May 3 Veterans News

May 3 Veterans News

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Bill would end tax penalty on vets with forgiven student loans (Military.com)
Permanently disabled veterans or survivors of veterans who have their student debt forgiven would avoid taxes on the “income” under legislation recently introduced in the U.S. Senate. By law, forgiven student debt is counted as income by the Internal Revenue Service, resulting in veterans or their survivors and others being hit with a tax bill — something that Derek Fronabarger, policy director of Student Veterans of America, calls “unconscionable” to do to a family during a time of grief. “This bill aims at changing this tax issue so that those families who have already paid the ultimate price are not additionally saddled by a discharged student loan tax,” he said. “SVA fully supports this bill and hopes to see it move forward quickly.” The bipartisan bill, known as S.2800, was filed about two weeks ago by Democrat Chris Coons of Delaware and Republicans Angus King of Maine and Rob Portman of Ohio. The bill currently is in the Senate Finance Committee, where it also has picked up the support of Sen. Kelly Ayotte, a Republican from New Hampshire. Though the bill is not solely aimed at veterans it has picked up the support of several veterans organizations in addition to SVA, including The American Legion, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, Military Officers Association of America, Veterans Education Success, and Paralyzed Veterans of America. Every year, thousands of Americans, including veterans, develop disabilities or chronic health conditions so severe that they are determined by the federal government to be totally and permanently disabled, the bill’s three original sponsors said in a joint statement. The lawmakers filed the bill after hearing from constituents in their states, including a Maine couple who told King that after the Education Department and private lenders forgave loans taken out for their son, who died of a brain aneurysm in 2012, they received a tax bill from the IRS for more than $24,000. King said the family has had to go into their 401(k) to pay the bill, sending the IRS more than $400 each month. Portman said families should not be punished by the federal government with a massive tax for successfully applying for debt forgiveness. “The same tragic reason they cannot pay back their student loans is the reason that they cannot afford an enormous tax increase so contrary to the purposes of our student loan system,” he said.

Chicago VA denies infested kitchen is a problem, employees say (Conservative Review)
A Chicago-area Veterans Affairs hospital overrun by cockroaches in its kitchen and food has been advised to “keep doing what they’re doing” because the infestation isn’t very severe, employees say. This was the recommendation of two exterminators employed by a Wisconsin VA hospital who surveyed the kitchen at Edward Hines Jr. VA Hospital in Hines, Ill. The pair met with upper management and union representatives Wednesday and said they didn’t see any cockroaches during their visit, according to social worker and union president Germaine Clarno and union steward Kelvin Gilney, who were present in the meeting. A Conservative Review investigation revealed allegations that cockroaches have infested the kitchen for years and the problem is so severe that the insects routinely find their way into patients’ meals. A research scientist with Orkin said the only way to combat the problem is to close the kitchen, open the walls and all machinery, and vacuum the pests out. Sticky paper would be placed near the walls to determine where the bugs were coming from and then a reproduction sterilization bait would be used afterward. Right now, the bugs have become immune to the poisons used, said Orkin entomologist Ron Harrison. “I confronted them on pieces of the story, like how are they tracking the bugs?” Clarno said. “I asked if they could put sticky paper down and they said it was too expensive. The VA does everything bass-ackwards and goes above and beyond to do things wrong.” The VA exterminators suggested that Hines upgrade the plumbing system — specifically the drains — and fix broken flooring. But beyond that, they will just continue to spray foam around various areas, Clarno said. Hines spokesperson Jane Moen would not comment on the latest events other than to reiterate an earlier comment: “The nutrition and food services area at Hines VA Hospital has weekly inspections and, if needed, treatments from the exterminator.” Clarno and Gilkey said they have been inundated with emails and phone calls from co-workers who praised the pair for coming forward to Conservative Review with anecdotes regarding the infestation. … To that end, Valerie Adegunleye — the chief of Nutrition and Food Services at Hines — should be fired, said U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., who sent a demand letter to the VA last week seeking answers. “I told her about this almost two years ago,” Gilkey added. “She didn’t do anything.” Adegunleye did not respond to two requests for comment. Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., who chairs the Veterans’ Affairs Committee, mentioned the cockroach issue on the Senate floor when he introduced a bill Thursday overhauling the VA with 148 provisions. The bill includes a provision that allows for the firing of “bad actors.” … For Kirk, the issue is personal because this fiasco has happened at one of the largest VA hospitals in his state. He has authored a Whistleblower Protection Act, spurred on by retaliation of employees who have come forward to report wrongdoing in the VA over the past few years. The Act will be included in the larger Military Construction appropriations bill.

Bill to ensure quality of mental health, substance abuse programs for vets introduced (The Ripon Advance)
Legislation introduced by U.S. Rep. Martha Roby (R-AL) on Friday would direct protection and advocacy agencies to investigate the quality of mental health and substance abuse treatment available to veterans. The Protection and Advocacy for Veterans Act, H.R. 5128, would also direct those agencies to advocate on behalf of veterans to ensure that they receive the mental health and substance abuse treatment that they need. “The very first red flag was a May 2014 report showing that 52 percent of mental health patients waited more than 14 days for a visit,” Roby said. “That alarming statistic was emblematic of how the Department of Veterans Affairs has struggled in recent years to keep up with the rising need for substance abuse and mental health treatment for veterans.” A nationwide shortage of mental health providers, many veterans returning from war, and a nationwide prescription drug and opioid epidemic have all contributed to the problem, Roby said. “We have made progress combating these problems,” Roby wrote in an op-ed for Alabama Today. “Congress has boosted funding for mental health services and enacted legislation making it easier for the VA to attract mental health professionals. The VA has rightly focused its attention on making sure veterans seeking immediate mental health treatment are seen right away. In central Alabama, the latest reports show the average VA wait time for a mental health appointment is down to five days.” Congressional efforts to prioritize mental health and substance abuse treatment for veterans a priority have resulted in progress, but Roby added, “We can do better.” “I also believe that we owe it to our veterans to look beyond traditional means and bring all available resources to bear in ensuring access to proper mental health care and substance abuse treatment,” Roby said.

VA website helps more veterans seek mental help (WKBN)
The Veterans Affairs Department says their new website is helping more veterans seek mental help. According to the Centers for Disease Control, One in four American adults has a mental illness. Professionals and experts are hoping to dispel the stigma surrounding them. Veterans are some of the many people who remain hesitant to talk about mental health issues, who may still view a mental health condition as something that can’t be treated. National Health Directors for the Department of Veteran Affairs Doctor Wendy Tenhula says many more vets are seeking help and treatment… “Since May is Mental Health Awareness Month it really gives us an opportunity to continue the national dialog about mental health and to try to reach out and continue to reduce the stigma or the negative perceptions that are associated with seeking mental health care and with mental health problems,” said Dr. Tenhula. The Make the Connection campaign is attempting to help Veterans and their loved ones can see hundreds of other veterans on video telling their own personal stories about difficulties they’ve faced, challenges they’ve encountered and steps they’ve taken to make their lives better, treatments they’ve gotten that have been helpful and to help connect veterans with help if they do need that help. The Make the Connection website also has a resource locator tool that veterans can use to identify VA resources as well as community resources that are in their local area. “There are about 23 million veterans in the United States and most of them do not experience mental health concerns,” said said Dr. Tenhula. “For those who do, we want to make sure that they understand they are not alone and that help is available and that treatment is effective. In the VA system there are about 1.6 million veterans who were seen for specialized mental health care in 2015 and those numbers have been going up over the last several years and we think that’s a good thing because that tells us that people who are having difficulty are reaching out to get that care and to get the help that they need.” The VA said it provides a comprehensive system of mental health care through our medical centers and outpatient clinics around the country and has been increasing those resources and increasing our staffing over the last several years as the number of veterans returning from the current conflicts has been increasing and as the number of Vietnam-era veterans have been aging and needing more medical care. “We really focus on training our clinicians in the most effective treatments that are available and making sure that evidence-based treatments are available to veterans in a timely manner, said Dr. Tenhula. Veteran Crisis Line: 800-273-8255 then press “1.”

Labor Department pitches new Veterans.gov as easier path to employment (Federal News Radio)
The Labor Department launched on Monday the new version of Veterans.gov, a “one-stop shop” for veterans seeking jobs and employers who want to hire them. The new site more easily describes the path veterans can take to find a job or start a business, and it points them to resources from federal agencies and the public sector workforce that can help them in their search. “Employment is a person to person conversation,” said Terry Gerton, deputy assistant secretary for policy within the Labor Department’s Veterans’ Employment and Training Service (VETS), in an interview with Federal News Radio. “No matter how many resources you put out online, at the end of the day, you have to talk to somebody to get a job. We wanted to consolidate these resources, but we also wanted to make sure that at every step of the way there was an option for either the job seeker or the employer to reach out and contact a person either in the public workforce system or here at the Department of Labor who can help them in their search.” When users first enter the site, they have the option of finding resources that will help them “find a job,” “start your own business” or “hire a veteran.” They can also click on a map of the United States to explore opportunities in a specific location. … The new site is not to be confused with Vets.gov, which the Veterans Affairs Department is developing as the “front door” portal to roughly 1,000 different VA-hosted sites. The project is meant to serve as a “one-stop shop” for VA services, Tom Allin, chief veterans experience officer, said last September. Labor has owned the Veterans.gov domain name since 2001, which, until recently, redirected visitors to the Veterans Employment and Training Service. As Federal News Radio reported last August, the departments of Labor and Veterans Affairs debated who should own the Veterans.gov domain. But for now, the domain will belong to Labor, Gerton said. … Labor is beginning to get the word out that its site is the destination to find information about veterans employment. Gerton said Veterans.gov will be a part of the Transition Assistance Program curriculum, the course, which the Labor Department facilitates, that military members take as they leave service and return to civilian life. To learn specifically about the kinds of information veterans wanted, Labor held feedback sessions with federal agencies, employers, veterans service organizations and veterans themselves. Their input helped the Labor team refine the site’s navigation and overall design. The department got help from its public affairs office, as well as the U.S. Digital Service, on the site’s development and design. DOL also hired a new strategic communications team with the VETS a year ago, Gerton said. … Throughout the course of the eight-month project, DOL also collaborated with a few specific agencies, including the departments of Agriculture, Energy, Homeland Security and Transportation, which have strong veterans hiring programs. … The conversations Gerton described show a growing trend across government, as agencies begin to rethink how they can provide better customer services to the public. It’s also a major goal for VA Secretary Bob McDonald, who promised to renew the department’s focus on customer service when he took office in 2014.

Equine therapy helps military vets with PTSD (13NewsNow)
An unusual program is proving to be effective in treating returning combat vets with PTSD. It’s called “Equine Therapy”. It uses horses to help post 9/11 troops who are experiencing agitation. “Well, horses, they can read you, when you’re coming up on them, they can read you,” said Army Operation Iraqi Freedom vet Kyle McCullen. “If you’re calm, they’re calm. That’s the biggest part of it.” Once a week, up to ten PTSD patients at the Hampton V.A. Medical Center get the help they need, not from some bottle of prescription pills, but something much more soothing: a horse. In this case, a wild Corolla Mustang called Gary Marshall. The patients must be assertive, yet calm. By bringing their emotions under control, they bring the 800 to 1,000 pound horse under control.  It’s a mutually beneficial relationship, says McCullen. “Yeah, it helps,” he said. “Slowly, I’m working back into crowds.” According to the Rand Corporation’s study,”Invisible Wounds of War,” 14 percent, or, approximately 378,000 post-9/11 veterans — met symptom criteria for PTSD. Hampton V.A. psychiatrist Dr. Kathleen Decker launched the Veterans Equine Therapy program four year ago. “And we teach them to manage the horse,” said Decker. “And in doing so they learn to manage their own emotions, calm down, relax and then they discover things about themselves they didn’t realize.” Friday’s demonstration was part of the Hampton VA Medical Center’s Transition and Care Management team’s “Welcome Home Heroes Event ,” to help local vets learn what services are available to them. “Any veteran can call us and get registered and we will help them get any care that they need,” said Julia Allaman, Transition Care Program Manager.

38 WWII veterans head to Washington as part of Honor Flight (Fox4kc)
Ninety war veterans boarded a place at KCI airport Tuesday morning to head to Washington D.C., for a unique trip. It’s called an Honor Flight, and they’ll spend the day visiting war memorials while remembering their time in the military. The veterans represent all four branches of the military and three different wars: World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War. It’s a free trip given to them by Heartland Honor Flight as a way to say thank you for their service. Thirty eight of the veterans on the trip fought in World War II – most are in their 90’s – and they see this as a final opportunity to visit the World War II Memorial. They hope to find engraved on the monument the names of friends killed in battle, and they expect this trip to be an emotional experience. “I know there will be some emotions, yes,” WWII Navy veteran Fred Hellman said. “There will be some tears and some smiles, and we’ll go from there.” This is the eighth year Heartland Honor Flight has offered these trips to v eternal from the metro, and more than one thousand of them have taken this flight to D.C. Once they arrive, the plan is to visit the World War II, Korean and Vietnam War memorials along with Arlington Cemetery, and they should arrive back at KCI around 9:30 p.m., Tuesday.

VA names new deputy chief of staff (Federal News Radio)
Two senior officials who oversee issues of personnel and accountability at the Veterans Affairs Department are taking on new jobs within the VA. Gina Farrisee, assistant secretary for human resources and administration at the VA, will become the department’s new deputy chief of staff. Meghan Flanz, deputy general counsel for legal operations and accountability at the VA, will take Farrisee’s place as the assistant HR secretary, a VA spokesperson confirmed. The deputy chief of staff position had previously been vacant, the spokesperson said. “As the secretary and deputy secretary continue to lead the department though the unprecedented MyVA transformation, we are also preparing for the presidential transition and whatever changes in VA’s senior political leader corps that transition may bring,” VA Chief of Staff Robert Snyder wrote in an email to employees. Both changes are effective May 9. Farrisee’s new position will allow her to return back to her original career status as a Senior Executive Service member, Snyder said. Farrisee has been the department’s assistant HR secretary since September 2013, where she oversees the VA’s human capital planning, diversity and inclusion and labor-management relations, among other areas. Before 2013, she was the VA’s deputy assistant secretary for human resources management. Flanz previously served as the director of the department’s Office of Accountability Review. VA Secretary Bob McDonald established the Office of Accountability Review after several high-profile cases of wait time manipulation at VA medical centers came to light. The office handles the department’s internal employee investigations, misconduct allegations and whistleblower cases. “I am confident that [the Office of Human Resources and Administration] will continue to support the department’s transformation under Meghan’s leadership and that of Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary, Pam Mitchell,” Snyder wrote. These personnel changes come as Congress debates a variety of measures that could alter how the VA disciplines its employees, particularly senior executives. The Senate Veterans Affairs Committee introduced April 28 omnibus legislation that would create an Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection, which would work with the U.S. Office of Special Counsel and the VA Inspector General on whistleblower cases. A presidentially-appointed director would lead this new office, the legislation said.

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