February 18 Veterans News

February 18 Veterans News

VetsHQ News UpdateThe VA continues to deny Agent Orange benefits (Pacific Standard)
The Department of Veterans Affairs has once again turned down an effort by Navy veterans to get compensation for possible exposure to Agent Orange during the Vietnam War. In a recently released document, the VA said it would continue to limit benefits related to Agent Orange exposure to only those veterans who set foot in Vietnam, where the herbicide was sprayed, and to those who were on boats in inland rivers. The VA compensates these veterans for a litany of associated illnesses, including diabetes, various cancers, Parkinson’s Disease, peripheral neuropathy, and a type of heart disease. Advocates for some 90,000 so-called Blue Water Navy veterans who served off the coast of Vietnam have been asking the VA for more than a decade to broaden the policy to include them. They say that they were exposed to Agent Orange because their ships sucked in potentially contaminated water and distilled it for showering, drinking, laundry, and cooking. Experts have said the distillation process could have actually concentrated the Agent Orange, which contained the toxic chemical dioxin and was used to kill vegetation and deny enemy cover. … The United States Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims last April struck down VA rules that denied compensation for sailors whose ships docked at certain harbors in South Vietnam, including Da Nang. Those ports, the court determined, may have been in the Agent Orange spraying area. The court ordered the VA to review its policy. But the VA largely stood by its old policy and once again asserted that there’s no scientific justification or legal requirement for covering veterans who served off the coast. “Environmental health experts in VA’s Veterans Health Administration have reviewed the available scientific information and concluded that it is not sufficient to support a presumption that Blue Water Navy Veterans were exposed to Agent Orange,” the VA said in a fact sheet. Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-Connecticut), the ranking member of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, criticized the VA’s decision. “Rather than siding with veterans, VA is doubling down on an irrational and inconsistent policy,” he said in a statement. “Young sailors risked their lives during the Vietnam War, unaware that decades later, they and their children and grandchildren would still feel the toxic effects of exposure. Veterans who served offshore and in the harbors of Vietnam were exposed and deserve the presumption of service connection for Agent Orange-related diseases.” Blumenthal and others are seeking adoption of the Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act, which would ensure that all vets exposed to Agent Orange are compensated. The VA opposes the legislation, as it has several previous iterations dating back to 2008. The VA’s new review rejecting benefits relied on a 2011 report by the respected Institute of Medicine, as well as other published research, according to the agency’s fact sheet. The Institute of Medicine report said there was no way to prove Blue Water vets were exposed to the chemicals, but it identified plausible routes that Agent Orange could have traveled out to sea and into a ship’s distillation system. Although military policy at the time recommended against distilling water closer than 10 miles to shore—where the chemical concentration would have been highest—veterans said doing so was often unavoidable, and their commanding officers routinely ordered it. The VA said it is working with veterans groups to “initiate a groundbreaking study of Blue Water Navy Veterans health outcomes. We hope to have data gathered and analyses published in 2017.”

Learn more about the recent update for Vietnam Navy veterans
Learn more about Agent Orange and herbicides

Ohio senators urge quick action on Cincinnati VA probe (Stars and Stripes)
Ohio’s U.S. senators on Wednesday urged quick federal action to probe allegations about mismanagement and declining veterans’ care at the Cincinnati VA hospital. Sen. Rob Portman, of the Cincinnati area, commented on a WCPO-TV and Scripps News Washington Bureau report that nearly three dozen current and former medical center employees have expressed urgent concerns about quality of care. They blame cost-cutting and other practices they said have reduced access to care and raised safety questions. “These are very troubling allegations,” Portman, a Republican, said after speaking at the Queen City Mobile Summit focused on tech startups and other small businesses. “Our veterans deserve the best health care.” Sen. Sherrod Brown, a Cleveland Democrat, said the accusations “are appalling” and that veterans’ care is a top priority. The Department of Veterans Affairs said recently it has opened an investigation into its Cincinnati hospital. It offered little detail. “I fully support the Inspector General’s investigation and I will work to ensure that it is completed quickly and thoroughly,” Brown, who is on the Senate veterans’ affairs committee, said in a statement. “This can’t be just another report that gets filed away on a shelf.” Portman said he’s reached out to the Senate committee on veterans affairs and that he could also “move on it separately” with the permanent subcommittee on investigations. He also asks veterans to share their experiences at a veterans’ issues portal on his Senate website. The hospital annually delivers medical care to more than 43,000 veterans from southwest Ohio, Kentucky and Indiana. A message for comment was left there Wednesday. Jack Hetrick, who oversees the VA’s regional network for Ohio, told The Cincinnati Enquirer he was limited in what he could say about the VA probe, other than that “they have been reviewing a number of employee allegations about certain things at the hospital.” The VA said in its recent statement that it has temporarily shifted oversight of the Cincinnati medical center to another region.

VA says suicide hotline improvements were in the works (KCEN)
Improvements were underway at the Veterans Affairs suicide hotline well before the VA inspector general issued a report last week that faulted the service for failing to help some veterans, VA Deputy Secretary Sloan Gibson said Wednesday. Responding to a report that found some calls made to the Veterans Crisis Line in 2014 went to voicemail after being routed to backup facilities run by contractors, Gibson said the Veterans Crisis Line, headquartered in Canandaigua, New York, is “staffed by committed, hard-working employees” who save lives every day. “It is important for veterans and our key stakeholders to know that VA undertook actions to strengthen Veterans Crisis Line operations long before publication of the inspector general report,” Gibson said in a blog post on the VA’s website. The VA IG launched its investigation in early 2015 after receiving complaints from callers who said they had been placed on hold, did not receive immediate help or were routed to voicemail when they tried to use the service. The investigation found that at least 23 calls in 2014 went to backup centers, where they went to voicemail and were never returned. The IG also found that the centers responsible for the problem — contractors hired to provide backup services when the VA-run Crisis Line is operating at peak — may not have trained their counselors adequately to answer calls from those experiencing a mental health crisis. Gibson said the VA is moving to hire 68 additional responders for the service, improving management and oversight of its backup centers and upgrading the phone system technology to improve the system and accommodate more calls. He added that since 2015, VA has:

  • Hired several key employees to manage the line, including a new director with social work experience and a director of business operations with call center experience.
  • Strengthened staff training for employees involved in crisis response.
  • Implemented monitors to improve quality assurance.
  • Renovated nearly half the operational work area to accommodate more staff.

“These improvements are increasing our capacity to speak with the veterans that need us most,” Gibson said. The IG report drew criticism Tuesday from Republican lawmakers, who said the failures show the VA must work harder to improve its suicide programs. They added that the department also must change its culture to “get out in front of problems rather than constantly react” to crises. … Since it was established in 2007, the Veterans Crisis Line has received more than 2 million calls and is credited for saving 53,000 lives. Gibson said VA is working hard to ensure that every veteran who uses the line will be helped promptly.

Veteran wins VA disability claim after 28 years on appeal (Digital Journal)
After spending 28 years fighting in the appeals process, 83-year-old Ferdinand Hazewinkel of Lugoff, South Carolina was finally awarded disability benefits through the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) on February 5. Hazewinkel served in the United States Navy from March 1951 to February 1955 in the Korean War, and was assigned to the U.S.S. Holmes County. He received a Combat Action Ribbon for his service. While on board the U.S.S. Holmes County he participated in Operation Ivy, an atmospheric hydrogen bomb test series held at Eniwetok Atoll during autumn of 1952. Hazewinkel later developed various skin cancers and thyroid disease, which he has long contended were associated with his exposure to radiation during Operation Ivy. The significant amount of time it took for him to receive his disability benefits underscores the struggles faced by many veterans who are also left in limbo when they apply. “When I first filed, I was in my mid-50s,” said Hazewinkel, also the father of a four-year-old daughter. “Now I’m an elderly man in my 80s. I had no idea the process could take so long.” Hazewinkel had no way of knowing the VA would repeatedly deny his claim. He first appealed to the Board of Veterans Appeals and then to the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims. His claims were often remanded, denied and then appealed over and over for nearly 30 years. He worked with several attorneys over the decades, all of whom ultimately gave up on the claim except his most recent attorney, Eric A. Gang, Esq. of Gang & Associates. “It is not uncommon for veterans to file a claim, get denied and give up,” said Gang, a veterans’ disability attorney in the New York City area. “This case was different. Mr. Hazewinkel’s claims were on continuous appeal for 28 years.” Gang said there are many other veterans across the nation with similar stories to Hazewinkel, and they lack the means necessary to get the benefits they deserve by themselves. “I wish I could say this kind of thing didn’t happen very often, but I have seen cases drag on like this before,” he said. “The backlog in VA claims is unbelievable, and by the time veterans actually get their benefits they are in their twilight years. These claims need to be processed more quickly.” Hazewinkel expressed his gratitude for finally being vindicated in his case and for his attorney’s assistance. He intends to use the money to support his wife and daughter.

Forgotten: The battle thousands of WWII veterans are still fighting (NBC News)
Bittersweet is hardly a word to describe one’s birthday, but for Artemio Caleda, not only did life begin on that date, so did the fight of his life. Feb. 18 marks the 92nd birthday of Caleda of Honolulu who, at age 17, was a jungle fighter in the Philippines. He’s a proud World War II veteran — but also an unrewarded one. Seventy years ago, Caleda became one of the many Filipinos stripped of the military benefits promised to them by the government for their service during the war for the U.S. Caleda, along with more than 250,000 Filipinos, answered President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s call to serve in WWII. As scouts, guerrillas, and enlisted soldiers in the Philippine Army, they were told they would get full benefits in exchange for putting their lives on the line, fighting side-by-side with the U.S. military. But when the war was over, the promise was rescinded. The Rescission Act of 1946 voided their service and deemed their time of duty as not being “active military, naval, or air service for the purposes of any law of the United States conferring rights, privileges, or benefits upon any person.” With President Harry S. Truman’s signature, the act became law on Feb. 18, 1946. The Rescission Act came with an appropriation of $200 million to pay the Commonwealth Army of the Philippines. But in public documents released two days after his signing, Truman indicated he had some reservations in not honoring the veterans directly, writing that “the passage and approval of this legislation do not release the United States from its moral obligation to provide for the heroic Philippine veterans who sacrificed so much for the common cause during the war.” Still, the law has been the roadblock for Caleda and others who have engaged in the fight to be made whole for their service ever since. “We didn’t get any justice from that law,” Caleda told NBC News. “That’s why I say, when justice is denied, democracy died. I feel bad until now because of the Rescission Act of 1946.” But a glimmer of hope arrived for the veterans in 2009 when President Barack Obama signed the Filipino Veterans Equity Compensation Act of 2009. After years of lobbying efforts, Filipino veterans who fought in the Philippines won a one-time lump sum payment — $15,000 if they lived in the U.S.; $9,000 if they still lived in the Philippines. According to the Dept. of Veterans’ Affairs’ website, 42,755 claims have been made since the benefit process began — but, to date, there have been more denials than claims granted. As of December 2015, more than half of claims made by Filipino veterans have been denied, though the 18,960 claims granted have totaled more than $225 million. The VA has received more than 4,500 appeals — though the appeal rate is currently less than 30 percent — but many veterans are running out of time to see their benefits, and Roosevelt’s promise, restored. According to the VA’s website, appeals remain pending, on average, for 160 days. Currently, the VA lists 61 pending appeals.

US senators probe Phoenix VA whistleblower case (AZCentral)
Two of the most powerful members of the U.S. Senate have called on the Department of Veterans Affairs to end retaliation against an Arizona whistleblower who exposed a breakdown in mental-health care at the Phoenix VA hospital. Sens. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, and Ron Johnson, R-Wis., sent a letter Tuesday to VA Secretary Robert McDonald pressing him to “immediately cease” all reprisal against Brandon Coleman, a Phoenix VA Health Care System employee who last year went public with allegations that potentially suicidal veterans were allowed to walk out of the emergency room without treatment. Grassley chairs the Senate Committee on the Judiciary. Johnson heads the Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs. Jessica Jacobsen, a VA spokeswoman, said McDonald received the letter and will respond directly to the senators. She added that the department is committed to creating a work environment where all employees feel safe sharing concerns and information. Coleman, a disabled veteran and specialist in substance-abuse care, went to the U.S. Office of Special Counsel in late 2014 with allegations that at-risk veterans who showed up in the Phoenix VA hospital emergency room were not properly screened, and in some cases were allowed to “elope,” or walk away without treatment. Coleman complained that, after raising those concerns, his medical records were unlawfully accessed — a retaliatory strategy sometimes employed by VA officials seeking psychological information to discredit a complaint. After Coleman brought his concerns to the media, he was accused of misconduct and placed on administrative leave. A program he pioneered for drug-abuse victims was shut down. And, according to a sworn affidavit from the Phoenix human resources director, then-hospital Director Glenn Grippen asked VA lawyers if he could “remove Coleman from employment.” The letter from Grassley and Johnson notes that, last Halloween, a VA employee wore a costume to work mocking Coleman and his disability — behavior they described as “not only wholly inappropriate and incredibly insensitive, but yet another example of intimidation …” Coleman, who remains on leave, testified about his experience before Johnson’s committee during a September 2015 hearing on VA accountability. Grassley and Johnson called on McDonald to end the retaliation, enforce accountability against those responsible and put Coleman back to work outside the Phoenix VA Health Care System. They also requested a briefing on VA treatment of whistleblowers, and records concerning the treatment of Coleman. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., previously sent a similar letter to McDonald on behalf of Coleman. Coleman told The Arizona Republic he hopes the letter will force VA leaders to bring him out of employment limbo. “I just want to get back to work helping veterans get clean and sober,” he said, adding that he’s seeking reassignment “outside the retaliatory chain of command.”

Ventilation problem shuts Phoenix VA hospital’s operating rooms (AZCentral)
Operating rooms at the Carl T. Hayden VA Medical Center in Phoenix have been shut down this week amid unspecified concerns about the ventilation system, according to a hospital news release. Jean Schaefer, a spokeswoman for the Phoenix VA Health Care System, said the issue is under investigation. She said she could not provide details as to the nature of the problem, nor indicate whether any surgical patients had suffered adverse effects. The medical center’s news release said procedures are being postponed through Saturday based on the VA’s “continued emphasis on ensuring the highest level of patient safety.” An “in-depth mechanical review” is expected to be completed within a few days. In the meantime, patients scheduled for surgery are being rescheduled or approved for outside care via the Veterans Choice program. Schaefer said fewer than a dozen operations were postponed Wednesday. She could not immediately indicate the average number of procedures completed daily.

Veteran’s families can’t bury their dead (ABC11 WTVD)
Their loved ones served our country in war zones. They devoted their lives to serving a cause greater than themselves. In death, their families were expecting a proper military burial. Instead, they are left wondering how long it’ll take until they can bury their loved ones. Inside a funeral home in Goldsboro lies the flag-draped casket of Sergeant John Robert Bergeron. His burial is in limbo. “It’s a slap in the face not only to the veterans but to the families of the veterans,” Dave Parker, a Vietnam veteran, said in anguish. Sergeant Bergeron’s family is the victim of government bureaucracy as they wait to bury their World War II veteran. “Veterans are already accustomed to standing in line, but to have to stand in line to be buried is a little bit much,” Rick Mondell, a local pastor, offered. At another funeral home down the block, nine urns are sitting with ashes waiting to be taken to their final resting place. “It’s just unfair. It’s just wrong,” said Sandi Lugo, a veteran’s daughter. Lugo’s father, Air Force tech Sergeant Gail Johnson died last month. “He served in the Army for 13 years,” she explained. “He served in the Air Force for 11 years. He did several tours in Vietnam, and in Korea, he was a combat vet.” “He wanted his final resting place to be the new veteran’s cemetery in Goldsboro, close to home,” she continued. But weeks have gone by and she still can’t bury him. “We don’t have closure for our family. We don’t know when we are going to bury my dad,” she said. In November, the state dedicated the 60-acre Eastern Carolina State Veteran’s Cemetery. Governor McCrory presided at the ceremony. But three months later, the cemetery is still not open. “A system should have been in place at the time of dedication to ensure that burials would take place at a proper time,” veteran Bill Graham said. Angry families contacted ABC11 because they’re locked out of burying their loved ones. “I have a friend that I used to work with and passed away,” said Dave Parker. “He’s basically sitting in a funeral home cremated on a shelf waiting to be placed here at the cemetery, and his family is still waiting for closure and doesn’t have closure so it’s not right.” “I feel very badly about this,” offered Ilario Pantano, the state director of Veterans Affairs. “I’m a veteran of two wars. I understand that veterans’ families are in distress and that hurts my heart, so what I would say to these veterans is “I’m sorry” that this delay has occurred. This pains me.” Pantano told ABC11 the cemetery opening has been delayed because legislators didn’t pass the state budget on time leaving no money to hire workers to operate it. “I’m deeply frustrated,” Pantano said. “I don’t like bureaucratic incompetence. I don’t stand for it.” After ABC11 started asking questions, Pantano assured us money has now been found to operate the new cemetery. “We’re still about one month to six weeks away from it from going fully operational,” he pointed out. Until then, local funeral homes will continue storing urns and caskets and families will continue suffering.

Free estates planning service offered to low-income Virgina vets (The Washington Times)
Lawyers will provide free estate planning services to low-income Virginia veterans at a series of clinics early next month. Attorney General Mark Herring says the first-ever pro bono Veterans Legal Services Clinics are a partnership of his office, the Virginia Department of Veterans Services and the Virginia State Bar. Volunteer attorneys will help veterans by drafting wills, powers of attorney and advance medical directives. To participate, veterans and their spouses must fill out an intake questionnaire on Herring’s website or at their local Virginia Department of Veterans Services Benefits Center. The clinics are set for March 1 in Chesapeake, March 2 in Richmond, March 3 in Roanoke and March 4 in Annandale.