December 23 Veterans News

December 23 Veterans News

VetsHQ News UpdateVet on the VA: ‘I no longer trust them to fix me when I’m broken’ (USA Today)
Sometimes an affliction that’s right there, plain to see, is overlooked, despite the best intentions. So it was for Charles Hand and George Washington Purifoy, two men who served their country but whose country failed them. Both sought care at Veterans’ Affairs medical facilities in Oklahoma. And in their cases and others, medical professionals missed or misdiagnosed their conditions resulting in life-altering consequences. Hand and Purifoy are two of an untold number of veterans still suffering from shortfalls in care at the VA. Their stories suggest that the government’s attempted fixes have not yet translated into better health care for veterans at facilities across the country. The VA has struggled to meet unprecedented demand as new waves of veterans with complex needs return from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan at the same time Vietnam veterans are aging and requiring more care. Its failures have played out in crisis after crisis in recent years, from the benefit-claims backlog that reached more than a half million applications in 2013 to the revelation last year that patient wait-time records were manipulated while veterans died waiting for care. Former VA secretary Eric Shinseki stepped down, President Obama installed a new secretary, and Congress passed legislation trying to fix the agency. But on the front lines, it can be hard to tell the difference. The Oklahoma City VA Medical Center has had five directors in three years and is awaiting the appointment of a sixth. By the VA’s own statistics, the facility has consistently ranked among the lowest performing in the country — one out of five stars. Measures of patient safety — the rates of in-hospital complications and adverse events following surgeries and procedures — are among the highest of VA facilities across the country, as are mortality rates for patients suffering from pneumonia or congestive heart failure. The Oklahoma City VA also has among the highest turnover rates for registered nurses. When Purifoy, 65, originally complained of severe pain after radiation therapy damaged the bone under his nose, VA clinicians in Muskogee and Tulsa, Okla., thought it was a dental problem and sent him for root canals and other procedures. Now, he has no nose, no front teeth, and he’s still in debilitating pain. Last year, Congress passed the Choice Act designed to allow veterans to seek care in the private sector if their local VA could not meet their needs. Yet the Oklahoma City VA is forcing Purifoy to travel for treatment to a VA facility in Shreveport, La. — a six-hour drive from his home — even though a non-VA hospital is literally across the street. “I really can’t tell you how I do it,” Purifoy said. “I ignore the pain. I just know I’ve got to live one way or the other. I mean, I’m not going to roll over and die just because the VA’s not taking care of me and other veterans.”

Official: VA changes policy on declaring veterans dead (Military Times)
The federal government has acknowledged that it wrongly declared more than 100 veterans dead and suspended their benefit payments, and says it is changing its policy of confirming deaths. Mike Rieker, a 69-year-old Vietnam War Navy veteran who was among those wrongly declared dead, said his situation turned serious when he realized he might go weeks or more without a benefits check while the situation was ironed out. “I spent five minutes arguing on the phone with a lady about me being dead,” he said with a wry smile at a news conference Tuesday. Eventually, “I started looking around the house for things to sell,” he added. Republican U.S. Rep. David Jolly of Florida brought the issue to the Department of Veterans Affairs’ attention in a November letter. In response, the VA acknowledged that it had erroneously stopped benefits to 115 people from July 7, 2014, to April 1, 2015, because officials believed they were dead. Now, the department is “updating its process to request further confirmation of the beneficiary’s death before it terminates payments,” VA spokesman Randal Noller said in a statement to The Associated Press. When officials think a veteran is dead, the department will send a letter to his or her address and request confirmation of the death from a surviving family member, according to a Dec. 10 letter from the VA to Jolly’s office. If the VA doesn’t hear from the family — or from a veteran erroneously believed dead — only then will the department terminate payments, according to the letter.

Lawmaker: Another revelation the VA is failing Kansas veterans (Salina Post)
Congressman Tim Huelskamp (KS-01) reacted to a new investigative report that finds systemic problems at the Leavenworth and Topeka VA Medical Centers’ Eye Clinics. The report substantiates the allegations of unauthorized secret wait lists at the Leavenworth VA Medical Center Eye Clinic. Additional, VA bureaucrats were not adequately trained to use the VA scheduling software, and they did not consistently enter new eye care requests as required. Lastly, both Eye Clinics have not employed a Chief in 6 years. Huelskamp released the following statement on this report: “These disturbing findings further confirm that there is substantial work yet to be done to ensure our Veterans receive the care they deserve. The ongoing use of secret, unauthorized waiting lists, more than a year after top VA leadership promised otherwise, further prove the lack of accountability and leadership failures in Obama’s VA system. “As a leading member of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, I will continue to demand the VA hold accountable those responsible. Manipulating data to give the appearance of productivity is unacceptable, and I’m committed to ending the leadership crisis in Obama’s VA.”

Beyond the rental check, homeless veterans face other challenges (NPR)
The Obama administration says it wants to end veterans homelessness by the end of this year — but it’s not going to happen. That’s because, despite government support, many landlords remain reluctant to rent to homeless individuals. At the end of October, almost 6,200 homeless veterans had government vouchers to cover their rent, but they had yet to find landlords willing to accept them. Among those vets is Joseph Coles of Washington, D.C., where you’re lucky to get a one-bedroom apartment for less than $1,400 a month. “At one time you could get an apartment anywhere for nothing,” Coles says. “Now with so many people moving in there, we’re at the mercy of the landlords and apartment complexes. They can choose who they want and who they don’t want.” So Coles, who’s been searching since September, has yet to find a place. He’s in temporary transitional housing now but doesn’t know what he’ll do if an apartment doesn’t come through soon. “I shudder to think about that.” The problem is popping up everywhere, especially in tight rental markets like Washington, Los Angeles and San Francisco. In Miami, government vouchers will cover $900 a month in rent for a one-bedroom apartment, but those are hard to find. “We’re out there begging, pleading and doing whatever is necessary to persuade landlords to participate in our program,” says Ron Book, chairman of the Miami-Dade County Homeless Trust, which is trying to place 200 homeless vets by year’s end. Earlier this month the trust held a telethon with a local TV station, which produced dozens of promising leads. Book says they’re fighting not only a tight rental market but stereotypes, as well. “Quite candidly, look, there’s always going to be some hesitancy by landlords to house somebody that they perceive having lived on the streets,” Book says.

Casualty of care: Ex-Marine grapples with VA system in Alaska (Alaska Public Media)
The Department of Veterans Affairs in Alaska has made healthy strides in improving care over the last few years. But some patients still fall through the cracks. In the first of a two-part story, an ex-Marine explains his difficulties navigating care and benefits through the VA, and the effect its had on his life. Back in August, Scott Harrison was one of dozens of veterans at a listening session with VA Secretary Bob McDonald. Speaking from a microphone set up on the green astroturf of an indoor soccer-field, Harrison spoke candidly about the scale of misfortune he’s faced in his life, much of it stemming from problems accessing his be benefits through the VA in Alaska, he said. “I’ve got six years of absolute proof positive of the crap that’s gone on,” Harrison said, referring to phone-calls he’d started recording with VA staff. The conversations, he explained, contain misinformation and insensitivities he felt added insult to injury. “I’ve lost my home, I’ve had so many surgeries I can barely walk,” Harrison told McDonald. “From standing in this line for 30 minutes I will go home tonight, I will lay in bed for two or three days with pillows between my legs because of all the spinal fusions and damage I have.” … After three years of service in the Marine Corps, Harrison said his leg began freezing up. He’d fall to the ground, unable to get back up. It would sometimes happen multiple times a day. By his 40s it was severe. Harrison believes the leg issue is related to an old back injury that happened while he was constructing gun bunkers with the Marines in the early 1980s. … By 2007, doctors told him he needed urgent medical care, but he couldn’t get appointments at the VA’s regional office in Anchorage. This was the same period marking the height of dysfunction for the VA in Alaska before they launched a series of successful reforms. A 2011 Inspector General’s audit of 16 VA offices across the country ranked the Anchorage Regional office as tied for last in standards of care. Meanwhile, Harrison’s health declined, and he was fighting a messy property dispute in court. He cut back on work, selling off equipment and possessions to stay afloat financially. By 2013, the VA had him scheduled for a surgery to fix cervical disks in his neck, and the plan was to follow that up with a spinal fusion. Harrison had just enough money saved to make it through recuperation. “Well, that’s when we had the government shutdown,” he said. That delayed his next operation. But he still couldn’t work, and the eight-month period between surgeries wiped him out financially. Court records from February 2014, just a few weeks after his spinal fusion, show him facing eviction. And by then there was another backlog in healthcare appointments at the VA facility. It would 10 months before he started physical therapy. “Basically, I just laid on a bed in here,” Harrison gestured to the dimly lit room, about the size of a tool-shed. “I had to be taken out by ambulance several times because my muscles would just cramp and lock, and I couldn’t even physically get out of the bed.”

Paralyzed Marine turns to sled hockey for rehab, community (Fox News)
When Josh Sweeney stepped on an improvised explosive device (IED) in Afghanistan in October 2009, the Marine Corps Sergeant lost both legs above the knee. Now, the Purple Heart recipient is an accomplished athlete- scoring the U.S. National Sled Hockey Team’s game-winning goal to earn its third gold medal at the Sochi 2014 Paralympic Winter Games and receiving the inaugural Pat Tillman Award for Service at the 2014 ESPYS. Sweeney’s transition from Marine to injured veteran to team captain is just one example of the positive impact the growth of sled hockey has had on veterans and paralyzed athletes in the past decade. “It’s been a huge release playing with other disabled players, having people I can relate to, people I can look to for inspiration who are maybe having a harder time than myself but still pushing through all that just to be able to live,” Sweeney, 28, told Sweeney first played roller hockey in junior high school, then moved to ice hockey in high school and continued to play pick-up games when he was home in Phoenix on leave during his service years, which began in 2005. When he was at the Center for the Intrepid rehabilitation facility in San Antonio, Texas, after his injury, he learned about sled hockey and watched his first game. “They were flying around way quicker than I thought they could, shooting the puck, passing, communicating,” Sweeney, who now lives in Portland, Ore., said. “That’s when I realized that sled hockey is still hockey and would be the exact same sport and I wanted to be able to do something that I did before, after being injured.”

A woman’s mission to help her son benefits all veterans (KSL-Salt Lake City)
Shari Duval knows that dogs can heal. Duval was inspired to do something after her son, Brett Simon, returned from two tours in Iraq. Simon was a civilian K9 police officer before joining a special team whose main mission was to work with the Army. “I was chosen to work with explosive tracking dogs in Iraq. Once I arrived in Iraq in Baghdad, I was shipped out to Mosul, where I worked with the striker brigade working on the first tracking explosive dogs that were attempted in Iraq,” said Simon. Duval said she wasn’t prepared when her son came home diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury. “He was somebody different, he was not my son that went over there. He was completely changed, and that was a shock that I’ve never experienced before, so it was more of panic. What do I do? What can I do? How do I fix it?” Duval started researching methods on how to treat persons with PTSD and found that using service dogs was a promising solution. But at the time, there weren’t many organizations providing service dogs for veterans. In 2010, she founded K9s for Warriors to help her son and other military veterans with PTSD. To date, hundreds of veterans have received dogs and a new lease on life. Duval’s son is now the organization’s director of K9 operations and selects the dogs and directs their training. K9s for Warriors trains mostly rescue dogs to become certified service canines for military veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The training can take up to a year before the dogs are ready to help them cope with issues like controlling anxiety attacks or fear of public places. “We evaluate the dog for being sound around people, other dogs, noises, cars and riding in the bus,” said Simon. “We take them to the store and walk them around. If they keep progressing through that, then they spend the next three to four months getting their basic formal obedience done.” The staff will read through applications from veterans to pair them with the right dog. For three weeks, veterans live at the organization’s camp in Florida and go through several training courses with their dogs.

Illinois students raise $23,000 to help injured vet build home (Chicago Tribune)
When 1,800 John Hersey High School students welcomed a visiting Marine with a rousing standing ovation this month, Vietnam veteran William Dussling was taken by the teens’ respect and patriotism. “When I came back from Vietnam in 1968, the whole country was confused, and it was a difficult time for returning veterans,” said Dussling, a Township High School District 214 school board member. “There’s nothing more important to a returning vet than appreciation and support from the community,” Dussling said. Dussling joined forces with Hersey students and staff this month in presenting a $23,000 check to Lance Cpl. Cody Evans, 31, who lost both his legs while on patrol in Afghanistan, and who will use the funds toward the cost of building a handicapped-accessible house in his hometown of Chattanooga, Tenn. “This is amazing…it just blew all my expectations,” said Evans, who was honored at the Arlington Heights high school’s holiday assembly earlier this month. U.S. Army Sgt. Jason Smith, 30, who also lost both of his legs while serving in Afghanistan, was awarded a $23,000 check last year at Hersey to help make his home in Tennessee handicapped accessible. This month, he returned to the northwest suburban high school accompanied by Evans, explaining how the money the students raised has allowed him to equip his home with needed features, such as installing a roll-in shower, and widening the doorways. “It’s amazing that these kids care so much at such a young age, and they show so much patriotism,” Smith said.