February 25 Veterans News

February 25 Veterans News

VetsHQ News UpdateLawmaker to pitch new veterans center for hazardous exposures (Military Times) Rep. Tim Walz, D-Minn., plans to introduce legislation Thursday to create a “center of excellence” to study and manage medical care for veterans with illnesses caused by chemicals and other battlefield environmental hazards. Walz will propose a “Center of Excellence for Toxic Wounds,” managed by the Veterans Affairs Department, that would provide a one-stop shop for research initiatives, health care treatment policy and guidance, and specialty care for chronic illnesses linked to exposures resulting from military service. Speaking with the House Veterans’ Affairs oversight and investigations subcommittee on Tuesday, Walz said the time has come for VA to consolidate programs on myriad environmental exposures that poison veterans. “Vietnam veterans are concerned about genetic defects caused by Agent Orange. There’s the burn pits, there’s depleted uranium. Shame on us for not learning. Every generation is having to come back and fight for all these things,” Walz said. The VA has three centers dedicated to post-deployment health conditions — the War-Related Illness and Injury Study Centers in Palo Alto, California; East Orange, New Jersey; and Washington, D.C. The WRIISCs provide clinical diagnosis and treatment for veterans with medically unexplained symptoms, educate veterans and health care providers on such illnesses and conduct research on deployment-related illnesses. But the new center would bring a “laser focus” to these issues, Walz said. “It brings it all under one umbrella, helping make the research and the movement on these problems much faster,” Walz said. The Defense Department oversees a number of centers of excellence, including one co-managed by the VA for psychological health and traumatic brain injury as well as the Deployment Health Clinical Center and the National Center for Telehealth and Technology. Other Pentagon-managed centers for excellence are dedicated to vision and hearing loss in military personnel. Walz said having one entity responsible for overseeing exposure research and treatment, regardless of toxin or conflict, would improve decisions on research spending, and, most likely, yield better results. “You have to make decisions on where the spending goes. And we must keep going,” Walz said. The idea received support from subcommittee chairman Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Colo., who said it could “combine resources and get down to the bottom” of the problem for veterans, now and in the future. Dr. Carolyn Clancy, assistant deputy undersecretary for health, safety and quality at the Veterans Health Administration, said VA also is open to the idea.

Senators pledge to support VA chief’s accountability proposals (Military.com)
Veterans Affairs Secretary Bob McDonald on Tuesday met with Senators to discuss the VA’s budget for fiscal 2017 and appropriations for the following year. But the issue of funding took a backseat in the discussion as lawmakers were more intent to talk about McDonald’s proposals to hold VA employees accountable for wrongdoing or poor performance. “My goal is to see to it that by the end of March we have an accountability bill for the VA employees that’s right for the veterans and right for those employees,” said Sen. Johnny Isakson, a Republican from Georgia and chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee. … Isakson and other lawmakers said they were ready to give McDonald the ability to make both the hiring and firing of employees easier. As part of the department’s budget proposal, McDonald asked Congress to convert Senior Executive Service-level employees — top administrators and directors at the VA’s medical centers — to Title 38 employees — the category that includes doctors and nurses. McDonald said the change would make it easier to fill the 34 medical center directorships that have been open, in some cases for years, and also to discipline employees when necessary. In the latter case, the change would end the executives’ ability to appeal disciplinary actions to the Merit System Protection Board by making McDonald, or his designee, the final word in an appeal. Sen. Jon Tester, a Democrat from Montana, urged the committee to press Sen. Mitch McConnell, a Republican from Kentucky and the Senate majority Leader, to schedule a vote on the changes. … Saying there is a “very limited amount of time” to move the legislation, Tester told Isakson that “if it takes a letter, if it takes phone calls, if it takes a group meeting with Sen. McConnell, I’ll join you in that.” Converting the administration and directorships from SES to Title 38, the section of the law that spells out the hiring practices for VA health care workers and others — was prompted by recent MSPB judge rulings overturning VA disciplinary actions against executives accused of wrongdoing. McDonald told the lawmakers that converting the job categories is not only about being able to discipline people. He said it’s also about being more competitive with the private sector in recruiting and compensation, since it is easier to hire and compensate under Title 38 than the Civil Service rules for SES employees. “It’s not about firing people,” he said. “It’s about treating VA career executives more like their private sector counterparts. It’s the kind of flexibility that attracts top performers in the private sector. VA needs that flexibility, too.”

VA’s biorepository to accept DNA donations from active duty troops (Military.com)
A major Veterans Affairs Department initiative to collect the DNA of a million vets for the purpose of medical research is getting a boost starting today from the Pentagon, which has authorized soldiers, sailors, Marines and airmen to donate their blood to the cause. Word of the program’s expansion came from the White House, which said VA program would play a role in the Precision Medicine Initiative President Obama announced in January 2015. The initiative is intended broaden medical research to find new treatments for a range of diseases as well as tailor health care to individuals based on their genetic makeup. “The [VA’s] Million Veterans Program has enrolled more than 450,000 veterans to date,” said Dr. John Holdren, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, “and as will be announced [on Thursday] this innovate research platform will be open to active duty women and men, as well as veterans.” The massive DNA collection — which will be the largest biorepository in the world — will provide qualified researchers with samples or cohorts in large enough numbers to see measurable results. The VA began collecting DNA from veteran volunteers about six years ago. As of last month it had more than 1.8 million vials of blood stored in its biorepository at the VA Medical Center in Boston. VA Secretary Bob McDonald, who donated his own blood to the collection, said the veterans’ DNA will be used as part of the cancer Moon shot announced by President Obama during his State of the Union message last month. Dr. Mary Brophy, director of the VA biorepository, told Military.com in January that the collection represents one-stop shopping for a specific patient cohort and control group needed for any medical research project. … The VA has been adding about 100,000 veterans’ samples per year, which put it on target to hit the million mark around 2022. But with the DoD joining the initiative the VA expects to be able to add an additional 25,000 donors a year, perhaps allowing them to reach one million by 2020, Brophy said. Holdren said that the goal of PMI is to build a DNA cohort of 1 million donors, which means the project — because of the VA’s work of the past six years — is already close to halfway there. Holdren said Wednesday during a background briefing on the project that the goal is to reach 1 million by 2019. … The Precision Medicine Initiative is being led by the National Institutes of Health. In addition to participation by the VA and Defense Department, it also has established partnerships with universities and the private health care sector. About 170 government officials, researchers, physicians, technologists and patient group members will convene at the White House to confer on the program, Holdren said. The White House also expects on Wednesday to name 40 companies, non-profits, universities, advocacy groups and health care delivery systems who are taking part in the initiative. Among these, Holdren said, are six health care record vendors who have committed to deploying the necessary technology enabling volunteers to donate their own health records to the research cohort. In addition to the blood/DNA samples, the project also requires collecting the medical records of the volunteers.

Hawaii bills pushes for help for female veterans (The Garden Island)
Female veterans are one of the fastest growing homeless populations the nation, and state officials say it’s no different in Hawaii. But homelessness isn’t the only issue female veterans are faced with, officials say. They also are confronted with high rates of post-traumatic stress disorder, sexual assault and unemployment. Hawaii lawmakers are pushing a bill to help provide more services to female veterans. The proposed law would create and fund a full-time counselor position in the Hawaii Office of Veterans Services with a focus on female veterans who served in active duty. Hawaii Office of Veterans Services Director Ronald Han said he asked to fund this position in the division’s supplemental budget request, but it wasn’t approved. Nationwide, over half of all female veterans receiving Department of Veteran Affairs health care have a disability or illness that occurred during service, according to the VA. Meanwhile, one in four women receiving VA health care — compared to one in 100 men — reported experiencing sexual assault or harassment during service, known as military assault trauma. With the recent Department of Defense announcement to allow women in all front-line combat jobs, including infantry and special operations units, advocates say the need for services for female veterans will only grow. National data shows women are more likely to be raped by a male fellow soldier than killed in combat. “They’re a growing minority,” said Ann Greenlee, Hawaii State Director for the Department of Labor’s Veterans Employment and Training Service. “I would hope that in 10 or 20 years, we wouldn’t need the position because women wouldn’t be considered a minority.” Greenlee served on the Hawaii Military Women’s Task Force, which found in 2013 that military women in Hawaii are disproportionately affected by sexual assault, unemployment and challenges to access health care and child care. The counselor position would also help inform women of available services and stay on top of national policy changes, she said. “We found that, in general, female veterans were much less aware of their benefits and services available to them and much less likely to consider themselves eligible for those services,” Greenlee said. Supporters of the bill say addressing female veterans’ issues in Hawaii is especially important because of the state’s large military population. Every branch of the military is located on the island of Oahu, which is also the headquarters of the United States Pacific Command. Female veterans make up nearly 15 percent of the United States Armed Forces, and are expected to make up 10 percent of the veteran population by 2020. Nearly 13,000 female veterans live in Hawaii.

World War II veteran waits nearly 12 hours in VA emergency room (Tucson News Now)
Problems veterans encounter at the VA’s Emergency Department continue to come out. On Tuesday, we showed you the issues veterans were having getting mental health help from the Phoenix Veterans Affairs Hospital help line. One veteran waited 30 rings before hanging up. Just a day later, after calling the number, someone picked up after two rings. But now, we’ve uncovered new problems inside the hospital that has been at the center of scandal for nearly two years. Several veterans have come forward saying they’ve been stuck in waiting rooms for hours upon hours before finally seeing a doctor. “It’ll go away. I shouldn’t be talking this much,” World War II Army veteran Glenn Diller said as he struggled to breathe. But he wanted to tell his story. “They didn’t really seem interested in my particular case,” he said of his visit last week to the Phoenix VA Emergency Department. The 89-year-old has lived through more than a dozen wars and says he has never seen anything quite like the lack of care he experienced that day. “They were more concerned about what was going on in their own reception room,” he said. Diller can barely get up, and last week he was suffering from severe back pain and an upper respiratory cough. It was so bad he asked a neighbor to take him to the ER. He formed an impression of the staff as he sat and waited for nearly 12 hours, and it was not a good one. “So many were more busy talking amongst themselves, about things at home and stuff,” he said. He eventually left and went to another hospital. He said somebody saw him immediately. “It should be a lot better system,” he said of the VA’s health care. “If they’re going to send men to other countries to fight, they should be able to take care of what’s left of them when they get home.” We are waiting on a response to these complaints from the VA. We also reached out to Congresswoman Krysten Sinema’s office and have learned her office just sent a letter requesting an independent oversight team to evaluate protocols and operations at the Phoenix VA.

Veterans stand and walk after first-of-its-kind prosthesis surgery (The Salt Lake Tribune)
A Utah veteran is getting a new leg — for a second time. Bryant Jacobs believes the newly embedded prosthesis in his right thigh bone will eventually allow him to snowboard, hike and hunt as he used to before a roadside bomb in Iraq tore into his leg. Nine other people in the United States will receive the same kind of robotic leg in a clinical trial in Salt Lake City. The first two patients in December and February underwent a first-of-their-kind pair of surgeries at the George E. Wahlen Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center. Jacobs, 35, and fellow patient Ed Salau tested out their new prostheses at the hospital Wednesday, standing and smiling for onlookers. Doctors embedded a post into each affected leg bone, now connected to a mechanical limb attachment that is more advanced than most prosthetic legs. Typically, amputees cap their truncated limbs with a latex sock and put it straight into a socket. For many amputees, the attachment is difficult to wear for more than a few hours per day. It often causes sweating, pain and frequent trips to the doctor for refitting if the wearer loses or gains weight. The surgery is “going to change the amputee world — in a good way, in a phenomenal way,” Jacobs said. It’s not a small world. There are 1.9 million amputees in the U.S., according to 2015 estimates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Bryant, a U.S. Army specialist from Herriman, was injured in Iraq in December 2004 when a bomb exploded nearby, ripping through his legs and torso. He decided to have the leg amputated in 2014 after a decade of surgeries and rehabilitation that did little to limit his pain. The V.A. surgeons believe the new prosthesis will eliminate some of the extra physical effort Jacobs and others must put into walking. The leg post picks up the natural vibrations of the bone, they said, communicating with the machine leg. It’s similar to a hip-replacement implant that attaches to a bone. The V.A. study is expected to help federal regulators decide whether to approve the surgery or undertake further research on different designs. The Food and Drug Administration gave the Salt Lake City doctors special permission to perform the procedure, which has been performed in other countries such as Australia, Germany and England, but never legally in the U.S. The Salt Lake City operations come after a decade of preliminary research on the technology. The team led by lead surgeons Erik Kubiak and Jayant Agarwal acknowledges there could be long-term infection risks. But, Jacobs says, it’s a risk he’s willing to take.

Nurse accused of participating in surgery at VA hospital while drunk (Fox News)
A Pennsylvania nurse was under the influence of alcohol while assisting with an emergency surgery at the Wilkes-Barre VA Medical Center earlier this month, police said. Asked during a police interview why he thought he was being questioned, 59-year-old registered nurse Richard J. Pieri allegedly answered, “I guess it has something to do with me being drunk on call,” according to The Times Leader. Pieri was charged with reckless endangerment, driving under the influence and public drunkenness stemming from the Feb. 4 incident. Pieri allegedly forgot he was on call on the evening of the surgery and reportedly told police that he drank four or five beers while playing slot machines at the Mohegan Sun casino in the Poconos. He was called to the hospital just before midnight, according to WNEP. Surveillance video reportedly shows Pieri get out of his truck and bump into a concrete barrier on his way into the medical center. He nearly falls and stumbles numerous times, according to an affidavit viewed by The Times Leader. His duties during the appendectomy procedure included prepping and retrieving the patient, preparing surgical materials, documenting the surgery and monitoring the patient’s vital signs, the affidavit stated. But Pieri allegedly struggled to complete these tasks, finding it difficult to log in to a hospital computer and incorrectly logging times, The Morning Call reported. A coworker anonymously reported Pieri, according to WNEP. The patient, who is not being identified, was re-admitted following the procedure for stomach pain. It’s not clear if that admission was linked to the first surgery in any way. Pieri’s status at the hospital also is unclear. A spokesperson told The Times Leader he was unable to comment on personnel matters. Pieri has been a licensed registered nurse since March 1979 and had no previous disciplinary issues, The Times Leader reported, citing the Pennsylvania Department of State.

Ex-nurse at Albany VA admits tampering with vets’ medication (The Washington Times)
A former nurse at the Veterans Affairs hospital in Albany faces prison time for replacing patients’ pain medications with a medicine that treats mood disorders. Federal prosecutors say 30-year-old Nathan Baum of East Greenbush pleaded guilty Wednesday to tampering with a consumer product and obtaining controlled substances by deception. Authorities say Baum was working as a licensed practical nurse in the hospice ward at Albany’s Veterans Affairs Medical Center when he removed oxycodone hydrochloride from at least 25 syringes during a five-week period in the spring of 2014. Officials say he replaced the pain meds with an anti-psychotic medication used to treat mental disorders and uncontrolled movements or agitation. He later told investigators he was addicted to painkillers. Baum faces up to 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine when he’s sentenced June 22.

New housing for homeless veterans opens in downtown Tucson, AZ (Tucson News Now)
A former office building that served COPE Behavioral Health Services clients has reopened up as housing for homeless veterans. It all started after Tucson Mayor Jonathan Rothschild accepted President Barack Obama’s challenge, and launched his initiative to end veteran homelessness. So far, more than 1,400 veterans have been placed in some type of housing, thanks to this effort. Bill Magnotto, executive director of housing for La Frontera, said they had to completely gut and rebuild the building, located at 101 S. Stone Ave., across the street from St. Augustine’s Cathedral in downtown Tucson. The Rally Point Apartments have 30 beds. A dozen veterans have already moved in so far. Michael Hoon, who served in the Arizona Army National Guard, was one of the first residents who moved into the building. Hoon said he was extremely grateful for his apartment, after months of sleeping in the back of his car. “I lost my apartment about six months ago, I couldn’t pay rent because my job, the money just slowed up and I just had to move into my car,” Hoon said. Robert Delfenthal Sr., a cannoneer who got injured in a blast during a training exercise at the Arizona Army National Guard, also spent six weeks sleeping on a cold pavement. Delfenthal said he was overwhelmed when he saw his new apartment. “It brought tears of joy to my eyes. This means a new start, I can start over again and I can stand on my own feet,” Delfenthal said. With dozens of veterans losing their homes every month, the mayor said the city is finally set up to be able to provide those who qualify with some type of immediate housing. Magnotto said many of the homeless veterans are very vulnerable, and feel lost after serving their country. “When they come back, we just expect them to adapt to normal life again, when no one’s retrained them how just to be a normal citizen,” Magnotto said. In a historic building built in 1904, the home of the former Old Pueblo Club, those veterans are beginning to find a future. Magnotto said they hope to have all 30 units filled by the end of the week. “It means a lot to me, I’ve had a rough last couple years,” Hoon said. Veterans will also have access to social services, employment training, education and substance abuse counseling in the the housing complex. “They’re helping me with my alcoholism and drug use,” Delfenthal said. Staff said the front office of the building will be open for walk-ins.

Ohio House passes legislation to allow qualified veterans to get concealed carry license (The Daily Jeffersonian)
Qualified veterans would be allowed to obtain licenses to carry concealed firearms without completing additional training, under legislation OK’d by the Ohio House Wednesday. HB 235 also would waive concealed carry license fees for active or reserve members of the armed forces and for veterans. The legislation passed on a vote of 92-2 and heads to the Ohio Senate for further consideration. “These men and women are our veterans; they’ve received expert training on pistol and/or rifle,” said Rep. Lou Terhar (R-Cincinnati), primary sponsor of the bill. “And all of them who have an honorable discharge have a DD214 or its equivalent, which is valid certification of meeting training requirements.” HB 235 would remove training requirements for military men and women who have retired or been honorably discharged, so long as they can provide documentation of their military training. The bill also would waive the $67 concealed carry application fee for active members of the military and those who have retired of been honorably discharged. “The weapons training provided in the armed forces is akin to riding a bicycle,” Terhar said. “Once you’ve learned it, you won’t forget it. / Our experienced military and veterans deserve to have their training recognized.”