March 14 Veterans News

March 14 Veterans News

VetsHQ News Update16 US ships that aided Japan still contaminated with radiation (Military.com) Sixteen U.S. ships that participated in relief efforts after Japan’s nuclear disaster five years ago remain contaminated with low levels of radiation from the crippled Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant, top Navy officials told Stars and Stripes. In all, 25 ships took part in Operation Tomodachi, the name given for the U.S. humanitarian aid operations after the magnitude-9.0 earthquake and subsequent tsunami on March 11, 2011. The tsunami, whose waves reached runup heights of 130 feet, crippled the Fukushima plant, causing a nuclear meltdown. In the years since the crisis, the ships have undergone cleanup efforts, the Navy said, and 13 Navy and three Military Sealift Command vessels still have some signs of contamination, mostly to ventilation systems, main engines and generators. “The low levels of radioactivity that remain are in normally inaccessible areas that are controlled in accordance with stringent procedures,” the Navy said in an email to Stars and Stripes. “Work in these areas occurs mainly during major maintenance availabilities and requires workers to follow strict safety procedures.” All normally accessible spaces and equipment aboard the ships have been surveyed and decontaminated, Vice Adm. William Hilarides, commander of Naval Sea Systems Command, wrote to Stars and Stripes. “The radioactive contamination found on the ships involved in Operation Tomodachi is at such low levels that it does not pose a health concern to the crews, their families, or maintenance personnel,” Hilarides said. The largest U.S. ship to take part in the relief operation was the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan, which normally carries a crew of more than 5,000 sailors. In 2014, three years after the disaster, the Reagan’s ventilation system was contaminated with 0.01 millirems of radiation per hour, according to the Navy. Nuclear Regulatory Commission guidelines advise no more than 2 millirems of radiation in one hour in any unrestricted area, and 100 millirems total in a calendar year from external and internal sources in unrestricted and controlled areas, so full-time exposure on the Reagan would be below that. … The Navy has acknowledged that the Reagan passed through a plume of radiation. Navy images showed sailors with their faces covered, scrubbing the deck of the Reagan with soap and water as a precautionary measure afterward. The Reagan and sailors stayed off the coast of Japan for several weeks to aid their Japanese allies. The multibillion-dollar ship, projected to last at least 50 years after its launch in 2001, then was taken offline for more than a year for “deep maintenance and modernization” at the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard and Intermediate Maintenance Facility in Bremerton, Washington, according to Navy officials. … Upgrades and cleaning also took place at the ship’s next stop in San Diego. Sailors who performed the work said it entailed entering spaces deep within the ship, testing for high levels of radiation, and if it was found, sanding, priming and painting the areas. They say there were given little to no protective gear, a claim that the Navy denies. Of the 1,360 individuals aboard the Reagan who were monitored by the Navy following the incident, more than 96 percent were found not to have detectable internal contamination, the Navy said. The highest measured dose was less than 10 percent of the average annual exposure to someone living in the United States. Experts differ on the effects of radiation in general and, specifically, for those involved in Operation Tomodachi. Eight Reagan sailors, claiming a host of medical conditions they say are related to radiation exposure, filed suit in 2012 against the nuclear plant’s operator, the Tokyo Electric Power Co. The suit asserts that TEPCO lied, coaxing the Navy closer to the plant even though it knew the situation was dire. General Electric, EBASCO, Toshiba Corp. and Hitachi were later added as defendants for allegations of faulty parts for the reactors. … The illnesses listed in the lawsuit include genetic immune system diseases, headaches, difficulty concentrating, thyroid problems, bloody noses, rectal and gynecological bleeding, weakness in sides of the body accompanied by the shrinking of muscle mass, memory loss, leukemia, testicular cancer, problems with vision, high-pitch ringing in the ears and anxiety. The list of sailors who have joined the lawsuit, which is making its way through the courts, has grown to 370. In early 2014, Congress ordered Assistant Secretary of Defense for Health Affairs Dr. Jonathan Woodson to investigate the claims. After a peer-reviewed study into the levels of exposure, Woodson reported back to Congress, defending the military’s response and safeguards. Any illnesses that sailors have developed since the operation are not a result of the relief campaign, he said. … Furthermore, Woodson said, more sailors would have been sick if the levels were high enough to cause the illnesses cited. There were upward of 5,000 sailors aboard the Reagan at the time of the operation. He also said symptoms developed too early to be associated with the operation. But Shinzo Kimura — a professor at Dokkyo Medical University in Japan who has studied radiation exposure from Hiroshima and Nagasaki to Chernobyl and, now, Fukushima — said it wasn’t too early for sailors to show symptoms of exposure-related conditions. Doctors have seen conditions in children living near the plant that surfaced earlier than would normally be expected. Kimura, hired by the Nihonmatsu city government for his expertise in the field, was the first scientist on the ground taking readings in the wake of the Fukushima disaster. He said each person and the way their body is affected by radiation is different. While unable to definitively say if the sailors were sickened by the radiation, Kimura reasoned that the levels aboard the Reagan were high enough to cause illnesses. Otherwise, he said, why go through the bother of repeated cleanings to lower radiation levels?

DoD official: Extend vets’ Military OneSource access (Military Times)
Troops need a longer safety net of eligibility for Military OneSource’s free benefits after they leave the military, according to a defense official. “We want to extend it from 180 to 365 days to give people that pad of settling into a life, and then when you hit those barriers, circle back to Military OneSource,” said Rosemary Williams, deputy assistant secretary of defense for military community and family policy. She and others briefed Acting Army Secretary Patrick Murphy, his wife, Jenni, and members of his staff about Military OneSource on Thursday. During the briefing, Williams asked Murphy to spread the word to soldiers and families about the resources available through Military OneSource. In addition, “I would respectfully invite your interest in extending” the benefit to 365 days, she said. Retired or honorably discharged troops and their family members can access the benefit for up to 180 days after separation. Defense officials are examining if they need to seek changes in law for the expansion, said Defense Department spokesman Matthew Allen. If so, they will work with Congress to seek those changes. Officials are researching support systems that transitioning service members and their families need after separation to maintain their work/life balance, Allen said. The Defense Department funds Military OneSource to provide a variety of free services to those eligible, including active duty, Guard and reserve members — regardless of their activation status — their immediate family members, surviving spouses and children, and certain others. It’s available through its website or by phone at 800-342-9647. The programs include access to free tax preparation software and tax consultation, document translation and simultaneous language interpretation services in more than 150 languages. Trained professionals offer specialty consultations by phone or online on wounded warrior issues, adoption, education, special needs, adult and elder care, peer-to-peer support, health and wellness coaching, and spouse relocation and transition. There’s a program for spouse education and employment. Military OneSource also offers free, confidential nonmedical counseling for individuals face-to-face in their community, by telephone and by secure online chat and video conference. Each person can receive up to 12 consultations per problem. Officials have learned that troops need more time to access Military OneSource after they leave the military because not all issues come up within six months. A number of benefits they had in the military are no longer available. “Time and time again, people are shocked at what happens outside the bubble,” Williams said. For example, they may realize they don’t want to live forever in the place they have chosen, or their initial job may not be as perfect as they thought, and they need help making those adjustments. She said the cost would be small to extend Military OneSource access to 365 days for those leaving the service, but declined to to be specific. … Murphy said later he plans to talk with Veterans Affairs Secretary Bob McDonald about the possible expansion. “We’re looking for ways to partner together,” he said. In 2015, there were 737,384 total contacts through Military OneSource, including calls, counseling types, online registrations, emails and coaching sessions, according to Military OneSource officials. There were about 177,000 nonmedical counseling sessions completed, including about 86,000 sessions for those associated with the Army. Consultants resolved 2,040 wounded warrior cases, including about 1,400 Army cases. More than 22,000 financial counseling sessions were completed, of which about 10,000 were provided to soldiers or their family members.

New law will cut off unemployment pay for GI Bill users (Military Times)
Department of Labor officials are moving to cut off unemployment checks for  veterans attending college on the GI Bill after lawmakers quietly approved the cost-cutting move last December. But exactly when and how the change will take place remains a frustrating mystery to federal and state officials and to veterans advocates who unsuccessfully argued against the idea. Language inserted in the final draft of last year’s National Defense Authorization Act specifies that veterans receiving Post-9/11 GI Bill education payouts should not also be eligible for unemployment insurance. An exception was carved out for veterans involuntarily separated from the military under honorable conditions. The Post-9/11 GI Bill pays not only tuition for student veterans but also a living stipend, equal to the Basic Allowance for Housing regional payouts for an E-5 with dependents. That ranges from around $1,100 in areas around Ohio State University to more than $4,000 a month for individuals living near San Francisco State University. That, coupled with 26 weeks or more of unemployment benefits, can lead to a substantial sum of government payouts headed to a veteran each month. Federal officials aren’t sure how many veterans may be taking advantage of the dual benefits now, but anecdotal evidence was enough for lawmakers to move to end the practice. But doing so will be complicated. In a statement, Employment and Training Administration officials within the Department of Labor said they are working with various state and federal agencies to “develop an approach” for how to identify which veterans are receiving unemployment checks, GI Bill checks or both. No such central information system exists, in part because unemployment benefits are handled differently in each state. The language passed by Congress last year did not include any funding for new databases or instructions on how to handle that information sharing. “That has proved to be more challenging” than expected, Labor officials acknowledged. “ETA will be issuing guidance on that as well once issues are resolved.” It’s also unclear who will be blocked from receiving the unemployment payouts once the new rules and processes are developed. The NDAA language appears to cover individuals who collect unemployment after leaving the military but not those who work somewhere else between leaving uniform and using their GI Bill benefits. Labor officials said they believe the new rules “will only apply to a small segment of transitioning military who get Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits” but could not offer more specifics as their process continues. Confusion over the parameters and process led veterans advocates to argue against the provision last fall, and the language was successfully dropped in the House version of the annual authorization act. But Senate lawmakers included it in subsequent versions, and the final draft signed by the president included the new prohibition. The new law did not specify any timeline for enforcing the unemployment check changes. States are not required to enforce it until the new guidance from the Labor Department is released.

Advocates say imprisoned veterans should have access to VA (Military.com)
Two veterans’ service organizations are backing Senate legislation requiring prison officials to give the Veterans Affairs Department reasonable access to a prisoner who has served in the military. John Rowan, president of the Vietnam Veterans Association, on Tuesday informed Sens. Chuck Grassley, a Republican from Iowa who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, and Dick Durbin, a Democrat from New York and fellow panel member, of the organization’s support for the bill, while Paralyzed Veterans of America on Thursday notified the lawmakers of its support. “Because of its long history with veterans and criminal justice issues, [Vietnam Veterans of America] has always believed that VA access to incarcerated veterans is especially needed by those transitioning from incarceration to life beyond prison walls, Rowan wrote in the letter, a copy of which was provided to Military.com. Carl Blake, associate executive director for Government Relations for PVA, said the group offers its full support to the bill. “A veteran utilizing resources such as mental health care, substance abuse treatment and education benefits significantly increases the likelihood of successful re-entry into society, he told the Senators in a letter. The Senate legislation, which passed out of the committee with bipartisan support, is aimed primarily at rolling back some of the onerous mandatory sentences that in recent years have been determined to be too harsh or unfair. Under so-called “three strikes laws that states began adopting in the 1990s judges were required to sentence individuals convicted a third time of certain crimes to set penalties. Though initially intended to target perpetrators of serious and violent crimes, the laws eventually resulted in the incarceration of non-violent, petty criminals for sentences up to and including life. A Veterans of Foreign Wars spokesman said the organization is still studying at the bill. The provision related to veterans’ access to VA takes up about a single page in the 81-page bill. The VA did not respond to Military.com’s request for comment. Dr. Tom Berger, executive director of the VVA’s Veterans’ Health Council, said the Senate bill will make it possible for imprisoned veterans to learn about and apply for VA healthcare and benefits, including employment, housing and other services, before they’re released. This will make it easier for them to reintegrate, he said. … “Some of these folks have been behind walls for a long time, and they’re going to have a great deal of difficulty transitioning, so we want to make sure their mental and physical health is taken care of,” he added.

Bill would extend medical cannabis protections to Maryland vets with PTSD (Stars and Stripes)
Molly Dillon described the dilemma her boyfriend faced when he was receiving prescription medical treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder. Jason Anderson, a 20-year Army veteran from Boonsboro, would take more than a dozen pills each day, Dillon told a House panel on Friday. He became zombie-like, and when he wanted to stop taking the drugs and return to normal, he would experience withdrawal symptoms. “It seemed as if he was being used as a guinea pig for medications,” Dillon said. Now, Anderson uses cannabis to calm his emotions and feel a sense of normalcy, he said. The couple traveled to Annapolis on Friday to support a bill by Delegate David E. Vogt III, R-District 4, which would specifically extend the state’s affirmative defense against prosecution for marijuana possession to veterans suffering from PTSD. His bill also seeks protections for veterans receiving simultaneous treatment from the Department of Veterans Affairs, but state lawmakers would likely not support a bill that places a restriction on the federal government, committee members said. The bill also includes other expanded provisions relating to veteran patients, but Health and Government Operations Committee members, including champions of medical marijuana, said those proposals overlap with existing law. Delegate Dan K. Morhaim, D-Baltimore County, has supported medical cannabis legislation since 2003. Morhaim, a medical doctor, said he could support a trimmed-down version of Vogt’s bill and pointed to growing scientific studies that medical cannabis can help treat anyone who suffers from post-traumatic stress. Vogt, a Marine veteran, said he sought out special protections for military members because so many veterans commit suicide — about 8,000 a year. Maryland has passed several bills over the last decade addressing therapeutic cannabis use, including the affirmative defense law, which allows patients or caregivers to avoid criminal fines and penalties for marijuana possession if they can establish proof of medical need. The state also moved to decriminalize possession of less than 10 grams of marijuana and established a medical marijuana commission, which will oversee growing operations and dispensaries in the state. Patients likely won’t be able to access cannabis through the commission for at least another year. After Friday’s hearing, Vogt said his bill needs tweaking to pass the House committee. An identical bill cross-filed in the Senate was voted down by the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee. Vogt believes if the bill is able to move through the House committee and goes back before the Senate panel, he can address their questions.

Sen. Murkowski presses for better VA care in Alaska (webcenter11)
Alaska U.S. Senator Lisa Murkowski continued to press the leadership of the Department of Veterans’ Affairs over issues with the current VA healthcare system in Alaska. Following up on her discussions about the failings of the “Choice Card” Program in Alaska, she questioned VA Secretary Robert McDonald on the lessons learned from his August 2015 visit to the state, whether or not he understands the unique challenges veterans in Alaska face, and his plans to fix those issues. Secretary McDonald said that the VA is working to replicate Alaska’s unique “Care Closer to Home” program. Murkowski told the Secretary “So what I need to hear from you is that you agree that where we were before choice came on is where we can get back to and that’s the direction that you want to take us.” McDonald replied “That’s certainly the direction I want to take it and I am going to make sure that that is built into any bill because I saw the Alaska system and it worked and it is. It was choice… it did provide choice.”

New Mexico VA system gets head start on changes (ABQ Journal)
As the Department of Veterans Affairs’ Office of Inspector General continues doling out 77 “administrative summaries” of wait-time investigations at VA medical facilities across the country, the New Mexico VA Health Care System is already addressing problems it anticipates will be noted in the OIG’s upcoming report about it. “While we have yet to receive a summary from the OIG regarding our specific, on-site inspection at the Raymond G. Murphy VA Medical Center, we have taken several steps in order to reduce patient wait times,” Bill Armstrong, public affairs specialist for the NMVAHCS, said last week by email. Those efforts include participation in two nationwide VA “access stand downs” held Nov. 14, 2015, and Feb. 27, he said. “A team of clinical leaders, administrators and volunteers were on site to reach out to all veterans identified as having the most important and acute needs to make sure they could be seen either in VA or in the community,” Armstrong said, adding, “We will continue to strive for all veterans to have safe, high-quality, personalized, and timely care wherever they receive their health services.” The 77 investigations were prompted by a wave of complaints that followed revelations in spring 2014 that managers at the Phoenix VA Medical Center had manipulated reports on how long veterans were waiting for treatment. Investigations conducted by the OIG’s Office of Investigations found that some veterans waited for months – and sometimes years – for treatment. Subsequent investigations revealed that some VA mangers received performance bonuses based on the falsified wait time reports. The Journal reported in May 2014 that up to 3,000 patients at the Raymond G. Murphy VA Medical Center spent months on an “alternative list” while waiting to be assigned a primary care doctor but were not included on the medical center’s official “wait” list. Interim administrator Dr. James Robbins, who temporarily replaced director George Marnell after he retired at the end of April 2014, said at the time that the affected patients had not been informed that the doctor they were temporarily assigned to was an administrator who didn’t treat patients, and that the practice was being reviewed. Allegations that VA schedulers in Albuquerque were directed by management to show patient appointment dates in the computer system as being within two weeks of the date desired – even though the actual appointment was sometimes weeks or months away – were found credible by an in internal investigator assigned by Marnell. But the unidentified investigator determined that there was no “credible evidence” that managers had directed the records manipulation. The New Mexico VA Health Care System serves veterans in New Mexico, southern Colorado and West Texas.

VA to warn veterans about DeVry University (Huffington Post)
The Department of Veterans Affairs today suspended for-profit DeVry University from the VA’s “Principles of Excellence” status under the GI Bill.  The VA said in a statement that it had taken the action after it had reviewed a recent lawsuit filed by the Federal Trade Commission alleging that DeVry has engaged in deceptive marketing. In today’s statement and in a letter to DeVry, the VA said it will remove DeVry’s “Principles of Excellence” approval status, which indicates a commitment to protecting students, from the VA’s GI Bill Comparison Tool, and will place a warning flag on all DeVry University campus pages in the comparison tool to call attention to the FTC lawsuit. The FTC sued DeVry on January 27, asserting that the company repeatedly used deceptive claims about job placement rates to lure students. On that day, the Department of Education gave notice to DeVry to stop certain advertising regarding student employment outcomes. In a letter sent today to DeVry, VA Deputy Under Secretary Curtis L. Coy said that the VA was “greatly concerned about FTC’s findings in the pending lawsuit.” Coy’s letter adds that “VA received significant numbers of complaints” from veterans “regarding DeVry and its misrepresentation to students and prospective students of post-graduation employment outcomes as well as providing insufficient information on total cost of programs.” The VA also said it is conducting reviews at all DeVry campuses to determine whether the company is complying with federal regulations.  Coy’s letter added that the VA remained in discussions with the FTC and reserved the right to take further actions with respect to DeVry based on new information. DeVry remains eligible to enroll veterans and receive their federal education benefits.  DeVry last year received more than $1.5 billion in taxpayer dollars from federal student grants and loans.

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