April 11 Veterans News

April 11 Veterans News

VetsHQ News UpdateThousands of Iraq, Afghan war vets sickened after working at ‘burn pits’ (Fox News) Thousands of U.S. military personnel who served on bases in Iraq and Afghanistan recall the dense black smoke from burn pits where everything from IEDs to human waste was incinerated. Now many have died, and more are gravely ill. Those battling a grim menu of cancers, as well as their loved ones and advocates, trace their condition to breathing in the toxic fumes they say could be the most recent wars’ version of Agent Orange or Gulf War Illness. “The clouds of smoke would just hang throughout the base,” Army Sgt. Daniel Diaz, who was stationed at Joint Base Balad, in Iraq’s Sunni Triangle from 2004-2005, told FoxNews.com. … Diaz returned from duty in 2008. A year later, he started developing health problems including cancer, chronic fatigue and weakness, neuropathy and hypothyroidism. Nearly every base he was stationed at during his four tours in Iraq and Afghanistan had burn pits nearby – and pungent smoke everywhere. … During the wars in both Iraq and Afghanistan, the burn pit method was adopted originally as a temporary measure to get rid of waste and garbage generated on bases. Everything was incinerated in the pits, say soldiers, including plastics, batteries, appliances, medicine, dead animals and even human waste. The items were often set ablaze with jet fuel as the accelerant. Joint Base Balad, where Diaz was partially stationed, burned up to 147 tons of waste per day as recently as the summer of 2008, according to The Army Times. The incineration of the waste generated numerous pollutants including carbon monoxide and dioxide—the same chemical compound found in Agent Orange, which left many Vietnam vets sick after it was used as a defoliant. “It’s killing soldiers at a much higher rate than Agent Orange did in the Vietnam Era,” Rosie Torres, founder of Burn Pits 360, an advocacy group for service members who have fallen ill, told FoxNews.com. “Soldiers from that war were seen dying in their 50’s, 60’s or 70’s. Now with the soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, we are seeing them die in their early 20’s, 30’s, and 40’s.” Torres, whose husband, LeRoy Torres, fell ill almost immediately after his return from Iraq in 2008, said nearly 64,000 active service members and retirees have put their names on the Burn Pit Registry created by the Department of Veterans Affairs. But documenting their plight doesn’t guarantee coverage. “I haven’t got diddly squat,” Diaz tells Foxnews.com. “The VA is refusing to admit that my cancers are service-related. It’s frustrating. I have $100,000 in medical bills because I have no coverage. “It’s breaking my family,” he said. “I’m just trying to fight to stay alive long enough get my claim settled so my family has something when I am gone.” Once dead, servicemembers cannot retroactively be placed on the list, which advocates say leaves family members of the fallen in the lurch and often bankrupt. “It’s a failed registry. It doesn’t work. It could take 20-30 years for someone to get assistance,” Joseph Hickman, author of the 2016 book “The Burn Pits: the Poisoning of America’s Soldiers,” told Foxnews.com. “It’s not fair. They need help now.” The pits burned more than 1,000 different chemical compounds day and night, and most service members breathed in toxic fumes with no protection, said Hickman, who added the Agent Orange comparison is apt. “The Department of Defense won’t admit that this is occurring and the VA does not do enough to assist service members because they are waiting on info from the DoD,” he said. Requests for comment from the Department of Defense were not immediately returned. Not every case of cancer involving a service member can be blamed on burn pit exposure, but for families who have watched healthy loved ones succumb to terminal illness within months or a few years of returning home, the connection seems clear. “It’s hard to believe that my husband did not get cancer from this,” Christie Badstibner, whose husband Brian, a 14-year Air Force veteran who died two months ago, told FoxNews.com. “How can they deny that the pits had something to do with this? No one wants to take the blame.”

Learn more: Burn Pit Exposure

List of Agent Orange-related diseases may expand (Military Times)
The Veterans Affairs Department is weighing whether to add several diseases to the list of health conditions presumed in Vietnam veterans to be caused by exposure to Agent Orange. A VA working group is studying a report issued in March by the Institute of Medicine to determine whether bladder cancer, hypothyroidism and Parkinson’s-like symptoms — illnesses the IOM said may be more strongly linked to exposure than previously thought — should automatically make a Vietnam veteran eligible for VA disability benefits and health care. According to Dr. Ralph Erickson, VA’s chief consultant for post-deployment health services, the group will make a recommendations to VA Secretary Robert McDonald on whether the diseases should be added to a list of 15 already in place. “We are in the midst of a deliberative process, carefully looking at all the IOM committee put in the report and additional information that has come out since,” Erickson said. “We will be putting together a VA response that will be brought before senior leaders and ultimately brought before the secretary.” The process could take up to two years, a VA spokeswoman added. Roughly 1 million Vietnam veterans are enrolled in the VA health system, according to the department. Based on a review of data for one year, 5,484 of these veterans have been diagnosed with bladder cancer, 15,983 suffer from hypothyroidism and an estimated 1,833 have Parkinson’s-like symptoms. The working group also is looking into the role, if any, Agent Orange exposure has played in the development of hypertension in Vietnam veterans. According to VA, 307,324 Vietnam veterans in the Veterans Health Administration have high blood pressure. … VA began recognizing diseases associated with herbicide exposure in Vietnam beginning in 1991, naming 15 diseases as presumed to be related, including Hodgkin’s disease, multiple myeloma, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, early-onset peripheral neuropathy, porphyria cutanea tarda, prostate cancer, respiratory cancers, soft-tissue sarcoma, chloracne, type-2 diabetes mellitus, light chain amyloidosis, ischemic heart disease, chronic B-cell leukemias, Parkinson’s disease, and spina bifida in offspring of veterans. The most recent IOM report actually downgraded spina bifida in the children of Vietnam veterans, saying research does not support a previously held belief that the disease occurred in offspring of exposed veterans at higher rates. But the change of spina bifida from “limited or suggestive evidence” it is related to exposure to “inadequate or insufficient” evidence should not affect disability payments to the 1,153 descendants of Vietnam veterans who receive them, Veterans Benefits Administration senior adviser for compensation services Brad Flohr said. VA recommends that veterans who have an illness they believe is related to Agent Orange exposure file a claim; they are considered on a case-by-case basis if the illness is not on the presumptive condition list. Should new diseases be added to the list, the regulation would go into effect 30 days after it is published in the Federal Register. If a veteran dies of a condition determined to be a presumptive condition after the veteran’s death, VA will provide dependency and indemnity compensation benefits to eligible spouses, children and parents of that veteran.

Learn More: Agent Orange and Herbicide Exposure

VA’s response to three whistleblowers inadequate, special counsel says (Government Executive)
In the latest in its continuing scrutiny of the Veterans Affairs Department, the Office of Special Counsel on Friday reported that it was faulting the department’s managers for inadequate follow-up on three whistleblower cases affecting health and safety. The findings reported to the White House and Congress involve medical facilities in West Virginia, upstate New York and Washington, D.C. In one case, based on alerts from an anonymous whistleblower, the Beckley VA Medical Center in West Virginia was “found to have improperly substituted prescribed antipsychotic medications in order to save money,” OSC said in a statement. The VA’s Office of Medical Inspector found that these actions created a threat to the health and safety of mental health patients in Beckley and violated VA policy. The whistleblower’s other allegations were not substantiated, and VA officials decided not to discipline the managers for the drug substitutions because the managers were “unfamiliar with VA policy” and their actions were not knowing and willful. But “in other cases, including in formal litigation, the VA has sought disciplinary action against senior officials who failed to exercise appropriate oversight,” OSC said. The Special Counsel concluded that “this is a more appropriate standard,” and that discipline should have been considered in response to the medical inspector’s findings. In Canandaigua, N.Y., employees at a veterans crisis line and call center volunteers were found to be inadequately trained, as evidenced by delayed responses to vets who may be suicidal. “The VA Office of Inspector General found that back-up call centers routed some veterans seeking help to voicemail, and sometimes neither the crisis line nor back-up center volunteers immediately called veterans back,” OSC said. The problems were disclosed by VA employee John Giunta, and managers took steps to improve training and responsiveness. “However, the Special Counsel concluded these actions do not adequately address the VA’s lack of oversight of its back-up call centers,” the OSC said, noting that some case outcomes were not tracked. In a Washington VA Medical Center, staff registered nurse John Leahy in 2014 disclosed to the Special Counsel that the facility had failed to test flexible endoscopes for leaks before 2008. “Using a leak testing method, Mr. Leahy discovered leaking endoscopes and, in response, developed new procedures for the clinic,” asserting that VA should have notified the patients of the faulty equipment, OSC said. “The VA maintains that visual leak inspections and the use of disinfects were sufficient to identify and address any biohazards in its endoscopes before reusing them,” OSC’s statement said. But the whistleblower provided endoscope manufacturer guidelines and other information that appears to contradict the VA, according to OSC. VA also said it did not need to notify patients because it had found no evidence of an “adverse event.” OSC said VA should have convened a clinical review board and the Special Counsel’s office remains unconvinced that VA’s position is “reasonable and supported by the facts.”

Shulkin: New VA initiatives aim to increase vets’ access to care (Executive Gov)
David Shulkin, undersecretary for health at the Department of Veterans Affairs, told an Association of Health Care Journalists conference Friday that VA has launched new efforts to help military veterans access primary and mental healthcare services. “We are working to rebuild the trust of the American public and more importantly the trust of the veterans whom we are proud to serve,” Shulkin said Friday. VA aims to increase the number of medical centers that provide same-day appointment services, if necessary, to veterans through MyVA Access program. The program is part of a broader initiative to transform VA into a customer service-focused department. The department has also started to deploy the Veteran Appointment Request App that will work to help users view, book or cancel appointments with healthcare providers. VA also piloted a new scheduling software program designed to help veterans to check wait times at various hospitals in real time as well as to help clinicians minimize scheduling errors and allow department personnel to monitor demand, supply and usage of healthcare services.

McCain defends Veterans Choice program amid overhaul (Star and Stripes)
Sen. John McCain on Thursday defended his troubled Veterans Choice program as the Senate prepares the first comprehensive private-care reform since the program was created in 2014. McCain, R-Ariz., took to the Senate floor to lay blame for the program’s widespread failure to deliver private care on the Department of Veterans Affairs, and to again call for Veterans Choice to become permanent despite its dysfunction. Lawmakers have struck a deal to streamline the patchwork of Choice programs around the country after complaints from frustrated veterans unable to get care, but details of the final proposal have not been released. The Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, chaired by Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., could unveil a bill within the next two weeks, according to congressional staff. “There should be no doubt that the VA is failing to fully and effectively implement the Choice card,” McCain said, speaking of the private-care program. “In doing so, it is preventing our veterans from receiving the flexible care they deserve.” McCain, along with Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, was a key architect of the Choice program, which was created in the wake of the VA’s 2014 national wait time scandal to dramatically increase access to private hospitals and doctors. Veterans are eligible for a Choice card if they cannot get a VA appointment within 30 days or live more than 40 miles from a VA facility. It was meant to ease the bottleneck at VA health care facilities but has instead created new delays for veterans because of problems in scheduling appointments, processing eligibility and reimbursing private doctors. McCain said many VA leaders “believe veterans should be forced to stay within the walls of the VA no matter what” and have refused to fully implement the program. He has sponsored a bill that would make the $10 billion, two-year pilot program permanent, saying Thursday that eliminating it “would only send veterans back to the unacceptable status quo of never-ending wait times for appointments.” It is set to expire later this year. Despite the criticism from McCain, VA Secretary Bob McDonald has said that reforming Veterans Choice is a top priority for the agency this year and that it backs efforts in the Senate. Changes being considered by the Senate committee could have far-reaching effects on the program and how veterans receive private care outside the VA system. … Their proposal would consolidate VA programs across the country into a single, simplified system to solve long delays in receiving private care and in getting payments to doctors, according to Burr. Changes to the Choice program and private care could be rolled into a committee omnibus bill that will include new department powers to hold executives accountable and a raft of other reforms.

IG reports detail which VA facilities doctored patient wait-times (Military.com)
Two years after whistleblower revelations of manipulated appointment times at the Veterans Medical Center in Phoenix led to findings that the problem was systemic across the Veterans Affairs Department, internal investigations into the matter are finally being released. The reports, documenting the manipulation of wait-times at VA facilities across 19 states, reveal that in at least seven facilities the dates were falsified per order of supervisors, according to an article in USA Today, which acquired the documents through a Freedom of Information Act request. The 71 reports are now available for viewing on the department’s website. The VA anticipates releasing another half dozen reports at least. It is also completing 30 site-specific investigations that it will release in the coming months, department spokesman James Hutton said. The reports finally identify VA hospitals and clinics where appointment data was manipulated. In particular, inspector general concluded appointment dates were manipulated in accordance with supervisor instructions in facilities in seven states, including Arkansas, California, Delaware, Illinois, New York, Texas and Vermont. The investigations were carried out in 2014 after whistleblowers went public with allegations of appointment gaming that resulted in veteran deaths at the Phoenix hospital. Altogether, 40 VA hospitals and clinics across the U.S. and Puerto Rico were found to be “zeroing out” wait times — meaning they would adjust the dates to make it appear veterans were getting the appointment dates they desired rather than those that were available. The manipulation concealed the extent to which facilities were not keeping up with patient demand. In some instances confirmed by the IG agents, wait-times were manipulated as a result of poor training or instruction, though the net results were skewed appointment data in violation of VA procedure. The department, in anticipation of the reports’ release, said last week that it’s “important to note that OIG has not substantiated any case in which a [Veterans Health Administration] Senior Executive or other senior leader intentionally manipulated scheduling data.” In about a third of the inspector general investigations, there was no evidence of manipulated appointment data, it said. Of those remaining, investigators substantiated 18 instances of intentional misuse of scheduling systems. Of those 18 cases, VA says, the Office of Accountability Review found individual misconduct warranting discipline in 12, resulting in 29 employees who were disciplined. VA did not offer a detailed accounting of the actions taken, saying only that they ranged from official admonishment to removal, including three employees who retired or resigned with disciplinary action pending.

Read MoreOIG reports verify allegations at some VA medical facilities

New VA ‘slayer’ rule targets killers (The Hill)
A service member’s murderer would be prohibited from collecting the victim’s life insurance benefits under a new rule from the Obama administration. The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) announced Monday that it is moving forward with the so-called slayer rule, which is intended to “prevent unjust enrichment” from the death of a veteran or active member of the military. “We designed the rule to prevent slayers from benefiting from their wrongdoing,” the VA wrote in the Federal Register. The rule would apply to beneficiaries of the Servicemembers’ Group Life Insurance and Veterans’ Group Life Insurance. Anyone convicted of killing a service member would not be eligible to receive the victim’s life insurance benefits. The prohibition would extend to others who helped facilitate the murder, as well as family members of the killer who are not related to the victim. The slayer rule goes into effect immediately.

Funding for $36M Colorado veterans cemetery in early 2017 budget (The Gazette)
Work could begin as soon as next year on a 374-acre veterans cemetery east of Colorado Springs as Congress moves forward with a measure to pay for the $36 million project. U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn, R-Colorado Springs, visited the site on Drennan Road on Wednesday and said the cemetery cash has stuck in early versions of a 2017 budget bill. “I’ll make sure it stays in the budget,” he pledged. Local veterans have pushed for a national cemetery in Colorado Springs for nearly two decades. The Department of Veterans Affairs closed a deal for the cemetery land in 2014, but the project has languished in the absence of construction cash. “Finally,” said Vic Fernandez, an Army veteran who has led efforts to push for the cemetery for 17 years. Steve Best, who heads VA cemeteries in a nine-state region that includes Colorado, said design work on the cemetery is ahead of schedule. “We’re about halfway through the process,” he said. The land, just east of the Colorado Springs Airport, features sweeping views of Pikes Peak and mountains as far south as the Spanish Peaks. Best said the cemetery will be designed to maximize the views. “This is going to be a very, very special place,” he said. The $36 million will buy the first phase of the cemetery, which will be the final resting place for up to 13,000 veterans. The agency said it plans as many as 20 burials a day at the site for decades to come. Lamborn praised work by the Department of Veterans Affairs on the cemetery while still voicing ire over the agency’s handling of heath care at its Colorado Springs clinic. The VA’s most recent report showed long waits continue for veterans seeking care at its Fillmore Street clinic, with nearly 29 percent of veterans waiting a month or more for appointments. That’s a slight improvement over the 32 percent of veterans who waited a month or more for care in November. Lamborn said he’s pushing for hearings on the woes of the Colorado Springs clinic. But the House Committee on Veterans Affairs has bigger plans, he said. The panel led by Florida Republican Jeff Miller is working on a plan to throw the book at VA leaders during a hearing by lumping the problems in Colorado Springs with similar issues found at other clinics. “This has been going on all over the country,” Lamborn said. … Lamborn said the VA has made some effort to clean up problems at the clinic since the report. But the Republican remains unimpressed.

Mayor of New York City announces official creation of state Department of Veterans’ Services (JP Updates)
On Sunday, Mayor de Blasio announced the official creation of the Department of Veterans’ Services. On December 10, 2015, de Blasio signed Local Law 113, creating the first City agency serving veterans and their families. “We owe so much to the service and sacrifice of the brave men and women, and their families, who selflessly stood up to defend our freedom and to those who continue to serve in harm’s way,” de Blasio said in a statement. The Mayor added that, by creating the Department of Veterans’ Services, “we are fulfilling our moral obligation to honor, respect and serve those who have served us and now deserve access to all the services and support they need to return to civilian life.” De Blasio also thanked City Council, City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, Council Member Eric Ulrich, and the veterans community for supporting the creation of the department. Head by Commissioner, Retired Army Brigadier General Loree Sutton, the Department will provide housing for homeless veterans, expanding education and career opportunities for veterans as well. Established in 1987 under Local Law 53, the Mayor’s Office of Veteran Affairs was created to help New York City veterans and their families. Using the resources of of agencies throughout New York City, MOVA connected veterans and active duty military and their families to state and federal programs throughout New York State.