Veterans omnibus moves ahead, despite brewing fight (Military Times)
The Senate Veterans Affairs Committee chairman says he’s confident Congress can still pass a veterans omnibus bill by Memorial Day, despite a brewing fight over new accountability measures for VA employees. Details of the massive reform measure still have not been made public. Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., said he spoke Tuesday to both committee Democrats and the White House to build up support for his omnibus draft, which will include not only the employment rules but also changes to the VA Choice Card program, new caregivers support, and a host of other issues. “We have a great bill,” Isakson said. “Hopefully the president will get on board. If anybody needs it he needs it, and our veterans deserve it. I’m optimistic, moreso after our conference call (Tuesday).” He anticipates unveiling the draft legislation within days. While veterans advocates will comb through the numerous details of the plan, most eyes will be focused on the accountability piece. In recent months, VA officials have asked Congress to switch the department’s senior executives to Title 38 status, a technical change which would allow more flexibility in hiring, pay and firing rules. The Senior Executive Association has loudly protested the move, saying it would undermine those executives’ appeal rights and unfairly scapegoat them for the department’s numerous problems. Meanwhile, House Republicans have said those proposals don’t go far enough. House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., has been pushing his own “VA Accountability Act” as a necessary addition to Isakson’s omnibus. That plan, already passed by the House along party lines, would make it easier to fire or demote any VA employee, not just the few hundred executives covered under the VA proposal. But House Democrats and the White House have strongly opposed that measure, calling it an attempt to undermine federal employment protections. Miller last week sent a letter to Isakson saying leaving the House-passed bill out of the omnibus would allow VA to continue to “coddle and protect corrupt and incompetent bureaucrats” instead of fixing the problem. On Tuesday, Isakson brushed off that criticism and said he also has concerns with Miller’s proposal. “I’m not going to get into our accountability section until we’re ready to unveil,” he said. “We’ve done a much more comprehensive look at it, to target the real problems and the real areas for accountability. “Anybody can write a letter. We’re going to produce legislation and work with the house to get a joint bill together that solves everybody’s problems when it comes to accountability.” Isakson also said he’s confident he can craft legislation that the White House will support, unlike the Miller bill. But the final measure still will have to be passed by the House before it can become law, and Miller will play a key role in shepherding the legislation through that chamber or defeating it. Isakson downplayed the idea of conflict between the two committees, calling Miller’s public lobbying on behalf of his own proposal “nothing personal.” House lawmakers return to Capitol Hill from their spring recess next Monday. Isakson would not say whether his omnibus draft will be waiting for them when they arrive.
Commentary: VA cruelly delays, denies Agent Orange illness claims (Bradenton Herald)
Michael Herring, Vietnam Veteran: As a Vietnam veteran who is being treated for a number of “presumptive illnesses” associated with Agent Orange exposure, I read with interest the article regarding QTC Medical Services’s screening process and Rep. Jeff Miller’s investigation (Herald, March 31). Since they are paid by the number of files “processed,” it should come as no surprise that the fastest way to get that money is to reject the claim without so much as a cursory review. My claim has been in the VA’s hands for nearly seven years now and has been rejected piecemeal, one for each medical condition, with a final rejection just last month. Apparently, part of the process is to demand more and more proof, as the most frequent correspondence I have gotten from the VA has required further documentation from me. My DD-214 clearly shows that I was in Vietnam, and that I was in an area where Agent Orange was used. The VA medical centers (I get excellent care here in the Tampa Bay area, I will add) have been treating me for illnesses associated with exposure to those awful chemicals. The Vietnam Veterans of America office in St. Petersburg took over my case after the Florida Department of Veterans Affairs got nothing done. The VVA hasn’t really been able to do anything either, it seems. Requests for help from Rep. Vern Buchanan’s office have been fruitless. I certainly hope Rep. Miller’s investigation is more than window dressing and that the lawsuit mentioned in the article can fix the problem. Like thousands of vets, I truly believe that the VA’s real motto is “Delay, Deny, and Wait For Them To Die.
Learn More: Agent Orange and Herbicide Exposure
New study reports on suicidal thinking among US veterans (Medical Xpress)
Nearly 14 percent of veterans reported suicidal thinking at one or both phases of a two-year Veterans Affairs (VA) study. The study, now online, is slated for publication in the June 2016 issue of the Journal of Affective Disorders. The finding is based on a nationally representative sample of more than 2,000 U.S. veterans who were surveyed twice as part of the National Health and Resilience in Veterans Study, led by Dr. Robert Pietrzak of the Clinical Neurosciences Division of VA’s National Center for PTSD. The first wave was conducted in 2011, the second in 2013. Each time, the veterans were asked whether they had experienced suicidal thoughts in the past two weeks. They answered a host of other questions as well, enabling the researchers to glean insights about factors associated with suicidal thinking. About 86 percent of the veterans denied having any such thoughts, both times they were asked. About 5 percent had “chronic” suicidal thinking: These veterans reported suicidal thoughts in the past two weeks both times they were surveyed, two years apart. Nearly 4 percent had “remitted” suicidal thinking: They reported suicidal thoughts in wave 1 but not wave 2. And 5 percent reported the converse: They reported such thoughts only during the second survey. Combined, 13.7 percent of the total sample reported suicidal thinking at either or both time points. It’s difficult to compare this prevalence rate to that of U.S. adults in general. Studies on suicide vary widely in their methods—for example, how questions are worded, and the time frames they cover. And studies often focus on particular age brackets or other subgroups. One general reference point might be a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, published in 2011, in which 3.7 percent of U.S. adults reported having suicidal thoughts in the past year. By that yardstick, the rates in the new study are high. That would fit with some other research showing that a greater proportion of veterans experience suicidal thinking—as well as attempts, and deaths by suicide—relative to the general population. One oft-cited VA study found that veterans, while making up only about 13 percent of U.S .adults, account for about 22 percent of suicides. Another study, from 2007, found that compared to civilians, veterans were twice as likely to die by suicide. In any case, the new results offer some fresh insights. For one, they highlight how suicidal ideation can come and go, at least within the span of a couple of years. This somewhat challenges past findings that suggest that suicidal thinking tends to be a longer-term problem. “Our results … highlight the dynamic nature of [suicidal ideation],” write the researchers, “as evidenced by the meaningful proportion of U.S. veterans reporting changes in suicidal ideation over time.” That underscores the need for ongoing periodic monitoring—not just a one-time screening, say the investigators. Among those veterans who reported suicidal thinking only at wave 2, 65 percent had never engaged in any mental health treatment. The researchers say this is another finding that points to the need for more outreach. Not surprisingly, higher levels of psychiatric distress, physical health problems, and substance use history predicted chronic suicidal thinking. Social connectedness—widely seen as a major buffer against suicide risk—emerged in the study as a factor associated with the remission of suicidal thinking. By the same token, veterans who reported less social support at wave 1 were also more likely to report the onset of suicidal thinking at wave 2. However, for many of the veterans reporting chronic suicidal thinking, social support did not appear to help that much. The researchers say that for these veterans, addressing psychiatric and physical health, and substance use problems, may be more critical. The research team points to several limitations in their study. For one, it covered only a two-year period, so the researchers can’t draw conclusions about the longer-term course of suicidal thinking. Also, a third of the sample who responded to wave 1 did not complete the wave 2 survey. If those who dropped out were in fact more likely to be troubled by suicidal thinking than those who stayed with the study, that could mean the prevalence of suicidal thinking was underestimated. Another limitation was that the survey did not ask about certain factors that could add to the understanding of what drives suicidal thinking, such as financial and interpersonal stress. Overall, the researchers say the findings highlight the importance of addressing mental and physical health problems, and bolstering sources of social support, to help prevent suicidal thinking—and to promote its remission—in veterans.
VA responds to security breaches on eBenefits website (King 5)
An Army veteran from Yelm has a warning for other veterans about security breaches on the eBenefits website maintained by the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Department of Defense. The website is a universal portal for managing retirement, healthcare and disability described as “a secure environment where you can safely access your personal information and perform self-service tasks.” Marvin Corbin had a much different experience. His account was hacked twice in just over six months. Each time, Corbin says, his monthly disability check, which is automatically deposited in his bank account, was rerouted to a new account established by the hacker. “Why would I change my bank account and put it on a Green Dot card? Why?” asked Corbin, as he remembered the first hacking incident last May. … Then, it happened again just before Christmas, this time the hacker set up a fraudulent bank account at TD Bank. “One time, it’s understandable. Things happen, but the second time it’s kind of unbelievable,” said Melissa Corbin, Marvin’s wife. “It has everything, all of his medical records, all of his military records, all of our family’s medical records.” “We want to know who did it so we can prosecute,” Corbin said. While the VA acknowledged the fraud on both occasions and Yelm Police took a report, neither department has publicly identified the source of the leak. The Department of Veteran’s Affairs can’t say for sure how many people have had their personal information stolen on this website because it only started separately tracking reports of fraud in August. In a statement regarding fraud on the eBenefits website, the VA called it, “Too early to draw any conclusions regarding trends or identify specific causes.” From August to January, records show 713 people filed reports with the VA and 17 of them were in Washington. The VA says, “It is committed to maintaining the security of eBenefits.” However, the Corbins aren’t holding out hope. Today, you won’t see Marvin Corbin on his computer or the eBenefits website. He’s back to handling his finances the old fashioned way, on paper, and warning other veterans to be cautious. “All I can say is keep all your paperwork, just in case, everything you got,” Corbin said. The VA wouldn’t get into specifics about those reported cases of fraud saying the investigation is ongoing. Protecting your identity on the eBenefits website is the same as with any website. Advocates for identity theft victims warn users not to access the site in a public place, use complex passwords and be careful when sharing personal information like a social security number.
5 reasons why startups should be hiring veterans (Inc.)
Oh, the aftermath of war. It makes for interesting television characters, movie plots, and book story arcs, but in reality it’s not a subject most take the time to explore. To understand the many facets of this American life, we, as a culture, must acknowledge the obstacles faced by our former service members and subsequently ask the question: how can we turn this into an opportunity? Although the unemployment rate for Veterans decreased in 2015, we still have work to do as a society when it comes to building companies that value the highly transferable skills of men and women who have served in the armed forces. There are a few obstacles, though: many hiring managers don’t know how to evaluate and apply the operational and executional skillsets of Veterans; there are misunderstandings about what it’s like to work with them (because of perceived “issues”); and there are less Veteran networks offering a community of support these days. Ironic, considering our burgeoning technology landscape and seemingly “connected” worlds. Furthermore, while the government has developed programs for reintegrating Veterans into the workforce (providing support for tasks like resume building, etc.), the “return” on these programs is somewhat abysmal. Subsequently, many Veterans take it upon themselves to get what they really need. … Particularly as business owners and entrepreneurs, I would suggest it is our “duty” to explore this topic and be conscious of how to do our part. Not from the standpoint of charity, but simply based on the fact that it simply makes “good business sense” to include this particular human experience into our conversations; because it nearly jolts us into a new perspective and way of thinking. But if you need reasons, here are five that just may suffice:
- #1 – They’re highly adaptable. … It’s not rare for a startup employee to be hired for one role, only to have it evolve into three different ones during their tenure. The technological skills that are most valued today can change practically overnight. That said, employees such as Veterans who can pivot on a dime, learn new tasks quickly, and fill in empty holes when and where needed, will become startups’ most valuable assets. Joe Wolfel, another Exbellum partner and former Navy SEAL, adds:”In particular, Special Operations guys are used to changing roles or projects every two years.” It’s a match made in heaven.
- #2 – They handle stress incredibly well. If you’ve ever worked at a startup, or survived rapid scaling at a company of any size, you know the pressure associated with fast growth and competitive innovation. Who in the world is better trained to handle stress than Veterans? Startups and hiring managers should, however, keep in mind that there will be a cultural learning curve for Veterans as they partake in today’s common practices such technology sprints and other extra-hours-required projects. The latter shouldn’t be a problem, though, because…
- #3 – They’re used to working long hours. Victoria Cavener was an enlisted medic for more than nine years. … Despite being overqualified, she attended school, is now a PhD candidate at Vanderbilt University, works as a Molecular Neurosicence Graduate Research Assistant, and she started an outreach project called WeWillNotGiveUp.org which shares stories about medical advancements in order to give others (including wounded and ill Veterans) hope. If that doesn’t illustrate the fact that Veterans don’t mind putting in extra work and time for things they believe in, take it straight from Cavener, “The concept of working long hours and weekends can be a blurred line. Veterans do whatever it takes to get the job done.” When driven by a greater purpose, long hours aren’t a chore. And we all know that when you work at a startup, your wheels don’t stop turning when your head hits the pillow.
- #4 – They’re incredibly driven, and push their own limits. Veterans come to the hiring pen having already demonstrated their passion for hard work and self-advancement. … Startups can benefit greatly from this kind of headstrong yet malleable mindset.
- #5 – They thrive when working on a team. The very nature of the military is that of a team mentality: Individual wins are not the point. The camaraderie developed when someone is overseas, or even when training at home, lends itself to cooperation in the workplace. If anything, Veterans are hungry for more of it. From my experience, the necessity of finding team-oriented employees is the lifeblood of building an early-stage company.
… A survey conducted by Monster and Military.com in late 2015 found that 88% of Veterans’ skillsets are relevant to civlian careers, a 10% increase from a survey conducted in 2011. Large companies have illustrated this through recruitment initiatives, such as Walt Disney Company’s Heroes Work Here program, Qualcomm’s Veteran recruitment program, and Dell’s Veterans at Dell initiative, the latter of which includes a dedicated Veterans ERG for continued support. Additionally, organizations like Hiring Our Heroes (an initiative of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce), is making strident efforts to support Veterans in finding meaningful employment. But companies don’t need to be large corporations with ample resources to start diversifying their workforce in this way. Small companies, such as startups, would greatly benefit from Veterans’ diverse and applicable skills. Helping Veterans reintegrate into today’s professional landscape isn’t as simple as just hiring them or donating to a worthy program. It’s about first understanding the value they bring so that we properly leverage their executional and operational skills. Why wouldn’t you aim to hire some of the nation’s most disciplined, driven individuals?
VFW offers scholarship to military members, veterans (The Times)
Military service members and veterans have until April 30 to submit an application for the VFW’s “Sport Clips Help A Hero Scholarship” for the fall 2016 semester. Enacted in 2013, Help A Hero scholarships provide service members and veterans with financial to reach their educational goals without incurring excessive student loan debt. Help A Hero scholarships of up to $5,000 are awarded twice a year to qualified applicants to help cover the rising costs of tuition and fees. “Too many veterans exhaust their education benefits before actually earning a degree,” said Lynn Rolf III, director of VFW programs. “The Help A Hero Scholarship program allows service members and veterans the chance to stay in school without having to face the financial burden that massive student loan debt can be.” In just over two years, the Help A Hero Scholarship program has awarded more than $1.8 million in financial aid and has provided college scholarships to nearly 450 service members and veterans. Individuals interested in applying can visit vfw.org/scholarship for more information on the eligibility requirements and to access the application.
Steven Cohen pledges $275 million to veteran mental health care (Bloomberg)
Billionaire hedge-fund investor Steven A. Cohen is committing $275 million to form a national network of free mental health clinics for military veterans and their families. The pledge is his biggest yet under a philanthropic push that grew after his son, Robert, was deployed as a U.S. Marine to Afghanistan in 2010. Cohen is seeking to open 25 clinics by 2020 serving a total of more than 25,000 patients a year, said Anthony Hassan, the retired Air Force officer who runs the initiative as executive director of the Cohen Veterans Network. “Half of all Iraq and Afghanistan veterans say they know a fellow veteran who attempted or committed suicide. Half!” Cohen said in remarks prepared for delivery Wednesday night at a fundraiser for the Marine Corps-Law Enforcement Foundation. “After 9/11, our veterans rushed to protect us. Now it is our turn to protect them. Cohen, who runs Point72 Asset Management and has an $11.1 billion fortune according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index, got involved in veterans’ mental health while serving on the Robin Hood Foundation’s board. A clinic at NYU Langone Medical Center in New York that Cohen helped open with Robin Hood serves as the model for the others. A San Antonio facility is opening in partnership with Family Endeavors. A Dallas clinic affiliated with Metrocare Services will be added in June. Los Angeles and Philadelphia locations will be running by September, based at the University of Southern California and University of Pennsylvania, respectively. Ninety-six percent of the Cohen Veterans Network budget will go to the clinics, mostly for care, with 16 percent for electronic record implementation, data analytics and training.
Minnesota vets services subject of high-profile committee hearing (Echo Journal)
Minnesota Sen. Tom Saxhaug, DFL-Grand Rapids, chair of the Minnesota Senate’s State Departments and Veterans Finance Division, recently led a hearing focused on improving veterans services in the state. Senators heard bills focused on veterans homes, interim housing for Minnesota veterans and a piece of legislation on needed mental health services for veterans, which Saxhaug authored. The division also heard an informational presentation from the Minnesota Department of Veterans Affairs (MDVA) on the progress of veteran home construction and funding. The MDVA spoke at length about the ongoing construction within the state’s VA system, which would dramatically increase the number of beds available to aging Minnesota veterans. However, testifiers stated that if the Legislature doesn’t appropriate the funding required to leverage federal dollars this year, the state’s deficit could rise from around 150 beds to nearly 250. “Minnesota’s servicemen and women deserve our very best, and no veteran should be without the security of a home as they grow older,” Saxhaug said in a news release. “As we collaborate with the House to decide on the year’s final budget, I’m going to work hard to protect this funding and ensure our veterans receive the services they deserve.” Saxhaug’s bill appropriates $500,000 for a study to bring greater clarity to the mental health needs of veterans in Minnesota. The DVA and Lutheran Social Services have partnered to address veterans’ mental health needs in the first public/private partnership of its kind in the nation. “Veterans have been underserved for decades in the area of mental health,” said Saxhaug. “We have an obligation to our veterans to take care of them after they arrive home, and the bills presented today are important steps in meeting the needs of our brave men and women who served.”