March 9 Veterans News

March 9 Veterans News

VetsHQ News UpdateVA gives deadline to veterans who have applied for health care (Military Times) The Veterans Affairs Department has figured out how to fix a backlog of health care applications that dates back at least four years: Enforce a law requiring veterans to furnish the necessary paperwork, or the applications will be closed. In a press release issued on Monday, VA officials said the department will “extend the healthcare enrollment application for one year” to 545,000 veterans who have applied for VA health care to allow time for VA to contact them and for the veterans to furnish the required information. By law, VA must notify applicants with incomplete applications, and if the veteran receives the notice but does not provide the information, the department closes the request. In the past, the VA’s Health Eligibility Center has not tracked the status or timing of applications, resulting in an applications backlog that includes the applications of 545,000 living veterans and 245,000 deceased veterans. “What happened is there had been a lot of deferred maintenance on this system … and the HEC did not have the proper leadership making sure these records were being actively case-managed,” said VA acting director for member services Matthew Eitutis. According to VA, officials will reach out by mail and phone to all veterans on the pending list, as it has for 30,000 Iraq and Afghanistan veterans who were mistakenly on that list. These veterans automatically are entitled to health care for five years following their transition to the civilian community, but in many cases, the VA’s software system mistakenly labeled their applications as needing signatures or income information. … The VA inspector general in September found extensive problems with the VA’s health applications, including evidence that employees lost 10,000 applications and that more than 245,000 veterans on the pending list actually were deceased. Scott Davis, a VA whistleblower who brought the issued to light, said on Monday the new effort to contact veterans is doomed, largely because VA will rely on an existing, outdated address and phone database. … He added that the decision to close the applications after a year is unfair to veterans. “It’s irresponsible to just drop these veterans. It’s often not their fault. We’ve done reviews of the system and have found a high number of the incomplete applications were actually mistakes on the side of the VA,” Davis said. Eitutis said VA will drop a requirement that applications contain a hand-written signature and is checking for other errors created by the center’s software system. He added that of the 31,000 Iraq and Afghanistan veteran applications reviewed, 5,500 are now enrolled in VA health care. Applying a similar percentage of veterans — nearly 20 percent — to the 545,000 veterans on the pending list, VA could be looking at enrolling nearly 110,000 veterans in VA health care in the coming year. … House Veterans Affairs Committee chairman Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., said in a statement Monday that he was glad VA is addressing the problems but was “baffled” the department took so long. … In addition to sending letters to veterans on the pending list, the department plans to provide the names of veterans who have applied to VA medical centers across the country for VA staff to call them.

Military mental health services must be easier to get, service officials say (Military Times)
Better mental health care for service members and their families, tougher sexual assault policies and an improved retirement plan are key if the military is to retain troops, service personnel officials told lawmakers Tuesday. Speaking to the Senate Armed Services subcommittee on personnel, service officials said that rising suicide rates and mental health problems need to be addressed through better care options. “People don’t commit suicide,” said Lt. Gen. James McConville, Army deputy chief of staff for personnel. “They die of suicide. Just like people don’t commit heart disease. They die of heart disease.” Chief of Naval Personnel Vice Adm. William Moran said young men in the military are most vulnerable to mental health problems. Marine Lt. Gen. Mark Brilakis said  the best way to combat mental health troubles “in a hyperpressurized environment” is to provide counseling and other services early. Depression is even higher among military spouses, said Kathy Roth-Duquet, chief executive officer of Blue Star Families. The depression rate for military spouses is 12 percent and unemployment is around 25 percent, according to Blue Star Families’ annual Military Family Lifestyle Survey. Roth-Duquet said the government should prioritize military spouse education, employment and child care services. The military health system is inadequate and too expensive, particularly for veterans, said Joyce Raezer, executive director of the National Military Family Association. She asked the lawmakers to reject budget proposals “that threaten military family financial well-being as a way to save money for the government.” “If I could wave a wand and fix anything, I’d make the military health system more accessible to military families,” she said. Scott Bousum, legislative director for the Enlisted Association of the National Guard of the United States, noted a survey he conducted of 301 military personnel, in which nearly 70 percent of respondents said they cannot easily get treatment at military treatment facilities. “My goal is to make the program sustainable in terms of budget but also to make it more efficient and not repackage the system and not charge you more,” said subcommittee Chairman Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. “That’s exactly where we’re heading and we’re not going to do that. We’re going to change the system.” Financial insecurity is one of the contributing factors in the rise of mental health issues, the officers testified. They said a more stable retirement program would create greater satisfaction with the military lifestyle. “A lot of our young soldiers live paycheck to paycheck,” McConville said. New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., emphasized improving sexual assault prosecution processes and decreasing retaliation rates on alleged sexual assault victims. Joseph E. Davis, public affairs director of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, noted that the Veterans Affairs Department reported in October 2014 that 25 percent of female veterans and 1 percent of male veterans said they experienced sexual trauma in the military.

VA awards $22B IT contracts for MyVA transformation (fedscoop)
The Department of Veterans Affairs awarded numerous contracts amounting to $22.3 billion Tuesday for the technical support services, program management and infrastructure development behind its MyVA transformation. Using the Transformation Twenty-One Total Technology Next Generation acquisition program, or T4NG, the department Tuesday awarded 21 companies of various sizes contracts to support MyVA, a departmentwide initiative launched last year to improve customer service to veterans and build a consolidated, easier-to-use, single Web interface for them to access information and benefits online. “This suite of contracts will provide solutions to support IT security, health IT, and telecommunications, including cloud mobility, cybersecurity support, mobile application development, and application development and sustainment,” Kai Miller, director of strategic communication for VA, told FedScoop. Miller added, “Through awards like those in the T4NG suite, VA is harnessing internal capabilities and private sector innovation to enhance strategic partnership and expand the reach of services available to veterans and their families. Ensuring that the department acquires the right solutions, the right way, from the right sources allows VA the tools to keep pace in an ever-changing IT environment.” VA developed the awards as a multi-agency indefinite delivery/indefinite quantity, multiple award task order contract, meaning that other agencies can also award task orders under this contract. VA awarded places on the contracts issued Tuesday to 10 service-disabled veteran owned small businesses, two other small businesses and nine large businesses, including Accenture Federal Services; SRA International, Inc.; Booz Allen Hamilton, Inc.; and IBM. “This T4NG award is one of the many ways the department is supporting the MyVA breakthrough initiatives by directly providing the technology that our Veterans need to support the services they receive from VA,” Secretary Robert McDonald said in a statement. “The T4NG will help meet and strengthen VA’s long-term technology needs.”

HillVets names its most influential on military veterans issues (Military Times)
HillVets’ 2015 list of the 100 most influential personalities on veterans issues includes a pair of female Rangers, a trio of presidential candidates, a Medal of Honor recipient and an evil Jedi master. The list, in its second year, is designed to highlight veterans, service members and supporters who helped broaden public understanding of veterans issues. The group’s stated goal is to increase both the number of veterans working in government and focus on the challenges they face. The full list, available at the group’s website, was compiled from outside nominations by a 13-member panel of veterans working on Capitol Hill. This year’s honorees will be recognized at a March 22 event on Capitol Hill headlined by former Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel. Organizers say the goal is to not only highlight the work but also to bring together the larger community to find ways to build on it. Among the notables are Shaye Lynne Haver and Kristen Marie Griest, who last August became the first women to graduate from Army Ranger School. HillVets officials lauded them for being among individuals “who have shaped the debate surrounding the duty and the call to serve.” Two former defense secretaries — Hagel and Donald Rumsfeld — made the list, as did former presidential candidates/veterans Texas Gov. Rick Perry, former Virginia Sen. Jim Webb and Sen. Lindsey Graham. Retired Army Capt. Florent Groberg, who received the Medal of Honor in November for heroism in Afghanistan in August 2012, was also recognized for his service and “bringing veterans and service members into the forefront of the national conscious.” Several veterans made the list for their contributions to arts and entertainment, including Marine Corps veteran Adam Driver, who starred as Kylo Ren in the latest Star Wars film; Navy veteran PJ Walsh, a stand-up comedian and American Ninja Warrior contestant; and Army veteran Matt Gallagher, author and writing instructor for Words After War. For the second year in a row, Michelle Obama and Jill Biden were named to the list for their work with the Joining Forces initiative. HillVets organizers also praised the work of Veterans Affairs Secretary Bob McDonald, acting Army Secretary Pat Murphy, House Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller and Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Johnny Isakson, among other government officials. Outside veterans-focused businesses like ScoutComms and RallyPoint also made the list. Media members highlighted by the committee for their work covering veterans issues include a pair of Military Times correspondents: health reporter Patricia Kime and congressional reporter Leo Shane III. The group also recognized veterans advocates in both the “traditional non-profits” and “non-profit innovators” categories, highlighting key influencers from groups like the Veterans of Foreign Wars, American Legion, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, Student Veterans of America and Team RWB.

Rep. John Mica gets feds to transfer VA nursing home to Florida (Florida Politics)
U.S. Rep. John Mica announced Wednesday that his deal to transfer a closed U.S. Veterans Affairs nursing home to Florida has been completed, with his bill rocketing through both houses and getting President Barack Obama‘s signature in less than a month. The home, part of the old Baldwin Park VA medical services complex in Winter Park, has been replaced by a new one at the new U.S. Veterans Affairs Medical Center at Lake Nona in south Orlando. But while home and most of the rest of the Baldwin Park VA complex are still being used, repurposed for outpatient, veterans medical clinic needs, Mica, state and federal VA officials saw the 120-bed domiciliary as still practical to serve Central Florida’s burgeoning veterans’ community as a long-term care residence. “This is a special day for veterans of Central Florida,” said Mica, a Republican from Winter Park. “With the cooperations of senators like Sen. [Johnny] Isakson from Georgia, who heads up Veterans Affairs in the Senate, and with the president of the United States, who has signed the legislation, we have actually in record time transferred this 120-bed facility to the state of Florida.” That may have been the easy part, though. For the home to become the eighth in the state’s Department of Veterans’ Affairs network of veterans nursing homes, and the first in the Orlando area, plans must still be developed and money must be found. It’s likely that it will take more than another year before the center is approved by state officials, funded, renovated and opened, cautioned Mike Prendergast, executive director of the Florida Department of Veterans’ Affairs. That will start, he said, when he hopes to take the matter to the Florida Cabinet at the end of March. Then it will need an appropriation from the Florida Legislature, next year. He offered no timetables or budget estimates. He said for planning purposes, he would estimate the facility would need a staff of 150 full-time-equivalent employees. Still, Prendergast was entirely pleased, and called it a historic day for Florida veterans. “It will serve an unmet need for veterans for generations to come,” he said.

More veterans speak out about quality of care at the VA (WIVB)
Lynn Magistrale’s account of developing cancer, and how the Department of Veterans Affairs in Buffalo mishandled it, seems to have struck a chord with many other veterans, their families, and even non-veterans about medical care at the VA. The story aired on News 4, last week, and the next day Lynn, a disabled veteran of the war in Iraq, was getting calls from the Department of Veterans Affairs in Washington to try to resolve her problems. The phone has been ringing nearly non-stop at Western New York Heroes, a veterans advocacy group in Clarence where Magistrale is on staff. Lynn said doctors at the VA Medical Center first missed her cancer, then misdiagnosed it. She is now cancer-free but mistakes were made with her medical insurance, leading to unpaid medical bills, and debt collectors relentlessly calling the Lancaster mother of two girls. The retired Air Force Tech Sergeant’s story unleashed a flood of phone calls to WNY Heroes, plus emails, and postings on their Facebook page. Many of those calls came in to Sandy Lindaman, Director of Operations for WNY Heroes, “I don’t think they knew where to go, or how to ask for help. But once the story broke, it is finally waking people up, and they are starting to ask for help.” Lindaman has referred many of the phone calls and Facebook inquiries to the appropriate agencies, and in some cases forwarded the complaints to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs in Washington. “Mostly just trying to get them connected with the right people, whether it is at the actual Buffalo VA, or moving their emails, or their messages to DC.” Chris Kreiger, founder and CEO of Western New York Heroes, said many of the callers are relating experiences similar to Magistrale’s ordeal with the VA. “A lot of them are coming out, talking about their misdiagnosis or mistreatment at the VA, and for some of the veterans that have contacted us, have even lost their loved one, because of that.” Kreiger advocates for better treatment of returning veterans, and has strong feelings about lawmakers in Washington who get much better medical benefits than veterans who have put it all on the line. “Our men and women who are being sent to another country, and asked to put their life on the line, and willing to give their life to this country, come back to less health care than our politicians are getting, and that, in itself, is criminal and unfair.” VA officials in Washington are investigating Lynn Magistrale’s case, and offering to help her. Her medical issues have led to even more pain financially. VA officials in Buffalo have assured us, they are reviewing Lynn’s case, too, and trying to resolve her insurance issues.

Commentary: Trump’s donations aside, these are tough times for veterans groups (The Washington Post)
Phillip Carter, Veterans Research Program director, Center for a New American Security: Donald Trump claimed it took only an hour to raise $6 million for veterans. “We set up the website. I called some friends,” he said. And, just like that, 20 veterans’ groups were told to expect “a lot of money.” Indeed, if all you’d read about veterans groups in the past few weeks was coverage of Trump’s fundraiser, or Wounded Warrior Project’s reportedly big spending, you might think the nonprofit sector serving veterans was flush with cash and maybe even undeserving of your support. But those stories obscure two trends that are working against veterans groups: The needs of the veterans population are increasing at the same time that the base of support for veterans services is shrinking. And it’s because of those trends that veterans nonprofits are evolving in ways that open them up to criticism. The U.S. veterans population size peaked in 1980 and has been steadily declining since then, as the conscription-fueled cohorts of World War II, Korea, Vietnam and the Cold War fade. Assuming that longevity remains relatively constant, this trend will continue as long as the United States maintains a volunteer force of a certain size and does not fight another war on the scale of World War II. At some point around 2030 or 2040, the veterans population will reach a new steady state of approximately 14 million — a small slice of a country of 325 million. Those numbers, however, can be deceiving. Today’s smaller veterans population is increasingly dominated by veterans of the All-Volunteer Force era, who serve with a fundamentally different social contract than previous generations of volunteers or conscripts. They expect higher compensation and generous benefits in return for accepting greater burdens. On average, they serve longer on active duty, deploy more frequently and endure more injuries, illnesses and general wear and tear in the line of duty (excluding combat injuries). Also, because the military has grown more insular, today’s veterans sometimes have a harder time transitioning back to civilian life. The result has been increasing use of public, private and nonprofit veterans services by all generations of veterans, although the veterans of our most recent wars are using programs such as VA health care and the GI bill at record levels. The federal government will likely meet this need with fewer resources in years to come. Although the Defense Department and Department of Veterans Affairs have enjoyed increased budgets during the past 15 years of war, those budgets have likely reached their high-water mark. Benefits and support will remain on the books, but they will be gradually starved for dollars. VA medical appointments will become even harder to get; GI Bill funds may eventually be rationed or capped; employment support programs that fall outside VA’s core mission of health and disability support could wither. Meanwhile, some of the nation’s largest veterans organizations are struggling. Traditionally, the majority of these have been membership organizations — groups like the American Legion and Disabled American Veterans — that depend on dues and contributions from veterans, as well as donations from veterans’ families and people with some military affinity. But their membership ranks have declined along with the veterans population. Veterans of my generation simply aren’t replacing older veterans in as great numbers, or with as much disposable income (yet), to make up the difference. And the growing civil-military divide is getting in the way of giving. As Katherine Kidder and I document in the report “Charting the Sea of Goodwill,” the vast majority of veterans nonprofits earn less than $100,000 per year. Only 237 of 42,035 organizations pulled in more than $1 million during the last tax year for which data was available. And for all of the nonprofit organizations in this space, revenue had effectively remained flat during the past 15 years of war, rising just 4 percent in inflation-adjusted dollars between 2001 and 2014, compared to a 37 percent increase for all U.S. nonprofits in revenue during the same period. When we added government funds to this picture, accounting for the enormous amount the VA has spent since 2008 on combating homelessness, largely through grants and contracts to nonprofits, it appeared that corporate, philanthropic and individual donations to the veterans nonprofit sector were actually on the decline. These trends present veterans nonprofits with an existential dilemma. Different organizations have responded in different ways, and it is this context that matters for understanding the allegations against Wounded Warrior Project, or why some veterans groups were okay with Trump using them to excuse his absence from a Fox News debate and shield him from questions about his lack of military service. Many nonprofits focused on service delivery — such as those providing supportive housing for homeless veterans — have evolved into small- to medium-sized businesses that essentially operate on a fee-for-service basis, funded primarily by government contracts or grants, with their budgets supplemented by charitable giving. Since such giving is increasingly difficult to attract, there’s a powerful incentive to take funds from angel donors. “Our budget is, like, $40,000 a year,” the founder of an Iowa group for homeless veterans that got $100,000 from Trump told The Post. “Our largest donation was $10,000. So this is a pretty big deal for us.” (As The Post reported, Trump has followed through on donating only half of the $6 million raised, leaving some veterans groups extremely disappointed.) Other groups, such as Wounded Warrior Project, have transformed into something perhaps best described as a services machine built on top of a fundraising machine. They’re able to succeed despite serious economic and demographic headwinds because they have high overhead. Their cost structures, executive salaries and expense profiles look more like businesses than nonprofits. They market themselves with a competitive spirit more akin to General Electric than Goodwill. And they engage in the same “make or buy” analysis that most big companies do when deciding whether to insource or outsource a particular task. Recognizing that it cannot do all things for all veterans, Wounded Warrior Project now funds a number of the most prominent post-9/11 veterans groups, including Team Rubicon, Team RWB and The Mission Continues. It also funds major research projects, such as a longitudinal study being run by the Henry M. Jackson Foundation for the Advancement of Military Medicine and a study of military caregivers overseen by the Dole Foundation and run by the RAND Corporation last year. (Full disclosure: WWP funds Center for a New American Security research, too, accounting for roughly 10 percent of my program’s funding and 2 percent of the overall center’s funding.) Veterans nonprofits will need to continue to evolve. If they cling to old business models, they will become increasingly vulnerable to economic shifts, government funding decisions and opportunistic donors like Trump. To remain viable, nonprofits must now compete in the marketplace and show their value to all customers, including funders, members and users. Financial ratings and tax filings tell one part of the story. But nonprofits also must do better at demonstrating their impact, ideally by showing how they have meaningfully changed outcomes like health and wealth for veterans who use their services.

Opinion: Montana veterans deserve better care choices (Billings Gazette)
Gazette Opinion: The Veterans Choice Act is a poor choice. Montana veterans and others across the nation actually are waiting longer for appointments under Choice Act provisions than they would in the Veterans Affairs clinics. Recently in Montana, there were 5,000 Veterans Choice appointments requested but unscheduled, and 2,600 of those requests were older than 90 days, according to Sen. Jon Tester’s office. The private administrators VA selected to operate the program have failed to deliver timely appointments. HealthNet is the contractor hired to serve Montana and some other states. Veterans issues used to account for 30 percent of Tester’s constituent services. Since the Choice Act started, the veterans issues have increased to 50 percent of the staff’s caseload. “This is an epidemic within the care system,” Tester told The Gazette on Monday. Veterans report generally being pleased with care received at Fort Harrison and in Montana VA outreach clinics, when they have need staff and when they can get into VA care, Tester said. It’s the waiting that frustrates patients. “HealthNet is taking four to seven weeks to get an appointment; it’s not working,” Tester said. “It just compounded the problem.” How did this company get the contract? “They were the only ones that bid.” Complaints also have piled up from private community health care providers who have waited six months for HealthNet to pay them for veterans’ care. Billings Clinic and at least 20 other Montana providers have dropped out of the Choice program, according to Tester’s staff. On a recent visit to Billings, Tester complained that legislation approved by the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee languishes months later because leadership hasn’t brought it to the full Senate for a vote. Nevertheless, last week Tester introduced a new bill, one designed to fix the problems with the Choice Act that are denying Montana veterans the care the law was intended to provide. Tester proposed to allow VA the flexibility to cut out the private Choice Act contractor. He would allow VA clinics and hospitals to refer veterans directly to community care when that care is available quicker and closer to home than what is available in the VA system. Tester would change the Choice Act to allow VA to pay for community fee-for-service referrals from Choice funds. Tester also proposed consolidating the VA’s seven community care programs into one. Last week, Republicans and Democrats on the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee aired complaints about the Choice Act. “The Choice program is not working the way that anyone wanted,” Dr. David Shulkin, VA undersecretary for health, told the senators. He acknowledged that the third-party administrators are too slow and said VA is trying to fix the problems. However, Congress created the Choice program, and that’s where most of the fixing needs to be done. Tester said three Democratic senators have signed onto his bill, S.2633. Ultimately, any bill that passes committee will be the work of Chairman Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., and ranking member Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., Tester said. Getting any veterans’ legislation passed this year could mean attaching it to a big “omnibus” bill that combines all sorts of unrelated provisions to draw the support of 60 senators and a majority of House members. Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., announced this week that he is cosponsoring Veterans Choice improvement legislation introduced by Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., and several other GOP senators. That bill, like Tester’s, seeks to streamline and simplify a system to get veterans care in the community. It doesn’t matter whose bill gets approved, so long as the legislation effectively fixes the problems apparent in the Choice program and doesn’t create new barriers for veterans. A supermajority of Senate Republicans and Democrats will be needed to pass anything out of the Senate. As a member of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, Tester has extra insight into the Montana-specific problems. As a member of the majority party, Daines should have more pull with Senate leadership, which so far has delayed even bipartisan bills passed by the Veterans Affairs Committee. We call on Daines and Tester to work together and with their colleagues to get Montana veterans a better deal than the slow, frustration they are now suffering with Veterans Choice. Our American heroes deserve a much better choice.

Certified service dogs are giving veterans their freedom back (WJBF)
Man’s best friend is helping hundreds of Veterans get their freedom back. Certified service animals go through rigorous and costly training. WJBF News Channel 6’s Stefany Bornman digs deeper into the extensive instruction. All service animals are different, so training comes down to the dog’s attitude. While basic discipline might take a few weeks, specific training to assist Veterans could take years and cost thousands of dollars. Peter Way put Rory’s vest on him. “Putting the vest on means that that’s the changing point from dog to working dog,” he said. Rory helps Way do just about everything. He has specialized training, one being physical mobility. Which means he helps Way by pulling his wheel chair. Rory is also trained to help Way with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, a condition he was diagnosed with after serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Wounded Warrior says for 2 years he’s been trying to get Rory’s service recognized by the V.A. Hospital as a “Dog of Record.” At this time, the V.A. Hospital only recognizes therapy dogs that assist Veterans with physical limitations not mental health conditions. “The V.A. provides a type of pet health insurance or dog health insurance that actually offsets the cost of his healthcare. So that it is not passed on to me directly since he is considered to be a direct mobility and assistance device,” Way told WJBF News Channel 6. Rory’s training took nearly 2 years and all his education makes him worth about $50,000 dollars. A big reason why Way says he wants to have protection for his companion, but service dogs come in all sizes. Ori was rescued by a Veteran and was finishing up his last test to become certified, the Public Access Test. “Going into public places it gets him familiar, more involved with everyday activities. Going to the store, sounds, smells, other dogs maybe,” said Staff Sargent Donald McCarter and Veteran of Afghanistan and Iraqi Freedom. While Ori’s training didn’t cost his owner anything, all the one-on-one coaching and time would have run up a bill of more than $1,000 dollars. “We start out with basic obedience. Sit down, stay, come when called. Then we have to go through a series of advanced test through the A.K.A., with the C.D.C., and the advanced C.D.C.,” Head Trainer and Owner of Quality K9 Concepts Matt Hammond said. If an animal is rescued they are screened to make sure it has the right personality to become a service animal. Trainers work to also make sure the Veterans and dog are a good match.