January 21 Veterans News

January 21 Veterans News

VetsHQ News UpdatePalin takes heat from veterans for using son’s arrest, PTSD to criticize Obama (Fox News)
Sarah Palin is taking heat from veterans for seeming to point the finger at President Obama over mental issues her son may be dealing with following his Iraq war service. Her son Track was arrested earlier this week on domestic violence charges, and Palin publicly addressed the case Wednesday during a post-endorsement appearance on the campaign trail for Donald Trump. She appeared to link his alleged behavior to post-traumatic stress disorder – and used it to criticize Obama’s veteran policies. But Paul Rieckhoff, the head of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA), criticized the former Alaska governor’s comments Wednesday night. He tweeted: “We need more programs and less politics to battle PTSD.” Speaking with NBC News, he also said, “”It’s not President Obama’s fault that Sarah Palin’s son has PTSD.” He called PTSD a “very serious problem” and reportedly urged Palin not to “politicize” it. “I hope this doesn’t become a portable chew toy in a political campaign,” he said, according to NBC News. The comments touched off a Twitter exchange with other military servicemembers concerned about Palin’s remarks. One, who identified as a retired Army veteran, said her comments could cause “perceptual problems & future treatment issues” for those diagnosed with PTSD. Palin addressed the “elephant in the room” – her son’s arrest – at her first stop on the campaign trail for Trump after endorsing him Tuesday. “My son, like so many others, they come back a bit different,” she said in Tulsa, Okla. “They come back hardened. They come back wondering if there is that respect for what it is that their fellow soldiers and airmen and every other member of the military have sacrificially given to this country and that starts at the top.” Palin said military members look at Obama and question whether he knows the sacrifices they make to “secure America and to secure freedoms.” “So when my own son is going through what he is going through coming back, I can certainly relate with other families who kinda feel these ramifications of some PTSD,” she said. Track, a 26-year-old Iraq veteran, was arraigned Tuesday on charges of domestic violence assault, interfering with a report of domestic violence crime and possession of a firearm while intoxicated. According to the police affidavit posted by KTVA-TV, officers were called to the residence Monday night following two 911 calls – the first from Track’s girlfriend and the second from him. The woman claimed Track had “punched her in the face and that a firearm was involved,” according to police records. The charges against Track were filed the same day Palin appeared at an Ames, Iowa, rally to endorse Trump, the current GOP frontrunner.

VA secretary outlines ambitious goals for 2016 (Military Times)
Veterans Affairs officials want to speed the benefits appeals process, simplify their websites and hotlines, and fix lingering problems with outside care programs — all within the next 11 months. Department Secretary Bob McDonald unveiled an ambitious list of goals for his department in 2016 during a Senate hearing Thursday, saying the moves build on continuing reform efforts already underway. “Our goal is to be the No. 1 customer service agency in government,” he said. “We know we have a lot to do to get there.” Thursday’s hearing before the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee came at McDonald’s request, to provide more information to lawmakers about  the corporate-style MyVA restructuring launched more than a year ago. Many of those efforts so far have been internal planning steps, but McDonald is promising that veterans will see significant changes in their interactions with VA in the year to come. Several of the goals point to continued issues of contention between Congress and the department. The number of pending benefits appeals cases has ballooned to more than 400,000 in recent years, even as the first-time claims backlog has dropped by more than 400,000 cases. McDonald said he wants “a simplified appeals process, enabling the department to resolve 90 percent of cases within one year” by 2021. The move would likely limit veterans’ ability to continually update their disability evidence but would provide quicker resolution to a process that averages more than three years for a decision. The secretary also touted plans to expand health care options outside the department in coming months, in response to criticism from lawmakers over the slow and erratic implementation of the new VA Choice Card program. “Our objective is that by the end of 2016, a veteran can go wherever they want (for health care) and it will be paid for,” McDonald said. Doing that will require an overhaul of several outside care reimbursement programs, and consolidating them into a more efficient bureaucracy. But both of those goals will require congressional cooperation and action, commodities that are difficult given the partisan infighting on Capitol Hill and the shortened legislative session this election year. … Other department goals — such as updating the vets.gov website, modernizing VA contact centers and hotlines, increasing training for employees — won’t require outside help. McDonald promised cultural changes throughout the department, repeating promises to put veterans at the center of all programs and priorities. … McDonald promised to continue working closely with lawmakers in coming months, both on the proposals unveiled Thursday and ones coming as part of the president’s budget proposal, to be unveiled Feb. 9.

Rep. Slaughter secures audit of Veterans Choice Program (13 WHAM)
Congresswoman Louise Slaughter announced Thursday that she has secured an audit of health program designed to improve medical care for veterans in Rochester and across the country. This federal audit will cover the Department of Veterans Affairs’ implementation and management of the Veterans Choice Program. VCP was intended to allow veterans to receive care from local, non-VA health provider of their choice if they would otherwise be force to wait more than 30 days or travel more than 40 miles for care. However, after hearing from constituents that the program wasn’t providing adequate care, Rep. Slaughter has decided to push the Government Accountability Office to conduct a comprehensive review of the VA’s ability to implement and properly manage the program. “The Veterans Choice Program was created to ease access to care. However, after hearing concerns from my constituents, I want to make sure that the program works as it was intended. That is why I have asked the GAO to conduct this review,” said Rep. Slaughter. In summer 2014, more than 120,000 veterans were waiting more than 125 days for health care services.

Sexual trauma raises suicide risk among veterans (Fox News Health)
Men and women veterans who experienced sexual assault or repeated, threatening sexual harassment while serving in the military are at heightened risk of suicide, according to a recent U.S. study. Researchers with the department of Veterans Affairs found that men with a history of what the VA calls military sexual trauma (MST) are 70 percent more likely than fellow vets without such experience to commit suicide, and women veterans with MST are more than twice as likely as other female vets to do so. “The study found that those veterans who died by suicide were significantly more likely to be treated for mental health conditions that were related to their MST experience,” noted Susan McCutcheon, national mental health director for family services, women’s mental health and MST at the Veterans Health Administration. If mental health conditions like depression or post-traumatic stress disorder – which are themselves strong risk factors for suicide – stem from the MST experience, that may explain the connection between MST and suicide, said McCutcheon, who was not involved in the study but spoke on behalf of the VHA. The results also highlight the importance of MST awareness and associated mental health conditions as risk factors for suicide, McCutcheon told Reuters Health by email, as well as the potential benefits of mental health treatment that addresses these experiences and related mental health conditions. The study team, led by Dr. Rachel Kimerling at the VA Palo Alto Health Care System in Menlo Park, California, analyzed records for nearly 6 million men and 361,000 women veterans who received VA healthcare from 2007 to 2011 and were screened for military sexual trauma. They found that MST was reported by 1.1 percent of men and 21.2 percent of women. A total of 9,017 veterans died by suicide during this period, Kimerling and her colleagues report in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine. Among both men and women, suicide rates were higher among veterans who had reported MST, even after researchers accounted for other risk factors like other health conditions, rural residence and mental health conditions. Out of all the suicides during this period, the researchers calculated that for the men, between 25 and 61 could be attributed to MST and for women, that range was 26 to 49. This investigation represents one of the first population-based studies to establish sexual trauma as a risk factor for suicide in both women and men, write Kimerling and her colleagues, who were not available to comment on the study.

VA adopts new policy for same-sex spouses (Sun Times)
The U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs has adopted a new policy that ends practical discrimination against military veterans with same-sex spouses. As a result, the LGBT-litigation group Lambda Legal has dropped a pending lawsuit with the agency, since the new policy puts the VA in accordance with the U.S. Supreme Court’s Obergefell ruling last year, according to the Dallas Voice. “We are very pleased that now, nationwide, gay and lesbian veterans who have served their country and risked the ultimate sacrifice for their nation — all while facing discrimination against them — will have access to deserved and long-awaited benefits,” Lambda Legal Director of Constitutional Litigation Susan Sommer told the publication. Lambda Legal brought the suit on behalf of the American Military Partner Association in August of 2014 in federal court, based on the hodgepodge benefits that were recognized whether or not a state had legalized same-sex marriage, Windy City Times reports. Earlier this month, Lambda Legal told the publication its focus had shifted to birth and death certificates for LGBT parents, as well as the inclusions of gender identity and sexual orientation as protected classes under federal sex discrimination protections. “VA is dedicated to serving all eligible Servicemembers, Veterans and their families and providing them the benefits they have earned,” the agency says on its website regarding its policy. “We encourage all Veterans in same-sex marriages who believe they are entitled to benefits (including those whose claims were previously denied on a ground related to their marriage) to promptly apply for benefits.”

Senator calls for fixes to VA program in Indiana (nwi.com)
U.S. Sen. Joe Donnelly, D-Ind., has called on the government contractor operating the Veterans Choice program in Indiana to fix the delays that have left many Region veterans waiting long periods of time for health care appointments. In December, The Times reported that several Northwest Indiana vets were having trouble accessing the Veterans Choice program, which is supposed to allow veterans to seek care from local providers when the Veterans Affairs office can’t see them within 30 days or 40 miles. The vets reported being put on hold for excessive amounts time and not having their calls returned by the contractor, Health Net Federal Services. “I am concerned by reports indicating Hoosier veterans are having trouble accessing services through phone lines administered by your company,” Donnelly wrote Wednesday to Health Net President Billy Maynard, citing the recent Times article. “I understand Health Net Federal Services is working to overcome these issues. We share the goal of implementing an effective Choice Program, and I am committed to working with you to ensure that Hoosier veterans receive the timely and quality assistance they deserve.” Donnelly asked the Arlington, Va.-based company for the average hold time for Hoosier veterans trying to schedule appointments, the average total call time and what it is doing to reduce the waits and ensure that calls aren’t disconnected. The managed care provider in 2013 signed a five-year, $5.1 billion contract with the federal government to coordinate community-based care for veterans. “To serve veterans utilizing Veterans Choice, we are adding resources, including a new customer service center and customer service agents, and we continually refine both our operations and our training,” said Brad Kieffer, a spokesman for Health Net Federal Services. “We appreciate Congressman Donnelly’s support for the Veterans Choice program and the veterans who have so honorably and selflessly served our country, and we will promptly respond to his request.” Donnelly was among those who supported the 2014 Choice Act, which was designed to alleviate the long waiting lists for veterans seeking care at VA facilities. But the number of veterans waiting more than 30 days for an appointment has actually grown since the law was implemented. Northwest Indiana vets have to go to the outpatient VA facility in Crown Point for routine care and the Jesse Brown VA Medical Center on Chicago’s West Side for anything beyond that. “The Choice Act, as I’ve seen it, is almost a complete failure,” said Dan Orlich, a disabled Vietnam veteran who lives in Portage. “When you call in there, they take your information and they tell you they’re going to call you back. Most people don’t hear back in 30 days. A lot of money’s being spent, and nothing’s getting done.” “It’s a shame we veterans are being treated as second-class citizens,” he said. … “It’s overdue,” Tom Pappas, a Portage veteran and activist on veterans’ issues, said of the potential fixes to the Choice program. “These problems have been here since this whole thing started.”

Navajo Council bill seeks to expand benefit access to the Tribe’s veterans (KNAU)
Many Navajo veterans have limited access to federal and state health benefits, especially those who live in remote areas. A new bill under consideration by the Navajo Nation Council is designed to make the Navajo Veterans Administration more responsive to veterans’ needs. … The tribe’s VA is staffed by fewer than 30 people and many veterans complain about poor medical care. Estimates are unclear, but there could be anywhere from 10,000 to nearly 40,000 Navajo veterans. And that could mean as much as 12 percent of the tribe’s total population are veterans. The proposed Veterans Act would take the VA from the tribe’s human resources department and put it under the office of the president. Jamescita Peshlakai is the Navajo Nation’s veterans’ liaison. She says the bill would create an advisory council made up of veterans that would involve them directly in the tribe’s policymaking. “That would enable the Department of Veterans Affairs to have greater stature within the Navajo Nation government. It provides the opportunity for veterans to become more involved in the administration that would seek to provide them services,” Peshlakai says. Peshlakai says the bill doesn’t include additional funding for the VA, but if passed, President Russell Begaye would contribute carry-over funds to the agency. Peshlakai also says state money may be available. The Veterans Act will be considered by Navajo Council committees this week.

One of a kind prison program helps incarcerated veterans get benefits (KAZU)
Jerry Lytle’s story is a familiar one among veterans behind bars.  He never collected the benefits he earned from service in the Army, and once in prison, he didn’t realize he still could. “In 2004, I met up with another veteran who was getting benefits, and he said, ‘you know, you should get your benefits.  You’re entitled to them’,” recalls Lytle.  He’s serving 32 to life for murder.  Even so, he’s entitled to disability benefits because he suffers from PTSD and his exposure to Agent Orange in Vietnam. The VA pays less to veterans in prison.  At most Lytle can get $133.17 a month.  If he wasn’t incarcerated, his monthly payment would be $1059.09.  Still when he filed for disability, he says he got the run around. He didn’t give up, but it wasn’t persistence that finally worked.  It was a transfer to the Soledad Correctional Training Facility in the Salinas Valley, which is home to a unique inmate-run program. Inmates and Vietnam Veterans Ed Munis and Michael “Doc” Piper run a veteran service office (VSO) where they help incarcerated vets file for and fight for their VA benefits including disability, education and burial benefits for those who die behind bars.  Munis says this all started because of Doc. Munis is serving 25 to life for his wife’s murder.  But before that, he was a lobbyist in Sacramento working on veterans issues.    He says when he first got here he was too distracted with his appeal.  But eventually they worked on a plan to create this office, which made its way to the warden. “And the day after her read it, we were up and running,” says Munis.  The warden gave them a typewriter and a small filing cabinet.  Since then their office space has grown in to a large room just off the prison’s main corridor. Their work has also grown.  Beyond helping the veterans in this prison, they are also working with some incarcerated vets by mail at every prison in California and in 23 other states where word of their work has spread in newsletters.  Munis says most vets didn’t know they could still get benefits in prison. … On the two computers in their office, they’ve kept detailed records of their work.  Their numbers show over the past decade, they’ve helped about 1,000 incarcerated veterans get more than $15-million in benefits for themselves and their dependents.  Its work they do seven days a week, eight hours a day. “It’s a program I’m very proud of,” says Marion Spearman, the current Warden at Soledad CTF.   He says the CTF is a programing prison where inmates can pursue career education in fields like welding, fiber optics and construction.  So while he wasn’t in charge when the VSO started, it’s a natural fit for this prison. … He says in having a program like this there has to be a level of trust with the inmates, but also, “there has to be certain security controls in place.” So in the prison VSO, the inmates have computers, but no internet access.  They have a phone, but need authorization if they’re going to get a line out of the prison.  And their printer is locked in a cage so staff can review what they print. They also don’t have accreditation from the VA, which means they lack the authority to represent veterans in the claims process.  That’s where they rely on the outside from the Monterey County Office of Military and Veterans Affairs. “We can access and check status on appeals and help them with appeals on the outside,” says George Dixon, Director of the Monterey County Office of Military and Veterans Affairs. His office also helps the prison office by reviewing the inmate’s claims and submitting them to the VA.  Dixon says his job is not to judge these veterans for their crimes, but to help them get what they earned. … It’s why his office is working to develop a similar program at the neighboring Salinas Valley State Prison.  There they’ve trained seven inmates to help them identify veterans and start the VA paperwork. Back at Soledad CTF, inmate Ed Munis hopes to reach more veterans in a different way.  “I plan on paroling here.  I plan on continuing to do this until they put a tag on my toe, and bury me,” says Munis. His first chance at parole comes up in a couple of years.  If he gets out, he says he’d work to expand this program in prisons up and down the state.

Denver VA to test whether walking machine can help brain-injured vets (The Denver Post)
Five years ago, a bomb explosion in southern Afghanistan paralyzed Army Sgt. Dan Rose from the chest down. Doctors said he would never walk again. On Wednesday, at the Department of Veterans Affairs medical center in Denver, he proved them wrong. With crutches and a bionic walking machine, the brown-bearded young man rose from his wheelchair, strutted slowly across the auditorium with a metallic swoosh, pirouetted and strutted back. “It was crazy,” he said of standing and walking again. “Seeing people in the eye instead of the belly button. It was awesome.” Now, the VA office plans to study whether the psychological boost Rose got from standing upright can help veterans in Colorado suffering from traumatic brain injuries. Thanks to SoldierStrong, a nonprofit dedicated to providing advanced medical technologies to veterans, the Denver VA got the free exoskeleton suit to study whether it can help brains as well as bodies. The computer-driven walking machine normally costs $150,000 to $188,000. The exoskeleton, formally the Ekso GT device, will be tried on about 30 veterans in wheelchairs at first, and the VA hopes to have data by summer on its potential psychologic benefits. “I see the psychological and physical as being connected,” said Lisa Brenner, a VA research psychologist and mental illness clinic director. The program will evaluate “what it’s like for people to stand, talk to people eye to eye, participate in life events,” she said. “The world’s set up for people who are standing.” Rose remembers one drawback about standing again for the first time in his home. He could see the top of his refrigerator covered in dust.

Wounded veterans trained to fight online predators (Fox 13 News)
A career change is tough for anyone, but especially so for highly specialized combat veterans. Now, a federal program is training those wounded during those combat missions to fight a different kind of enemy: child sex predators. And their training begins in Pinellas County. The program is called the HERO Corps. HERO stands for “human exploitation rescue operative.” The Department of Homeland Security launched the program in 2012 and recently partnered with the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office to hold the first phase of training in St. Petersburg. FOX 13 met some of the recruits, who said they found a new way to serve their country. Sergeant Thomas Block was trained as an elite Army Ranger. In 2013, a suicide bomber in Afghanistan almost took his life. And Sgt. Block says — for awhile — took his life’s purpose. “I was thinking after I got hurt, there might not be the same kind of opportunity for me — to find the same value in a job as I had with the Rangers,” Block explained. “What I like to do as a Ranger is, I like to go find bad guys. And I was really good at it. And now I’ve got this opportunity with the HERO Corps.” On Tuesday, a class of 24 recruits for the program gathered at the Pinellas County Emergency Operations Center to begin 11 weeks of training.What do you think? Among them, Army Colonel Stephanie Gerber, who had what she would only describe as a “devastating experience” overseas, leaving her wondering if she could go on living. And then she heard about the HERO Corps’ mission. “The crimes against the children are so horrific,” Col. Gerber said. “It allows you to remove yourself from your own circumstances. You get to break free from your prison.” Ex-Marine Justin Gertner said he knows what’s ahead for the recruits, and what’s behind them. Gertner graduated from the HERO Corps’ inaugural class and now works for Homeland Security. “Everything you can think of that can hold some kind of media, we learn the forensics on it,” he explained. Last year, he helped put away Benjamin Cuadrado, a Lakeland man who filmed and distributed 70 videos of himself having sex with an infant and a toddler. It’s exactly the kind of bad guy these re-trained, re-purposed, rejuvenated soldiers look forward to hunting down. And in some cases, saving their own. “You look forward to getting out of bed in the morning. You look forward to having a purpose. Something that really matters. And that’s everything,” Col. Gerber said. After three weeks of training in Pinellas County, the recruits will move to the Federal Cyber Crime Center in Virginia to undergo some intense training on finding and collecting forensic cyber evidence.

Military buyers spur VA loan program to record year (Realtor.com)
A home loan program steeped in history continues to make it. The United States Department of Veterans Affairs, known as the VA, backed an all-time record 631,151 loans in fiscal year 2015, eclipsing the previous high-water mark set just two years prior. More and more veterans are using these flexible, $0 down loans to crack the housing market during a time of tight credit and limping wages. A good year for the industry was a great one for military buyers: VA purchase loans surged 19% year over year, according to recently released figures. To put that growth into perspective, the VA guaranteed more loans to buy homes last year (322,120) than it did total loans—whether they be purchase loans or refinances—in fiscal year 2010 (314,011). The outlook for this 71-year-old benefit program is bright, too. The population of younger veterans is expected to increase 36% over the next five years, according to a recent Deutsche Bank analysis. To be sure, VA loans aren’t the right fit for every veteran. But they’re also no longer on the sidelines. In fact, in many ways, these government-backed loans are arguably the most powerful mortgage product on the market. Greater awareness of the benefits—and the surprising safety—of VA loans has propelled market share in recent years. Credit guidelines for VA loans are generally more forgiving compared with conventional loans, and VA buyers don’t have to spend years scraping up a down payment. That one-two punch helps make homeownership possible for scores of veterans and military families who might otherwise miss out. The average VA buyer has about $7,000 to $8,000 in assets, according to the VA. These loans also carry no mortgage insurance and limit what buyers can pay in closing costs. VA loan growth comes as some longtime misconceptions about the program—along with legitimate shortcomings—continue to fade. Dogged for years by a reputation for sluggishness and bureaucracy, VA loans now keep pace with their mortgage counterparts, if not lead the way. In December, the average VA purchase loan closed in 51 days, just one day longer than the average conventional purchase, according to Ellie Mae. For each month of 2015, VA loans had the lowest average 30-year fixed interest rate and the highest closing success rate among the three major loan types (VA, FHA, and conventional). And in one critical area—foreclosure avoidance—this $0 down loan has become an industry leader. VA loans have had the lowest foreclosure rate of all loan types for 25 of the past 28 quarters, according to the Mortgage Bankers Association.