March 8 Veterans News

March 8 Veterans News

VetsHQ News UpdateColorado Senate: Offshore Vietnam vets exposed to Agent Orange should get benefits (The Denver Post) The (Colorado) state Senate passed a resolution Monday meant to highlight the lack of benefits for some Vietnam veterans possibly exposed to Agent Orange. Sponsored by state Sen. Laura Woods, R-Arvada, the non-binding resolution encourages Congress to pass legislation introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives and in the U.S. Senate last year. The resolution argues that during the Vietnam War, the U.S. military sprayed approximately 22 million gallons of Agent Orange and other harmful herbicides that later were linked to causing disabling diseases. Congress passed the federal “Agent Orange Act of 1991” to presumptively recognize eligible military personnel as those who served in Vietnam between 1962 and 1975. That status gave access to disability compensation and medical care to veterans diagnosed to herbicide-related illnesses. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs originally allowed the presumption to include all veterans of Vietnam but in 2002 made a revision that required a veteran prove “that he or she had set foot on the land or entered an internal river or stream,” to receive benefits. The change made those benefits virtually inaccessible for veterans who couldn’t prove they had “boots on the ground,” namely Navy and Marine veterans who served off the coast or in bays and harbors. John Rossie, executive director for Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Association, said those offshore military personnel were within miles of the coastline and came in contact with Agent Orange either by air or from river run-off into the ocean that often was desalinated and used as drinking water. “The molecules of Agent Orange contain dioxin, which they’re saying stopped at the shoreline, but science finds that not to be true. In 50 years, they’re still unable to come up with a possible second source that could have led to these diseases — it’s a logical ‘slap yourself on the forehead’ kind of thing,” Rossie said. A study done in 2009 by the Institute of Medicine “recommended that veterans who served off the coast of Vietnam not be excluded from the presumption of exposure,” according to the resolution. “I was there for a year — you can’t tell me that I wasn’t exposed,” said Steve Rylant, former president of the United Veterans Committee or Colorado. “If we’re going to send people to war, we better be ready to take care of them when they come back.” Colorado is now among 16 states to have passed a similar resolution in support of the federal “Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act of 2015.” The passing of Monday’s resolution encourages Congress to restore the presumption of service to those who served offshore in the Vietnam War. To celebrate, dozens of Vietnam veterans took to the steps of the state Capitol for Gov. John Hickenlooper’s proclamation of March 7 as Vietnam Veterans Appreciation Day.

Read More: Agent Orange and Herbicide Exposure

VA convenes summit with veterans advocates to fix appeals process (Federal News Radio)
Top officials from the Department of Veterans Affairs will meet this week with leaders from several leading veterans’ service organizations, seeking common ground on a legislative proposal that would overhaul the appeals process for veterans’ compensation claims. In budget testimony last week, VA officials told lawmakers the appeals process set in federal law is “archaic and unresponsive.” But they want the buy-in of veterans’ advocacy groups before they send Congress any formal plan to streamline the process. “We’re gonna lock everybody in a room, we’re gonna slip food under the door and no one’s coming out until we have something written down that everybody agrees with and that you can pass immediately,” Secretary Bob McDonald told the House Appropriations Committee last week. VA’s Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA) has made notable progress in cutting its backlog of initial compensation claims, from a peak of 611,000 in 2013 to 81,000 as of last week, including by hiring more claims staff and requiring them to work mandatory overtime. But the appeals process, handled by the separate Board of Veterans Appeals, has gotten comparatively little attention. VA defines a backlogged claim as one that’s kept a veteran waiting more than 120 days for a decision. But days aren’t a useful yardstick for measuring the wait time involved in the appeals process: The average delay is currently five years, and for many veterans, it’s much, much longer. … In its 2017 budget proposal, the department called for a 42 percent increase in funding for the appeals board, including 242 more full-time staff to augment its existing 680 employees. Even though VA did not keep its vow to completely eliminate the claims backlog by the end of 2015 (and officials have recently said the backlog will never drop to zero), the department says the fact that it’s cut the backlog to the extent it has will inevitably put more pressure on the appeals board simply because VBA is handling more cases. Veterans groups have a slightly different interpretation of that problem, saying pressure on VBA staff to process initial claims decisions as quickly as possible caused a spike in verdicts that were legally or factually wrong, forcing veterans to file appeals in order to gain the benefits they were entitled to — in some ways, simply transferring a chunk of the backlog from VBA to the appeals board. … In advance of its summit with VSOs this week, VA submitted what McDonald called a “straw man” proposal for adjusting the appeals process as part of its 2017 budget. That placeholder proposal did not delve into many specifics, but officials said the objective is to cut appeals wait time to less than one year by 2021. VA’s initial ideas for streamlining appeals include ending the ability for veterans to introduce new medical evidence during the appeals process and giving the Board of Veterans Appeals the final say in many cases, reducing the jurisdiction of the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims.

VA failed to contact tens of thousands of veterans with pending claims (Military.com)
The Department of Veterans Affairs confirmed Monday that it failed to contact tens of thousands 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 report for the Veterans Affairs’ Office of Inspector General, which came up with similar conclusions. In the report, the department 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 the 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 with an inside view of the enrollment system. Davis called on the VA automatically to enroll veterans on the pending list who qualify and said the department 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. Matthew Eitutis, who oversaw the analysis of the enrollment failings, said tens of thousands of veterans never received a follow-up inquiry about their applications. Part of the problem is software that erroneously calls for the income test and an outdated requirement for a physical signature. Without those elements, applications are automatically listed as “incomplete” and the VA is working to overhaul its system. But Eitutis said the VA doesn’t have the legal authority to simply override the system and enroll veterans affected by those technicalities. The VA will be reaching out by mail and phone to every veteran on the pending list and some of them likely will qualify for compensation, Eitutis said. “We have not done what we should have done for years,” he said. Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, said the VA now must now look to discipline senior leaders responsible for the breakdown in the enrollment system. … Eitutis acknowledged there was a failure of leadership in the enrollment center and said VA is examining evidence to determine which officials, if any, should face disciplinary action for their roles with the enrollment problems. 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. The department 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.

Allegations of wrongdoing at Amarillo, Texas, VA facility (News Channel 10)
Amarillo’s Veterans Affairs facility is making national headlines after investigations contend wrongdoing. It’s a system thousands of veterans here in Amarillo rely on heavily. But new findings from an investigation show as many as 70 veterans received improper care at the VA. Many veterans come to Amarillo’s VA looking for the best health care…including those with traumatic brain injuries, (or TBIs). TBI exams can only be conducted by neurologists, neurosurgeons, psychiatrists or psychiatrists. But in examining the policy, this was not done for many patients. “The fact that there were 70 veterans who were potentially affected by exams from non-qualified or non-privileged doctors is shocking and disappointing,” says Veteran Attorney Benjamin Krause. Diagnosis from the TBI examination is required to get certain benefits, leading many to believe there are veterans lacking. “Neurological impairment is one of the most difficult types of injuries to diagnose, treat and rehabilitate and I sure don’t want a nurse checking out my brain. I don’t want someone without proper training,” says Krause. Amarillo VA Director Michael Keifer tells us it is not up to their facility to decide who gets what benefits. But he says he is confident veterans are getting the best care there is to offer. “The VA goes through the process of implementing a rule, of putting out the guidance, training people to do it, so there may be a gap between the rule and the absolute adherence to that rule and so what we’ve been asked to do as every VHA was asked to do is to look at cases that may not have had the full benefit of those four, big four reviewed,” says Keifer. They have now done that and turned the list into the veterans health administration. It is now up to the VHA to decide how to move forward.

Legislation would make it easier for vets to get care outside the VA (Fay Observer)
North Carolina’s senior senator is hoping to improve veterans’ care with new legislation that would make it easier for them to get care outside the VA. Sen. Richard Burr was expected to introduce the Veterans Choice Improvement Act of 2016 on Monday. The bill, if approved, would make a number of changes to how the Department of Veterans Affairs does business with outside care providers. Among other changes, it would institute a new payment schedule meant to ensure private health care providers are reimbursed in a more timely manner. Earlier this month, VA leaders acknowledged issues with the timeliness of those payments. On March 1, VA officials announced they were eliminating some of the administrative hurdles preventing timely payments: namely, they would no longer require a copy of the veteran’s medical record to be submitted before payment. Burr’s bill would go further, requiring payment within 30 days for electronic claims and 45 days for paper claims. The bill, which builds on the Veterans Choice Improvement Act of 2014, would “eliminate the redundant, bureaucratic layering that is causing our veterans to experience confusion and delay,” according to Burr’s office. The senator said his bill would build on that 2014 legislation. “The creation of the Veterans Choice program nearly two years ago was a good start, but there is much more we need to do if we are going to fulfill our promises to our veterans,” Burr said. “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. My legislation cuts down on the bureaucratic delays, hassles and confusion that is standing in between veterans and the health care they need.” Several other Senate Republicans, including North Carolina’s junior senator, Thom Tillis, co-sponsored the bill. In a statement, Tillis said the legislation would reduce wasteful redundancies within the VA and modernize an outdated claims submission process. “We cannot let the failure of the VA bureaucracy prevent our veterans from receiving the health care they need and deserve,” Tillis said. According to Burr’s office, the legislation would make permanent the Veterans Choice Program, which allows veterans to seek outside care based on long waits and distance from VA care. It also would consolidate several existing programs into the program while inhibiting the ability of the VA to establish a “tiered network” that would prevent veterans from choosing among local providers. “Our veterans fought to defend our country, and we promised them the best health care in the world,” Burr’s office said. “This legislation seeks to make good on that sacred promise.” The bill also would allow the VA to enter into contracts or sharing agreements with other health care providers for services not available in VA facilities, and expand the restrictions on reimbursement for emergency medical transportation, allowing ambulance providers to be reimbursed for costs of care that are not directly connected to service-related injuries and ailment. “Congress must take action on this legislation so that every American veteran will finally be able to rely on quality care without having to wait or drive far,” Burr said. The bill also includes a North Carolina-specific requirement. It would force the VA to begin disability compensation payments to some veterans of Camp Lejeune no more than 90 days after the VA establishes a “presumption of a service-connected disability” for those affected by poisoned water at the North Carolina Marine Corps base.

Legislation would halt bad military discharges due to PTSD, TBI (KCEN)
Lawmakers want to avoid having troops disgracefully forced from the ranks because of behavior related to post-traumatic stress or traumatic brain injuries, but Pentagon officials may already be on the way to fixing the problem. Last week, a coalition of Republican and Democratic lawmakers who served in Iraq and Afghanistan introduced legislation to ensure that military discharge review boards must consider troops’ mental health issues, and must accept a PTSD or TBI diagnosis from a professional as an acceptable rebuttal to a dismissal. The move could affect thousands of military discharges each year and open the door for a review of more. Army officials have confirmed that at least 22,000 combat veterans have received less-than-honorable discharges since 2009, many for minor offenses like alcohol use or lateness. For some troops, those infractions are a sign of untreated issues like PTSD and TBI. A less-than-honorable discharge severely limits the care and support options for those veterans, leaving them with decreased medical support and an increased risk of suicide. “Those discharges could be a death sentence for these veterans,” said Kris Goldsmith, an advocate behind the legislative push. In a statement last week, bill sponsor and Iraq War veteran Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Colo., called expanding treatment for troubled veterans a desperate need. “In the case of veterans with severe mental health problems, access to these services may be life-saving,” he said. “It is my hope that veterans with questionable, less-than-honorable discharges receive quick access to the mental health care they earned and deserve.” Defense officials appear to agree. In a memo signed in February but released in recent days, acting Principal Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel Brad Carson expanded a 2014 decision by the department to ease the burden on veterans with PTSD and TBI seeking to upgrade unfavorable discharges. In the past, that decision covered only a select group of Vietnam veterans. The new memo would expand that to all veterans, and waive statutes of limitations for those appeals. … The proposal was included in suicide prevention legislation passed by Congress last year but was removed late in legislative negotiations. Several supporters have dubbed the new measure an extension of the goal of that bill: to provide more care to veterans and stop them from taking their own lives. Coffman also introduced separate legislation last week to require the Department of Veterans Affairs to provide initial mental health assessments and urgent healthcare services to all veterans at risk of suicide, regardless of their discharge status. Congressional leaders have promised a veterans omnibus bill in coming weeks, to pull together a host of veteran program reform proposals.

VA whistleblowers accuse Duckworth of ignoring veteran abuse, corruption (NBC Chicago)
During a radio appearance Monday, Veterans Affairs whistleblowers Germaine Clarno and Dr. Lisa Nee claimed that Rep. Tammy Duckworth did little to respond to their claims of mistreatment of veterans and corruption within the Hines VA. According to their allegations, Duckworth was largely unresponsive to evidence related to veteran mistreatment and inadequate investigations conducted by the VA’s inspector general. Clarno claimed that, although she approached Duckworth “many” times, the congresswoman did little to respond to her claims. “I never felt that [Duckworth] wanted to hear exactly what was going on,” Clarno said. “I really thought going to Tammy Duckworth, that she would be the one who would stand up and say this has got to stop.” Duckworth, a combat veteran who lost her legs co-piloting a helicopter in Iraq, held high-ranking positions in the VA before entering politics. She served as Director of the Illinois Department of Veterans Affairs from 2006 to 2009 and later as Assistant Secretary for Public and Intergovernmental Affairs in the US Department of Veterans Affairs from 2009 to 2011. Duckworth’s camp dispelled the whistleblower’s claims in a statement. “Since receiving troubling reports from Ms. Clarno regarding Hines VA, [Duckworth] has doggedly pursued them by helping launch a VA Office of Inspector General (OIG) investigation and a separate review by the U.S. Office of Special Counsel (OSC), the independent federal agency tasked with protecting federal whistleblowers, among several other actions,” Duckworth spokesman Ben Garmisa said. According to a 2014 report, the VA office of the Inspector General conducted an inspection to assess allegations that dealt with cardiovascular care at the Hines VA. The inspection was at the request of Duckworth and Sen. Dick Durbin. The Duckworth camp claims the congresswoman had called for an investigation into the Office of Inspector General’s transparency record prior to allegations made by the U.S. Office of Special Counsel that the VA was stonewalling whistleblowers. “Retaliation against whistleblowers is not acceptable to her and she is seeking a face-to-face meeting with VA Secretary Robert McDonald to highlight the critical importance of protecting them,” Garmisa said. Duckworth also faces charges of retaliation against two employees at the Illinois Department of Veterans Affairs. The employees filed complaints alleging mistreatment and abuse of veterans at IDVA facilities during Duckworth’s tenure. Trial is set to begin on April 4. Duckworth, who currently represents Illinois’ 8th District in the U.S. House of Representatives, will face Urban League CEO and President Andrea Zopp as well as state Sen. Napoleon Harris in the March 15 Democratic primary for Mark Kirk’s U.S. Senate seat.

Oregon bill reduces medical marijuana card prices for veterans (Sun Times)
Oregon Gov. Kate Brown has approved a bill that will reduce veterans’ annual medical marijuana card price from $200 to $20, according to Oregon Live. Robert Dudley, a veteran from Klamath Falls, told KDRV that he’s glad the state is taking action to help veterans access medical cannabis cards more affordably. “I think it’s just another good sign that the state is showing love for the veterans as far as just taking away a certain thing that other people have to pay for,” Dudley said. In addition to reducing veterans’  medical marijuana card costs, House Bill 4014 removes a two-year residency requirement for recreational marijuana producers, processors and retailers in Oregon. HB 4014 is one of two marijuana-related bills Gov. Brown has already signed this month. Another two marijuana bills currently await her approval. Oregon is among four states, including Alaska, Washington and Colorado, that have legalized marijuana for recreational purposes. The District of Columbia has also legalized adult recreational cannabis use. Twenty-three states and the District of Columbia have legalized medical marijuana so far. A number of states have also legalized medical use of non-psychoactive cannabis oil for patients with epilepsy and other qualifying conditions.

VA partners with PGA to support PGA HOPE Program for veterans with disabilities (PGA.com)
The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) is partnering with PGA REACH, the philanthropic arm of PGA of America, to bring a specialized golf program to disabled Veterans. The program, PGA HOPE – Helping Our Patriots Everywhere, is a therapeutic program to aid in the rehabilitation process for disabled Veterans. The purpose of PGA HOPE is to help Veterans assimilate back into their communities through the social interaction the game of golf provides. Led by PGA professionals – certified in golf instruction for Veterans with disabilities Veterans will learn the rules of the game, and for those already familiar with it, the professionals will help them refine their skills. “We are grateful to PGA REACH for their commitment to our nation’s disabled Veterans,” said VA Secretary Robert McDonald. “When you think of rehabilitation, golf is not always the first thing you think of, but it can play an integral role in the healing process through social interaction, mental stimulation and exercise. This is a great complement to the care our Veterans may receive at VA. I am confident that our Veterans will use this introduction as a platform to reenergize their competitive spirit, as well as to reengage back into their communities.” PGA HOPE is a two-step program, beginning with an introductory “Down Range Clinic.” There are currently 50 programs across 20 PGA sections, enhancing the lives of more than 2,000 Veterans nationwide. “As many Veterans struggle with the transition back into civilian life, the game of golf delivers camaraderie and a new level of enjoyment that provides them with hope,” said PGA President Derek Sprague. “We are thrilled to collaborate with VA to offer PGA HOPE programming nationwide, as the PGA of America is committed to making a more meaningful impact on the lives of America’s Veterans.” For more information about VA’s adaptive sports program, visit www.va.gov/adaptivesports/index.asp. For information about PGA REACH or the PGA HOPE program, visit www.pgareach.com.

WWII vets end up as roommates, best buds at MN rehab center (Fox 7)
A pair of 90-year-old patients at a Minnesota rehab center found out they have much more in common than being hospitalized for health problems. Even though they were born nearly 700 miles apart, Elvin Ewert and Francis Laqua lived parallel lives. They were both drafted during WWII, and were both Browning Automatic Riflemen in the same infantry division, “Tropic Lightning,” in the Philippines. They each fought in one of the bloodiest conflicts in the waning years of the war, the Battle of Balete Pass. Both were injured in combat and awarded a Purple Heart. “People ask you what did you think of the war? You don’t. Everyone is in the same shoes. You didn’t have time to be scared,” Ewert said. After the war, both men moved back to the Midwest. Ewert moved to Mountain Lake, Minn. and Laqua went to Williston, North Dakota, where they both got married and raised families. But they never met or crossed paths until they ended up as roommates at the Birchwood Rehab Center in Forest Lake a few days ago. “It was crazy. You didn’t know what to think. It was ironic,” Ewert said. “It’s the first time in 70 years that I’ve run into a guy in my division. And I’m the first one he’s run into,” Laqua said. Even though Ewert and Laqua share a lot of similarities, they have more differences than just their physical therapy regimens. For instance, Ewert has shrapnel in his left leg, while Laqua still has shards of metal in his right. You might think these brothers in arms would sit around sharing war stories all day. But what do they talk about? – “Whatever comes along. Whatever girl walks by,” they laughed. Now these former strangers feel like life-long friends. “Its been very good. Its so unusual. What can you say?” Ewert said. “We get along like a couple of buddies. Old buds. Young buds,” Laqua said. It won’t be long before Ewert and Laqua go their separate ways, but their parallel lives will be intertwined from now on. “It’s not too often this sort of thing happens. That you run into someone. Neither one of us had an idea this could happen,” Ewert said.

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