First lady asks women veterans to share their stories (Military Times)
First lady Michelle Obama wants women veterans to talk about themselves more. “(Your stories) are so worth telling, and our girls, our granddaughters need to hear them,” she told a packed Statuary Hall during a Women’s History Month event at the Capitol on Wednesday. “If you are a woman veteran, if you have worn the uniform and served bravely, I want to ask you to stand tall.” The comments came as both an admonition and admiration for the roughly 3 million women veterans in America today, one of the fastest growing segments of the military population. Speakers at the event called their experiences inspiring but too often unheralded, or simply dismissed as common knowledge. Congressional leaders and veterans advocates attended the event to honor retired Brig. Gen. Wilma Vaught, one of the first women to serve as a general officer in the military and a driving force behind the Women’s Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery. Vaught recounted for the crowd her own triumphs and struggles, relating stories of reluctance to let women serve in peacetime, then reluctance to let them deploy to Vietnam, then to let them rise through the ranks. “We have come a long way,” she said to loud applause. But she also emphasized the importance of remembering those challenges, especially in light of the ongoing issues facing women in the ranks. Her comments came as the military is working to open all combat jobs to women for the first time, an issue that has met resistance despite the battlefield fights faced by female service members in Iraq and Afghanistan over the last decade. Obama referenced not only those active-duty issues but also lingering problems for women after they leave the military, including the reluctance to seek out help because of outdated stereotypes and biases of who qualifies as a veteran. “Many women veterans don’t self-identify,” she said. “Too many miss out on the benefits that come with serving this country.” The first lady and Jill Biden, wife of the vice president, have pushed larger awareness of those issues and military families’ challenges through the White House’s Joining Forces campaign. But Obama said while spreading that message through high-profile channels can help, sharing personal stories of service can be even more effective. “Once they hear about your service and sacrifice, they will slowly start to get what we know: that you are amazing, you are a gift to us,” she said. “Tell people what you have done to protect us and keep us safe.”
Fort Detrick asks judge to dismiss contamination lawsuit (Stars and Stripes)
The Army is asking that complaints by current and former Frederick residents who sued Fort Detrick for wrongful death and suffering be denied. Frederick residents and Randy White’s family, along with members of the Kristen Renee Foundation, filed a class-action lawsuit in August claiming that Fort Detrick’s failure to clean up contaminated soil and groundwater caused the illnesses and deaths of their relatives. The plaintiffs are seeking $750 million for wrongful death and pain and suffering. U.S. Attorney Rod Rosenstein, representing the Army’s interests, asked Monday that the case be dismissed. In online court documents, Rosenstein argued that the government has no particular duty to respond to hazardous substances and the Army can use its own judgment to decide whether to clean up. Decades ago, the Army dumped sludge from its former decontamination plants, ashes from its incinerators, potentially radioactive sludge from a sewage disposal plant, drums of the industrial solvent trichloroethylene, chemical materials, biological materials and herbicides at Area B. The area is a Fort Detrick property roughly bordered by Shookstown Road, Rocky Springs Road and Kemp Lane. The hazardous substances were likely buried at Area B in unlined pits five or six decades ago. Rosenstein argued that the Army made a sensible decision at the time to bury the substances and continues to make sensible decisions about cleaning them up. In the early 2000s, Fort Detrick spent millions to dig out the contents of one of those pits. But further “intrusive” actions were considered too expensive because of the cost of ensuring public safety, “estimated at almost a billion dollars,” Rosenstein argued. In 2008, the Army capped the tops of the remaining pits for a price of $5.5 million. Local residents are still concerned that the bottoms and sides of the pits continue to drain toxins into the groundwater. At each meeting of the Fort Detrick Restoration Advisory Board, when the Army briefs local stakeholders on its current cleanup activities, residents have been frustrated at the decades-long process of finding the remaining toxins on Area B. The Army continues to investigate the size and location of a plume of chemicals that may have spread through groundwater from the military property. Some in the Frederick community believe that many cancer cases in the residential neighborhoods around Fort Detrick were caused by that contamination, though the state has been unable to verify the existence of a cancer cluster. Randy White, founder of the Kristen Renee Foundation, said many people who learned about the cancer cluster possibility in a Feb. 14 News-Post story are now contacting the foundation about their experiences with cancer and terminal illness related to Fort Detrick. Because of the recent influx of attention to the issue, White said, he is unsure of the number of people currently involved in the class-action lawsuit, but estimated it to be close to 200. In the past two months, 6,300 people have signed a petition asking Maryland’s senators to take another look at a possible cluster. Rosenstein argued in court documents that local residents’ claims of suffering were vague, and “allege unspecified acts of negligence by Fort Detrick that caused unspecified injuries and occurred at unspecified times.” If dismissed, this case would follow a long pattern of denied complaints. A developer’s $37 million lawsuit against Fort Detrick was dismissed in January. The developer, Waverley View Investors LLC, owns a property totaling 92.8 acres near the installation. Its lawyers argued that Fort Detrick was responsible for cleaning up contaminated groundwater that had flowed under their property. Rosenstein is asking the chief judge who dismissed that case to do the same with this case. Current and former local residents also filed more than 100 claims of wrongful deaths and illnesses caused by Fort Detrick, seeking a total of $3.8 billion. The garrison denied those claims last March. Rosenstein is arguing that Fort Detrick has sovereign immunity from these types of lawsuits, and White said that’s not a surprise. “Fort Detrick can huff and puff, and they can say that they’re going to deny every lawsuit,” White said. “Our legal team is sharp as they come. We’re going on five years now of fighting this, but … we’re not going to stop.”
VetsHQ Note: For more information on the environmental issues at Fort Detrick visit the EPA’s Superfund Program website.
Vets who claim they were sickened by tainted water at Marine base denied disability (NY1)
Mark and Rene Cifelli just got married, but they are truly living each day together as if it will be their last. Mark is dying. “The doctor said there’s nothing we can do for you,” Cifelli explains. “He was really just giving me comfort drugs.” Cifelli, who lives in North Tonawanda, N.Y., outside of Buffalo, has stage four colon, lung and liver cancer. He says his doctors blame exposure to chemicals when he was a Marine at Camp Lejeune, N.C., in the 1980s. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs is providing him with medical care, but it has rejected his application for disability benefits three times. “I am angry,” Cifelli told NY1. “Semper Fi, always faithful. That wasn’t being faithful to the Marines that served.” Cifelli is among thousands of Camp Lejeune veterans who have filed disability claims alleging they got sick because of exposure to the toxic chemicals, including trichloroethylene (TCE), tetrachloroethylene (PCE), vinyl chloride, and other contaminants. The VA acknowledges that in 7,300 of the claims, there is “limited or suggestive evidence of an association with the contaminants in the water.” But NY1 has learned that VA medical experts denied nearly 6,500 of those claims, an 89% rejection rate. “I’ve been outraged,” said New York City attorney Craig Unterberg, who was diagnosed with kidney cancer last year. He lived at Camp Lejeune in the early 1970s when he was a toddler, drinking and playing in the water. Now he’s working with veterans and other civilians from the base, fighting for the VA to better help those who have fallen ill. “We need the VA to act quicker, we need them to lower the burden that is on people to try to get their claims approved.” As many as 900,000 service members, plus an unknown number of civilians, were potentially exposed to the contaminants from 1953 to 1987. The chemicals leaked into the groundwater from industrial sites inside Camp Lejeune and a dry cleaner just off the base. President Obama signed a law four years ago making VA medical care less expensive for veterans and civilians who drank Camp Lejeune’s water and suffer from any of 15 medical conditions, most of them cancer. … More than 21,000 vets have been helped as a result, but many like Cifelli want disability benefits, too. “Everybody’s let us down, from the President on down,” he says. Some say they are overwhelmed fighting their cancer while working. Disability payments, they say, would let them focus on the fight to survive, or at least let them better enjoy their final days. Cifelli says he doesn’t have the “energy to continue at the pace I’m going.” The VA has heard the complaints and says it will grant the disability benefits for eight medical conditions. But that new policy is not expected to take effect for at least a year. Some of the sick veterans fear they won’t live that long. For those with illnesses that still won’t be covered, like bladder or breast cancer, the same application process for disability benefits will still apply, with its high rejection rate.
Read More: Camp Lejeune Ground Water Contamination
VA expands investigation of unqualified doctors (KARE 11)
Internal VA records obtained by KARE 11 reveal that veterans in Minnesota, Texas and possibly nationwide have been denied benefits and treatment for traumatic brain injuries by the Department of Veterans Affairs after exams by unqualified doctors and nurses. “If it’s in Minneapolis, if it’s in Amarillo, where else is it?” asked Dr. Roy Marokus, until recently the Chief of the Compensation and Pension unit at the Thomas E. Creek VA Medical Center in Amarillo, Texas. Following a KARE 11 investigation in August, the Minneapolis VA Medical Center acknowledged that it had used unqualified doctors to diagnose more than 300 veterans for traumatic brain injuries (TBI’s) in violation of VA policy. At the time, Rep. Tim Walz (D-MN) called upon the VA to conduct a nationwide review. Now, internal VA emails in Texas reveal a broader review of improper TBI evaluations is underway and already has uncovered 70 cases in Amarillo alone in which veterans were examined by unqualified doctors. After seeing the latest emails, KARE 11 has filed Freedom of Information requests asking for the number of veterans diagnosed by unqualified doctors at every VA hospital nationwide. Traumatic brain injuries are often invisible, but debilitating. They’ve been called the signature wound of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. VA policy requires that the initial diagnosis for TBI’s must be made by one of four specialists: neurosurgeons, neurologists, psychiatrists and physiatrists. Records in Minneapolis, however, revealed repeated violations of that policy. Some initial TBI diagnoses were even done by a nurse practitioner, not a neurologist. As a result, veterans were misdiagnosed and denied both TBI benefits and treatment. … In Texas, Dr. Roy Marokus worries about other misdiagnosed veterans. “Think about what they have to deal with if they’re misdiagnosed,” Marokus said. … Internal VA emails obtained by TEGNA Media reveal that on December 17, 2015, the VA Regional 17 Headquarters (“VISN 17”) in Arlington, Texas instructed Amarillo officials to review TBI exams which had not been done by the required specialists. “Unqualified, uncertified TBI – traumatic brain injury – exams that were done by people who weren’t supposed to do it,” Dr. Marokus said during a recent interview. Dr. Marokus said he received copies of the emails even though the exams at issue were done before he arrived in Amarillo in May, 2015. Because of patient privacy rules, Marokus did not reveal the names of individual veterans or the details of their cases. The emails TEGNA obtained state that only about 70 of the improper TBI exams listed by VISN 17 happened in Amarillo, an indication that other Texas facilities are involved. Dr. Marokus, a retired Army Colonel who served two tours in Iraq, fears it’s just the tip of the iceberg. “It’s a hell of a lot of people. A hell of a lot,” he said in a recent interview. “Too many.” Just days after granting that interview, he was demoted. Instead of heading the Compensation and Pension Unit, Dr. Marokus says he was ordered out of his office and is now confined to the hospital library.
Marco Rubio: Pass my bill so the VA can fire bad employees (Jacksonville.com)
Two years after The Arizona Republic revealed Department of Veteran Affairs employees manipulated wait times and falsified records, the agency’s independent watchdog released the first of its investigations into some clinics, including those in Jacksonville, Gainesville and St. Augustine. “While I applaud the VA for looking into these allegations,” Rubio said, “it is a shame they exist in the first place. The VA’s sole responsibility is to serve our nation’s veterans, yet time and time again I hear from veterans whose experiences prove it has failed to do so properly. VA employees in Florida and across the country are maintaining paper files of patients waiting to be scheduled for treatment, disregarding the VA scheduling system and manipulating lists to show reduced wait times. It’s truly a disgrace.” In Duval County, more patients waited 30 days or longer for appointments at the Jacksonville Veterans Administration Outpatient Clinic than at any other major facility in the country. The department’s Office of Inspector General investigated wait-list complaints back in 2014, but only this week did the office release some of the summaries of those reports. The office released the first 17 reports, with 11 targeting Florida clinics. Senators have criticized the watchdog office for taking so long to release the reports, but the office said in a statement that “it has always been our intention to release information regarding the findings of these investigations at a time when doing so would not impede any planned prosecutive or administrative action.” The remaining about 60 investigations will be released, the office said, state by state. The investigation into Jacksonville’s outpatient clinic found that managers changed the way eyeglass prescription consultations were recorded in violation of department standards. The St. Augustine investigation didn’t find any violations, but two investigations into Gainesville’s clinic found records had been kept improperly. VA Spokeswoman Mary Kay Hollingsworth did not respond to phone calls to her office and cell numbers Wednesday. Rubio said the most recent reports show that Congress must pass a bill he sponsors to allow the Department of Veteran Affairs to fire or demote based on performance or misconduct. “We’ve known the VA is in bad shape,” he said Wednesday, “but these findings simply reaffirm the necessity to reform the VA immediately. Our veterans should not have to wait for the care and treatment they deserve. It’s time we start implementing and enforcing the accountability measures I helped pass to hold incompetent, negligent and corrupt managers accountable. We must also pass the Department of Veterans Affairs Accountability Act of 2015 so that any VA employee failing to fulfill his or her responsibilities can also be held accountable. “We must stand with our veterans and continue fighting for the rights they were promised the day they swore an oath to protect our freedoms and way of life.”
House appropriator casts doubt on VA funding increase (Military Times)
A key House appropriator hinted Tuesday he may block another funding increase for the Department of Veterans Affairs next year, noting more than a decade of steady spending boosts for veterans programs. Rep. Charlie Dent, R-Pa., who chairs the Appropriations veteran affairs subcommittee, called the White House request for a $3.6 billion hike next year “a real heavy lift in the current environment” and “a non-starter.” He also questioned the department’s overall strategy of trying to build up staffing and infrastructure to deal with increased health care demands from veterans. “In my view, the VA would serve veterans better if it contracted more with existing private providers, rather than try and establish an in-house capacity,” he told department leaders at a budget hearing Wednesday. “It seems like VA has chosen the route of increasing everything … without a long-term strategy defining what these approaches should be.” House Republicans and VA leaders sparred for most of last year over similar fiscal issues, with lawmakers advancing a spending plan $1.4 billion below what White House officials insisted was needed to keep pace with programming needs. That money was eventually restored in the final budget deal. The fiscal 2017 budget request tops $177.6 billion, an increase of almost 9 percent from this year. It also sets aside $104 billion more in advance appropriations for fiscal 2018, to ensure that potential congressional funding battles won’t disrupt critical department operations. In fiscal 2001, the department’s budget totaled $45 billion. In response to Dent’s critique, VA Secretary Bob McDonald said the department has worked to cut waste and improve efficiencies. New pharmacy management programs cut $4.2 billion in potentially unneeded medical purchases last year, and the department has cut more than $500 million in travel spending in the last three years. Employee award spending and Senior Executive Service bonuses were cut by more than $200 million over the last four years. But McDonald also argued the additional funding is critical to avoid past problems with access and timeliness in veterans’ medical care. … Dent said VA’s request is not the only potential funding increase getting close scrutiny on Capitol Hill. He charged that all the president’s non-defense spending plans are “built on a house of cards” and said lawmakers have no desire to raise taxes to pay for more domestic programs of questionable need. … Lawmakers agreed upon a two-year spending deal last fall that totals $1.07 trillion in federal spending for fiscal 2017 but avoided stricter budget caps for the Pentagon and non-defense programs. Leaders in both chambers have publicly stated their desire to quickly pass budget legislation this year, but could delay final details until a new president is elected and inaugurated into office.
VA nurse who drank before operation resigns (Stars and Stripes)
A registered nurse who acknowledged drinking four or five beers in the hours before assisting an operation at a veterans’ hospital in Pennsylvania has resigned. Kim Borland, the attorney representing Richard Pieri, acknowledged Wednesday that he resigned. She wouldn’t comment on criminal charges the nurse faces for the Feb. 4 incident, including reckless endangerment, driving under the influence and public drunkenness. Police say the 59-year-old stumbled into the Wilkes-Barre VA Medical Center 4 before the emergency surgery. Prosecutors say Pieri told investigators he had forgotten he was on call that night and had been drinking at the Mohegan Sun Pocono casino when he was summoned for the emergency operation. Pieri faces a preliminary hearing on the charges on March 29.
Bills to boost services to Maine veterans advance (Bangor Daily News)
A pair of bills that would add three staff members to Maine’s Bureau of Veterans Services sailed through the Legislature’s Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee on Wednesday with unanimous approval. The bills, one that seeks to make the bureau the lead agency on tackling the issue of homeless veterans, were the result of a 2015 commission set up to study ways to reach more of the state’s estimated 140,000 veterans. Lawmakers who backed the changes said they need to continue to advocate for the legislation to ensure funding by the Legislature’s budget-writing Appropriations Committee. An estimated price tag for the legislation has not yet been determined. … Sen. Ron Collins, R-Wells, and Rep. Jared Golden, D-Lewiston, whose legislation in 2015 created the commission, are members of the committee. … As amended, the bills, LD 1611 and LD 1612, add two new veterans service officers to the bureau, who will be mobile and able to go to where veterans are instead of being based at a specific location. A third position, which would be filled by a person qualified to serve as a veterans service officer, would be the bureau’s coordinator on homeless veterans issues. Golden said the homeless coordinator is a necessary position, as the state has no single entity that focuses solely on homeless veterans. He told his fellow committee members — some of whom worried the new position would duplicate efforts of other agencies or organizations — no entity focuses just on homeless veterans in Maine. Maine has seven veterans service officers, who work with veterans to help them obtain various benefits including gaining eligibility for federal Veterans Administration health care and disability benefits. … The legislation also provides resources for the bureau so it can move toward an electronic records system, improving efficiencies for veteran service officers and allowing them easier access to records and cases. Currently, the bureau largely uses a paper records system. The legislation also makes marketing and outreach to Maine veterans a core responsibility of the bureau, so the state’s veterans can be readily identified and supported through the bureau’s services. … A separate bill also approved unanimously by the committee makes changes to state laws that allow Maine residents who are veterans, disabled veterans or who are still serving on active duty to have free access to the state’s parks and beaches. The bill, based on recommendations from the state’s Bureau of Parks and Lands, would allow free day use of state parks to all Maine veterans and their spouses and dependent children. The proposal also would make clear that family members of deployed active duty military members could access state parks without charge if they carried military dependent identification cards. The change also would allow 100 percent disabled veterans to continue to receive free camping privileges at state-operated campgrounds. The legislation faces additional votes in the House and the Senate.
Michigan legislators help found new Veterans Institute (Lansing State Journal)
Twelve days after a damning audit criticized the care of military veterans at a state facility, two lawmakers from opposite sides of the aisle announced a new organization that will raise funds and gather information in a bid to better help vets. State Rep. Tom Barrett, R-Potterville, and state Sen. David Knezek, D-Dearborn Heights — the first Iraq War veterans to serve in the Legislature — on Wednesday announced the formation of the Michigan Veterans Institute, a new nonprofit. The institute will focus on growing employment and reducing homelessness among veterans, improving access to health care, helping vets with post-traumatic stress disorder get service dogs, and promoting mentoring opportunities for veterans, according to a news release. The group will hold town halls to hear from veterans about their needs and will raise money to fund groups doing good work, according to the announcement. “David and I are both committed to working productively with anyone who shares our focus on improving services and opportunities for Michigan’s veterans,” Barrett said in a written statement. “That’s why we both came to Lansing, and we look forward to continuing to listen so we can better solve problems on behalf of everyone who has served our country.” On Feb. 19, the Michigan Auditor General reported staffing shortages and mishandled abuse complaints at the state’s Grand Rapids Home for Veterans. The director of the state Department of Military & Veterans Affairs was removed over the failings. Barrett, still a helicopter pilot in the Michigan Army National Guard, and Knezek, a U.S. Marine from 2006 to 2012, have partnered on veterans issues before and each have sponsored legislation affecting veterans, tackling service dogs, preferential hiring for veterans, and veterans voting issues. “Through this new project, we will continue our focus on reintegrating veterans into our communities, and connecting them with the services and opportunities they have earned in serving our country,” Knezek said in a statement.
VA exploring public-private plan for new Omaha facility (The Virginian-Pilot)
Omaha could get a $136 million medical facility built next to the ailing veterans hospital if a public-private initiative is carried through. Congressman Brad Ashford, of Omaha, represents Nebraska’s 2nd Congressional District, and he said Wednesday the Department of Veterans Affairs plan would provide 157,000 square feet of new medical space. Ashford told Omaha TV station KETV the VA would provide $56 million, and private donors would be asked to supply the remaining $80 million. Secretary of Veterans Affairs Robert McDonald told the Omaha World-Herald that his department is interested in testing the financing arrangement. He said, “Omaha is a great case to do that with, and that’s why we’re pursuing it so hard.” A 2007 study found the hospital was plagued by heating, cooling and other problems.