VA increases pressure on appeals reform: ‘We’re failing veterans’ (MilitaryTimes) White House officials are pushing Congress to overhaul the appeals process for veterans benefits claims this year, noting the shrinking legislative window and calling the system a disaster. “We’re failing veterans,” said Veterans Affairs Deputy Secretary Sloan Gibson. “This process is failing veterans. Nobody can defend the status quo here.” More than 440,000 veterans have appeals cases pending in the benefits system, a caseload that has risen steadily in recent years as officials have focused on pulling down the number of backlogged first-time claims. But VA officials have insisted the two aren’t connected, noting the percentage of cases appealed has remained steady. Instead, the problem has been the rising number of total claims from veterans, as more troops deal with issues from the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and even Vietnam. Today, the average completion time for appeals cases decided by the Veterans Benefits Administration is three years, the average for cases decided by the Board of Veterans Appeals is five years. Officials have not seen increases in the rate of success among the appeals, but have noted that the process is frustratingly cumbersome for both veterans and staff. VA leaders have floated a plan to get that process down to under a year and a half for most cases, but they need congressional intervention to rework filing timelines and evidence submission rules. They’re hoping the veterans omnibus looming in the Senate will include those changes, and are making another lobbying push this week for its inclusion. That includes a new White House explainer on Medium on Wednesday morning that states “it has become obvious that this is the time for change” and reminds lawmakers that VA can’t fix the problem without their help. Gibson said he worries that with the short legislative schedule this summer and impending change of presidential administrations next year, the momentum built within the veterans community for change could easily be lost. “Today, we have appeals that have been iterating for 25 years, that have been decided 25 or 30 different times over that process,” Gibson said. “That’s not right. It’s not right for veterans and it’s not right for taxpayers.” Earlier this week, Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., said that appeals reform will be included in the pending omnibus, but warned it might not be the comprehensive plan floated by VA officials in recent months. The omnibus already is expected to include sweeping new changes to hiring and firing rules for VA employees, changes to the department’s outside care programs, caregiver provisions and several dozen other pieces of veterans legislation. Isakson said he is committed to helping overhaul the process this year — either through the omnibus or in separate legislation — but conceded that passing any comprehensive legislation after June 1 will be difficult, given the shift in attention to the fall elections. Both Gibson and Isakson said one point of difficulty now is the cost of the proposed reforms. The Congressional Budget Office is expected to put a price tag on the ideas in coming days. Gibson said he does not expect the costs of the changes to be overwhelming, given that most of the changes deal with placing tighter timelines on new case submissions and decision deadlines. But clearing out the current caseload will require more staff and resources, which means more money. The White House has support from veterans advocates for the change, and Gibson said congressional staffers have been generally supportive of the plans thus far. Crafting the new guidelines has been a speedy process for department officials, who consulted with outside groups in recent months to create a more customer service-centered proposal. Now the question is whether that support can translate into congressional action. “We’re determined to get this done,” Gibson said. “We understand the process is broken. The challenge we have now is that our window is closing.”
Groin injuries would entitle vets to payout, under proposed bill (MilitaryTimes)
A House bill would pay injured veterans who lose their reproductive organs in combat or a service-related accident $20,000 to start a family or use however they want. Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., introduced legislation Monday that would compensate veterans for the “loss or loss of use of creative organs,” to help veterans who can’t have children as a result of a service-connected condition. Under the bill, veterans would receive $10,000 in two lump-sum special compensation payments — funds over and above the disability compensation the veteran receives — to be used “at the veteran’s discretion.” According to Miller, chairman of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, the legislation is designed to give former troops with devastating injuries the funds needed for medical treatment or adoption services. “If a veteran does decide to use this benefit to start a family of their own, the real winners would be the children. Who better to raise America’s next generation than the bravest of our current generation? But no matter how each affected veteran might utilize this benefit, one thing is clear: they earned it,” said Miller, introducing HR 4892. Nearly 1,400 troops in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars experienced injuries to their pelvises, groins or spinal cords that make it difficult or nearly impossible to have children without medical assistance. Others have been injured in accidents that have rendered them infertile as a result of paralysis or traumatic brain injury. The Defense Department covers the cost of in vitro fertilization and other fertility services for some wounded troops while they remain on active duty and also covers the cost of medications, such as erectile dysfunction medicines, for troops with head injuries that affect fertility. VA covers fertility assessments, counseling and some treatment, such as surgeries, medications and intrauterine insemination for female veterans and surgeries, sperm cryopreservation and sperm retrieval for males. But VA does not cover in vitro fertilization or fertility services for nonveteran spouses. Miller introduced a bill last year that would have required VA to cover advanced fertility services, including IVF, for veterans whose injuries to reproductive organs or spinal cords hindered their ability to father or bear children. That bill would have allowed VA to cover the costs of up to three in vitro fertilization cycles for affected veterans. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., has pushed since 2012 for the Veterans Affairs Department to cover fertility services, including surrogacy, for injured veterans. Her legislation, the Women Veterans and Families Health Services Act, S 469, was introduced last year but did not make it out of committee. Murray said Tuesday that she will continue pressing for VA to cover IVF and other services for injured personnel, and she had harsh words for Miller’s latest proposal, that sidesteps any requirement that VA pay for fertility services, which some members of Congress oppose. “Fulfilling our promise to take care of our veterans shouldn’t be a partisan issue, which is why I’m so disappointed by continued half-measures like this. Simply put, this latest proposal falls far short of covering the care a veteran and their spouse needs to fulfill their dreams of starting a family,” Murray said.
State Reps. push for federal recognition of Blue Water Navy veterans (Fairfield-Sun)
In a sign of legislative unity for our Blue Water Navy Veterans, all members of the House of Representatives including State Reps. David Rutigliano (R-123) and Laura Devlin (R-134) supported a State House resolution urging the President of the United States, Vice President of the United States, and Members of Congress to provide VA benefits to Blue Water Navy veterans who have been exposed to Agent Orange in Vietnam between 1962 and 1975. “Our Blue Water Navy veterans deserve full VA benefits, my hope is the federal government will recognize this resolution as a stand in solidarity with them,” said Rep. Devlin. Rep. Rutigliano said, “Agent Orange is a toxic chemical which caused major health problems and illnesses to our bravest soldiers. The Blue Water Navy vets deserve to be recognized by our government.” A study from 2011 by the National Institute of Medicine found that Blue Water veterans could have been exposed to Agent Orange by the ships’ water distillation system or through the air. The VA estimates about 80,000 blue water veterans are still alive. Agent Orange contained the toxic chemical commonly known as dioxin, which has had harmful effects on Vietnam veterans. The VA presumes any vet who served on land in Vietnam or on boats in its inland waters was exposed to the herbicide, and it compensates them for a litany of associated illnesses, including diabetes, various cancers, Parkinson’s Disease, peripheral neuropathy and a type of heart disease. But the agency has repeatedly argued there’s no scientific justification or legal requirement for covering veterans who served off the coast. The group of Blue Water vets — so named to set the sailors apart from their Brown Water Navy counterparts, who patrolled the murky rivers of South Vietnam — has been fighting the VA for more than 10 years. They were initially deemed eligible for compensation under the Agent Orange Act of 1991, only to have the VA change its interpretation a decade later. The resolution will be sent to the President, the Vice President, the Veterans Affairs Chairperson positions in the United States House of Representatives and the United States Senate, and each member of the Connecticut congressional delegation.
Mounting number of victims in VA hospital sex abuse scandal (MilitaryTimes)
A former physician assistant is accused of using his position to commit sexual battery and other crimes against at least seven patients at a Veterans Affairs hospital in Kansas, and a lawyer says yet more victims will emerge. At least three lawsuits filed in recent weeks in U.S. District Court in Kansas accuse Mark Wisner of conducting unnecessary and improper genital examinations at the Leavenworth VA Medical Center. He also faces criminal charges of aggravated criminal sodomy, solicitation and sexual battery in Leavenworth County, just outside Kansas City, Kansas. Wisner surrendered his medical license last year after at least seven patients accused him of abuse, and medical regulators said at the time that others could come forward. Daniel Curry, who represents plaintiffs in two of the lawsuits, said Monday that his research, the findings of the Kansas Board of Healing Arts and his communications with other attorneys indicate there could be dozens of victims. Some of the lawsuits also name the Department of Veterans Affairs and the federal government. In a consent order last year with the Kansas Board of Healing Arts, Wisner agreed he violated the law by having inappropriate sexual contact with some patients, as well as making inappropriate sexual comments and overprescribing. The redacted order does not detail which drugs or treatment he overprescribed. The order cites a January 2015 letter that Wisner sent to the board. “I am an impaired practitioner and not capable of patient care … I will not nor find myself capable of any patient contact from the date of this letter and my license should be revoked from this date forward,” he wrote. A trial date for his criminal case has not been set. “Not surprisingly, I don’t have a lot to say, except … that my client is innocent until proven guilty,” said Debra Snider, his criminal defense attorney. Wisner is representing himself in a civil case that was filed last month, and no attorney is listed for two lawsuits filed last week. He did not return a phone message seeking comment left at his Holton home. …More lawsuits are “in the pipeline,” Curry said. … It is unclear how long Wisner worked at the Leavenworth facility. The hospital said it could not publicly discuss pending litigation, but its spokesman Joseph Burks said Tuesday in an email that it takes “very seriously the safety and well-being” of every veteran patient. He referred questions to the Justice Department, where the person handling media inquiries on that case was not immediately available. Wisner’s license to practice as a physician assistant was issued in 1993, and he voluntarily surrendered it to the Kansas Board of Healing Arts in in February 2015, according to the consent decree filed with the state regulatory board.
Appropriators back funding boost for VA next year (MilitaryTimes)
Congressional appropriators are moving a pair of plans to give the Department of Veterans Affairs a healthy boost in fiscal 2017, but whether either will ever become a reality remains in doubt. On Wednesday, the Senate Appropriations Committee’s panel on VA and military construction advanced a $177.4 billion spending plan for veterans programs in fiscal 2017, an increase of almost 9 percent from fiscal 2016 which nearly matches the White House budget request for those efforts. The plan would authorize $74.9 billion in discretionary spending, less than $200 million off the administration’s spending plan. Subcommittee chairman Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., called the plan a responsible increase in VA funding, noted the total would be the highest ever for the department. It’s also about $1.4 billion above the discretionary funding level set by House appropriators. Less than two hours after the Senate mark-up, that panel advanced its own fiscal 2017 spending plan for VA to the full chamber, making it the first appropriations bill to make it out of committee this year. … Despite minor differences, both measures call for increases in VA health care programs, homeless support and prosthetics research. They also both include restrictions on funding for certain upgrades until certain benchmarks are met on claims backlog issued and health records sharing. That seems to hint at a relatively easy reconciliation process for the two chambers, if they can get to that point. The appropriations process is moving ahead in both chambers without either passing a broader budget plan to guide the work, which was supposed to be done by April 15. Neither chamber appears poised to meet that deadline, or pass a budget deal anytime soon. Lawmakers reached a two-year spending plan last fall which effectively negates the need for the broader plan, but it indicates lingering divisions within Congress over what the fiscal 2017 should look like. Defense appropriators have already sparred over whether temporary war funds should be increased over levels set last fall, because of new developments in the fight against Islamic State group militants in the Middle East. Democrats have pushed for any increased military spending to be offset with additional domestic spending. Appropriators have promised to move more quickly on the VA spending bill, but Rogers conceded on Wednesday that will likely take until the fall. Congress is scheduled to conduct legislative work until early summer before breaking for fall election preparation, and will return for only a few weeks of work between Sept. 1 and Nov. 8.
VA medical records once again sent to wrong veteran (WAVY)
A local veteran says the Hampton VA Medical Center sent him the medical records of three other patients by mistake. Chris Stamper, of West Point, Va., received the results of blood work last week. When he opened up the envelope on Tuesday, he found his results, along with the private medical records for three other patients. The documents included full names, social security numbers, birthdays, addresses and medical evaluations. In one case, Stamper said he received a patient’s suicide screening, and in another case the records indicated a patient was being treated for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. “These documents should have never been in my hands at all,” said Stamper. Where the mix-up happened, the Hampton VAMC isn’t clear yet. Stamper said he found two of the veterans had the same doctor as him. All of them use “Prime 2” at the VAMC, which Stamper says is a check-in desk. “I personally think they need to re-vamp the whole system,” said Stamper. Stamper told 10 On Your Side he has witnessed careless handling of patients’ records while he’s been at the medical center. Public Affairs Director Daniel Henry said Tuesday the VAMC is now investigating the case. Henry said it is never acceptable for the VA to compromise another veteran’s personal information. They are working to figure out where the break down happened so the process can be changed. Henry said privacy officers will now reach out to all veterans involved in Stamper’s case. “Something needs to be done about it,” Stamper said. “You know, a lot of veterans have a lot to lose.” Stamper has made attempts to contact everyone whose information he received, including having one of the veterans stop by his house Tuesday to pick up his records. He will now mail all documents back to the VA.
Sen. Moran sponsors bill to help vets stay alive after an opioid overdose (WIBW)
U.S. Senator Jerry Moran is looking to support veterans at risk of death from accidental painkiller overdose. “When a veteran is dependent on opioids as a result of injuries incurred during his or her service to our nation, we have a responsibility to provide the best possible care, including pain management,” Moran said. Moran has sponsored a senate bill that would make naloxone rescue kits more affordable and accessible to veterans. The kits can help prevent opioid overdose deaths when the naloxone is administered in a timely manner. Naloxone reverses respiratory depression by displacing opiates from receptor sites in the brain. According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, veterans are more likely to die from accidental opioid overdose than non-veterans. The VA says in 2014, more than 55,000 veterans were diagnosed with an opioid use disorder. “The threshold between pain management and opioid addictions, however, is far too easy to cross, as we see from the high number of veterans currently diagnosed with opioid use disorder,” Moran said. “That is why it is critical that we lower barriers to access naloxone kits for our veterans- the only resource that can protect against the worst-case scenario of an overdose.” The legislation would eliminate the copayment for a naloxone rescue kit. The bill also educates veterans and their families about safe painkiller use. Moran is also a sponsor is the Jason Simcakoski Memorial Opioid Safety Act. That act aims to provide safer and more effective pain management to veterans.
Illinois state Reps. leading efforts to help prevent veterans’ suicide (Chicago Tribune)
With growing concern over the number of veterans who are committing suicide, (Illinois) State Rep. Stephanie Kifowit, D-Oswego, and State Senator Tom Cullerton, D-Villa Park, announced the meeting dates and locations of the Veterans’ Suicide Task Force Hearings at a press conference on Tuesday. “One veteran who believes that suicide is the only solution, is one too many,” Kifowit said. “No matter which branch a veteran has served in, we all live by the code to ‘never leave someone behind’. We are committed to not leaving these veterans behind and working together to help save lives.” Kifowit and Cullerton collaborated to create the Task Force on Veterans’ Suicide. The Task Force will gather information from veterans, organizations and companies on how the state can more effectively meet the needs of the veteran community. This includes focusing on all aspects of a veteran’s support network, employment, and support for the family of veterans, in addition to their time spent in combat. The hearings scheduled to take place across the State will focus on the mental health challenges facing veterans from all eras of service. “If we can find meaningful solutions through our work on this Task Force, not only are we healing our state and veterans, but we are going to have an impact throughout the nation,” Cullerton said. “We continue to hear alarming statistics on veteran suicide rates. Our mission is clear: we need to bring the statistic to zero veteran suicides a day.”