March 30 Veterans News

March 30 Veterans News

VetsHQ News UpdateReport: VA denying benefits to vets with bad paper discharges at unprecedented rates (Task & Purpose) A report released March 30 found that the Department of Veterans Affairs has been excluding post-9/11 veterans with bad paper discharges from earned benefits at unprecedented rates and suggests this may be in violation of the 1944 GI Bill of Rights. According to Swords to Plowshares and National Veterans Legal Services Program, the VA has excluded 125,000 post-9/11 veterans without ever reviewing their service. This includes roughly 33,000 who deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan and amounts to 6.5% of all post-9/11 service members. In contrast, only 2.8% of Vietnam-era veterans and 1.7% of World War II-era veterans are excluded by the VA due to bad paper discharges. Bad paper discharges occur when a service member leaves the military under conditions that are less than honorable and include other-than-honorable, bad conduct, and dishonorable discharges. The report is the combined effort of two veterans-oriented nonprofits and cites the VA’s regulations as the problem because they do not match the eligibility standards set up by Congress. In the GI Bill of Rights, officially called the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944, Congress deemed that other-than-honorable discharges can only bar a veteran from basic VA services if the individual’s misconduct led to a dishonorable discharge in a court-martial due to serious crimes. The report found that only 1% of service members discharged in 2011 would have been barred from VA services based on the criteria set up by Congress. However, the VA excluded 6.5% of all service members, 5.5% more than it needed to. “This is affecting the veterans most at need,” Kevin Miller, a spokesperson for Swords to Plowshares, told Task & Purpose. “Two of the main VA initiatives are aimed at ending veteran homelessness and stopping veteran suicide, and those that have bad paper are at higher risk for both homelessness and suicide.” The VA’s approach to bad conduct discharges unfairly targets post-9/11 veterans, which leads them to being excluded from basic VA services at “unprecedented rates,” the report finds. The increase in bad paper discharges comes down to the the growing number of other-than-honorable discharges, which are administrative discharges, unlike dishonorable and bad conduct discharges, which are punitive. According to the report, three out of four veterans with bad paper discharges who served in combat and have post-traumatic stress disorder are denied eligibility by the VA. “We made a database of nearly one thousand VA decisions on this issue,” said Bradford Adams, staff attorney and manager of direct legal services at Swords to Plowshares in a press release. “The data shows that even if veterans served in hardship deployments, or if they experienced mental health trauma, VA consistently ignored these facts.” Additionally, the report noted that this policy is not consistently applied. In 2013, VA regional offices denied eligibility to 90% of veterans with bad paper discharges. While the Boston regional office denied 69% of veterans with bad paper discharges, the Indianapolis regional office denied 100%. Even when the department does investigate the character of discharges to determine if a veteran should be blocked from receiving benefits, the report found that it takes too long to complete, averaging three years or more.

Why more veterans are abusing opioids – and the push for alternate treatments (Christian Science Monitor)
Veteran Marine Tim Fazio returned from service in Iraq and Afghanistan and embarked on civilian life without, he says, any serious physical pain. Instead, his suffering took the form of survivor’s guilt after many of his close friends died, he told the Center for Investigative Reporting. Nevertheless, he still received 4,000 oxycodone pills from Veterans Affairs doctors. Those who have given the most to their country are being hit the hardest by a national epidemic, as America’s veterans are the most common casualties of opioid abuse. The biggest challenge in confronting the crisis lies in its origins. Doctors are prescribing the opioids to treat veterans who suffer from chronic pain, as an estimated 50 percent of older veterans do, Sarah Childress reported for PBS Frontline. In the case of opioids, however, the treatment is often proving at least as dangerous as the injury. Overbooked doctors in the Veterans Affairs system have adopted a culture of using opioids as a “quick fix” for a variety of problems, including the emotional effects of war that are actually exacerbated by the drugs. Opioid prescription was the VA’s sole strategy for managing chronic pain until several years ago, and such prescriptions increased by 270 percent over 12 years, the Center for Investigative reporting found in 2013. … Although random drug tests and strict enforcement policies have held down rates of illegal drug abuse in the armed forces, the number of veterans abusing prescription opioids tripled between 2005 and 2008 and is significantly higher than the general population, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. The epidemic has become deadly for many. Veterans die of drug abuse and overdose at nearly twice the rate of the general population, and opioid prescription and cocaine are listed frequently on death records, according to a 2011 study under the Department of Veterans Affairs. Some VA centers are trying to shift away from a drug-only approach, but the search for alternatives is complicated by strained resources, cost, and entrenched attitudes toward treatment and drug abuse. … Some strategies target the problem directly by working with the veterans who are taking drugs, both legal and otherwise, but most are local initiatives. In Tulsa, Okla., where the VA hospital and clinic have issued an average of 1.6 opioid prescriptions per patient, a treatment court specifically for veterans works to break the hold of legal drugs, and it boasts a 90 percent success rate. The VA has begun partnering with state-level programs, which have been more forward-thinking on opioid treatment thus far, in 37 states. Although their presence is still spotty, some VA centers have successfully employed yoga, physical therapy, and acupuncture to treat pain in all its forms.

Veteran to take Agent Orange health issues to Washington, D.C. (Albany Democrat-Herald)
Tom Owen doesn’t have side effects from being exposed to the defoliant commonly called Agent Orange during his time in Vietnam, but he is fighting for the thousands of families affected by the toxic chemical. Owen will travel to Washington, D.C., next Wednesday and has a full schedule of meetings planned with members of the Senate and House, talking about the health effects caused by exposure to toxins and lobbying for the passing of House Resolution 1769 and Senate Bill 901. “These bills would direct the Department of Veterans Affairs to allocate a portion of the money spent annually on research issues for the study of health effects caused by Agent Orange and other toxic chemicals,” Owen said. “It’s not just the veterans, it’s the health effects of their children and grandchildren. This stuff affects DNA.” Owen said about $250 million is budgeted each year for research projects. Owen will travel with John Birch, Region 8 director of the Vietnam Veterans of America, and they will meet Mokie Porter, communications director for the Vietnam Veterans of America. Owen said 183 members of Congress and 28 Senators have signed on to support the bills. … Owen said more than 25 million gallons of Agent Orange were produced during the Vietnam War. … Owen said the Vietnam Veterans of America are tracking 18 specific birth defects that have been identified in third-generations of Vietnam veterans. “We believe it may go as far as the seventh generation,” Owen said. Owen has helped stage 17 Town Halls that focus on Agent Orange issues “from Brookings to Montana,” and at each one, he has met veterans or their offspring who had no idea their health issues could have been caused by Agent Orange. … Owen said the group will be on the Capitol Hill on April 7, and the rest of the week will be spent meeting with veterans groups and committees. … Owen said that even though he has been working to help veterans for many years, he was shocked to recently learn the sheer number of them who have died due to Agent Orange issues. “More Americans have now died as a result of these toxic exposures than have been killed by al-Qaida, ISIS, Boko Haram and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard combined, yet our government has done very little to address this situation,” Owen noted.

Read More: Agent Orange and Herbicides

Government faces fast-increasing costs of treating vets with Hepatitis C (NBC Washington)
The cost to taxpayers of treating Washington, D.C.-area military veterans suffering from hepatitis C has eclipsed $64 million per year, according to a review of U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs records by the News4 I-Team. The fast-rising cost is attributed to a cutting-edge but expensive medication the agency began dispensing last year to veterans in Virginia, Maryland, D.C. and West Virginia. The new hepatitis C drugs, which are known as Sovaldi and Harvoni, are highly effective and less likely to cause side effects in patients, doctors and government officials said. Multiple reports estimate a full treatment of the medication costs tens of thousands of dollars per patient. Each individual pill costs an estimated $1,000, according to a report from a U.S. Senate panel. Agency records obtained by the I-Team from regional administrators of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs show 701 patients received the treatment at the Washington DC VA Medical Center in 2015. Those records show more than 200 patients were administered the medications at the Martinsburg VA Medical Center and more than 480 patients at Maryland’s VA medical system last year. In all, the cost of treatment exceeded $64 million, which is a $50 million increase from the cost of Hepatitis C treatment in 2014. All costs are covered by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and federal taxpayers. Nationwide, the VA estimates the new treatment will cost $1 billion in 2016. But the agency said it has secured enough funding to expand the dispensation of the medicine to an increasing number of vets. “We’re honored to be able to expand treatment for veterans who are afflicted with hepatitis C,” VA Undersecretary for Health Dr. David Shulkin said in a statement. … Dr. Evelio Bravo, a physician at the Martinsburg VA Medical Center, said the pills have a very high success rate with local patients. … “VA has long led the country in screening for and treating hepatitis C,” a statement from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs said. “VA has treated over 76,000 Veterans infected with hepatitis C and approximately 60,000 have been cured.” Members of Congress have criticized the manufacturer of the medicine for not offering a deeper discount to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.“America’s veterans deserve the same affordable access to life-saving medications such as sofosbuvir that Gilead is providing to patients in developing countries. If that’s not happening, the company’s leaders need to explain why,” said Rep. Jeff Miller (R-FL), chairman of the U.S. House Veterans Affairs Committee. A spokeswoman for Gilead, the manufacturer of Sovaldi and Harvoni, said price discounts are offered for the medication.

Rep. Zinke to veterans: Be wary of dependence on government services (Billings Gazette)
U.S. Rep. Ryan Zinke told veterans Tuesday to be wary of becoming overly dependent on government services and to help each other rise up. Speaking to a small group of veterans in Billings, Zinke said as a veteran he worries about the “economic slavery” of government services and spoke specifically about the Veterans Administration. He said veterans who need care for problems like post-traumatic stress disorder need therapy and more. They need to be working toward obtaining jobs, he said, and should be required to accomplish both. Zinke called the issue a taboo subject in Congress, where lawmakers fear saying anything critical of veterans. He said the discussion needs to happen nonetheless. “This is where being a veteran matters,” Zinke said, “because no one cares more about veterans than I do. I want to make sure veterans get everything they need. I want to make sure they get everything they need to be productive members of society. “And there’s a difference between the economic slavery of being trapped in poverty and moving into being part of the community that we need the veterans to be a part of.” Zinke called on veterans to help each other advance. The message was well received by a small audience of veterans gathered with Zinke in a conference room of Connect Telephone and Computer Group in Billings. “We’re not victims,” said veteran George Blackard. “I think that, yeah, there are people that game the system and that give us all a bad name. But I do think we need to hold each other accountable. We’re all part of a big team.” Veterans at the meeting raised concerns about the delivery of veterans’ health care, namely because of understaffing issues. There are more than 150 employee vacancies in the Montana system, according to a Billings Veterans Clinic representative at the meeting.

Rep. Coffman presses VA to publicly release investigative board’s report (Aurora Sentinel)
U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Aurora, is putting pressure on the head of the Department of Veterans Affairs to release a report on the cost overruns and project management issues with the Aurora VA hospital currently under construction. In a Tuesday, March 29, statement, Coffman said he wrote to VA Secretary Robert McDonald last week, urging him to make the VA’s Administrative Investigation Board (AIB) report available to the public. Last year Coffman made a similar request regarding the report, seeking its release by Oct. 23, 2015. That date passed, according to Coffman, with no response from McDonald. The AIB report was completed last September but it was only last week that an unredacted summary of its findings was provided to Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Florida, who is chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee. VA Deputy Secretary Sloan Gibson has said the delay was due to months of report reviews. “I insist that you make this document available to other members of Congress and the American people,” Coffman said in his letter to Secretary McDonald. “American taxpayers and veterans are entitled to VA’s detailed explanation as to how the costs of this project spiraled out-of-control seemingly overnight.” A Corps of Engineers investigation into what went wrong said the VA repeatedly changed the design and square footage of the hospital. The Corps also said the VA used a complicated contract process that department officials didn’t understand, and that they adopted it too late in the process, leading to disputes and conflicting cost estimates. “The American people deserve to know exactly what happened to drive over $1 billion in cost overruns,” Coffman continued. “Release this unredacted document no later than April 8, 2016.” Coffman has been among the most outspoken members of Congress regarding the cost overruns and mismanagement of the VA’s Aurora hospital construction project. His efforts in the U.S. House resulted in the VA being stripped of construction management authority; the Army Corps of Engineers took over that authority in 2015 before the federal government awarded a final construction contract for the hospital last fall. The $1.7-billion total price tag for the Aurora VA hospital means the medical center will cost nearly triple the estimates of last year. The hospital is set to open in January 2018.

Maine lawmaker proposes tapping liquor sales to fund veterans aid (Bangor Daily News)
A bill before the (Maine) Legislature proposes using about $550,000 from the $46 million profit the state makes selling $144 million worth of alcohol each year to help Maine’s 140,000 veterans. Rep. Jared Golden, D-Lewiston, offered the proposal Tuesday as part of an amendment that rolls together several recommendations from a special commission created in 2015 to find ways to improve the state’s Bureau of Veterans’ Services. Among other things, the legislation adds three veterans’ service officers to the bureau to help veterans find programs and benefits to which they are entitled. One of those officers would focus on homeless veterans while the other two would be mobile positions designed to bring the bureau’s services to veterans where they live. At present, the state has seven positions that are based in offices in Maine’s largest cities. The bill also requires the bureau to upgrade its record-keeping from a largely paper filing system to a computer-based case management system, which would allow quicker access to veterans’ records and easier information sharing for veteran service officers and the various entities that attend to the needs of those being served. The legislation provides full-time funding for an outreach specialist who is responsible for upgrading and modernizing the way the bureau reaches out to veterans in Maine. Of the state’s 140,000 veterans, an estimated 76,000 have never registered with the federal Veterans Administration, a key step for veterans seeking medical help or other supports they could be eligible for under state and federal law. Also in the measure are provisions that would allow nonprofit organizations that provide services to veterans, including Veterans of Foreign Wars and American Legion posts, to be exempt from charging sales tax on the goods and services they sell. Golden, a Marine Corps combat veteran from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, said he was fortunate when he returned to civilian life in that he had family and friends who supported him and helped him find the services and supports that allowed him to pursue a higher education and good employment. “But I’ve seen it play out at least a half-dozen different ways among the men that I served with, that unfortunately weren’t nearly as positive for them,” Golden said. “Some didn’t get the support they needed. Some of them are dead now, and they weren’t killed in combat. Self-medicating and substance abuse can become a coping mechanism for many veterans.” Golden said some veterans, without the right supports for higher education and work opportunities, “lose faith in themselves and that things will get better.” Republican lawmakers said they were surprised by the amendment Tuesday and wanted to pursue other possible funding mechanisms for the legislation. … The legislation, as amended by Golden, would send money from the liquor contract to the Bureau of Veterans Services before it sends revenue to the state’s Department of Transportation, as is current law. In 2015, the liquor fund provided $604,000 to MDOT’s infrastructure improvement fund, according to David Heidrich, a spokesman for the Maine Department of Administration and Financial Services. The liquor fund was set up to pay off a loan the state borrowed in 2013 to pay down nearly $200 million in debt Maine owed the state’s 39 hospitals for Medicaid costs. In 2015, the liquor fund paid $15 million to service the debt on that loan, while sending another $9.7 million to the state’s General Fund with another $5.3 million of the fund going to clean water programs in the departments of Environmental Protection and Health and Human Services.

New Jersey heart and lung center conducting free screenings for vets Saturday (Burlington County Times)
Changes in how health care is delivered has prompted the Deborah Heart and Lung Center to go out into the community and offer free screening services to Burlington County veterans. Using a $50,000 grant from the New Jersey Department Of Health’s Division of Health and Family Services, the nonprofit township hospital is gearing up to provide dozens of veterans screenings for cardiovascular disease and for pulmonary and lung disease at the Medford VFW Post 7677 at 317 Church Road on Saturday from 8 a.m. to noon. No registration or appointments are necessary. It’s the first Veterans Outreach Screening program planned this year. The program is one way to better serve the county’s veteran population, said Dr. William Hirsch, chairman of cardiology at Deborah. Because the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has seen an increase in veteran outpatient visits by 29 million patients from 2007 to 2013 nationwide, Hirsch said there’s a growing need for universal health care to be available to veterans of all ages outside of VA facilities. He said the outreach is a “different way of caring for veterans.” “Going to the VA has been their only avenue to getting care, and based on some of the barriers that we all have seen to getting health care,” expanding what’s offered to veterans is the best option, Hirsch said. Burlington County is home to more than 35,000 veterans, which is the third-largest population in the state, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Heart disease is not only the leading cause of death in the United States, but it’s also common among active-duty military members and the aging veteran population. Veterans generally have a greater risk of high blood pressure that can lead to cardiovascular complications, Hirsch said. According to a report released by the U.S. Veterans Health Administration and the Department of Defense, a 2008 study showed that more than 37 percent of veterans also experienced high blood pressure, “making it the most common chronic medical condition among veterans,” the report states. Those who rank more than 10 percent in a cardiovascular disease risk assessment fall in the intermediate- to high-risk category to experience a heart attack or stroke in the next 10 years. Those with diabetes automatically are put at 20 percent, Hirsch said. He said the sooner veterans are screened and treated, the less likely a cardiovascular condition turns deadly. A representative from Deborah said the hope is to screen 250 veterans and their families by the end of the year.

Architect sentenced to 33 months in prison for bribing former Cleveland VA head (Cleveland.com)
A Washington, D.C.-area architect was sentenced Wednesday to 33 months in prison for bribing the former head of the Louis Stokes VA Medical Center in Cleveland in exchange for privileged information projects for the Department of Veterans Affairs. Mark Farmer, 55, apologized for his actions and accepted responsibility on Tuesday in a sentencing hearing that stretched over two days. He said he should have known that the information that William Montague, the former head of the Cleveland VA, provided was privileged and should not have bribed him. “I’ve lost almost everything except my family, and I have set a very poor example for them,” Farmer said. Farmer, of Arlington, Virginia, initially faced a prison sentence of nearly 20 years after a jury found him guilty in August for his role in the Cuyahoga County corruption scandal. However, he struck a deal with federal prosecutors for a prison sentence of between 21 months and six years. In exchange, he will cooperate in a pending investigation against Cannon Design, his former architecture firm. U.S. District Judge Sara Lioi, in sentencing Farmer, said she felt that Farmer should face a sentence that is proportional to Montague, who is awaiting sentencing on more than five-dozen felony counts. Under a plea deal, Montague is looking at a sentence of as little as 4 1/2 years. Lioi fined Farmer $12,500 and ordered him to forfeit $70,801.64, roughly the amount that he bribed Montague. His attorney requested that Farmer be placed at a minimum security prison in Morgantown, West Virginia. Lioi said she would make the recommendation. Farmer was convicted of 14 felonies, including conspiracy, racketeering, embezzlement, theft of public money, mail fraud and wire fraud. Farmer has been in jail since the jury’s verdict. A jury found that Farmer colluded with Montague between 2010 and 2013 after Montague left the Cleveland VA and while he worked as the interim head of the VA in Dayton. During this time, Montague, a Brecksville resident, also ran the consulting firm “House of Montague.” Montague testified at trial that he obtained and sent along confidential information so that Cannon Design could have an advantage when submitting bids on upcoming projects. Farmer’s employer then used the confidential information to prepare a proposal to be chosen as the architectural firm to design a veterans’ hospital in West Los Angeles, California.

VA doctors immune from prosecution in civil lawsuit (Citizens Voice)
Uncle Sam will take the hit. A filing by federal prosecutors on Tuesday says two doctors at the Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Plains Township are immune from a civil lawsuit a Plymouth man filed alleging their negligence cost him two toes. The U.S. Attorney’s Office found Drs. Marie J. Adajar and Mohammad A. Shaikh are protected federal employees and that the government should be the sole defendant in the case, according to the filing. The plaintiffs, Gary Neupauer Jr. and his wife, Jean Neupauer, both of 140 Coal St., Plymouth, filed a federal complaint in September alleging the doctors failed to timely diagnose and treat blocked arteries in his left foot. Gary Neupauer went to the hospital complaining of a cold feeling in his foot on Oct. 1, 2013, but in the following days doctors failed to identify the source of his pain. Starting in December 2013, Gary Neupauer underwent several operations resulting in the amputation of the first and second toes on his left foot, according to the complaint, filed by Scranton-based attorney Kevin P. Foley. The complaint alleges that “appropriate medical care” would have allowed Gary Neupauer to keep his toes and avoid extreme pain and emotional distress. The suit seeks unspecified damages in excess of $75,000.

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