December 18 Veterans News

December 18 Veterans News

VetsHQ News UpdateVA to change disability claims rules for Camp Lejeune veterans (Military Times)
The Veterans Affairs Department has determined that eight medical conditions are linked to service at Camp Lejeune, N.C. from 1953 to 1987, and veterans with these diseases who were stationed at the sprawling Marine Corps base are eligible for disability compensation. VA officials said Thursday that these eight diseases that have been determined to be service-connected to consuming contaminated drinking water at the base: kidney cancer, liver cancer, non-Hodgkin lymphoma, leukemia, multiple myeloma, scleroderma, Parkinson’s disease and aplastic anemia or other myelodysplastic syndromes. VA Secretary Robert McDonald said research by health experts at the Veterans Health Administration and the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, an arm of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, indicated that the risk of developing these illnesses is elevated by exposure to contaminants found in the water, including perchloroethylene, trichlorotheylene, benzene and other volatile organic compounds. “The water at Camp Lejeune was a hidden hazard, and it is only years later that we know how dangerous it was,” McDonald said. “We thank ATSDR for the thorough review that provided much of the evidence we needed to fully compensate veterans who develop one of the conditions known to be related to exposure to the compounds in the drinking water.” Nearly a million people, including troops, family members and civilian employees working at Camp Lejeune from the 1950s through the 1980s were exposed to these chemicals and other cancer-causing agents in the base’s drinking water, supplied by two water treatment facilities polluted by dry cleaning compounds, leaking underground storage tanks, industrial spills and poor disposal practices. The VA has provided health care or reimbursement for medical costs for veterans who served at Camp Lejeune at least 30 days during the affected period or family members with 15 illnesses related to exposure to water contaminated by solvents and fuels, but it had not awarded “presumptive status” to any condition until now. The changes will take effect after VA publishes regulations regarding these presumptions, and will apply to new disability claims. Veterans who have previously been denied on such claims may seek to be re-evaluated. Also, any pending claims that might be denied under current regulations will be placed on hold until the VA issues its final rules, according to a department press release. The bedrock eligibility rules will be that veterans must have one of the eight specified conditions and must have served at Camp Lejeune between Aug. 1, 1953, and Dec. 31, 1987. The new rules also will expand eligibility to reserve and National Guard members who served at Camp Lejeune for any length of time during that period. A VA spokeswoman said compensation awarded as a result of the proposed regulations, if adopted, will “be effective no earlier than the date the final rule is published.” Veterans have expressed frustration over the low rate of claims approvals for illnesses related to the Camp Lejeune water.

Veterans say ‘Burn Pits’ created toxic clouds that made them sick (NPR)
In 2008, Army Reserve Capt. LeRoy Torres returned home to Robstown, Texas, after a tour in Iraq. He went back to work as a state trooper with the Texas Highway Patrol. Torres was a longtime runner. So when a suspect took off on foot one morning, Torres sprinted after him. But something was wrong. A burning sensation in his chest hurt so bad, it almost knocked him down. “I was able to catch up, but afterwards, my goodness, I remember just — I laid on the ground, I was so exhausted,” Torres says. “One of my buddies said, ‘Man, what’s wrong?’ I said, ‘Man, I don’t know. I just feel really, really tired — my chest feels really tight. I don’t know.’ I couldn’t catch my breath.” A few years later, Torres was diagnosed with a rare disease called constrictive bronchiolitis. Scars in his lungs block the flow of air. He’s among a growing number of veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan who believe their respiratory ailments are linked to burn pits. These were acres-wide mounds of waste near bases that contained everything from batteries to vehicle scraps to amputated body parts. The refuse was usually ignited with jet fuel. “What people don’t understand is just how large some of these bases really are — I mean, they’re small cities,” Patricia Kime tells NPR’s David Greene. She’s a health care and medicine reporter for Military Times. She says soldiers reported seeing dark plumes of smoke hanging heavy in the air. “So these are open-air pits where they would light it on fire, and quite often they ran 24 hours a day,” she says. One challenge for veterans is proving that burn pits are really the cause of their illnesses. “People have said that it’s this toxic mix of tiny, tiny dust particles that are not related to the burn pits, that are just related to the soil and the air in Iraq and Afghanistan, and often has contaminants in it such as aluminum and iron and titanium — so, heavy metals,” Kime says. “The burn pits are the most obvious visual reason to blame, but it could be the dust, it could be chemical exposures, there could be a lot of other issues going on.” Last year, Congress ordered the Department of Veterans Affairs to set up the Airborne Hazards and Open Burn Pit Registry. So far, almost 50,000 veterans have signed up. “It’s not just necessarily burn pits. If you feel like you’re sick as a result of deployment, you can sign on to it,” Kime says. “And it’s supposed to be used to track and to try to get some handle on the extent of the illnesses among this cadre.” A statement from the Department of Veterans Affairs in response to NPR’s request for comment said, in part: “At this time, there is conflicting and insufficient research to show that long-term health problems have resulted from burn pit exposure. VA continues to study the health of exposed veterans. The burn pit registry, which helps participants to become more aware of their health, while helping researchers to study the health effects of burn pits and other airborne hazards, is one of several research projects currently underway at VA.” And there’s something else at stake here. One of the companies that operated the burn pits, KBR Inc., is facing lawsuits from veterans across the country. The company says if it’s held liable, the U.S. military will have a hard time finding companies to do this kind of work.

Veterans court celebrates one year (Livingston Daily)
The Livingston County Veterans’ Treatment Court marked its one-year anniversary with a breakfast Wednesday to honor those who make the court a success. The program began with four participants who met once a month. Today, it has expanded to two monthly meetings with 17 participants. “I expect it to double” next year, Livingston County District Judge Carol Sue Reader, who presides over the court, said at the celebration held at the Livingston County Judicial Center in Howell. The program has helped the county’s veterans reconnect with their families, and they have been able to gain and keep employment as well as improve their overall quality of life, organizers said. The county has an estimated 12,500 veterans, and about 150 have been through the jail, according to county statistics. The four-phase program takes 18 months to complete. There are requirements at each phase of the program, including reporting to probation officers and mentors, preliminary breath tests, and community service or counseling. Reader said connecting the veterans with a mentor who can empathize with their situation and connecting them to available programs and services are keys to their success. The veterans’ court team is comprised of the judge, prosecutor, and District and Circuit courts probation/parole officer as well as an outreach coordinator from the Veterans Administration, public defender and liaison for veteran benefits. County court employee Dawn Learst is the veterans’ court coordinator. Among those being recognized was Men’s Warehouse, which donated 700 pounds of men’s clothing, including shoes, ties and suspenders so the veterans who need it will have a nice suit for any future employment interviews or other needs. Currently, the program is funded through grants. Donations also are made to the Veterans Treatment Court Foundation, which was created by Brighton attorney Neal Nielsen to assist the Livingston County Veterans’ Treatment Court.

Sen. Jerry Moran asks for answers about Wichita VA allegations (The Wichita Eagle)
U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran has sent a letter to the secretary of veteran affairs requesting immediate answers about “deeply troubling allegations of harassment and misconduct against personnel” at the Robert J. Dole VA Medical Center in Wichita. Moran’s letter, dated Wednesday, is one of three congressional letters in the past week addressed to VA officials over allegations made by surgical residents with the University of Kansas School of Medicine-Wichita. The residents were in training involving a surgeon at the VA center, the school said. KU said it removed the residents to protect the quality of their training environment. The senator’s letter includes the first public disclosure of the basic nature of the allegations – “harassment and misconduct” – which surfaced last week. Neither KU nor the VA have commented on the nature of the allegations. “The lack of transparency and cooperation from the VA is appalling and unacceptable, especially when the safety and well-being of medical students is at risk,” Moran said, in the letter addressed to Secretary of Veterans Affairs Robert McDonald. On Thursday, a spokesman for the Wichita VA center said for the first time that he could confirm that an internal investigation is occurring. “As it is an ongoing investigation, I cannot provide any other details,” Dole VA spokesman John Orrell said in a statement he read to an Eagle reporter. Orrell added that “all of our clinical and medical education programs with residents continue as normal.” Although there is no timeline for the investigation at this point, “we are making sure that the investigation is done timely and thoroughly,” Orrell said. Any information released must follow privacy regulations, he said. Among specific information Moran requested from the VA: a description of the allegations by the surgical trainees, the number of surgical residents involved in the allegations, whether any VA employee has been put on administrative leave as a result of the allegations, the names and titles of the Wichita VA officials who knew of the allegations, and how the investigation is being conducted and who is doing it. “First and foremost,” the Kansas Republican wrote, “I am concerned that surgical trainees serving at the Dole VA Medical Center are at risk, jeopardizing their educational, professional and personal development due to inexcusable conduct.” Moran said he also is concerned about whether the “accusations of harassment and misconduct are being handled properly.” “I am disturbed that the uncooperative arrogance of the VA is preventing accountability, creating more distrust and perpetuating a culture of incompetence within the VA,” he wrote. The senator requested a response from the VA within 14 business days. Moran will meet with the VA center director later this month, his office said Thursday.

New law introduced aimed at holding VA accountable for over prescribing (Fox 59)
A new law was introduced in Washington, D.C. following a FOX59 investigation. Currently, VA facilities across the country are not required to report their prescribing practices to state-operated databases. Many states currently use a database to hold doctors and patients accountable. Representative Jackie Wolorski (R-Ind), introduced H.R. 4297 to the house on Thursday. The bill would require the Secretary of Veterans Affairs to disclose certain information to state controlled substance monitoring programs. The legislation is aimed at holding VA facilities accountable for their prescribing practices and to hopefully save veteran lives. “Our VA’s are not voluntarily giving up information to our state database. This little bill says they must and it is no longer going to be voluntary,” said Rep. Walorski. FOX59 initially reported on the federal inspection conducted by the DEA at the VA in Marion. According to court documents, there is no other facility in northern Indiana that distributes more powerful and addictive prescription pills. Representative Jeff Miller (R-Fla), serves as the chairman of the House Committee of Veterans Affairs. “If you don’t make the VA do something they will simply not do it until they are required,” said Rep. Miller. The VA Committee is tasked with authorization and oversight of the VA. “The Walorski bill will go a long way to shrink the drugs that could come out of VA and make it on the street,” said Rep. Miller. “There is no greater cause than to be in a position to stop lives from being taken and snatched away over something like an overprescribed drug that’s extremely powerful ,” said Rep. Walorski. “They automatically start giving you pills,” said Stephen Tarter, a Marion Va patient. Tarter is one of those vets who will be impacted by this legislation. He’s a patient at the Marion VA who says he was quickly hooked and overprescribed. … The VA responded to a request for comment via email: “VA will examine this proposed legislation. At this point, however, we do not have formal views on the bill.”

VA, DOD show Congress progress in e-health records interoperability (FedScoop)
Weeks after a tongue-lashing by a pair of House subcommittees, the officials working on electronic health record interoperability between the departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs say they’ve finally opened lawmakers’ eyes to the progress they’ve been making. Last week, IT staff from the VA and DOD, as well from the departments’ joint Interoperability Program Office, visited members of Congress to showcase the capabilities of the Joint Legacy Viewer (JLV), an interoperable EHR platform that lets the DOD send soldiers’ records to the VA as they move on to veteran status, according to Elaine Hunolt, co-director of the Interoperability Office for the Veterans Health Administration. In earlier hearings, the two departments described to Congress the progress they’d made on JLV, and the lawmakers mostly met the explanations with ridicule. But they really didn’t grasp the system the agencies’ officials were describing, Hunolt said. “They all admitted that they hadn’t actually seen the actual successful exchanges we have going on,” she explained Tuesday at the 2015 AFCEA Health IT Day. It’s the job of officials to make the systems behind what are essentially the nation’s two largest health care providers interoperable — a requirement they failed to meet by the Oct. 1, 2015, deadline established in the National Defense Authorization Act for 2014. But it’s crucial that they also “try to continue to educate members of Congress on what we’ve actually achieved and what these capabilities are,” she said. … With the recent progress the VA and DOD have made convincing Congress that the JLV is an in-progress, working solution — and especially now that Frank Kendall, undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics, confirmed last month that the two departments have met the requirements of the 2014 NDAA — the battle is anything but finished. Both behemoth departments are moving to modernized electronic health record-keeping systems — the Defense Healthcare Management Systems Modernization and the Veterans Health Information Systems and Technology Architecture Evolution — that will also have to be interoperable. That challenge, which drew the bulk of the concern from lawmakers during the hearing earlier this fall, must still be overcome.

VA adding leadership role to CIO office (Federal Times)
The Veterans Affairs Department’s Office of Information and Technology has gotten a lot of new blood recently — including a new CIO and CISO — and will be getting another new addition in the new year. On Jan. 10, Ron Thompson will be joining VA OI&T as the new principal deputy assistant secretary, leading the department’s day-to-day IT operations. Thompson comes to VA from the Department of Health and Human Services, where he served as the executive director of IT and infrastructure operations. Prior to that, he did stints at the IRS, Census Bureau and Treasury over the course of his 25-year career. “Ron’s breadth of hands-on experience in organizational design and transformation will bring new perspectives in partnership and creative problem solving,” VA CIO LaVerne Council said in an email to staff on Dec. 17, adding, “His years of service in the United States Army will help him ensure that the veteran remains the focal point of everything we do.”