiting to get the robotic legs ever since. Paralyzed veterans fired off letters to VA Secretary Robert McDonald this summer. “I guess people who have been watching the research were very anxious and had expectations this would suddenly happen once FDA approval came out, but we were still building the infrastructure to support this great device,” VA spokesman Jim Connell said. … VA pilot studies found paraplegics who used the exoskeleton as little as four hours a week for three to five months experienced better bowel and bladder function, reduced back pain, improved sleep and less fatigue. About 42,000 veterans are paralyzed. Of them, a fraction would meet the requirement for an exoskeleton. The apparatus requires specific height and weight requirements and works for paraplegics but not for quadriplegics. A supportive belt around the patient’s waist keeps the suit in place, and a backpack holds the computer and rechargeable battery. Crutches are used for stability, and the FDA requires an assistant be nearby.

Peninsula VA home services program is first in Alaska (Peninsula Clarion)
Alaska veterans in need of at-home care can now get those services paid for by the Alaska Department of Veterans Affairs through a program offered by the Independent Living Center of the Kenai Peninsula. About 10 veterans and family members learned about the program during a presentation at the Ninilchik Senior Center on Wednesday. The Independent Living Center, which has offices in Homer, Soldotna and Seward, was contracted as an Aging and Disability Resource Center to provide the program’s services for the Alaska VA. Veteran-Directed Home and Community Based Services, commonly referred to as VD-HCBS, allows veterans with long-term care needs to dictate the kinds of services they get, and receive them in their own homes. The program has been available through the VA in the Lower 48 for years, but the Alaska VA has never implemented it. It took advocacy on the part of the Independent Living Center with the VA since last fall to get the program started on the Kenai Peninsula, according to Independent Living Center Director Joyanna Geisler. “Before this program, what the VA will support is about 12 hours a week in the home of home health or hospice… and then at the other extreme there’s nursing home care,” she said. “So there was nothing in between, so when you think about it, that’s a huge gap.” To be eligible for VD-HCBS, veterans must be determined to need nursing home-level care. An initial assessment performed by the VA determines how much money the veteran will get in monthly installments. Those funds can go toward whichever services or equipment the veteran identifies as the most vital, Geisler said. Geisler cautioned that the program isn’t the best option for all veterans, as keeping track of the services and money allowance is a lot of work. If enrolled veterans are unable to make those kinds of decisions, they can select someone as their representative to the program. They can also pull out of the program at any time, she said. One positive thing about the VD-HCBS is that it puts control back into the hands of veterans, Geisler said. The Alaska VA has no involvement past making an initial medical assessment to determine whether a person is eligible, and footing the bill, she said. It is the veteran participating in the program who chooses the caregiver that will work with them. The Aging and Disability Resource Centers across the state can be contracted through the Alaska VA to provide the program, she said. One drawback where it operates in rural areas of the peninsula is that it won’t function without caregivers, which Geisler said the veterans have to find themselves. Several listeners at Wednesday’s meeting voiced concern about the lack of trained caregivers either in Ninilchik and Clam Gulch or willing to travel that far from Homer or the Central Kenai Peninsula. Ninilchik Senior Center Director Shelli Ogren said the concern is less with the program and more with the ability to get qualified caregivers to the area. … Since the Independent Living Center got the program together in August, Geisler said four veterans have been enrolled. Wednesday’s attendees complained that there wasn’t enough notice or advertisement for the program itself since it launched. Geisler said the center will continue to promote the VD-HCBS program during general Alaska VA meetings in the coming months.

Vet says he waited on VA hospital floor for hours (KOAT7)
An Army veteran says he was forced to lie on the floor of the emergency room for nearly four hours waiting to get care at the Veterans Affairs hospital in Albuquerque. Adam Griego says he was in agonizing pain while on the floor. His mother took a photo of the incident, which occurred last week. “I laid on the floor for another two hours, and at this point I’m covered in sweat,” he said. Adam Griego served 6 1/2 years in the Army, deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan. His unit came under attack in Afghanistan. He recalls pulling one of his comrades out of a burning truck, but not everyone survived. It has taken two years to get the mental health care he needs for severe post-traumatic stress disorder. He also suffered injuries to his hips and spine. Despite seven visits to the emergency room, he says the VA would not refer him to a specialist for the pain. “My question as a caregiver, as someone who sent a son to war and wants him to come home, is why is it so hard?” his mother, Donna Griego said. She says the medical staff at the hospital have been helpful, but the problem is getting past the backlog of the broken system. “The VA is my only hope,” Adam Griego said. “I don’t know if they’re going to be able to help me. I feel helpless.” Though he finally got the referrals he needs, he still hasn’t been able to get an appointment through the VA. After the long wait, a VA spokesperson said they reached out to Griego, adding the VA is committed to providing timely access to veterans.

Opinion: VA changing? Sure it is (AZCentral)
Laurie Roberts, The Republic: When it comes to cleanup, things move slowly at the Department of Veterans Affairs. If at all. At a congressional field hearing in Gilbert on Monday, David Shulkin, the VA’s undersecretary for health, assured Sens. John McCain and Jeff Flake that the VA has dramatically boosted its staff and reformed its scheduling system. The one that left veterans dying while they waited for an appointment. The one that was falsified to make it look as if veterans were being seen so that VA employees could collect bonuses for all their good work. Then Shulkin told the senators, “our overall wait times are probably not going to go down” because more veterans are enrolling for care. OK, so nearly two years after the VA scandal erupted, veterans still might be suffering or even dying as they wait weeks or months for appointments but the VA just won’t be lying about it anymore then? I don’t know about you, but I feel soooo much better. If only veterans, awaiting the care they earned could say the same. Sorry to sound so skeptical but this is an agency that deserves every shred of skepticism we can muster. An agency which assures us it is all about accountability. Consider the case of two high-level Phoenix VA executives – the only two Phoenix officials facing action over their roles in this scandal. Associate Director Lance Robinson and Administrative Services Chief Brad Curry have been on paid leave since May 2014 when it was recommended that they be fired. For 19 months, we’ve been paying these guys their six-figure salaries. Collectively, they’ve scooped up close to $400,000 in pay – not counting the benefits they continue to collect. This, as they sit at home and wait to find out whether they will be fired. At a congressional hearing earlier this month, Deputy Secretary Sloan Gibson explained that the men have due-process rights. On Monday, Shulkin explained that firings have been delayed because the men haven’t yet been interviewed due to a criminal probe. If that’s the case, then they should have been assigned to the graveyard shift to pick up garbage or some other equally satisfying task rather than being paid to sit at home in front of the big screen as they await their fate. While you ponder the fact that you’re continuing to pay these guys who’ve been implicated in the scandal, while you ponder how their federal pensions continue to grow, ponder this: One of the whistle blowers – one of many who faced retaliation for going public with her concerns– says “not much has changed” at the Carl T. Hayden VA Medical Center since she other others went public in early 2014. “Since the VA scandal erupted, there’s been no significant change in the dysfunctional culture,” Dr. Katherine Mitchell told the senators. That tracks with a March report, obtained by The Republic’s Dennis Wagner last month. It was written by a panel of national experts sent in to reform the Phoenix VA – to mend a system plagued by massive understaffing, delayed appointments, mismanagement and outright corruption. Their conclusion: “Our hands were tied at every decision point. Instead of our expectation to work with a leadership team that genuinely desired positive change, we were met with a leadership team that displayed obstructionist attitudes, and clearly lacked integrity.” Since then, the VA has brought in new leadership to Phoenix VA’s troubled medical center. But did they bring in someone from the outside the VA, someone who could breathe some badly needed fresh air into the joint? Nope. They brought in a social worker who has been with the VA for two decades — a woman who lied to a congressman about conditions at a VA hospital in Vermont where she previously worked, according to a media report. “My No. 1 priority is to regain the trust of the veterans we serve,” Deborah Amdur told Wagner… Good luck with that, when Phoenix looks to be a dumping ground for VA officials behaving badly. Consider the case of Dr. Darren Deering, chief of staff at Phoenix VA Medical Center. Investigators more than a year ago found that he, along with Robinson, retaliated against employees who reported problems — demoting Mitchell and banished a public affairs employee to the basement. More than a year ago. Yet Deering’s still there (while Robinson continues to collect his paycheck at home.). Consider the case of Kimberly Graves, who was demoted and referred for possible criminal prosecution by the Office of Inspector General in September. According to an OIG report, Graves, while director of the Veterans Benefits Administration’s 14-state North Atlantic area, finagled a move to a job as regional benefits director in St. Paul, Minn., last year. Investigators say Graves got rid of the guy who held the job then scored nearly $130,000 in relocation funds so she could take his place — a job with less responsibility than her previous one but her same salary, of course. Inspectors said Graves “inappropriately used her position of authority for personal and financial benefit.” So naturally she was demoted to another six-figure job and transferred … To Phoenix.

Man who stopped VA shooter honored (The Columbian)
Neil C. Burkhardt has been honored as a Carnegie Hero after tackling a woman who shot an official in the Vancouver Veterans Affairs office in 2014. Burkhardt is one of 24 people honored with medals from the Pittsburgh-based Carnegie Heroes Fund Commission. Police credited Burkhardt with saving the life of Allen Bricker, a VA administrator, after a stalker shot him twice on Feb. 4, 2014. Bricker “was a mentor to me. I spent seven years in that office,” the Portland resident said following the Wednesday announcement. “Allen and his family were put through years of hardships, having this woman stalk them,” Burkhardt said. “My involvement was the last three minutes.” The Marine Corps veteran was in a room at the end of the hall when he heard the shots, according to the citation from the Carnegie commission. … The Carnegie citation continued: “Seeing the assailant pursuing Bricker, Burkhardt ran after her and tackled her, taking them through an interior window in the hall as Bricker escaped … and collapsed.” The project manager wrested the .38-caliber revolver from the intruder and held her at gunpoint until a security officer arrived and handcuffed her. Burkhardt likely saved other people in the office that day, too, former Clark County Sheriff Garry Lucas said about a year ago after presenting Burkhardt with a Citizen Service medal. “One thing I always want to say, there were many heroes that day,” Burkhardt, now 33, stressed in Wednesday’s phone interview. “Staff members provided lifesaving first-aid measures to Allen. He was able to move several hallways away and someone had a very extensive first-aid kit; other staff members treated him for shock” and stopped the flow of blood from his wounds. They stayed with the injured man without knowing that the shooter was in handcuffs. … The assailant, Deborah Lennon, was convicted and sentenced to 22 1/2 years in prison. The Carnegie Hero awards are named for Pittsburgh steel magnate and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie, who was inspired by stories of heroism during a coal mine disaster that killed 181 people, including a miner and an engineer who died trying to rescue others.

Veteran waits 49-years for VA benefits (WBIR)
A retired combat veteran in East Tennessee won his battle for full benefits from the Veterans Administration after a fight that lasted almost five decades. “Forty-nine years – you want days, hours, and minutes,” Scott Ely said with a chuckle. He was awarded a Purple Heart for his injury under enemy fire.  And military records that include a telegram home to his family in 1966 note multiple times that the young Marine was injured by a “blast concussion” in “both ears” during a firefight in Vietnam. “A mortar round exploded right above my head on the left…it knocked me out, knocked me down the hill,” recalled Mr. Ely. When he regained consciousness Mr. Ely recalled opening his eyes and seeing the helicopters moving in to pull him off the battlefield. But he couldn’t hear a sound. “That was a little bit disconcerting,” said Mr. Ely. Doctors gave him a hearing test back in the ’60s before he left the hospital that would prove a key piece of evidence in his decades-long fight for full benefits with the Veterans Administration. The military’s own records also link the “blast concussion in both ears” to Mr. Ely’s service. “Now you think that should be self-evident, if you get a Purple Heart for something that should be service-connected,” said veteran advocate and Knoxville attorney Barry Allen.  He was hired a few years ago by Mr. Ely, who felt he had nowhere else to turn for help. “Forty-nine years until payday, and I attribute the success to Barry Allen,” said Mr. Ely. The two say what helped turn the case in their favor was submitting new evidence from an “ear, nose, and throat” specialist. That expert testimony explained the reason why Mr. Ely’s hearing test, when he first left the hospital in the 60s, might have shown he had “normal” hearing. “The audiologist explained that there was absolutely permanent damage the moment the concussive blast occurred, but it was not unusual for the body to essentially be adjusting to this massive change that occurred and that’s why there might have been an early exam that seemed like it was normal,” noted Mr. Allen. When asked about the decades-long fight Mr. Allen said he has at least three or four others similar cases that date back to the 1970s.  That reinforces the notion that while uncommon, benefit fights like the one Mr. Ely was embroiled in are not unheard of. “The (VA) system is so full of inertia that once a decision is made, it’s very hard to change that decision,” said Mr. Allen. For Mr. Ely the win was life changing.  It grew his benefit check from a few hundred dollars a month to more than three thousand dollars a month. “I did sleep very good the first night,” he said with a smile. But the bigger fight over “back benefits” isn’t over.  The Veterans Administration has yet to agree on the back pay dating to Mr. Ely’s original injury.

Man sentenced to 10 years for Stolen Valor, stealing veteran benefits (The Washington Times)
A Maryland man was sentenced to 10 years in prison Wednesday for pretending to be a military veteran and stealing thousands of dollars worth of military benefits. Jason Scaletta, 34, was convicted in Wicomico County Circuit Court of theft of more than $1,000 but less than $10,000 and possession and use of false government identification, a local Fox News affiliate reported. Scaletta was arrested in June after police discovered he was falsely claiming to be a veteran in order to receive benefits. Investigators revealed he was receiving help on his rent and electric bills from a veterans support organization, Fox reported. He also provided false military documents claiming he had three deployments overseas and was awarded numerous military service medals and honors. Witnesses from the military testified Tuesday that the documents were forged. Scaletta provided those same documents to Veterans Support Centers of America founder Jerry Black. Scaletta was eventually hired by VSCOA in Quantico and became the director of the organization’s service-dog training program. Mr. Black said the revelations about Scaletta’s false claims had hurt his organization’s reputation. “So it was really important for me to carry this all of the way through. To come here and testify today. Even though this wasn’t about the dollars for us because we weren’t defrauded. St. James Church was. It was about getting our reputation, setting the record straight. When we did find out who this man was, we went and made sure that he was prosecuted,” Mr. Black told the Fox affiliate after the verdict was read Tuesday night. Witness testimony and police investigations revealed that Scaletta served just 44 days in the military in basic training, which he never completed.