February 8 Veterans News

February 8 Veterans News

VetsHQ News UpdateVA demands proof WWII combat vet with Purple Heart served in military (Military.com) The Department of Veterans Affairs refuses to pay benefits to a World War II vet in his 90s who says he was wounded in combat and earned a Purple Heart. Fox 2 Now in St. Louis reports that after Emil Limpert submitted an application for benefits to the VA he was told he needed to provide more proof that he was in the military. “I get this letter that says we can’t accept it because we’ve got no record of you being in the service,” he told the station. “I guess I’m the unknown soldier.” He says he was wounded in a foxhole in the Philippines in 1944. … Limpert said he waited until now to apply for benefits because he is down to nothing. He and his wife live in an assisted-living facility outside St. Louis. “We got rid of our car, we got rid of our house,” he said. “I got rid of money I had in bonds and stocks and now I need help.” His application included plenty of documentation, including discharge papers, the names of his foxhole pals and the X-ray of his wounded leg. The proof also included his Purple Heart and two Bronze Stars he received in the Pacific. Fox 2 reported the VA letter asks Limpert to submit affidavits from fellow service members, most of whom are dead, or the location of the hospital where he was originally treated. “There ain’t no hospital,” he told the station. “We were in the jungles.” The station reported that Limpert’s military records were apparently among the millions destroyed in a massive fire in Overland, Missouri, in 1973. The station also reported that it sought comment from the VA in Washington without success. Limpert has now turned to his local senator for help in the matter.

VA secretary: ‘absolute confidence’ in embattled regional administrator (Military Times)
The U.S. secretary of veterans affairs said Friday that he stands by his appointment of a regional health care executive who was accused of misleading Congress about how long veterans waited to receive care at a VA facility where she worked in Los Angeles. Secretary Robert McDonald said he has “absolute confidence” in Skye McDougall to oversee veterans hospitals and clinics in Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas, Mississippi and Oklahoma. McDonald and McDougall spoke to veterans during a public meeting at the G.V. (Sonny) Montgomery VAMedical Center in Jackson, Mississippi. The entire congressional delegation from Mississippi and most of the delegation from Louisiana publicly opposed his appointment of McDougall. They raised concerns about reports that she gave false testimony to Congress about the length of waiting times VA facilities she oversaw in Southern California. Fred Lucas, a veteran from Raymond, Mississippi, asked McDonald why he would stick with the appointment of McDougall in the face of congressional opposition. “If a person could mislead Congress, couldn’t they mislead us all?” Lucas asked. McDonald responded: “She did not mislead Congress.” McDonald said McDougall misheard a question she was asked during a congressional hearing. He said she was asked about the waiting time in Southern California for new VA patients to receive health care, but she didn’t hear the word “new” and gave numbers based on waiting times for all patients. McDonald also said he met with members of Congress who expressed concerns about her appointment to the Jackson-based job as head of the South Central Veterans Health Care Network, which oversees 10 veterans hospitals and associated clinics. McDonald notified Congress in December that he was appointing McDougall. “I explained to the congressional delegation that she did not mislead Congress — she did not lie; there was no intention to lie,” McDonald said. McDougall had been scheduled to start in November as regional director of the VA Southwest Health Care Network that includes Arizona. In October, Arizona Sen. John McCain asked McDonald to reconsider McDougall’s appointment because of questions about whether she misled Congress about veterans waiting in California. Lucas, the Mississippi veteran, asked McDonald on Friday why McDougall did not go to the region that included Arizona. McDonald said that region was eliminated as the VA moved from 21 to 18 regions. McDonald said he trusts McDougall based on work he has seen her do in Los Angeles and Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Faith in agency clouded Bernie Sanders’s VA response (New York Times)
There were reports of secret waiting lists to hide long delays in care. Whistle-blowers said as many as 40 veterans had died waiting for appointments. And Congress was demanding answers. Despite mounting evidence of trouble at the Department of Veterans Affairs, Senator Bernie Sanders, then the chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, initially regarded the complaints as overblown, and as a play by conservatives to weaken one of the country’s largest social welfare institutions. “There is, right now, as we speak, a concerted effort to undermine the V.A.,” Mr. Sanders said in May 2014, two weeks after the story was picked up by national news organizations. “You have folks out there now — Koch brothers and others — who want to radically change the nature of society, and either make major cuts in all of these institutions, or maybe do away with them entirely.” But the scandal deepened: The secretary of veterans affairs resigned. Reports showed major problems at dozens of V.A. hospitals. And an Obama administration review revealed “significant and chronic systemic leadership failures” in the hospital system. Mr. Sanders eventually changed course, becoming critical of the agency and ultimately joining with Senator John McCain, the Arizona Republican, and other colleagues to draft a bipartisan bill to try to fix the veterans health care waiting list. … Despite inspector general reports dating back a decade that documented a growing problem with wait times, Mr. Sanders, who had served on the committee for six years before he became its head, was quick to defend the agency and slow to aggressively question V.A. officials and demand accountability. … “Bernie initially came out like this was a Republican attack and was extremely defensive about it,” said Dr. Sam Foote, one of the primary whistle-blowers who revealed the delays at the veterans hospital in Phoenix. He said Mr. Sanders’s “impulse is to stick up for the little guy — and the V.A. serves a lot of little guys.” “But he is no dummy,” Dr. Foote said. “He quickly realized the V.A. was lying, and he turned right around and was all over them.” In an interview last week, Mr. Sanders rejected the notion that he was slow to respond and lenient in his oversight, saying, “We did the very best that we could to make certain that veterans get the quality health care that they need.” Instead, he spoke of his chairmanship as a period of accomplishment, highlighted by the passage of what he called “the most comprehensive” veterans health care legislation in “many, many decades.” But when Anderson Cooper of CNN asked him on Wednesday about why he did not act sooner to address the wait times, Mr. Sanders conceded, “We should have done better.” … In the interview last week, Mr. Sanders said he had been dismayed with “the constant bashing of the V.A.” in the news media at the time, prompting him to focus on what he saw as the merits of the health care system. “I think by and large most V.A. facilities provide pretty good health care to our veterans,” he said. … Mr. Sanders said in the interview that he was deeply engaged in the troubles of the V.A., calling the waiting lists and deceit “an outrage and unacceptable.” … In the following months, Mr. Sanders negotiated legislation to fix the V.A., working with Mr. McCain, as well as Mr. Miller on the House side, on what became a $16 billion package that passed with bipartisan support.

Strong veteran employment rates continue into 2016 (Military Times)
The strong veteran employment numbers charted throughout 2015 continued in the first month of the new year, government data indicate. The unemployment rate for post-9/11 veterans was 5.7 percent in January, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, equal to the previous month’s rate and in line with the 5.8 percent average for all of 2015’s unemployment reports. The unemployment rate was 4.9 percent in January, down a hair from December’s 5 percent rate, with the U.S. tacking on 151,000 jobs. The January unemployment rate for the youngest generation of veterans is up a bit from the all-time low of 4.2 percent recorded in November. Still, 5.7 percent is the lowest unemployment rate ever recorded in a January report for this group, for whom unemployment data dates back to fall 2008. The next lowest January unemployment rates were more than 2 full percentage points higher: 7.9 percent in 2014 and 2015. While government statisticians caution against relying too much on any single month’s employment report, the positive trends for post-9/11 veterans have continued for such a long period of time — and to such a dramatic extent — that the employment gains are clear and unambiguous. The same can be said for veterans of all generations, whose unemployment rate ticked to 4.7 percent in January. That number is in line with December’s 4.8 percent rate as well as the 2015 yearly average of 4.6 percent for the group.

Vets battle their own government over invisible enemy (Fox 2 Now)
Long forgotten soldiers from Vietnam are fighting another undeclared war. They say they’re sick from ‘Agent Orange.’ You might assume they’re getting benefits since they were exposed to the herbicide, yet some soldiers say the government ignores them. We talked to one former soldier whose job was to detonate defective bombs. During the Vietnam war he often wondered if he’d live to see the next second. He didn’t know back then about the invisible threat surrounding him. Decades later, he’s learning his past is killing him. It was 1969 at the Utapao Airfield, Thailand. It was the home of the B-52, a bomber that carried more than 100 bombs. Bill Casto was in charge of getting rid of some of them. … He took defective bombs outside the base to an area cleared of vegetation by the tactical herbicide Agent Orange. He was 20 years old. … Now 46 years later he suffers from at least two diseases the v-a says are connected to Agent Orange, Type 2 Diabetes and Peripheral Neuropathy. Yet the same government that once waived flags in Casto’s honor, now waves erasers at benefits. Casto added, “Deny, deny, deny until you die is what we say.” 67 years old and hooked to oxygen, he suspects the V.A. may be waiting him out. He said, “There’s thousands of us in the same boat, thousands of us.” He says friends are surprised and assume the government acknowledges Agent Orange hurt Vietnam soldiers. “But because we served in Thailand and never had our boots on the ground in Vietnam we are treated differently. For instance, if you could prove that you stepped one foot on the ground in Vietnam, you are able to get the benefits of being exposed.” A declassified report called Project Checo documents that ‘herbicides were employed’ in ‘base defense in Thailand.’ The problem, Attorney Ken Carp says, is telling the government about its own documentation. … Carp is a retired Air Force Lt. Colonel who`s seen many frustrating V.A cases. He said, “No matter how many times you tell ‘em, here’s the receipts I sent you six times before, well we don’t have it so we need to start again.” That’s what it takes, repeated persistence, telling the same story to a different V.A. rep. It worked for Gary James, who like Casto, served in Utapoa, Thailand. He told me by phone, “It took a little over five years because it was several – apply, get rejected, re-apply get rejected.” He said he used pictures, showing where he worked and repeatedly pulled the government`s own documentation of tactical herbicides. He added, “It took some kind of legal double talk to actually get them to listen to my claim.” Casto is dealing with a different V.A. office as he tries to prove the same case, before he dies. Casto said through tears, “They ask us, you know, to come take care of our country and we did it gladly. The Vietnam War was not very popular, obviously, but we did it. We never thought they`d turn their back to us later in life.” Casto says he’s not even been able to get the V.A. to set up an appeal hearing for him. The V.A. said it cannot talk about Casto’s case without a waiver.

Learn more about Agent Orange and Herbicides

‘Blatant dishonesty and corruption:’ Care delays at Colorado Springs VA clinic spur outrage (The Gazette)
Angry lawmakers are calling for a probe of misconduct at the Department of Veterans Affairs in light of a report that found that hundreds of veterans faced care delays at a Colorado Springs clinic, even as an agency spokesman disputed the findings. Colorado U.S. Reps. Doug Lamborn and Mike Coffman were joined by House VA committee head Rep. Jeff Miller in calling for a congressional review of the Floyd K. Lindstrom Clinic, where the VA’s inspector general found 68 percent of 450 veteran cases reviewed faced delays of more than 30 days for care. What angered lawmakers the most was the use of phony dates in a scheduling system for some cases that investigators said “made it appear the appointment wait time was less than 30 days.” “This report documents blatant dishonesty and corruption, and the sad truth is that this same sort of behavior is routinely tolerated across the department,” Miller said. The report, released Thursday, found that 28 patients’ records were manipulated to show they had same-day appointments when they actually waited an average of 76 days. “I reject the notion that anywhere in this report it says we falsified data,” Denver VA spokesman Dan Warvi said. Warvi contends that the records, including those that falsely showed same-day appointments, were correct according to a “local standard” in place until 2015. While he denied that workers falsified reports, he couldn’t explain the discrepancies for the 28 patients. Lamborn said VA waits in Colorado Springs have claimed a life. In a letter to VA Secretary Bob McDonald, Lamborn said a veteran in Colorado Springs was deemed a suicide risk during an April visit to the Lindstrom Clinic but wasn’t referred for care. The former Marine killed himself six weeks later, Lamborn wrote. “I am infuriated that your department continues to intentionally delay the medical care our nation’s veterans have earned,” the Colorado Springs Republican wrote. Warvi said he couldn’t comment on Lamborn’s allegations because of patient privacy concerns. Patient waits at the clinic remain among the longest in the country, VA records show. For the month ending Jan. 15, 5,036 veterans were waiting more than a month for appointments – 31 percent of all appointments scheduled at the facility that opened in August 2014. … Warvi said the VA is working to shorten waits in Colorado Springs but is struggling to keep up with growing demand. The number of appointments there in 2015 rose to 170,000, up from 143,000 the previous year. Warvi said the number of veterans seeking care in Colorado Springs is a sign that clients like the service they’re getting. … U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Yuma, said he’s fed up with VA care. “I am damn tired of the disgraceful treatment the VA is giving our veterans,” Gardner said. “If they’re not going to drive reforms at the VA, then heads need to roll.” Coffman, of Aurora, said the Colorado Springs investigation shows the VA’s inability to fix its own problems. “The VA never ceases to disappoint me as a veteran,” said Coffman, who heads a House subcommittee for VA oversight. “There is no leadership in the VA that cares about serving those who served this nation.” Coffman, Gardner and Lamborn say their biggest issue from the report is that the VA isn’t taking advantage of “Veterans Choice,” a program that allows veterans facing long waits to see private-sector doctors. The investigation found that of 450 cases reviewed, workers “did not add, or did not timely add, the 288 veterans” facing waits of more than a month to a referral list for Veterans Choice care.

New Jersey vets receive expedited medical care under new Rutgers initiative (Rutgers Today)
To expedite the health care process for New Jersey’s estimated 400,000 veterans, Rutgers University has launched a program to facilitate timely medical and behavioral health care and peer support. The initiative comes on the heels of a recent report by the Department of Veterans Affairs inspector general that revealed that about 307,000 veterans might have died while their health care enrollment was pending. Veterans Total Care Initiative, a six-month pilot program supported by a $5 million grant from the New Jersey Department of Health, is the first service of its kind to provide integrated care to veterans. … The initiative is unique in that it provides integrated care: Peer counselors assist veterans in setting up expedited appointments for primary or behavioral health care and provide follow-up support.  … When veterans call seeking assistance for primary or behavioral health care, a peer support specialist will discuss their current needs and then work with the caller on various options. … When the appointment is ready to be made, peer counselors never put veterans on hold but remain on the line while connecting them to a representative at one of the participating Rutgers-operated facilities at New Jersey Medical School in Newark, Robert Wood Johnson Medical Group in New Brunswick and University Behavioral Health Care in Newark and Piscataway. They also connect callers in the state’s southern counties to clinics at Cooper University Hospital in Camden and Kennedy University Hospital in Cherry Hill. Veterans can get an appointment within a few days and sometimes even on the same day. … The initiative will not only help veterans receive faster appointments, but also will assist in getting vets the number of appointments they need. “A veteran who is enrolled in the VA might only be able to get one appointment a month when they need them weekly,” says McCain. “We work with the clinics to ensure that veterans get the necessary care.” After the initial call, the peer counselor stays in touch with the veteran by placing a reminder call the day before the appointment; they also follow up to discuss the veteran’s experience, what happens next and how they can help.As part of the initiative, peer counselors also offer support with non-medical issues such as financial, housing or employment concerns.

Video: New device to treat veterans, troops with PTSD (KFDM)

UCLA’s deal with VA looks to benefit LA veterans (Daily Bruin)
Several veterans and experts said they think UCLA’s agreement with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs will benefit the medical, social and financial health of Los Angeles veterans. UCLA officials announced Jan. 28 the university will pay $1.15 million annually for medical, legal and recreational services to the VA’s West Los Angeles campus. It will also pay $300,000 per year for its renewed lease of Jackie Robinson Stadium, where the UCLA baseball team hosts home games. In 2011, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit against the VA on behalf of homeless disabled veterans, arguing that leasing sections of the campus to organizations that did not directly benefit veterans was a misuse of the land. The lawsuit, which cites UCLA’s lease of Jackie Robinson Stadium as an example of misuse, also called for more veteran housing and better medical services. In January 2015, the VA agreed to create a plan to improve its services and add housing units to the campus. In October, the department released a detailed plan outlining its goals for the campus but did not specify what would happen to Jackie Robinson Stadium. An ACLU spokesperson said it supported the VA’s plan to improve its campus, but did not have a comment on UCLA’s agreement with the VA. Some veterans said they think the agreement will improve the services they already have. … Other veterans said they questioned UCLA’s motives. Another marine, who asked to be identified as UCLA student out of fear of retribution, said the assistance this money will provide veterans warrants praise, but it should not have taken a lawsuit to spur the gesture. The student said he views the agreement as a way of placating veterans’ grievances raised in the lawsuit. “It’s wonderful they’re helping, but it really seems like the school is doing this in their own best interests,” he said. He added he thinks UCLA lacks space and resources for veterans on campus. “It would not take a lot for them to make a big difference,” he said, citing the small space allocated for the Veterans Resource Office and the low number of computers the veterans can access. Melissa Tyner, who runs the UCLA Veterans Benefits Legal Clinic with the UCLA School of Law, said the clinic will be relocated and expanded as part of the agreement, but no further details have been released. She added it is too early to tell how the expansion will affect the current clinic, but she thinks increased resources will result in increased access to legal services for homeless veterans. Some experts said they think any improvement is beneficial, regardless of the circumstances that prompted UCLA’s increased affiliation with the VA. Mark Kaplan, a professor of social welfare at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs who testified before a Senate committee at a hearing about veterans’ health, praised the effort but said much more needs to be done to combat the mental health, substance abuse and alcoholism issues prevalent in the veteran community. “There are still major gaps in services for veterans,” he said. “But any opportunity for expansion is good.”

VA stats show increase in number of Central Texas vets receiving mental health treatment for PTSD (Killeen Daily Herald) Statistics from the Central Texas Veterans Health Care System show an increasing number of veterans are seeking treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder. In five years, the number grew 38 percent to 5,780 at the system’s three Department of Veterans Affairs medical locations in Temple, Waco and Austin. A similar increase was seen in the overall number of mental health patients, whose afflictions can range from anxiety to depression to severe PTSD. In 2015, the three VA locations treated 30,336 patients for mental health, up from 22,411, a 35 percent increase in five years. The numbers were given to the Herald after a request to the VA. The Temple VA hospital saw the biggest increases: 3,877 PTSD patients last year, compared to 2,485 in 2010. In 2015, the hospital had 15,827 mental health patients, up from 11,853 in 2010, according to the VA. The system’s mental health budget in that time has increased, jumping from $27.2 million in fiscal 2011 to $31.5 million this year. VA officials said they have noticed the increases in PTSD and mental health cases, spurred by more than a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan. “It’s certainly not decreasing,” said Dr. Stacy Gwynn, a VA psychologist who works with veterans who have PTSD in Waco and Temple. She said awareness on PTSD has grown in recent years, and many veterans are understanding “that it’s treatable.” The Central Texas VA system treats more Iraq and Afghanistan veterans than any other VA system in the country, officials said. The Herald also requested the number of PTSD patients, broken down by age. Of the 5,780 veterans treated for PTSD last year, the majority of them — 1,501 — were in the 35-to-44 age group. However, that was followed closely by 25-to-34 age group, with 1,455 patients, and the 45-to-54 age group, which had 1,395 patients. All three age groups saw significant gains in the past six years: There were 781 PTSD patients in the 35-to-44 age group in 2010, 1,095 in the 25-to-34 age group and 697 in the 45-to-54 age group. The numbers don’t reflect active-duty personnel or retirees who seek treatment at Fort Hood’s Carl R. Darnall Army Medical Center or medical facilities outside the VA.

Wisconsin veterans oppose potential loss of county service offices (Door County Daily News)
Wisconsin’s veterans are voicing their anger and frustration regarding new legislation, which could potentially eliminate some county veterans service offices. The CVSOs are often a lifeline to older rural veterans who are unreachable online or live far distances from VA clinics. Kewaunee County Service Officer and Gulf War veteran Jane Babcock says the legislation would reduce the number of CVSO officers who work one on one with veterans in need. Wording within Assembly Bill 821 and Senate Bill 668 would eliminate the requirement that each county maintains a veteran service officer to help veterans find needed medical care and benefits. It would also prohibit CVSOs from validating veteran status for state licenses or helping veterans fill out any paperwork in regards to loan applications or benefits. The bill’s authors, State Assembly members Ken Skowronski (R-Franklin), Dale Kooyenga (R-Brookfield), Alvin Ott (R-Forest Junction) and State Senator Van Wanggaard (R-Racine) have postponed voting on the bill following angry testimony from veterans at an Assembly committee hearing this past week. Representative Joel Kitchens has scheduled a series of public listening sessions in regards to the legislation. The first one takes place Monday, February 8th from 4-5:30pm in the Council Chamber at Algoma City Hall at 416 Fremont Street. A second forum will take place later that evening from 7-8:30pm in the library of Sturgeon Bay High School at 1230 Michigan St.

Veterans group opposes fireworks expansion in Iowa (KSOM)
Senate File 508 would allow Iowa residents to possess and use fireworks, such as firecrackers and Roman candles. Currently, only novelty items such as sparklers are legal in the state. The bill passed a committee last week, but one group says the effort poses a threat to Iowa’s veterans and others who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, or P-T-S-D. Bob Krause is with the Veterans National Recovery Center, a group that focuses on the Health of returning veterans. “They can be quite debilitating. Some PTSD veterans that I know, if they hear a loud report, like a muffler backfiring or something like that they will actually fall into a fetal position,” stated Krause. He says the chance of getting P-T-S-D from the first combat-zone experience is now between 20 and 25 percent, but that likelihood jumps with the second and third combat tours between 90 and 95 percent. Both the Iowa House and Senate passed separate bills expanding fireworks in Iowa last session, but the chambers could not agree on a single version to send to the governor for signature.