VA can’t afford drug for veterans suffering from Hepatitis C (CBS News)
On Tuesday, a Senate report found Gilead Sciences, which makes a cure for a fatal form of hepatitis, is more interested in profits than patients. The cure was invented under the leadership of a celebrated doctor in the Department of Veterans Affairs, but at $1,000 a pill, even the VA can’t afford to save the lives of veterans who need it. In 2013, Vietnam veteran Zion Yisrael was told he had five years to live. He has stage 4 liver disease, caused by hepatitis C — which has infected as many as 230,000 veterans. Most veterans contracted it in Vietnam where it was spread by battlefield blood transfusions and vaccinations. “The longer it goes, the harder it is to treat,” he said. After decades of suffering, earlier this year, Yisrael was overjoyed to learn there’s a cure. “I felt like my prayers were answered,” he said. The drug — sofosbuvir — is sold as Sovaldi and Harvoni — and claims to cure up to 99 percent of hepatitis C patients. But there’s a catch, the retail price for a 12 week treatment is $84,000. The Department of Veterans Affairs gets a 50 percent discount, but even with that the VA told Yisrael they can’t afford to give it to everyone who needs it — including him. “Come back next year,” he recalled them saying. “And all the time I’m thinking about that, well, my condition is getting worse.” Dr. Raymond Schinazi founded the company, Pharmasset, and led the scientific team that discovered sofosbuvir. He also works for the Department of Veterans Affairs and has since 1983. He said he is only a 7/8th’s government employee. So what he does with his remaining time is up to him. He said he is spending less than 1/8th of his time on private companies. “Well, even less than that. I’m very efficient,” he said Dr. Schinazi made more than $400 million when he sold his company for $11 billion to pharmaceutical giant Gilead in 2012. When asked if he could see how that looks to an average veteran, Dr. Schinazi responded: “I’m sorry you’re taking it personally.” If you’re surprised that a government scientist can make that kind of money, given federal laws surrounding conflicts of interest, so were we. CBS News asked Dr. Schinazi if anybody ever questioned the arrangement that allows him to become very wealthy while working 7/8th’s of his time with the government. “Nobody has questioned anything yet,” he replied. “I think I’ve done everything, I’ve disclosed everything to the VA.” The VA declined CBS News’ request for an interview, but approved the arrangement and in a statement said: “Federal employees are allowed to invest in private companies, provided all conflict of interest rules are followed.”
VA Choice Program expands eligibility (Military Times)
The Veterans Affairs Department has announced new eligibility criteria for the Veterans Choice Program that should allow more veterans to access private health services closer to home. Department officials said Tuesday that VA staffers have been given broader flexibility to determine eligibility for the Choice program if they believe a veteran faces an “undue burden” while traveling for treatment at a VA facility, such as a geographic barrier, environmental factors, a severe medical condition or a need for frequent care, such as chemotherapy or tests that can be done quickly closer to home. The changes, which are effective immediately, also include an alteration of the program’s 40-mile distance standard from any VA medical facility to include at least 40 miles of driving to a VA facility with a full-time primary care doctor. That change alone will open the program to about 160,000 more veterans. And the new rules also open eligibility to any veterans who must travel by air, boat or ferry to their nearest VA facility. In their announcement, VA officials said the change will expand the program, established in late 2014, which allows veterans to see a civilian health care provider if they live in a remote area or can’t get an appointment at a VA facility within 30 days.
See also: New VA Choice Program rules effective Dec. 1 (VetsHQ)
Bill would let VA recoup improper relocation payments (Military Times)
New legislation proposed by the chairman of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee would allow VA officials to take back any employee relocation payments deemed improper or illegal. The proposal would apply to past or future payouts and comes in direct response to a decision by VA leaders not to try to recover almost $400,000 in relocation expenses paid to a pair of department administrators who were later demoted and reassigned for abuse of power. Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., the committee chairman, has criticized VA for that inaction, and publicly supported firing the two employees instead of demoting them. “If VA is ever going to reform itself into an organization worthy of the veterans it is charged with serving, it cannot tolerate corruption within its ranks,” he said in a statement Tuesday. “Yet that’s exactly what the department did.” Last month, VA officials removed two regional office directors — Diana Rubens in Philadelphia and Kimberly Graves in St. Paul, Minnesota — from their posts in response to an internal investigation that found they misused their authority to gain promotions and collect thousands of dollars in questionable moving expenses. For Rubens, that totaled almost $275,000 for a move from Washington, D.C., to Philadelphia, including losses related to the sale of her home. For Graves, it was nearly $130,000. VA officials have suspended the home sale reimbursement program because of concerns, even though the payouts are still available to federal workers in other departments. But they told Miller in a letter last month that they do not plan to seek reimbursement for the disputed expenses, citing shaky legal ground. Miller called that absurd. “VA’s handling of this matter is akin to letting bank robbers off the hook with a mere slap on the wrist while allowing them to keep the stolen money,” he said. “If, as VA officials have claimed, the department truly lacks the legal authority to recoup the money Rubens and Graves benefited from as part of their scheme, we aim to fix that with this bill.”
Senator urges action as COLA deadline approaches for seniors, vets (VTDigger.org)
With one month to go until seniors and veterans face a rare zero Cost-Of-Living Adjustment (COLA), Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and other senators Tuesday urged action on the Senate Floor to pass the SAVE Benefits Act. Cosponsored by Leahy, the bill would boost Social Security and veterans benefits by ending tax subsidies for multi-million dollar corporate bonuses. If Congress does not act, seniors and veterans will face a zero COLA on January 1st. The Seniors and Veterans Emergency Benefits Act (SAVE Benefits Act) would provide about 70 million seniors, veterans, people with disabilities and others an emergency supplemental payment of about $581. This payment is equal to 3.9 percent of the average annual Social Security benefit — the same percentage raise that CEOs at the top 350 firms received last year. The cost of the bill would be covered by closing a tax loophole allowing corporations to write off executive bonuses as a business expense for “performance pay.” Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) also supports the bill, whose chief sponsor is Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.).
Congress looking to improve pain management for veterans (National Pain Report)Congress is moving legislation that would change how the VA manages Veterans in pain, with particular focus on prescription opioids. Introduced by Representative Gus Bilirakis (R-FL), H.R. 4063, the Promoting Responsible Opioid Management and Incorporating Scientific Expertise Act (PROMISE Act) is intended to help Veterans by promoting safety, patient advocacy, and better access to quality care. The legislation is gaining support from both Republicans and Democrats. This PROMISE Act is expected to increase safety for opioid therapy by a) requiring the VA and DOD to update their Clinical Practice Guidelines for Management of Opioid Therapy for Chronic Pain, b) having VA opioid prescribers gain access to enhanced pain management and safe opioid prescribing education and training, and c) having the VA increase information sharing with state licensing boards. “The tragic death of Marine Corp. Veteran Jason Simcakoski in the Tomah, Wisconsin VA Medical Facility prompted the need for Congressional action,” said Congressman Bilirakis. “This August, nearly one year from Jason’s death, the Office of Inspector General released a report that concluded Jason’s cause of death was due to mixed drug toxicity and the combination of various medications was the plausible mechanism of action for a fatal outcome. In light of this unfortunate and possibly avoidable tragedy, I am proud to introduce the PROMISE Act. This legislation will further my efforts to help our Veterans receive the quality care they have earned. My PROMISE Act will provide our Veterans safer, more personalized care to deal with the physical and mental wounds they are facing and will help improve efficiency at the VA.”
Lawsuit: Comcast fired veteran with panic disorder after he asks to use service dog (The Oregonian)
Even before Comcast Corp. announced a major hiring initiative this year to help thousands of military service members find jobs with the media and technology giant, Army veteran Blake Inman already was on board. Hired in 2011, Inman was working as a Comcast sales representative in the Portland area and doing his job well enough to earn a company-paid vacation to California last year. That’s when things went south for Inman, who suffers from diagnosed panic attack disorder. According to a recent lawsuit, Inman had asked his employer to accommodate his disability by allowing him flexible medical leave when panic attacks occurred, and Comcast had done so. Inman has a service dog, a German Shepherd named Freedom, that senses oncoming attacks in time to allow him to take medication. On March 4, 2014, the suit says, Inman submitted a request, supported by a doctor’s certification, to bring the dog to work as an accommodation. Two days later, the company flew Inman and a guest to California for a vacation awarded in recognition of outstanding sales work. The next day, company representatives summoned him to a conference room at the hotel where he was staying and “aggressively interrogated him about why he brought Freedom on the award vacation.” Shortly thereafter, the suit alleges, the company put Inman on paid administrative leave while also approving Family Medical Leave Act leave for him to run until Aug. 25, 2014. On June 16, with two months of leave remaining, Inman was fired. Now he’s suing his former employer. In a complaint filed in Multnomah County Circuit Court, Inman alleges disability discrimination and seeks $550,000 in damages. Two Comcast subsidiaries, Comcast Cable Holdings and Comcast Cable Communications Management, are named as defendants.
San Diego VA healthcare director to leave (San Diego Union-Tribune)
The director of the massive Veterans Affairs medical system in San Diego is leaving for the civilian sector. Jeff Gering, in the top administrator job since May 2012, told a VA advisory board in a recent memo that he is going to Family Health Centers of San Diego as vice president of strategy and support services. Gering departs Dec. 24. after a long career with the VA. There’s no word yet on who will replace him. He leaves behind a San Diego health care system serving 82,700 veterans, with an operating budget of $650 million. Gering shepherded the San Diego VA through a tough three-year period. In 2014, news reports revealed that some VA hospitals were faking patient wait times to improve records and that some patients died waiting for care. The San Diego VA was not implicated, but the federal agency’s name was smeared nationally and executives came under intense scrutiny from Congress. In San Diego, all this came during an avalanche of new patients, as troops who served in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars were discharged and turned to the VA for care. Steve Arends, co-chairman of the One VA advisory board in San Diego, called Gering an “inspirational leader” and said he is disappointed to see him leave the VA. “He managed by walking around. He is engaged in all the clinics all the time. I live in Chula Vista, and he is down here at the clinic frequently to make sure it’s running properly,” said Arends, a Navy veteran. During Gering’s tenure, the VA bested community opposition to placing a residential recovery center for Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans across from a school. The Aspire Center opened near Old Town in early 2014. “Jeff did a great job of channeling everyone’s energies in the right direction,” Arends said.
DHS announces free cybersecurity training for vets (FEDweek)
DHS has announced it has teamed up with a non-profit organization, Hire Our Heros, to give vets access to the Federal Virtual Training Environment where they can pick up in-demand cybersecurity skills. Cybersecurity only continues to grow in importance throughout the federal government and private sector, with a sustained skills gap that can be difficult to close due to the high level of training and aptitude needed. Vets can be a perfect fit in many ways for transitioning into cybersecurity roles and DHS bills FedVTE as an online, on-demand training system that provides employees at all levels of government with access to courses on cybersecurity – providing a good place to start. For example veterans can access free cybersecurity training and certification prep courses that build the skills needed to be competitive for cybersecurity jobs across the country. Training topics include ethical hacking and surveillance, risk management, and malware analysis, and certain courses align with a variety of IT certifications such as Network +, Security +, and Certified Information Systems Security Professional, DHS said. Is said that veterans with an email address ending in “.gov” can register and begin taking courses simply by visiting https://niccs.us-cert.gov/training/fedvte. If not a government employee, vets need to verify veteran status through https://hireourheroes.org/veterans-training/.
Sen. Joni Ernst retires from Iowa National Guard (Army Times)
Joni Ernst has retired after 23 years in the military. Ernst, one of Iowa’s two Republican U.S. senators and the first female combat veteran in the Senate, officially ended her service in the Iowa Army National Guard on Monday, the last day in November. “Today is my first day as a full-fledged civilian,” Ernst told The Des Moines Register in a telephone interview Tuesday. “It was one thing I had stated I would do during my campaign. Obviously, serving as a United States senator, it does take a lot of time, a lot of energy. … And of course I would love to spend more time with my family, as well.” Ernst’s Iraq War experience and ongoing service were central to her political rise. It helped set her apart in a crowded GOP primary for the U.S. Senate in 2014, then helped secure a general election victory over Democrat Bruce Braley. Military affairs will continue to be a top priority, she said. She serves on the Senate’s Armed Forces and Homeland Security committees. Her first speech on the Senate floor was to introduce a bill on mental health services for veterans. Until September 2014, Ernst was commander of Iowa’s largest battalion. In 2003 during the Iraq War, she and her soldiers drove supply convoys from Kuwait into Iraq, conducting 402 missions comprising 2,091 loads and 230,728 miles driven, records show. She was assigned over the years to units in locations across the country — including St. Louis, Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, Kansas and several locations in Iowa — and has held many duty assignments. Her most recent position was deputy chief of staff at the headquarters at the Iowa National Guard’s Joint Force Headquarters in Johnston. She ran special assignments for the adjutant general and chief of staff.
Donald Trump feels ‘guilty’ for never having served in Vietnam (WBT-Charlotte)
In a small town at the base of New Hampshire’s White Mountains, in front of a relatively small crowd, Donald Trump shared some unusually personal stories at a rally Tuesday night. While the billionaire is accustomed to delivering speeches to thousands of screaming supporters, he decided to take questions from the crowd of roughly 900 who braved freezing temperatures and icy roads on Tuesday night. The first: what made the successful businessman decide to run for president? Trump turned reflective as he mentioned the Vietnam War. “I love the country. I’ve seen what it can do,” he said. “I didn’t serve. I haven’t served. And frankly I had deferments because of college, like a lot of people did…I always felt a little bit guilty.” He also cited a high draft number and “a foot thing” for not being drafted. That guilt continued to gnaw at him, he said, prompting him to donate money to build the Vietnam Veterans Plaza in New York, “as a way of making up,” and eventually to run for president. Trump contributed $1 million in matching funds to build the memorial in 1983. The mogul also doled out some parenting advice, telling a young man to keep his future kids away from drugs and alcohol.
Pentagon’s chief investigator resigning in January (Military.com)
The head of the Pentagon’s investigative office, Jon T. Rymer, said Monday he is resigning, effective in January. Rymer, who was confirmed by the Senate two years ago as the Pentagon’s inspector general, said in a written statement that he plans to volunteer with a veterans’ service organization before eventually returning to the financial services industry where he has worked for most of his career. Rymer called his resignation a difficult decision but did not elaborate. He said his principal deputy, Glenn Fine, will take over. Among other work, the inspector general’s office is probing allegations by intelligence analysts at the U.S. Central Command that senior military officers there manipulated conclusions of intelligence reports on the war against the Islamic State to exaggerate progress. The inspector general also is investigating allegations of misconduct by Army Lt. Gen. Ron Lewis, who was abruptly fired Nov. 12 as senior military assistant to Defense Secretary Ash Carter.
Judge: 40-foot cross war memorial not a govt. endorsement of religion (The Washington Post)
A federal judge declined Monday to order the removal from public property of a 40-foot, cross-shaped war memorial in Bladensburg, Md., asserting that the monument is “secular” and that a government agency has nonreligious reasons for maintaining it. In a 36-page ruling, U.S. District Judge Deborah K. Chasanow ruled unequivocally against the American Humanist Association’s bid to have the monument torn down or modified on the grounds that it violates the First Amendment ban on the government’s establishment of religion. Chasanow wrote that the monument — which stands at Maryland Route 450 and U.S. Route 1 and is sometimes called the “Bladensburg Cross” or “Peace Cross” — is “not a governmental endorsement of religion,” although she conceded that the Latin cross “is undeniably a religious symbol.” “The Monument and Veterans Memorial Park are secular war memorials that host numerous commemorative events,” Chasanow wrote. She added that the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission’s ownership and upkeep of the cross was “driven by a secular purpose, maintaining and displaying a ‘historically significant war memorial’ that has honored fallen soldiers for almost a century.” The controversy over the memorial dates back some years, when the American Humanist Association, which advocates for civil liberties and civil governance, called for the Park and Planning Commission to remove the cross. The group later filed a lawsuit seeking the same result. Monica Miller, senior counsel at the American Humanist Association, said she was “disappointed” with the judge’s decision and was considering whether to appeal.
Soldier who lost all 4 limbs hopes book inspires others (ABC News)
A soldier who lost all four limbs during an explosion in Afghanistan hopes to inspire others with his story of how he recovered from his injuries and got on with his life partly by helping other amputees. Travis Mills is raising his family, delivering motivational speeches and helping other wounded warriors through his foundation. With his book, “Tough As They Come,” he’s added author to his accomplishments. “My message is pretty clear. Never give up. Never quit. Find your motivation. Find your goals. And keep moving,” he said Tuesday. He joked with people at a bookstore, patiently signing books with a Sharpie, using his prosthetic hand. He’s right-handed and the prosthesis is on the left hand, making it even more difficult to write. Mills, 28, was an Army staff sergeant with the 82nd Airborne Division on his third deployment when an improvised explosive device detonated when he dropped his backpack on the ground during a foot patrol on April 10, 2012. The blast disintegrated his right arm and leg. His other leg was left dangling and his remaining wrist was shredded.
Minnesota will allow state employees leave to help with veterans’ mental health (Grand Forks Herald)
Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton has taken executive action to allow state employees to take leave time to train mental health counselors for military veterans through the American Red Cross. Under current law, state employees are allowed to take up to 15 days of paid leave per year to provide specialized disaster relief services. But training mental health counselors for veterans was not previously recognized by the state as specialized disaster relief service. Recognizing that the need for mental health counselors for military veterans is significant both in Minnesota and throughout the United States, the order directs Minnesota Management and Budget to recognize the training as an appropriate use of leave time for state employees.
Wal-Mart launches campaign, gift to fund veterans charity (Military Times)
Arkansas-based Wal-Mart Stores Inc. plans to give up to $1.5 million to a charity that provides housing for families of veterans who are in military or veteran hospitals. The gift announced Tuesday includes a donation of $500,000 to the Fisher House Foundation and up to $1 million more through a campaign called Holiday Sing to Salute Military Families. The company says it will donate $100 for every video of a holiday greeting or holiday song posted to social media sites with the hashtag #Sing2Salute before Dec. 22. Wal-Mart says the initial $500,000 donation will be used for home improvements, holiday celebrations and gifts for the families. The additional donations will pay for families to stay at the more than 60 homes nationwide while veterans receive medical care at nearby hospitals.
2 Massachusetts teens charged in murder of Vietnam veteran (WBZ-Boston)
Two teenagers have been arrested in connection with the murder of a Vietnam veteran in New Bedford, Mass., last weekend. Donald DePina, 66, was driving a cab Saturday night when he was found shot in the parking lot at Brooklawn Park around 11 p.m. He was rushed to St. Luke’s Hospital, where died about an hour later. Two teens, a 16-year-old and 18-year-old Alexander Mills of New Bedford, were arrested Monday night, according to Bristol County District Attorney Tom Quinn. Mills tried to cover his face in court Tuesday as prosecutors detailed the crime. They drove to a park, where police say Mills shot DePina twice in the head, then dumped the body and took the cab which was equipped with a video camera. “The defendant is actually seen on video operating the vehicle subsequent to the death,” said prosecutor Patrick Bomberg. “This was a brutal murder of an innocent man,” said Bristol County District Attorney Tom Quinn. DePina’s family has set up a GoFundMe page to help raise money to pay for his funeral and burial. “Donald DePina was an unconditionally loving and devoted father, grandfather and uncle who was selfishly taken from his family far too soon,” his family said in a message on the page. “This tragedy occurred while he was driving his cab, a job he loved. He was an extremely proud Vietnam Veteran who was dedicated to helping other veterans of all eras. He was the former Director of Veterans’ Services for the City of New Bedford. The entire community will suffer from (his) loss, especially his immediate family.”