March 7 Veterans News

March 7 Veterans News

VetsHQ News UpdateVA admits it failed to contact some vets whose health care applications were incomplete (Stars and Stripes) The Department of Veterans Affairs confirmed it failed to contact at least some of the more than 800,000 veterans who have applications for health care pending, nearly 300,000 of whom died before getting a resolution. VA is required by law to notify veterans of incomplete applications but could not verify that this had been done in the cases of 545,000 living veterans and 288,000 deceased veterans with pending claims. It was unclear Monday whether the veterans and their families will qualify for compensation. The findings, which were released Monday, are the result of a monthslong VA analysis published six months after a VA Office of Inspector General report that came up with similar findings. In the report, the VA calls the pending applications incomplete, putting the onus on the veterans to add information to their formal requests for health care. Scott Davis, the whistleblower who first reported the problem of pending applications, said most of them were erroneously marked as incomplete because they called for an income test or were missing a military service record called DD214, which VA specifically told applicants not to include. “When we’ve done reviews before we have found that a high (number) of these veterans were because of mistakes by the VA, not the veteran,” said Davis, a program manager at the VA’s national enrollment office. Davis called on the VA automatically to enroll veterans on the pending list who qualify and said the VA is delaying because it could be forced to pay hundreds of millions of dollars in compensation to veterans who were wrongly deprived care. “It’s not because it can’t work, it’s because they don’t want it to because it’s going to cost a lot of money,” he said. VA officials did not immediately respond to the criticism Monday but have said in the past they don’t have the authority to enroll automatically veterans with pending applications shown to be missing information. The analysis was part of an effort by VA Secretary Bob McDonald to reform the VA system, the largest health care system in the country. VA will contact living veterans on the pending list to explain what is missing from their applications and determine whether they are still interested in enrolling in VA health care, according to a department news release. Veterans will have one year after being contacted to complete their applications, though they can reapply at any time. “Fixing the veterans enrollment system is a top priority for VA,” VA Deputy Secretary Sloan Gibson said in the release. “This is an important step forward to regain veterans’ trust and improve access to care as we continue the MyVA Transformation.” The VA has been mired in scandal since revelations in April 2014 of veterans, some of who died before getting care, languishing for months or more on secret patient wait lists at the Phoenix VA Health Care System. Since then, the entire national VA system has come under fire for questionable leadership and spending. The department’s dysfunction led former VA Secretary Eric Shinseki to resign.

Military burn pits: The new Agent Orange? (Huffington Post)
A friend recently commented that her brother, who served several years in the military in Afghanistan, seemed to always have a cough and nasal congestion when they spoke on the phone. “Oh, they’re always burning something here,” was his explanation. What he didn’t realize was that a serious environmental hazard may have been smouldering as well. It’s no secret that US military operations can be harmful to the environment. US military presence and interventions often leave environmental health problems for both soldiers and the local population. Prominent examples are pollution from the plutonium at Hanford used for the bomb dropped on Nagasaki, dioxin in the herbicides used in Vietnam, and polluted drinking water in Guam. But these problems are not limited to past military adventures. In recent years, burn pits–a disposal method used for waste generated by military bases and personnel in Iraq and Afghanistan–have been under scrutiny for their appalling effects on human health and the environment. Picture huge open-air or shallow pits filled with every type of trash a military base has to dispose of: electronics, weapons and munitions, biological waste from combat and medical care, plastics from many sources, human waste, and rubber tires – with jet fuel often used as an accelerant. The Department of Defense estimates that 30 to 40 tons of solid waste are burned this way at large bases–every single day. In an era of uber-sensitivity to environmental pollution in the US, why is this allowed? Because these are war zones, where there is little to no waste-management infrastructure and even fewer regulations preventing their use. Health and environmental complaints led to new U.S. laws restricting burn pits in Iraq as of the end of 2010 — but burning continues unrestricted in Afghanistan, with nearly 200 military sites using that method as of 2011. Military burn pits are not just an annoyance. Burn pit emissions have been shown to contain toxins that can threaten health even in small exposures: materials such as dioxins, volatile organic compounds, particulate matter and many more. As one might expect, breathing that smoke has been linked to serious medical problems, and massive amounts of open burning often means that neither military personnel nor local residents can avoid inhaling it. Reports from the soldiers themselves show that they’ve been worried for for several years about the health effects of burn pit exposure. On the web sites Burn Pits 360 and Burn Pits Action Center, soldiers share their accounts, many of them quite tragic, of living in close proximity to the pits and how that exposure has since affected their lives. In 2014, the Veterans Administration developed an online survey where more than 28,000 returned soldiers voluntarily reported their exposure to burn pits and possibly related health problems in Iraq or Afghanistan. The results, presented in a June 2015 report: fully one quarter of the soldiers who were exposed to burn pits as part of their work reported that they now have a new diagnosis of one or more serious respiratory problems, compared to 17% in those not directly exposed to them. An even more shocking 37% of those who worked with burn pits report that they now have high blood pressure, compared to 28% in general service. As with most public-health issues, establishing a firm causal relationship between burn pits and health problems has its challenges. U.S. service members in combat situations have long been exposed to many harmful conditions, and health problems that might emerge years later from those exposures are difficult to link back to their source. But the picture that emerges from the VA report strongly supports the soldiers’ perceptions that the burn pit smoke may well have caused them long-term harm. What has been the response? The Department of Veterans Affairs web site continues to state: “At this time, research does not show evidence of long-term health problems from exposure to burn pits.” Rather than develop a stronger information system, Congress dropped burn-pit research from its list of Department of Defense peer-reviewed medical programs for 2016. It will now be much harder to get evidence of the harmful effects. Veterans seeking disability for any service-related medical problems need to go through a lengthy process and their claims are handled “on an individual basis.” A backlog of several hundred thousand VA claims is not uncommon. Some ask: is this the new Agent Orange? The likely effects of the burn pits on Iraqi and Afghan citizens living near them is another critical concern. Anyone living near or downwind from the bases has constant exposure to these emissions over what can be many years. There appear to be no studies of the effects of burn pits on Iraqi or Afghan civilians – no surprise. But it’s likely that the overall health effects for them are disastrous, and to date we have taken no responsibility for the care of local nationals who have been affected. So what’s happening now? Concerns about the health effects of the continued use of burn pits are shared by liberal and conservative groups alike. The Right to Heal Initiative advocates for more attention to the long-term harm done to both United States and Iraqi citizens as a result of the Iraq war. A class-action lawsuit is underway against KBR Inc., one of the military contractors responsible for many of the burn pits. Joseph Hickman, a former US Marine, has just released an important book entitled Burn Pits: The Poisoning of America’s Soldiers. But more action is needed. The public and our elected representatives need to learn enough – and care enough — about the shameful reality of burn pits to put an end to them. The use of incinerators, though more expensive, can and should be a requirement of our military operations. And both American military and local populations who have suffered from burn pit emissions must be compensated for the harm done to them. It’s the very least we can do.

Read More: Burn Pit Exposure

New plan to clean river polluted where Agent Orange was made (ABC News)
The federal government has unveiled a revised plan to clean up a heavily contaminated stretch of a river where Agent Orange was made. The plan, unveiled Friday by the Environmental Protection Agency, calls for about 20 percent less contaminated Passaic River mud to be removed compared with a proposal introduced two years ago. The change led to complaints from environmental groups. The river runs through northern New Jersey and the heart of what was one of the nation’s busiest industrial areas, and its sediment bears witness to the history. The material includes several dangerous chemicals that were put into the water by more than 100 factories that were on the banks of the river over a century, including the Diamond Alkali facility in Newark that produced Agent Orange, a highly toxic herbicide used during the Vietnam War to remove vegetation that provided enemy cover. The river’s sediment is seriously contaminated with dioxin, polychlorinated biphenyl, heavy metals, pesticides and other contaminants. Under the plan, cleanup costs will be reduced from $1.7 billion to about $1.38 billion. The plan involves removing 3.5 million cubic yards of toxic sediment from the lower eight miles of the river, where 90 percent of the contamination lies. The entire stretch of river bottom would then be capped, trapping the remaining contaminated sediment. The cap would prevent much of the contamination from flowing into the rest of the river and Newark Bay. The sediment would be transported to facilities in another state or Canada. Material containing dioxin would be incinerated, and the rest would be buried in a hazardous-waste landfill Democratic U.S. Sen. Cory Booker cited the “greed and evil” of companies that had polluted the river. “I’m happy that a pittance of $1.4 billion is being put in to resurrect this river, but the crime that has been done to this city, someone should pay for that,” Booker said. The 11-year cleanup would still be one of the most expensive Superfund site cleanups in history. Negotiations with the 100 companies that polluted the river or inherited the liability of past polluters are continuing over the costs of the cleanup, officials said. “The EPA’s cleanup plan will improve water quality, protect public health, revitalize waterfront areas and create hundreds of new jobs,” EPA regional administrator Judith Enck said. “This plan is one of the most comprehensive in the nation and will help restore a badly damaged river.” Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, said the environmental group continues to urge the EPA to completely remove the contamination. He said the EPA’s latest plan is more about “political expedience” than what’s best for the river. “This plan is not cleaning up the contamination and is keeping communities held hostage to toxic pollution,” Tittel said. “This cleanup plan is more about political science than real science and will continue to poison communities along the river.”

VA worker charged with manslaughter stays on payroll (
Hospital officials called it an accident when a 70-year-old psychiatric patient was fatally injured in an altercation with a nursing assistant at a Department of Veterans Affairs medical center in central Louisiana three years ago. But the case became fodder for the VA’s congressional critics after local prosecutors charged the employee, 54-year-old Fredrick Kevin Harris, with manslaughter in the death of Air Force veteran Charles Lee Johnson. Johnson died a year before a national scandal erupted over chronic delays for veterans seeking medical care. The deadly encounter has drawn the Alexandria VA Health Care System into a broader conflict between the VA and its Republican opponents, who complain the agency has fired few workers for poor performance. The House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs has pressed VA officials to explain why they haven’t fired Harris, who has remained on its payroll while awaiting trial. Committee chairman Jeff Miller, a Florida Republican, cited the case against Harris during a Dec. 9 hearing and said he sees “no real acceptance of responsibility for VA’s continued and pervasive failure to seriously discipline its employees.” Harris was placed on paid leave after his arrest but returned to work in December in a “non-patient care area,” according to the VA. His Monday trial date is expected to be postponed. VA spokesman Randal Noller declined to explain why Harris has been allowed to resume working. The agency has said federal civil service rules make it difficult to fire poor-performing employees and has recommended changes to Congress. VA officials cleared Harris to return to work and care for patients within days of the March 13, 2013, altercation at the Pineville medical center. Johnson died at a nursing home on May 1, 2013. The episode could have ended there. Instead, a skeptical coroner laid the groundwork for a criminal investigation that led to Harris’ arrest in December 2013. Grant Parish Coroner Dean Nugent arranged for an autopsy that found Johnson died from blunt force trauma to the head. Even before the autopsy, Johnson’s relatives doubted his injuries came from an accidental fall. … Johnson’s death certificate says his medical conditions included schizophrenia and dementia. Donald Burke said Johnson frequently sought treatment for panic attacks, including one that sent him to the hospital before the altercation. … The VA’s Office of Inspector General opened a criminal investigation after Johnson died. One of its investigators, Thomas Bennett, outlined his findings during a court hearing a week after Harris’ arrest. Bennett said witnesses told him Harris had “slammed the patient’s head into the wall” in the hospital’s acute mental health unit. … Bennett said witnesses gave “different variations.” … The VA’s Office of Congressional and Legislative Affairs provided Rep. Miller’s committee with a different account of the altercation in December 2015. The VA office said Johnson became “combative and agitated,” charged at Harris and fell after the nursing assistant tried to “redirect” him during the struggle. In 2008, Harris was arrested on an assault charge after he allegedly punched a relative in the face during an argument at his Alexandria home, according to a police report. But his arrest didn’t lead to a conviction. It’s unclear whether Harris’ VA supervisors knew about his arrest or could have disciplined him for it. Donald Burke said a prison sentence wouldn’t bring his family any comfort, but he hopes Harris never cares for another patient.

Donald Trump has not yet donated most of the money he raised for veterans (Mashable)
Donald Trump has put veterans’ issues front-and-center in his presidential campaign. He has not, however, put much of the donated money where his mouth is. At least yet. Trump has allegedly only donated about half of the $6 million raised at a January fundraiser for veterans, according to two reports. Where the rest of that money resides is not immediately clear. The Washington Post and CNN on Thursday published lengthy looks at just what had happened since Trump’s fundraiser. Taking Trump’s word for it, his event raised $6 million that was to be donated to a variety of nonprofits that work with and for veterans. Trump’s own campaign provided materials showing that about half that amount had been donated, spread out between 27 charities. Before CNN’s inquiries to the Trump campaign, journalists could only account for around $800,000 of the money, based on contact with the nonprofits. Hope Hicks, spokeswoman for the Trump campaign, did not respond to an inquiry from Mashable. She told other press outlets that they were better off focusing on veteran’s issues rather than Trump’s philanthropic pursuits. Trump contributed $1 million of his own money and solicited donations from powerful acquaintances including investor Carl Icahn and pharmaceutical magnate Stewart Rahr. The donations from Icahn and Rahr reportedly went straight to nonprofits on behalf of Trump.

Senate GOP aims to streamline key veterans program (The Hill)
A group of Senate Republicans is hoping to streamline a Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) program allowing veterans to receive non-VA care, suggesting that bureaucratic hurdles are keeping veterans from getting timely healthcare. “I’ve heard from many veterans in North Carolina who tell me that they are still experiencing significant frustrations and delay in getting health care,” said Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.). “My legislation cuts down on the bureaucratic delays, hassles and confusion that is standing in between veterans and the healthcare they need.” Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) and John Hoeven (R-N.D.) are expected to co-sponsor Burr’s bill. The wide-ranging legislation, which is expected to be introduce later on Monday, would consolidate “redundant and overlapping” programs on when veterans qualify for non-VA healthcare and instead establish one funding source for getting care outside of the department’s facilities. The legislation would also bolster the VA’s ability to enter agreements with local non-VA healthcare companies and tackle complaints that the VA isn’t promptly reimbursing providers. Lawmakers have suggested that delays in paying private physicians can ultimately hurt a veteran’s credit score. The legislation would also give the VA 30 days to reimburse private healthcare providers for an electronic claim and 45 days for a paper claim, as well as require the VA to establish a web page for submitting electronic claims by Jan. 1, 2019. A Government Accountability Office report released earlier this year found that the VA’s Veterans Health Administration (VHA) processed approximately two-thirds of payment requests on time. Auditors, however, suggested that percent was likely lower because of problems with the VA’s data. Burr’s legislation comes after lawmakers passed the Veterans Choice Program as part of a 2014 bill to overhaul the VHA amid a nation-wide scandal over allegations that VA staffers were manipulating data to downplay how long veterans were waiting for healthcare. Under the program, veterans who either face delays in getting an appointment or live more than 40 miles away from a facility are able to get healthcare from a non-VA providers. While lawmakers initially praised the program, they’ve repeatedly voiced frustration that it’s failed to resolve long delays in getting a healthcare appointment or suggested the VA hasn’t correctly implemented it. Burr added that while the Veterans Choice Program “was a good start,” Congress should take up his legislation “so that every American veteran will finally be able to rely on quality care without having to wait or drive far.” The North Carolina senator’s office suggested that there had been conversations at the staff level with Sen. Johnny Isakson’s (R-Ga.) office. Isakson chairs the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee and will get to decide if his committee takes up Burr’s legislation. In addition to making changes to the Choice Program, Burr’s legislation would make the program permanent. The VA announced earlier this month that it would ease some of the hurdles for paying doctors under the Choice program, a move aimed at addressing reports of lengthy delays.

Veterans take on Donald Trump in 2 new ads (The New York Times)
American Future Fund, a political nonprofit that does not disclose its donors, is airing a pair of new ads featuring veterans speaking out against Donald J. Trump. The voice of a veteran, Lt. Col. Tom Hanton, tracks his slow march to the camera, an American flag hung vertically behind him. “When I heard Donald Trump insult my fellow prisoners of war from Vietnam by calling us losers, that was the most infuriating comment I think I’ve heard from a politician in my entire life,” he says. Grainy footage of prisoner-of-war camps in North Vietnam flicker across the screen as Colonel Hanton says that Mr. Trump “would not have survived a P.O.W. experience,” and that he probably would have been “the first one to fold.” A shadowy Mr. Trump, his head tilted back and his gaze downward, appears over a Boston Herald headline of “Con Man Trump” as Colonel Hanton begs the viewer to “learn about Donald Trump,” whom he calls a “phony.” He makes his final pitch directly to the camera: “Stop him now.” The ad is meant to portray Mr. Trump as both dishonest and a bully, and to challenge one of Mr. Trump’s repeated assertions: that he “loves the vets.” When Mr. Trump skipped the Fox News debate in January before the Iowa caucuses, he held a rally to raise money for veterans. Having veterans themselves speak out against Mr. Trump carries extra weight against the candidate. Mr. Trump did insult a former prisoner of war, Senator John McCain of Arizona, in Iowa last year, saying: “He’s not a war hero. He’s a war hero because he was captured. I like people who weren’t captured.” He also called Mr. McCain a “loser,” but that was not a reference to his military experience, but to his failed 2008 presidential bid. … American Future Fund has been running a series of testimonial-style ads against Mr. Trump for more than a week, featuring three individuals decrying their experience at Trump University. The ads are a deliberate effort to undermine and erode Mr. Trump’s credibility as he tries to lock up the Republican nomination.

Pentagon, VA make progress in breaking medical records logjam (
Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said Thursday that his efforts to bring in top talent from Silicon Valley were making progress in solving one of the Pentagon’s long-standing problems — the integration of military service records with the Veterans Administration. Carter said that Chris Lynch, the new head of Defense Digital Services at the Defense Department, had “solved some important problems for us” by bringing coders and other experts with him “for what we call a tour of duty” on a temporary basis at the Pentagon. One of the problems Lynch, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur and former Microsoft executive, has worked on was improving data sharing in the department “to make sure our veterans get access to their benefits,” Carter said. “Chris turned the whole thing around in a couple of weeks.” The records transfer issue has plagued both the VA and Defense Department for years. In 2013, the VA and the department gave up on their joint strategy to build a single, integrated record. The Pentagon later decided to purchase a commercial off-the-shelf system by awarding a $4.3 billion contract to a vendor team led by Leidos last year. Carter spoke at a Microsoft breakfast in Seattle towards the end of a week-long West Coast trip, his third to Silicon Valley, to talk up partnerships between the department and the tech community. On Wednesday, Carter announced that he would be setting up a Defense Innovation Advisory Board whose chairman would be Eric Schmidt, chief executive of Alphabet, Google’s parent company. The board will be similar in concept to the Defense Business Board, which advises the department on best business practices, but will instead “inform DoD culture, organization and processes with feedback from top tech innovators,” according to a statement. The board will not involve itself in strategy issues and military operations but will instead focus on “technology alternatives, streamlined project management processes and approaches — all with the goal of identifying quick solutions to DoD problems,” the statement said. Carter said Schmidt, the former chief executive of Google, would join with him in selecting 12 other members of the new board. The board members were expected to be individuals who had “excelled at identifying and adopting new technology concepts,” the statement said. Essentially, Schmidt was being brought into the Pentagon “to advise me on how to remain innovative” in cybersecurity and stay ahead of potential adversaries, Carter said, and also to “build bridges” to the tech community.

For female veterans, Connecticut VA hospital provides visible space, more support (Stars and Stripes)
For years, the VA Connecticut Women’s Health Center was hidden in a basement of the Veterans Affairs medical center, its presence often known only to its staff and the women who used and depended on it. Just like the clinic that provided for their health needs, Connecticut’s women veterans, themselves — a fraction of the overall veteran population of 200,000-plus in the state — were largely invisible. These days, with more women serving in the military in more capacities, including on the battlefield, the needs are changing along with the numbers. Nationally, about 10 percent of active armed forces are now women, the fastest-growing demographic within the military. Connecticut, as of the end of 2015, was home to 213,000 of the nation’s 22 million veterans — of which 17,000 (of 2.2 million nationally) were women, according to VA figures. Nearly 8 percent of the state’s veterans are women — and the numbers are growing larger. The VA Connecticut Women’s Health Center now has come out of the basement. It moved last year to a roomier, much more modern, more accessible location on the seventh floor, which was formally dedicated in January. “They’re definitely going up” as “women become more a part of the military,” said Dr. Luz Vasquez, medical director for the Women’s Health Center and the VA’s Connecticut programs for women. “I think over the last four or five years, the numbers have doubled.” The VA has 4,300 female patients registered, of which 3,160 are active patients, said Vasquez, who works with VA Connecticut Women’s Program Manager Dr. Lynette Adams. The rest of Connecticut’s female veterans “are not using the system” for various reasons, in many cases because they may not know they can, said Vasquez, a New York native and onetime director of the Fair Haven Community Health Center in New Haven who has been at the VA for 22 years. … With the move and the additional space, the VA Connecticut Women’s Health Center, designed to provide full-service care for all the health needs a woman veteran might have, has its own integrated mental health team and expanded space for gynecological care, increasing from three rooms to six. It also has additional room for medical residents who are there as part of the Yale School of Medicine’s teaching program at the VA, plus a group therapy room. Mental health resources are important because about 30 percent of female veterans suffer from post-traumatic stress injuries — roughly double the figure for men, Vasquez said. In part, that’s because a higher percentage of women veterans are victims of military service-related sexual trauma; about one out of four women vs. one out of 100 men, she said. The range of patients includes everyone from “a 30-year-old on birth control pills to a 90-year-old who’s falling,” Vasquez said.