May 12 Veterans News

May 12 Veterans News

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Donald Trump adviser signals plan to change veterans’ health care (The Wall Street Journal)
Donald Trump says the Department of Veterans Affairs’ health-care system is badly broken, and this week his campaign released some guidelines that would steer changes he would implement if he wins the presidency. While short on details, the presumptive GOP presidential nominee would likely push VA health care toward privatization and might move for it to become more of an insurance provider like Medicare rather than an integrated hospital system, said Sam Clovis, Mr. Trump’s chief policy adviser, in an interview. “We want quality care top to bottom,” Mr. Clovis said in an interview. “If that means we have some form of privatization or some form of Medicare, we don’t see anything wrong with that.” Mr. Clovis, who is also Mr. Trump’s national campaign co-chair, said the candidate’s priority would be to give veterans timely health care close to home. That could mean restructuring the system in a way to more resemble an insurance provider along the lines of the popular Tricare system used by 9.6 million members of the Department of Defense, where civilian facilities routinely augment department-run hospitals. “We’ll certainly look at that model, we want to make it as comprehensive as possible,” said Mr. Clovis when asked about Tricare. “The VA’s a broken system now. We can’t continue down that road.” Mr. Clovis cautioned that Mr. Trump won’t try to fix what is working. … VA officials declined to comment on Mr. Trump’s plans. The campaign’s proposal to move toward privatization isn’t necessarily new, Mr. Trump’s website has long said the businessman wants to “ensure our veterans get the care they need wherever and whenever they need it,” but he has yet to provide specifics about how he would do that. As with many of Mr. Trump’s policy positions, some of which he has seemed to reverse, the campaign has been reluctant to provide details. Mr. Clovis declined to lay out specifics, saying, “every time we put a detailed plan out we just get eviscerated in the media.” He added that the campaign is using broad guidelines on the matter and likely will hold back on releasing a comprehensive plan until Mr. Trump’s first 100 days in office. He also said that Mr. Trump will crack down on fraud, waste and abuse in the system to keep the VA budget essentially flat or even bring costs down. The Democratic front-runner, Hillary Clinton, has said multiple times in campaign appearances that while she wants to restructure the VA she opposes privatization, referring to it on her website as a “misguided ideological crusade.” Jon Murray, veterans outreach director for Mrs. Clinton’s campaign said in a statement that the Democrat would “make much-needed reforms to the VA without forcing veterans into a private health-insurance market ill-suited to handle their specialized needs.” Though Mr. Trump says such plans can work while keeping costs flat, the Congressional Budget Office, which does nonpartisan analysis, said in a 2014 report, the most recent available, that moving the VA toward privatization could increase costs dramatically. Currently, 9 million of the nation’s 22 million veterans are enrolled in the VA’s health-care system, and 6 million use those benefits regularly. The CBO report noted that of those veterans who use the benefits, 70% receive most of their care outside the VA, often using coverage like private insurance or Medicare. The CBO also estimated that services provided by the VA would cost about 20% more if obtained in the private sector and prescription drugs would likely cost about 70% more under Medicare and Medicaid. Expanded privatization could also flood the system with veterans who don’t use the program now, the report said. The VA’s health-care system, though it has been under fire since revelations in 2014 that employees had been falsifying wait-time records, consistently rates highly with those using the system. “On really almost every measure, VA health care is as good and in many measures is even better than the private sector,” said Carrie Farmer, a senior policy researcher focusing on veterans’ issues at Rand Corp., a nonpartisan think tank. “Relatedly, the VA is providing, not all the time, but probably better than in the private sector, military cultural competent care.” In other words, the VA’s doctors are trained to deal with the veteran community and the unique issues they face from post-traumatic stress disorder to traumatic brain injury, hallmarks of the most recent wars. And older veterans are more likely to be sicker and have more total illnesses and injuries than a civilian patient, which can be related to military-specific injuries such as exposure to Agent Orange, a powerful chemical mixture used to defoliate forest cover during the Vietnam War. VA officials tout that it is the largest integrated health-care network in the U.S., where centralized systems ensure veterans’ health records can be seen by any doctor and veterans are treated holistically rather than each injury or illness in isolation. … Many veterans’ organizations, including the Disabled American Veterans, have steadfastly maintained opposition to privatization of the VA, warning that as services slowly get outsourced to civilian doctors, veterans will start to lose the comprehensive care they get at the VA. Other organizations, such as the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, agree.

Same-sex couples get veterans benefits, but not congressional recognition (MilitaryTimes)
Same-sex couples are eligible to receive veterans benefits, but House Republicans still aren’t ready to fully acknowledge that. A House Veterans’ Affairs Committee panel knocked down an attempt Wednesday to update language in Department of Veterans Affairs statutes to officially recognize married gay couples. The amendment, which would have been attached to legislation authorizing a cost-of-living increase for veterans benefits, would have removed gender-specific spousal references from the federal code. Nevada Democrat Rep. Dina Titus called it a bookkeeping measure to get rid of “antiquated” language that no longer applies to who actually receives veterans benefits. But committee Republicans labeled it a potentially divisive change which could jeopardize veterans’ cost-of-living increases, fearing that many of their conservative colleagues would block the annual and usually noncontroversial legislation. Rep. Ralph Abraham, R- La., chairman of the subcommittee, said the change “does not provide any real benefit to our nation’s veterans.” Titus disagreed, calling it a matter of principle and respect. “This is to make sure we’re taking care of all veterans,” she said. “They all made the same sacrifices. They all saluted the same flag. They all should have the same rights.” Whether or not the change is eventually made, same-sex couples who qualify will continue to be able to share GI Bill credits, VA home loans and other veterans benefits. Department officials made those changes in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn the Defense of Marriage Act last summer. But Democrats on the House panel said that it’s an important symbolic move, and chastised their Republican colleagues for dismissing the measure based on perceived problems with full House passage. One Republican on the panel, Pennsylvania Rep. Ryan Costello, did back the language update. The veterans cost-of-living increase legislation must be passed by the House and Senate by the end of the year for beneficiaries to see a raise in their payouts, if federal regulators deem inflation warrants a change. Separate legislation to permanently tie veterans benefits increases to that of Social Security recipients — thus eliminating the need for separate legislation each year — is also under consideration in the House.

Obama gets bill to allow female World War II pilots’ ashes at Arlington (MilitaryTimes)
Congress has sent President Obama a bill that would allow female World War II pilots known as WASPs to continue placing their ashes at Arlington National Cemetery. The House approved the bill Wednesday hours after it cleared the Senate by voice vote. The legislation won broad support from Republicans and Democrats. “It’s been just 19 weeks since the Army’s decision to kick out our pioneering female World War II pilots was brought to light, and we’ve been fighting ever since,” said Rep. Martha McSally, R-Ariz., one of the bill’s sponsors and a retired Air Force fighter pilot. The WASPs served in a unit called Women Airforce Service Pilots. They flew noncombat missions to free up male pilots for combat. During the war, the women were considered civilians. But since 1977, federal law has granted them status as veterans. They had been eligible since 2002 to have their ashes placed at Arlington with military honors. In March 2015, then-Secretary of the Army John McHugh ruled that WASPs never should have been allowed in and revoked their eligibility. The legislation reverses that decision. Just over 1,000 women were accepted into the WASP program, which ran from 1942 to 1944. The family of a WASP who died after McHugh’s ruling, Elaine Harmon, pushed to have the eligibility restored. Her ashes are sitting in a closet in her daughter Terry Harmon’s home. A petition on change.org to overturn McHugh’s directive received more than 178,000 signatures. Eligibility for in-ground burial at Arlington, which has severe space limitations, is extremely tight, and not even all World War II veterans are eligible for burial there. But eligibility for placement of ashes, or above-ground inurnment, is not quite as strict. Arlington’s rules state that “any former member of the Armed Forces who served on active duty (other than for training) and whose last service terminated honorably” is eligible to have their ashes placed at Arlington.

Genetic variants may put some soldiers at higher risk of PTSD (Newswise)
In a massive analysis of DNA samples from more than 13,000 U.S. soldiers, scientists have identified two statistically significant genetic variants that may be associated with an increased risk of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), an often serious mental illness linked to earlier exposure to a traumatic event, such as combat and an act of violence. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs estimates 11 to 20 percent of veterans from the Afghanistan and Iraq conflicts have or will develop PTSD. The percentage is even higher among Vietnam War veterans. Prevalence of PTSD in the general U.S. population is 7 to 8 percent. The findings, described by researchers at University of California San Diego School of Medicine, Veterans Affairs San Diego Healthcare System, the Uniformed Services University and colleagues elsewhere, are published online today in JAMA Psychiatry. The study was designed to discover genetic loci associated with lifetime PTSD risk among U.S. Army personnel. Two coordinated, genome-wide association studies (GWAS) were conducted in two cohorts of consenting soldiers in the Army Study to Assess Risk and Resilience in Servicemembers (Army STARRS). A GWAS is a study that involves rapidly scanning markers across complete sets of DNA or genomes of many people to find genetic variants associated with a particular disease. The first GWAS was performed on 3,167 diagnosed cases of PTSD and 4,607 trauma-exposed controls from the New Soldier Study; the second on 947 diagnosed cases and 4,969 trauma-exposed controls from the Pre/Post Deployment Study. The primary analysis compared lifetime PTSD cases, as defined by the Diagnostic Service Manual-IV, to trauma-exposed controls without lifetime PTSD. “We found two notable genetic variants,” said co-principal investigator Murray B. Stein, MD, MPH, Distinguished Professor of Psychiatry and Family Medicine and Public Health at UC San Diego. “The first, in samples from African-American soldiers with PTSD, was in a gene (ANKRD55) on chromosome 5. In prior research, this gene has been found to be associated with various autoimmune and inflammatory disorders, including multiple sclerosis, type II diabetes, celiac disease, and rheumatoid arthritis. The other variant was found on chromosome 19 in European-American samples.” There were no significant genetic correlations observed between PTSD and six mental disorders and nine immune-related disorders, said the study’s other co-principal investigator Robert J. Ursano, MD, professor and chair of the Department of Psychiatry at Uniformed Services University in Bethesda, Md. But there was significant evidence of pleiotropy — genetic factors that influence multiple traits — for PTSD and rheumatoid arthritis, and to a lesser extent, psoriasis. “Further research will be needed to replicate the genome-wide significant association we found with the gene ANKRD55 and clarify the nature of the genetic overlap observed between PTSD and rheumatoid arthritis and psoriasis,” said Ursano. … Funding for this study came, in part, from the Department of the Army, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the National Institutes of Health (UO1MH087981), the National Institute for Mental Health and the National Institute of Drug Abuse.

Country’s oldest WWII veteran, Richard Overton, turns 110 (Military.com)
Over the last few months, Richard Overton has had to give up a few things. First, he gave up driving the Ford pickup he had owned for years. Then, after a bad bout with pneumonia in November, he eased up on drinking his beloved whiskey — which, along with cigars, he calls his secret to long life. But when you’re the oldest World War II veteran in the country and you’re turning 110, very few things can bring your mood down. On Wednesday, Overton celebrated his birthday surrounded by family, friends and admirers on the front lawn of his home in East Austin. He chomped happily on a cigar as family and friends, some calling him “Pop,” hugged and congratulated him. “How do I feel?” Overton said. “I feel good. I feel like I’m 50.” Overton, who was born in Bastrop County in 1906, served in the Pacific Theater from 1942 to 1945 as part of the all-black 1887th Engineer Aviation Battalion. After the war, he returned to Austin, and he has lived in the same home ever since. When new neighbors move in, he tells them about the history of the neighborhood, telling some that their homes used to be horse stables and others, who have trouble with stubborn onions growing in their yards, that the spot where their homes sit used to be someone’s garden. He once told a neighbor about a time he saw a black man beaten to death during the segregation era. But despite everything he’s seen, his family and friends say, Overton is always upbeat. “He’s got such a positive attitude,” said Sharon Choate, who has attended Overton’s birthday celebrations since 2009, “that’s probably why he’s lived so long.” Even at 110, he can still be found on his porch most days, watching the goings and comings in the neighborhood. He keeps an eye on people moving in and out, and he waves hello to children and families that pass by. “He considers himself our neighborhood watchdog, and he knows everything that’s going on,” neighbor Helen Elliott said. “I don’t think the neighborhood would be what it is without him. He’s our legend, our icon.”

Alaska veterans say ‘Choice’ program still not fixed (NewsMiner)
Fairbanks veterans reported Tuesday they’re still struggling with time-consuming, confusing phone systems when they use the new federal Veterans Choice healthcare program. In making their complaints, several veterans repeated themselves from a similar meeting more than six months ago. In August, Fairbanks-area veterans attended a U.S. Senate field hearing with Dr. David Shulkin, the chief executive of the veterans health administration. About 100 people attended Tuesday’s listening session at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, this time with another Veterans Affairs official, Assistant Deputy Under Secretary for Community Care Dr. Baligh Yehia. Congress created The Veterans Choice Act in 2014 in response to a scandal at the Phoenix Veterans Affairs clinic in which staff deliberately distorted statistics on patient waiting times. The law was supposed to make it easier for veterans to get care by letting them get treatment at any doctor who accepts Medicare. However, vets complained the new program spawned a confusing web of call centers and websites, making the program hard to use. Yehia thanked veterans for sharing their stories Tuesday. He said the program is improving. “I totally get that it’s rocky. That doesn’t mean that’s acceptable, that doesn’t mean that that’s OK. I just want you to know that we’re aware of that and that we’re trying to move on,” he said. In the last few months, the program has improved by placing staff from contractor TriWest Healthcare Alliance in Fairbanks, he said. Congress also removed an unpopular part of the healthcare law that required veterans get a new authorization from the VA if they receive treatment for a condition that lasts longer than 60 days. Another improvement in the near future, he said, is the Anchorage Veterans Affairs clinic will take over scheduling responsibilities. The Alaska leader for the Veterans of Foreign Wars said at the meeting that the VA hasn’t done enough. State VFW Commander Walter Watts Jr., has attended meetings about the Choice Act in Fairbanks and DC this year. He said the VA officials may be listening, but aren’t making the changes demanded by veterans. In particular, he said local veterans want a listing of principle telephone numbers they can call to get their healthcare. “We don’t just want you to come up here — OK — we want feedback,” he said. “You guys at the last listening session at (Fairbanks) city hall were going to publish all those (phone) numbers so veterans could have access to them. I haven’t seen them.”

Special court gives veterans a second chance (NWI Times)
After serving two tours of duty in Iraq with the U.S. Army, Reid Narjes came back home and was arrested in 2008 on suspicion of driving while drunk. By 2013, he picked up a second charge accusing him of driving while intoxicated. This time, Narjes enrolled in the Lake County Veterans Treatment Court. On Wednesday, he along with nine other men graduated from the program that lasted 18 to 24 months. Lake County officials were on hand to recognize the 10 men who were the first group to graduate from the specialized court program that was started in 2014. The ceremony included traditions associated with the military such as posting of colors and a bag piper. Lake Superior Judge Julie Cantrell runs the program, which provides an opportunity for charges to be dismissed if veterans complete the program. It takes a holistic approach to resolving nonviolent criminal charges against defendants who have served in a branch of the U.S. military. Defendants like Narjes were assigned a mentor, a fellow veteran, who appeared with them in court along with their attorney. Officials from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs also were in court and chimed in when questions arose about services they need. Porter Superior Court Judge Julia Jent runs a similar program for veterans. Next week, a group of veterans in that program is expected to undergo a similar graduation. While Narjes’ case was pending, he completed a CNA certificate at Ivy Tech Community College and is pursing a master’s degree. His goal is to treat soldiers and veterans. He attended the ceremony after working a midnight shift at an area hospital, and he had to return to work Wednesday night. He said the graduation marked a new beginning for him. “I managed all the stuff I went through instead of self-medicating,” Narjes said. Cantrell told the crowd gathered inside the auditorium of the Lake County Government Center that establishing the veterans court program was her greatest accomplishment in her 20 years on the bench. After the program, Cantrell said she interacts more candidly with the veterans than she typically does in court. There are still 43 veterans in the program, and an additional 20 are awaiting evaluation to be admitted to the court. “It’s nice to see it to fruition,” she said. One of the men she got to know was Waldo Bryant, 79, who died two weeks before graduation. She commented to the crowd how he always wore his best overalls to the hearings. “I miss the old guy, I really do,” Cantrell said. His son, Waldo Bryant III, accepted the plaque during the graduation. He said his father was discharged from the U.S. Air Force in 1958. Angela Jones said in recent years their father had gotten older and didn’t know his limits to using alcohol. That’s what led to a charge of operating while intoxicated. They said their father enjoyed getting the small gifts the court gave defendants who completed certain milestones. He also stopped drinking alcohol. Jones said the program helped her family when their father became ill earlier this year, and also helped with the details of planning his funeral.  Johnnie Watson, 69, of Calumet Township, also joined the program after he was charged with operating while intoxicated. Watson said the program has kept him busy with court hearings and various appointments. “It’s been a long, hard thing,” he said, wearing his U.S. Marines uniform. “I was the first one picked for the program and was the first to graduate.”

Veteran designation bill passes Illinois House (Advantage News)
Legislation initiated by Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White adding members of the National Guard and Reserve, who were never called to active duty, to qualify for the veteran’s designation on driver’s licenses and ID cards was approved today by the Illinois House of Representatives. The measure now moves to the governor for consideration. Senate Bill 2173 adds all National Guard and reserve members to the U.S. military veterans who can get an updated driver’s license and ID card with the word “veteran” displayed under the signature on the front of the card. The previous law, which took effect July 1, 2015, omitted National Guard and reserve personnel who honorably served in the Guard or Reserves, but whose units were not called to active duty during their service. “I am pleased to add all National Guard and reservists to those veterans who wish to obtain the ‘veteran’ designation on their driver’s license or ID card,” White said. “The veteran designation on the license or ID card is designed to further ensure veterans receive the services and benefits they deserve. I had the honor of serving as a paratrooper in the U.S. Army’s 101st Airborne Division and as a member of the Illinois National Guard and Army Reserve.” White noted last year’s law allows veterans who have received an honorable or general under honorable conditions discharge to pursue the designation on their driver’s license or ID card. The designation will help ensure veterans receive services and benefits, including health care, education and employment assistance. First, veterans must obtain official certification from the Illinois Department of Veterans’ Affairs by visiting one of the agency’s offices and providing a copy of their DD-214 or Certification of Military Service (NA Form 13038). For more information, veterans can call (800) 437-9824 or visit illinois.gov/veterans. Secondly, after the certification is obtained, the veteran may apply for a new, renewal or updated driver’s license or ID card at any Secretary of State driver services facility. The designation will be no additional cost for first-time driver’s license applicants and driver’s license renewals. If veterans choose to add the designation before their renewal date, they may obtain an updated driver’s license for $5 and an updated ID card for $10. Veterans older than 65 can obtain an updated state ID card at no cost.

Massachusetts House passes bill to support state’s veterans (10tv)
The Massachusetts House has advanced a bill that seeks to expand housing, health care and employment opportunities for veterans. The bill passed unanimously on Wednesday. The measure would create a new office of State Veterans’ Home and Housing that would provide oversight for the soldiers’ homes in Chelsea and Holyoke. House leaders say the office would be headed by an executive director who would focus on long-term care for veterans. The bill also seeks to increase access to housing authorities for disabled and elderly veterans, extend a state scholarship program for the children of prisoners of war and provide full property tax abatements to surviving spouses of soldiers who are killed or missing in action. It now moves to the (state) Senate.

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