January 8 Veterans News

January 8 Veterans News

VetsHQ News Update26% of veterans wait more than 30 days for appointments (WFLA)
When Louis Salvato was a Marine in the late 1960s, he had no idea he would develop liver disease and need medical help from the Department of Veterans Affairs. Now he has no idea why he’s had to wait more than two months to see a non-VA doctor for his illness. “It’s very frustrating,” Salvato said. Salvato is enrolled in the Veterans Choice program. It allows him to seek local medical treatment from the private sector in the Spring Hill area instead of driving all the way to Tampa’s James A. Haley VA Hospital. Health Net is the contractor the VA pays to set up appointments. “They’re actually taking longer than if you just went right through the VA,” Salvato complained. The national office of the Veterans of Foreign Wars is closely monitoring VA health care. It found 26% of the veterans seeking treatment from the private sector wait 30 days or longer for appointments. A senior legislative aid for the VFW said there are delays in part because the VA has only used the private sector as a safety valve – until now. “VA has traditionally wanted to be everything for every veteran,” Fuentes said. “And what the health care access crisis taught is that you know that’s not very plausible not very feasible for the VA to provide every instance of care to every veteran.” Another problem with the Choice Program, according to Fuentes, is the VA was not very forthcoming with providing data about how many people it would be sending Health Net’s way. Reached in California, Health Net would not discuss Salvato’s case. Instead, spokesman Brad Kieffer issued a statement saying, “Health Net was scheduling 34,000 medical appointments and fielding more than 230,000 phone calls monthly in support of the Veterans Choice program.” Health Net recently opened a service center in Tampa. It is currently training 200 associates and hopes to hire up to 500 people to assist veterans. One day after 8 On Your Side reached out to Health Net and aired a report, the company’s Tampa office contacted Salvato. The associate told him that he had seen the news story and would get this straightened out. A little later, Health Net California contacted Salvato. It set up an appointment for him with a doctor that he’s waited to see for more than two months.

Critics allege conflict of interest in VA care probe (USA Today)
The Department of Veterans Affairs launched an investigation last month of poor patient care at the Oklahoma City VA Medical Center, but a top deputy in the office in charge of the probe may have a conflict of interest — his younger brother is the medical center’s chief of staff. Dr. Edward Huycke, deputy of national assessments at the VA Office of the Medical Inspector in Washington, is the older brother of chief of staff Dr. Mark Huycke, who is accused of overseeing the failed care and ignoring earlier reports about it. The VA launched the probe after a USA TODAY investigation found at least five veterans suffering from life-altering consequences of failures in care at the facility, including terminal cancer, bone decay and other painful conditions. A doctor said she reported the cases to Mark Huycke last spring. The VA has declined to respond to questions about what Mark Huycke knew and when, and said in a statement Thursday that his older brother recused himself from the investigation. “The team lead for the Oklahoma City VA Medical Center investigation does not answer to, report to or coordinate with (Edward Huycke),” said the statement issued by VA spokeswoman Walinda West. She added that he and others on the team are in a different division. But House VA Committee Chairman Jeff Miller, R-Fla., believes the entire office should have been recused because those employees, whatever their position, are essentially investigating care overseen by the brother of a high-ranking official in their office. The VA Office of Medical Inspector bills itself as an “objective and independent” office responsible for investigating health care provided by the agency. Miller sent a letter to Secretary Bob McDonald Wednesday asking about potential family ties and demanding answers to a litany of other problems raised in USA TODAY’s investigation. He wants to know why the Oklahoma City VA has cycled through five directors in three years and what is being done to improve patient safety at the facility, which has continuously ranked among the worst in the country in recent years. He also asked why the facility is forcing veterans like George Washington Purifoy to drive six hours for treatment to a VA facility in Louisiana, an apparent violation of the Choice Act. Congress last year passed the law requiring the VA to allow veterans to get care in the private sector if their local VA could not meet their needs.

VA ‘Presumption’ regulation could help up to 15k Lejeune vets (Military.com)
The Department of Veterans Affairs expects up to 15,000 seriously ill veterans who served at Camp Lejeune, N.C., before 1988, when base drinking water was contaminated, to be helped by a faster-track compensation process proposed last month. But the promised acceleration in VA disability awards can’t begin until the proposed regulation becomes final, which could take at least another year to complete, VA officials said in a phone interview Tuesday. In this case, time is money.  Every month that passes before a final regulation takes effect is a month of compensation lost to ailing veterans of an older generation, most of them Marines. VA Secretary Bob McDonald announced in mid-December that eight medical conditions afflicting vets who served at Lejeune from August 1, 1953, through Dec. 31, 1987, are to be presumed the result of exposure to carcinogens and other harmful chemicals that fouled base water systems. The proposed “presumptive” diseases are: kidney cancer, liver cancer, non-Hodgkin lymphoma, leukemia, multiple myeloma, scleroderma, Parkinson’s disease and aplastic anemia/myelodysplastic syndromes. Making ailments presumptive moves compensation awards nearer to automatic. Diagnosed veterans still must file claims but they only need to show they served at Lejeune during the 34-year span for a necessary length of time. A minimum of 30 days is likely although officials won’t confirm that until a proposed regulation is published, which is expected by mid-2016. Without presumption, claims are adjudicated more slowly, with each claimant having to show a nexus between their disease and their service. The Navy Department estimates that 900,000 active duty and reserve component personnel were assigned to Lejeune while water was being contaminated by nearby storage tanks and a dry cleaning business. Roughly 500,000 of these veterans are believed still alive. Based on the prevalence of such illnesses in a population of that size, VA estimates fewer than 15,000 vets will qualify for compensation under the proposed regulation.  Also, 5000 survivors of deceased veterans are expected to qualify for death benefits due to these presumptive illnesses. … Since January 2011 more than 20,000 veterans have filed claims citing environmental hazards at Lejeune. Of the 13,213 veterans given decisions through November last year, only 864, or 6.5 percent, were granted compensation for illnesses tied to having served at Lejeune. Almost 8000 of these veterans are receiving VA compensation already for other service-connected conditions. So many Lejeune claims have been denied because ailments claimed are not linked to the pollutants. … VA has tracked claim outcomes for six of the eight diseases on the proposed presumptive list.  Of 2039 claims filed so far, only 311, or 15 percent, have been approved.  When the proposed regulation takes effect, the approval rate for these conditions should jump toward 100 percent.

Study: Transgender U.S. veterans suffer more illness than peers (Fox News)
Transgender U.S. military veterans are more prone to dozens of illnesses, from heart disease to depression and obesity, than are their nontransgender peers, a new study shows. An estimated 134,000 people are transgender veterans, experts estimate, more susceptible to mental conditions including post-traumatic stress disorder, alcohol abuse and suicide, the study said. Although transgender people are barred from serving openly in the U.S. military, more than 15,000 transgender people are estimated to be in the armed forces, according to the National Center for Transgender Equality in Washington, D.C. Transgender veterans are more likely than nontransgender veterans to fall sick with some 16 medical conditions, along with ten mental conditions, it said. HIV is diagnosed nearly five times more often and benign enlargement of the prostate nearly twice as often, the study said. The study compared about 20,000 veterans treated by the U.S. Veterans Health Administration (VHA) over a 17-year period. They included roughly 1,500 female and 3,500 male transgender patients, whose profiles were compared to about 15,000 nontransgender veteran patients. The reasons for the differences in the rates of illnesses could be “an unwelcoming environment for transgender veterans at many VHA facilities, lack of knowledgeable clinical staff to provide transgender healthcare, and conscious and unconscious bias from healthcare providers and administrative staff,” the study said. The findings point to a need to develop treatment programs targeted to the needs of transgender patients, it said. The VHA treats 8.3 million veterans each year, according to its website.

HUD, VA award $5.9 million for homeless Native American veterans (Fox23)
On Friday morning, HUD secretary Julian Castro announced the department, along with the Departmetn of Veterans Affairs, would give 26 tribes $5.9 million. The money would go to create permanent housing for homeless Native American veterans. Speaking at the Inter-Tribal Council of the Five Civilized Tribes winter meeting, the secretary outlined the award which would help out homeless Native American veterans. The announcement comes in relation to Opening Doors, a federal strategic plan to prevent and end homelessness. The money covers rental assistance, case management and clinical services to serve 500 Native American veterans. “By targeting resources directly to Tribes, we can better honor the service and sacrifice of Native American Veterans who now need a roof over their heads,” said Castro.  “These heroes deserve hope for a brighter future, and by offering permanent housing solutions, combined with needed services and case management, we can work with Tribes to end veteran homelessness.” HUD invited 30 eligible Tribes to seek Tribal HUD-VASH vouchers to help house and serve hundreds of Native American Veterans who are currently experiencing homelessness or at extreme risk of becoming homeless. Twenty-six Tribes, from Alaska to New Mexico, will deliver and manage the housing vouchers among their members who need them, on tribal lands. Since 2008, more than 79,000 vouchers have been awarded and approximately 90,000 homeless Veterans have been served through the broader HUD-VASH program. Rental assistance and supportive services provided through HUD-VASH are a critical resource for local communities in ending homelessness among our nation’s Veterans.  In FY2015, Congress authorized funding for a demonstration program in order to expand the HUD-VASH program into Indian Country and directed HUD to coordinate with Indian Tribes, tribally designated housing entities (TDHEs), and other appropriate tribal organizations on the design of this program, and to ensure the effective delivery of housing assistance and supportive services to eligible Native American Veterans.

Castor, Rubio blast VA over report detailing backlogged files (Tampa Bay Times)
One day after an audit blasted the Veteran’s Affairs office in St. Petersburg for allegedly leaving veterans’ personal information vulnerable to identity theft, elected officials from Florida called on the department’s top official in Washington to remedy the problem. In a letter sent Thursday to Veteran Affairs Secretary Robert McDonald, U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor said the issue of privacy at the VA has “tormented many of my friends and neighbors in Tampa Bay.” “I have heard stories of sloppy record keeping at this office for many years and the (inspector general) report bears this out,” the Tampa Democrat wrote. “This is unacceptable and must be addressed immediately.” Her letter also referenced a recent report by ProPublica that found more than 10,000 privacy violations at VA medical centers, clinics and pharmacies across the country since 2011. “It is clear that additional reforms are needed at the Department of Veterans Affairs to ensure our veterans’ records are treated with respect and that our veterans receive the care they were promised and earned,” Castor wrote. “As we have seen all too often recently, the VA has not met its responsibility to our veterans on a number of fronts.” U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, a Republican running for president, raised concerns about another finding in the inspector general’s report: a backlog of more than 41,900 mail packages containing unprocessed veterans’ claims materials at the St. Petersburg office. “The thousands of backlogged claims at the St. Petersburg VA is outrageous and intolerable,” Rubio said in a statement. “I hear every day from veterans who will wait years for a decision from the VA on their medical conditions, with the average appeal time being over 31/2 years. This is just another example of the lack of transparency and broken bureaucracy found at the VA.” Responding to the inspector general’s findings, VA officials said the records had been kept secure and under video surveillance. The department also issued a statement saying the St. Petersburg office had made “marked improvements” in the processing of mail.

New VA Greater Los Angeles Healthcare System director hired (Santa Barbara Independent)
Following several complaints about veteran healthcare throughout central and southern California, the Veteran Affairs Greater Los Angeles Healthcare System (VAGLAHS) on January 4 hired a new director, projected to begin work on January 24. Ann R. Brown, a Fellow of the American College of Healthcare Executives, will be filling the position of VAGLAHS Director, which has been vacant since December 1. VAGLAHS serves Los Angeles, Ventura, Kern, Santa Barbara, and San Louis Obispo counties. Brown will oversee healthcare for more than 90,000 veterans in the VAGLAHS service area, operating with a budget of $916 million. Brown has been part of VA for more than 19 years, most recently serving as the Director of the Jesse Brown VA Medical Center in Chicago, Illinois. In mid-December, 24th District Representative Lois Capps sent a letter to U.S. Secretary of Veterans Affairs calling for timely and accessible veteran services, including the filling of several vacant positions in the Greater Los Angeles Health System. Capps, along with two other representatives for Ventura County, also voted for a year-end budget deal recently signed into law by President Barack Obama which includes funding increases for veterans. Capps’ office could not confirm the bill contributed to the new hiring. Capps acted in response to several reports of understaffed and unreachable VA facilities in Santa Barbara County. Veterans in the Santa Barbara and Ventura areas report extremely long wait times and complicated bureaucratic processes, which impede proper therapy sessions and medical care. Santa Barbara’s VA clinics, on Calle Real and East Main Street, provide health care to 5,437 individual veterans. Capps’ office said she was pleased with the position being filled so shortly after she sent the letter to VA. VAGLAHS is one component of the VA Desert Pacific Healthcare Network offering services to veterans residing in Southern California. There are approximately 1.4 million veterans in its service area.

Louisiana couple sentence to year in veteran benefit case (SeattlePI)
A Concordia Parish couple has been sentenced to a year in prison apiece. U.S. Attorney Stephanie Finley in Alexandria said Thursday that 67-year-old Alfred Lewis and 64-year-old Rose Lewis were sentenced by U.S. District Judge Dee Drell. Prosecutors said they received more than $197,000 in illegal benefits over 10 years. Prosecutors said Alfred Lewis had served in the Air Force. He applied for veterans benefits in July 2003. But he and his wife, Rose, claimed they were not working when, in fact, Rose Lewis was earning more than $50,000 annually in Mississippi. Court records show that they entered a plea agreement in August.