February 4 Veterans News

February 4 Veterans News

VetsHQ News UpdateVA: Veterans suicide must be a top priority (Military Times)
The Veterans Affairs Department is ratcheting up efforts to address the high rate of suicide among veterans, bringing in mental health experts, advocates and affected families to formulate an “action plan” in the coming months to reduce these preventable deaths. VA Under Secretary for Health Dr. David Shulkin said Tuesday that suicide reduction is one of his top priorities, and he called on experts to help the department establish prevention initiatives aimed at getting veterans into treatment. “This is really one of our top priority issues for VA,” Shulkin said. “Seeing the number of suicides that occur every day is simply not acceptable.” The VA hosted a Veterans Suicide Summit in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday to jump start the effort, drawing behavioral health providers, veterans service organizations, Defense Department personnel and veterans who have attempted suicide, as well as parents of troops who have died. VA Secretary Bob McDonald and members of Congress also took part. “In recent years, the suicide rate has risen steadily for the general population, but not veterans in the VA system. For veterans in our care, rates have remained stable, maybe even declined slightly, which tells us that treatment works,” McDonald said. The VA estimated in 2012 that 22 veterans die each day by suicide, but the number is an extrapolation derived from 1999-2011 data from 21 states, and both the VA and advocacy groups say it should be interpreted with caution. Given that at least four states with large veterans populations were not included in the calculations — California, Texas, Arizona and North Carolina — the numbers could be higher. So one of the first orders of business for the new initiative is to obtain concrete data on the extent of the suicide epidemic among veterans, VA officials said. VA has been working with states and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to get the information since it released its 2012 Veterans Suicide Data Report; a more definitive report is expected by June. … The summit provided opportunity for speakers to offer recommendations for improving suicide prevention efforts. Many offered a laundry list, from better organization and improved data to elevating the VA’s suicide prevention office to a more prominent position within the department. For many, appointing a single agency to lead the effort was a top concern. … The new initiatives were made possible largely through the Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for American Veterans Act, but VA has stepped up efforts in the past decade to address the the issue. Its suicide hotline, the Veterans Crisis Line (800-273-8255, Press 1), has had more than 2 million callers since it was established in 2007, with nearly a quarter of those calls — 490,000 — coming in last year. It is funding a massive research study at 30 facilities across its system to determine whether the drug lithium can prevent suicide. And it has hired more than 9,000 mental health clinicians — psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers and therapists — since 2009. … Some communities that have been overlooked at previous forums were given the opportunity to participate. Former Sen. Elizabeth Dole spoke of her concerns for the caregivers of disabled veterans who may be at risk for suicide and Rand Corp. senior behavioral scientist Rajeev Ramchand addressed the large number of veterans who do not have access to VA care because they received bad-conduct discharges, many for conduct possibly linked to post-traumatic stress disorder or traumatic brain injury. … Shulkin said VA plans to be more aggressive in ensuring that all eligible veterans are enrolled in VA care, since 70 percent of veterans who die by suicide are not under VA care.

VA reviewing rights to ‘miracle’, profitable, hepatitis drug (Military.com)
The Veterans Affairs Department is attempting to learn if it has a financial right to a Hepatitis C drug it says was developed under the leadership of a former agency senior scientist. Pressed by lawmakers in Congress, department officials are also trying to find out if the former scientist with the VA Medical Center in Atlanta unfairly benefited from his work there by developing the drug with agency resources and then sold it and his company in 2011 for $11 billion. “We are going to make sure that we get to the bottom of this with all the facts with the external reviews we set in place and the internal reviews,” VA Under Secretary for Health Dr. David Shulkin told the House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman on Wednesday. Committee Chairman Rep. Jeff Miller, a Republican from Florida, last week accused the company that now owns the drug — Gilead Sciences of California — of price gouging the country. During Wednesday’s hearing, however, Miller and other lawmakers focused on Dr. Raymond Schinazi, the recently retired senior VA scientist in Atlanta who they believe discovered the drug and possibly failed to go through the proper steps to ensure the department could assert a financial interest in its commercial sale. … Schinazi worked for the VA part time for 33 years before retiring on Feb. 1. He also works for Emory University in Georgia and has owned several companies. In 2011, he sold Pharmasset — a family business — to Gilead Science for $11 billion. The sale netted him more than $45 million after his shares in the company climbed by 38 percent during one week in April 2011, Forbes magazine reported at the time. In an email to Military.com on Wednesday, Schinazi said all his work with the drug occurred at Pharmasset. “To the best of my knowledge the VA had no role” in its development, he said. “In fact, I did not even have any chemistry labs and chemical staff [at VA] to make the drug during that time period.” He also said he told VA, along with Emory, about his stake in Pharmasset. Schinazi was not at the hearing on Wednesday, and Miller and other lawmakers noted the scientist put in for retirement on Jan. 21, the same day that Miller requested VA to have Schinazi, Shulkin and other VA officials to attend the hearing. His retirement became effective on Feb. 1, two days ago, and some lawmakers believe Schinazi retired abruptly to be out of the VA before the hearing — an allegation Schinazi denied to Military.com. “I never received the letter or was asked by the VA to attend this meeting,” he wrote in the email. “I decided to retire from the VA well before all this. My labs are now based at Emory University and I am now 65 years old.” He added, “If I was invited to DC I would have attended and participated even as a non-VA employee. I can always defend my reputation well.” Shulkin called the drug, alternately called Sofosbuvir and Solvaldi, “truly a miraculous new drug” for treating Hepatitis C, which afflicts thousands of veterans, especially those who served in Vietnam. By law, the VA has the right to assert a financial interest in science and technology developed by its employees and using VA resources and funding. When it does, commercial sales of a product or medicine put money back into the VA budget. The Hepatitis C drug is estimated to be worth billions annually on the commercial market. At the same time, the VA is currently paying an estimated $40,000 for an eight or nine week course of the drug for veterans, even though in other counties, including Egypt, the same treatment cost about $900.

Sanders concedes we ‘should have acted sooner’ to fix Veterans Affairs (TPM)
Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders conceded Wednesday that the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee “should have acted sooner” to fix the department. During a televised town hall in New Hampshire, CNN host Anderson Cooper asked Sanders why it took so long to start fixing Veterans Affairs after there were multiple inspector general reports of problems plaguing the department. “We should have acted sooner,” Sanders said. “We should have known what was going on in Phoenix. Those long waiting lines and the lies that some administrators were telling us.” Sanders said that the Veterans Affairs committee, which he served on for eight years and chaired for two years, made other advancements in other areas, including those to fight homelessness and a G.I.-related bill.

Alarming rate of female veteran suicides addressed in bill (Cleveland.com)
A bill aimed at stemming a disproportionate rate of suicides among female veterans has been introduced by Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown, a senior member of the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs. The “Female Veterans Suicide Prevention Act” would expand the Department of Veterans Affairs’ (VA) annual evaluation of mental health and suicide-prevention programs to include data regarding female veterans. The act also would require the VA to determine which programs are the most effective for female veterans. The measure was prompted by a VA study from 2000-2010, tracking 174,00 veterans and non-veterans. The study, published in May 2015, found that female veterans, representing 10 percent of the veteran population, commit suicide at nearly six times the rate of civilian women, and are five times more likely to commit suicide than male veterans. The study also noted that from 2000-2010, the rate of suicide among female veterans increased 40 percent. A 2014 update to the study found that the suicide rate of female veterans utilizing the VA health care system has also increased. According to Brown’s office, an average of 18 to 22 veterans take their lives each day — a statistic that has largely remained unchanged for more than a decade. “Improving access to quality mental health care programs and professionals is a critical part of supporting our veterans when they return home,” Brown said in a news release. “This bill will ensure that the VA tailors mental health programs to more effectively serve female veterans.” The House companion bill passed out of the House Veterans Affairs Committee last September and has the support of the American Legion, Disabled American Veterans (DAV), Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA), Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW), National Military Family Association and Paralyzed Veterans of America (PAV). Veterans and service members, or their families, who are in crisis can seek help and assistance by contacting the VA’s Veterans Crisis Line at 1-800-273-8255, and press 1.

San Diego helping homeless veterans with $12.5 million grant (Coronado Patch)
A $12.5 million program to provide housing for homeless military veterans in San Diego was launched Wednesday by the San Diego Housing Commission. The “Housing Our Heroes” campaign seeks to find a place to live for 1,000 homeless former members of the armed forces over the next year. It was first announced last month by Mayor Kevin Faulconer in his “State of the City” speech. “We have an opportunity — and an obligation — to dedicate ourselves to the men and women who dedicated their lives to our country,” Faulconer said. “We’re going to work with landlords to open doors to more homes, cover security deposits so veterans can move into those homes, provide hundreds of housing vouchers so disabled veterans can afford rent for their homes, and offer supportive services so veterans can stay in their homes — and not end up back on the street,” he said. Faulconer said he will commit $4 million to the program, pending City Council approval. The program will provide incentives to landlords who rent to homeless veterans, assist with security deposits and utility bills, create a contingency fund to help landlords cover expenses like move-out repairs, provide 300 federal rental assistance vouchers, and make mental health counseling, substance abuse treatment, job training skills and health services available — among other things. … The program follows the commission’s “Housing First” model, which seeks to get the homeless a roof over their heads quickly and provide them with the services they need to keep them off the streets. “Veteran homelessness is a solvable challenge, and the plan to house 1,000 veterans will make a significant impact toward this regional goal,” Councilman Todd Gloria said. “A collaborative approach between the city, the county, property owners and service providers is the key to our success.” The San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce, the California Apartment Association and the San Diego County Apartment Association are joining in the effort to provide outreach to landlords. The local apartment association estimates the area’s vacancy rate to be 2.8 percent, which is considered low — making it more difficult for veterans to find housing. Last year’s count of the region’s homeless found that 15.4 percent had once served in the military, out of a total of more than 8,700 people living on the streets or in shelters.

Homeless shelter planned for Delaware veterans (Delaware Online)
A nonprofit group is targeting a long-vacant nursing home in Wilmington to be the state’s largest facility dedicated to housing homeless veterans. The Delaware Center for Homeless Veterans has an agreement to purchase the former Layton Home at 300 Eighth St. in Wilmington. The 48,000-square-foot building will be the first facility in Delaware contracted by the U.S. government to provide subsidized, permanent housing that specifically targets veterans. “We think it is going to be something great for Wilmington,” said David Mosley, founder of the center and a veteran. “We are not worried about filling it. We already have a waiting list of veterans that are precariously housed.” The group started in November 2011 with nine beds in a Haines Avenue building in Wilmington. The organization today has a five-year contract with the federal Department of Veterans Affairs to provide emergency transition housing for 10 veterans to stay up to 90 days in one of two facilities in the city. The organization also houses eight other veterans through fees and grants from various foundations, Mosley said. Once renovated, the Eighth Street building will feature 51 apartments, conference rooms and 10 office spaces for community groups, Mosley said. The structure is likely to be rebranded as the Pearl, named after Mosley’s mother, he said. The seller is Newport real estate firm Pettinaro Co. The four-story building has been empty for more than a decade and has broken and boarded-up windows. The sale price was $1.8 million, and at least another $1.5 million will be spent on renovations, Mosley said. He said the goal is to have people moving in by March 2017. The Homeless Planning Council of Delaware in a study last year found 102 homeless veterans statewide and 49 in New Castle County. The organization also was part of a statewide effort to solve homelessness among veterans, an effort in response to an initiative launched by President Barack Obama in 2014. The Wilmington center is the first in Delaware to receive federally funded Housing and Urban Development and Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing vouchers tied to a specific housing project. Typically, the income-based housing subsidies are awarded to veterans to use on a permanent basis at private apartments or homes. They also include required case management services provided by Veterans Affairs, said Susan Barton, chief of Care Management and Social Work Services at the Wilmington VA. Project-based vouchers stay with the housing facility, providing a stream of revenue to fund the building purchase and planned renovations. The vouchers are worth about $260,000 annually. Mosley said the VA will have a constant presence in the facility for the case management work that goes along with the vouchers.

Federal appeals court grants new chance for military widow in VA lawsuit (Knoxville News Sentinel)
The case of a military widow whose husband committed suicide after the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs misdiagnosed his post-traumatic stress disorder is testing Tennessee’s stringent medical malpractice laws and highlighting what a federal judge called the laws’ “seemingly unfair” results. The VA and the James H. Quillen Veterans Administration Medical Center in Mountain Home, Tenn., have conceded Greeneville veteran Scott Walter Eiswert was misdiagnosed and in 2008 committed suicide. The efforts of the National Guardsman’s widow, Tracy Lynn Eiswert, to hold the VA and the Quillen doctors accountable have failed solely because of a few paperwork errors that ran afoul of Tennessee’s medical malpractice laws. U.S. District Judge Ronnie Greer tossed out Eiswert’s case in 2013, which he called a “seemingly unfair result” of “procedural hurdles” the Tennessee Legislature created over the past few years to make it tougher for residents to sue medical professionals and facilities. The 6th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals came to the widow’s rescue earlier this year, questioning whether those laws were indeed as unforgiving as they appeared. The appellate court asked the Tennessee Supreme Court to consider whether the laws required “strict compliance” with no room for error or “substantial compliance” with wiggle room for minor filing mistakes. In a recently-released opinion, the 6th Circuit revealed the state’s high court refused to answer that question because of at least one other paperwork error Greer did not address in his ruling. Rather than declare defeat for the widow, the 6th Circuit is now sending the case back to Greer — with a twist. The court is drawing a legal road map for Greer, citing specific cases he should consider that could favor the widow. “On remand, we note several decisions which may inform the analysis of the unresolved issues,” the opinion stated. All of those cases were decided by Tennessee’s Supreme Court after the widow’s lawsuit was dismissed and have poked legal holes in the “strict compliance” requirements of the state’s medical malpractice laws. Greer has not yet set any new hearings in the case.

Illinois bill would provide state IDs to Guard, Reserve veterans (Herald & Review)
Two Republican state senators have introduced bills that would give National Guard and Army Reserve veterans access to driver’s licenses and state IDs with a veteran designation, regardless of whether they served on active duty. The Illinois secretary of state’s office began issuing licenses with the designation July 1, but the current state law only allows them to be given to veterans who have served on active duty. State Sen. Jason Barickman of Bloomington, who was an infantry soldier in the Illinois Army National Guard from 1992 to 1998, is sponsoring a measure that would allow them to be issued to those who have served in the Guard or Reserve but whose units weren’t activated. “Those who’ve served our country, whether they’ve been activated or not, deserve recognition from our government,” Barickman said. Regardless of whether their unit has been deployed, every member of the military has to meet certain obligations, such as completing basic training and learning how to properly handle firearms, he said. Barickman noted that many business offer discounts and other promotions for veterans. “This makes it very simple for those who have served to provide the proof of that by a recognition on their ID card,” he said. State Sen. Pamela Althoff of McHenry is sponsoring similar legislation. Her version would also require the Illinois Department of Veterans’ Affairs to advise the secretary of state’s office on what forms of proof of service, other than the Department of Defense Certificate of Release or Discharge from Active Duty, would be acceptable. Both bills have been assigned to the Senate State Government and Veterans Affairs Committee. Dave Druker, a spokesman for Secretary of State Jesse White, said the office strongly supports the idea. “We don’t see an extra cost being involved,” Druker said. “It looks like a win-win.”