Senators push to advance sweeping veterans bill before July 4 (MilitaryTimes)
As House Democrats staged a sit-in Wednesday to force their chamber’s leaders to move on gun control legislation, on the Senate floor there was an attempt to jump-start sweeping veterans legislation that has stalled. Multiple members of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee spent nearly an hour in the late afternoon arguing the full chamber needs to quickly vote on the pending Veterans First Act, a massive veterans omnibus authored by committee chairman Johnny Isakson, R-Ga. The measure contains a host of new accountability rules and a dramatic expansion of caregiver support programs, but has been slowed in recent weeks by unidentified senators. Isakson said he hopes to bring the measure to a full Senate vote in coming days, barring an objection from his colleagues. “Three and a half weeks ago every member of our committee voted unanimously for the Veterans First bill,” Isakson said. “Why? Because it first of all hits the heart and strikes the point we all know needs to be struck. “Our veterans, who have served us, fought for us, risked their lives for us, deserve the respect, the treatment, and benefits they were promised when they signed up for duty.” The push has taken on new urgency in recent days after VA officials announced they will not enforce fast-track firing rules put in place by Congress in 2014. That announcement came after the Justice Department raised concerns about constitutionality. Critics have blasted the VA’s decision, and Isakson has argued that his measure offers the only realistic path for fixing the problem. House lawmakers have offered separate accountability legislation, but VA officials this week endorsed Isakson’s proposal, calling it a better solution. Although less dramatic than the House sit-in, the Senate veterans bill debate interrupted unrelated work on a commerce appropriations measure. Committee ranking member Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., said his colleagues need to move the measure ahead next week if they hope to get a compromise bill through the House by the end of the year. “We are not talking about handouts, we are talking about something veterans have earned, and that we keep faith with them,” he said. “This measure is bipartisan. Nothing stands in its way. There is no reason that merits its being stopped or blocked.” Isakson’s bill has received public criticism outside the Senate, from House members who say its firing authorities aren’t strong enough and from veterans groups who dislike that it calls for cutting GI Bill housing stipends to pay for other program expansions. But Isakson has said he sees the measure as a work in progress, and is anxious to get some version of the legislation over to the House to begin negotiations on a final omnibus agreement. After this week, the Senate has only 12 legislative days scheduled before an extended election-year summer break starting July 15. The House is not scheduled to return to work until July 5, and will start their two-month break the same day.
Study: Clinicians often overlook veterans’ mental health disorders (Hartford Courant)
Nationally, at least one in five military veterans who experience trauma are at a heightened risk for depression, suicide or substance abuse but are often overlooked in clinical settings because they don’t fit the criteria for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), according to a Yale University-led study. The research, published June 1 in the World Psychiatry journal examined sub-threshold PTSD, which occurs when someone experiences trauma-related symptoms that aren’t severe or long-lasting enough to warrant a PTSD diagnosis. The study, which included 1,484 veterans nationwide, found 8 percent were diagnosed with PTSD but more than 22 percent met criteria for sub-threshold PTSD. Also, in addition to 4.5 percent of veterans diagnosed with PTSD within the last month, 13 percent had sub-threshold symptoms, the study reported. Veterans with sub-threshold PTSD had a 20 percent chance of suffering from major depression in their lifetimes, compared with about 4 percent of veterans without sub-threshold symptoms, the study found. And more than 12 percent of sub-threshold veterans reported having suicidal thoughts, compared with about 3 percent of those without the symptoms, the study found. “The results were striking,” Robert Pietrzak, senior study author and Yale clinical psychologist, said in a statement. He also is director of the Translational Psychiatric Epidemiology Laboratory, Clinical Neurosciences Division of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs National Center for PTSD. “We found three, four, five times higher rates of some disorders in veterans with sub-threshold PTSD,” he said. Jerome Brodlie, head of the psychology department at Greenwich Hospital, said it is important to distinguish between those with PTSD and those with less severe symptoms. Brodlie is the emissary for the U.S. State Department regarding post-trauma for Southeast Asia and has worked with many veterans in that role. Only 15 percent of people who experience trauma develop PTSD, which brings with it long-term disability, Brodlie said. “The rest are all going to experience a reaction for a much shorter period of time until it wears off,” he said. Pietrzak said the study’s findings show that clinicians should be vigilant in monitoring and potentially treating sub-threshold PTSD symptoms in those that have experienced any form of trauma, whether they are veterans or civilians. “You have a very large group of people who may be in need of treatment but are often overlooked in clinical settings,” he said. PTSD is marked by intrusive memories of a traumatic event, a pattern of avoiding people or things that spur those memories, increased negative thoughts and feelings, and symptoms of hyper-arousal such as increased anger, trouble sleeping and being easily startled, according to researchers. In order to get a PTSD diagnosis, all of those symptoms must be present, of a certain severity and duration, and cause significant functional impairment, according to Pietrzak. About 11 percent to 20 percent of veterans who fought in operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom suffer from PTSD in a given year, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs National Center for PTSD, and about 12 percent of Gulf War veterans have PTSD in a given year. The Yale research team—which included lead author Natalie Mota, a former researcher in Pietrzak’s lab who currently is at the University of Winnipeg—suspected that many veterans who experience moderate PTSD symptoms could be at a heightened risk for other mental disorders and that sub-threshold PTSD is an “overlooked trigger” of various mental health problems. Whether they meet the criteria for PTSD or not, all traumatized veterans deserve treatment, Brodlie said.
VA workers and veterans groups against proposed changes (Wisconsin Public Radio)
Workers at Department of Veterans Affairs hospitals in Madison and Milwaukee rallied Wednesday to protest changes they fear could result in lost jobs. The VA has shifted some health care to private providers to try to alleviate long wait times. Veterans groups and VA employees are concerned that could lead to privatization. “Nobody says we need to abandon the mission if things aren’t working well. We stand together and we fix them,” said Amber Mack, president of Local 1732, part of the American Federation of Government Employees. “We don’t just get rid of everything and give it to somebody else to fix.” The congressionally appointed Commission on Care reviewed a report that looks at gradually closing VA facilities. A slim majority of commissioners were against the plan in which the VA would only pay for health care, not provide it.
Last-minute Senate fight snares repeal of VA fertility treatment ban (Stars and Stripes)
Congress was poised Thursday to lift a 24-year ban on wounded veterans receiving fertility treatment through the Department of Veterans Affairs following a landmark agreement between the House and Senate. But repeal of the ban, which would be a hard-fought victory for thousands of veterans hoping to start families, was still in danger of fizzling during a final Senate vote due to political wrangling over an attached plan to fight the Zika virus. Lawmakers from both chambers agreed to a final VA budget bill for 2017 that lifts restrictions on in vitro fertilization – the culmination of years of work by advocates in Congress. The treatment is provided to troops by the Defense Department but was banned in 1992 at the VA due to concerns among conservatives over discarded embryos. Now, even supporters of the measure might vote against the final agreement in the Senate due to what they consider are “poison pill” riders attached to the budget bill at the last moment. The House gave its final approval Wednesday. “I will not support the Republican Zika-Military Construction-VA conference report that limits needed birth control services for women in the United States and Puerto Rico, and includes a troubling pesticides policy rider that endangers clean water protections,” said Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., who has been a backer of IVF for veterans. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., has been a leading advocate for veteran access to the fertility treatment and spent the past three years trying to repeal the ban. She said she was encouraged that the repeal was included but also appalled by the attempt to cut Planned Parenthood contraception funding. “There are some provisions Republicans included that I need to look into, but at the end of the day, the most important thing is that this provision seems to give veterans the care they deserve in their service to our country,” Murray said in a written statement to Stars and Stripes. The senator indicated she might also vote against the larger bill due to the attached legislation. “Unfortunately, Republicans have chosen to pick a partisan fight on the overall bill that includes Zika funding — but I am going to keep working to get this done one way or another,” Murray said. The White House slammed the budget agreement for playing “political games” by cutting money from programs that supply birth control as part of the plans to combat the new illness, which is spread by mosquitoes and is spreading to the United States. It has been linked to severe birth defects in babies. Meanwhile, Republicans pushed ahead with the VA budget bill as the Senate considered whether to schedule a final vote before the long summer recess begins in mid-July. “We’ve negotiated a conference agreement that will provide additional resources to fight the public health threat of the Zika virus,” said Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., chairman of the Appropriations Committee. “I am pleased that the Zika package will be considered along with important funding for veterans and defense facilities.” Cochran said the final agreement includes language on in vitro fertilization that prevents three-parent embryos – or eggs fertilized by more than one sperm — and human cloning, which was likely added to allay concerns among conservatives. The bill also allows funding to be used for child adoption services. House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., also praised the final bill, which was negotiated by a conference committee of lawmakers Wednesday. “This funding bill will curb the spread of Zika and protect Americans from this dangerous virus,” McCarthy said in a release. “This legislation will also hold the VA accountable and institute reforms that House Republicans have long called for so our veterans can finally get the quality care they have been waiting for.” In vitro fertilization, which seeks to fertilize eggs outside the body, is a common treatment for couples who have difficulty conceiving. Criticism of the VA ban’s fairness have grown louder in recent years as troops returned home from Iraq and Afghanistan with severe injuries from improvised explosive devices that left them unable to conceive. Advocates estimate several thousand veterans suffered injuries that keep them from starting families. They are now forced to seek treatment outside of the VA system and foot the bill for IVF, which can cost about $10,000 for a single round of treatment. Groups such as the Veterans of Foreign Wars, which represents about 1.7 million veterans, and Paralyzed Veterans of America have pressed Congress for a repeal.
House drops Confederate Flag ban for veterans cemeteries (Politico)
A measure to bar confederate flags from cemeteries run by the Department of Veterans Affairs was removed from legislation passed by the House early Thursday. The flag ban was added to the VA funding bill in May by a vote of 265-159, with most Republicans voting against the ban. But Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) both supported the measure. Ryan was commended for allowing a vote on the controversial measure, but has since limited what amendments can be offered on the floor. In negotiations to reconcile the House funding measure with the Senate bill, the confederate flag provision was dropped. The bill passed the House 239-171. Of the eight House Republicans Ryan appointed to the conference committee that ultimately stripped the measure, four had voted against the ban on the floor. A GOP aide declined to comment on the internal deliberations that led to the removal of the ban.
Turmoil bubbling at Cincinnati VA Med Center (Cincinnati.com)
The man temporarily managing the Cincinnati VA Medical Center says the VA’s inspector general is trying to figure out to how to look into complaints that UC Health and the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine regularly interfered with the operation of the Corryville facility and ousted a hospital leader for trying to set boundaries. The Cincinnati facility has been in turmoil over Dr. Barbara Temeck’s 2½-year tenure as chief of staff of the hospital. Hospital employees complained about Temeck in an anonymous petition to Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert McDonald of Indian Hill, former chairman of the Procter & Gamble Co. The Enquirer has filed a Freedom of Information Act request for the document, but the department has yet to release it. The existence of the petition was made public in February, and VA officials then demoted Temeck to a basement cubicle performing data entry while the VA inspector general looked into the petition’s complaints against her. The VA has since hired a new chief of staff in Cincinnati. Temeck is a thoracic surgeon and a 35-year career manager at the VA. When she was removed from management, she retained Cincinnati lawyer Ken Hawley and filed a “whistleblower’s” statement to the independent U.S. Office of Special Counsel detailing how she saw UC Health and the UC College of Medicine exerting undue control and influence over hospital operations. Temeck said in her complaint that when she reined in what she saw as improper behavior, VA doctors working with UC Health and the UC College of Medicine pushed back and stymied her efforts until finally, they engineered her removal from her job. Tuesday night, the VA held a “listening tour” at the Corryville hospital for veterans with Glenn Costie, now the acting director of the Cincinnati VA Medical Center. Costie is also a VA career manager, and he is on temporary assignment in Cincinnati from his usual post, director of the Dayton VA Medical Center. At Tuesday’s meeting, Costie announced that the VA’s inspector general is debating how to investigate Temeck’s complaints about UC Health and the UC College of Medicine. … Such an investigation would take place at a time of growing scrutiny of the overall relationship between VA hospitals and affiliate medical schools, a partnership started in 1946. On June 7, members of the House Veterans Affairs subcommittee unanimously expressed concern that problems in running the VA and a lack of oversight allow affiliate medical schools to take advantage of the VA to the tune of millions of dollars.
7 VA workers sentenced in Veterans Affairs bribery scheme (CBS SF Bay Area)
A bribery scandal at the Palo Alto VA Hospital has snared several workers accused of taking money and gifts while awarding lucrative contracts. The last of seven defendants in a federal criminal case was sentenced in the bribery scheme that took away from taxpayers and veterans. “It’s quite deplorable if you ask me,” Peter Norris said. Norris is not only a veteran, but works at the Veterans Affairs Palo Alto Health Care System, where many of the bribes took place. “It’s unfortunate because they make it look nice on the outside – get new buildings, statues, but on the inside the interior it’s you know, it’s crumbling,” Norris said. According to federal court documents, a VA contracting officer promised certain contractors multi-million dollar deals in exchange for money, trips, and gifts. Two other VA contract workers admitted to accepting bribes like flights, tickets to Disneyland, car payments, and even a new roof. “We can collectively that anytime someone betrays the trust of taxpayers or the American citizens you know they should be held accountable for that,” Damian McGee, VA Spokesperson said. McGee said the VA is happy to see justice served for the last of the defendants, and says the case brought to light areas they could improve, and train employees: “Just reminding them of the reason they’re here you know. You’re not here to make a quick buck or to get over in anyway. You’re here to do what’s best for Veterans. You’re here to be good stewards of taxpayer dollars,” McGee said. But, only two of the seven defendants got prison time, the others were sentenced to house arrest and probation.