June 3 Veterans News

June 3 Veterans News


PTSD may affect benefits for sailors, Marines kicked out of military (Stars and Stripes)
Sailors and Marines who are kicked out of the military for misconduct now may be eligible for disability benefits if they’ve been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury or any other mental health condition that contributed to their behavior, under an order signed Wednesday by Navy Secretary Ray Mabus. The order is the first of its type in the military and serves as another acknowledgment that many servicemembers return home from combat with invisible psychological wounds that affect their daily lives. “For more than a decade, we’ve asked a tremendous amount of our people and their families,” Mabus said in a statement. “In turn, we have a responsibility to support their needs, whether they are serving the Navy and Marine Corps mission around the globe or transitioning from uniformed service to civilian life.” It wasn’t immediately clear how many people the order might affect. About 11 to 20 percent of veterans who served in Operation Iraqi Freedom or Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan suffer PTSD in a given year, according to statistics from the National Center for PTSD. More than 46,000 cases of traumatic brain injury, also known as TBI, have been diagnosed in the Navy since 2000, while more than 49,000 cases have been diagnosed in Marines, according to the Defense and Veterans Brain Injury Center. Most of those diagnoses are for a mild form of TBI known as a concussion. TBI occurs when there is a blow to the head that disrupts the normal function of the brain. TBI can be caused by explosions, assaults, falls or a myriad other ways. Emotional symptoms can include depression, anxiety and irritability, while cognitive symptoms can include slowed thinking, attention and concentration problems, and memory gaps. In some cases, repeated blows to the head can cause chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a progressive neurological disorder associated with communication problems, motor disorders, problems with impulse control, depression, confusion and irritability, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. Previously, misconduct took precedence over diagnosed mental health conditions during a servicemember’s separation, according to the Navy. Under Mabus’ order, sailors and Marines who suffer from PTSD, TBI or any other mental condition who did not receive an honorable discharge may have that decision reviewed. For current personnel facing discharges that aren’t honorable, the case must be referred to the first general officer in Marines or flag officer in the the Navy in the chain of command for a final determination. Mabus signed the order while visiting a veterans family clinic in New York that focuses on PTSD. “Keeping faith with veterans under all circumstances is our solemn vow,” Mabus said. “It is vitally important to address those service members whose separation is a result of PTSD/TBI.” Mabus’ order came the same day Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert McDonald said new TBI examinations would be offered to 24,000 veterans whose initial examination for TBI wasn’t conducted by a designated medical specialist, allowing them to have their claims reprocessed. “Traumatic Brain Injury is a signature injury in Veterans returning from the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan,” McDonald said in a statement. “Providing support for veterans suffering from a TBI is a priority and a privilege, and we must make certain they receive a just and fair rating for their disabilities.”

New rule would let VA provide sex reassignment surgery to transgender vets (MilitaryTimes)
Veterans Affairs doctors could begin providing sex reassignment surgery in coming years under a new rule proposed by the department. The move would remove a long-held ban on the surgery and likely provide another cultural point of controversy in the wake of federal rules, issued last month, that mandate public schools allow transgender students to use the bathroom of the gender they choose. The proposal, made public this week by transgender advocates and Time magazine, states that past surgical procedures were poorly understood. Officials therefore could not justify providing them to veterans with gender dysphoria, a condition experienced by individuals who don’t identify with their biological gender for a variety of mental and physiological reasons. “However, increased understanding of both gender dysphoria and surgical techniques in this area have improved significantly, and surgical procedures are now widely accepted in the medical community as medically necessary treatment for gender dysphoria,” the proposed rule says. “Additionally, recent medical research shows that gender dysphoria is a serious condition that has had severe medical consequences for certain patients if transition-related surgeries and procedures are not provided.” Advocates hailed the move as both an important step forward for equality and a signal that the department is committed to offering the best available health care to all veterans. “So many veterans rely on the VA for important medical care that they have earned serving our nation, including transgender veterans,” said Ashley Broadway-Mack, president of the American Military Partner Association. “Gender confirmation surgery is often a critically important and medically necessary treatment, and lifting this ban is long overdue.” Decisions on whether veterans should undergo the surgery would be made on a case-by-case basis, after consultation with VA medical experts. No timetable has been specified for when the department might start offering the surgery, but such changes can take several years to work through federal bureaucracy. VA officials told Time magazine that the proposed change has already been in the works since 2014, the same year Medicare officials lifted a ban on the surgery. The National Center for Transgender Equality estimates that more than 134,000 veterans are transgender, and more than 15,000 transgender individuals are serving in military today despite rules forbidding them from serving openly.

Post-9/11 vet unemployment sets records in May; US hiring slows (MilitaryTimes)
Even as hiring slowed for the nation as a whole in May, the unemployment rate for post-9/11 veterans continued to set records, government data shows. Unemployment for such vets was 4 percent in May, edging out the previous record low of 4.1 percent, set the previous month. And the 4.2 percent record before that wasn’t set long ago either — November 2015. Such small differences in the rate are likely not very meaningful, particularly for this unemployment measure, which is based on a small sample size. But with the rate so low, statistically significant drops may be hard to come by. The broader picture for the country was less rosy in May, with just 38,000 jobs gained, a sharp decrease from the previous month’s 160,000 new jobs, and the lowest number seen in years. The nation’s unemployment rate dropped from 5 percent to 4.7 percent in May. That seasonally adjusted rate is not the best measure to compare with the post-9/11 vet unemployment rate, which is not seasonally adjusted. The nonveteran unemployment rate, which makes for a better comparison, was 4.4 percent in May — higher than the comparable unemployment measure for the latest generation of veterans for the second straight month. Since May 2015, eight of the last 13 unemployment rates were either the lowest ever recorded, or the second lowest, at the time they came out. Over this unprecedented hot streak, seemingly every other month sets a record low rate, only to be eclipsed the following month. And for veterans as a whole, the employment outlook may be even better. Just 3.4 percent of veterans of all generations were unemployed in May, down from April’s 3.9 percent mark.

Life after Agent Orange: ‘I lose my friends … every day,’ Vietnam vet says (Omaha.com)
Duane Wiskus remembers seeing Agent Orange being loaded aboard C-123 cargo aircraft at Nha Trang when he was based there during the Vietnam War. “Nobody ever said anything about it,” the Air Force veteran said. “It was just everybody doing their job.” U.S. military cargo planes and helicopters sprayed about 19 million gallons of Agent Orange and other “rainbow” herbicides across South Vietnam between 1962 and 1971 to deny enemy troops the use of crops and the cover of jungle. What service members didn’t know was that Agent Orange contained dioxin, which has been linked to heart disease, diabetes and several forms of cancer. On Sunday and Monday, read The World-Herald’s special report on how the Vietnam War continues to takes its toll on the health of those who served – and, many believe, on the health of their descendants. Veterans groups fought for years for the right to receive health care and disability benefits for those diseases from the Department of Veterans Affairs. So far, veterans can receive compensation for 18 different illnesses. Now the battle continues on behalf of the children and grandchildren of those same vets. Advocates believe birth defects and a host of other medical conditions among those offspring are connected to their fathers’ exposure to Agent Orange. For Wiskus, a native of Carroll, Iowa, who now lives in the Elkhorn area, the Agent Orange story is deeply personal. Doctors suspected a link to Agent Orange, he said, when one of his sons was born with infantile muscular dystrophy and died at age 3. Now 67, his own health problems are piling up. The macular degeneration that has taken most of his sight is not linked to Agent Orange. But Type 2 diabetes and the series of heart attacks he’s suffered since 2003 are presumed by the VA to be connected to his wartime exposure. And so are the illnesses that have afflicted too many of his fellow veterans. “A bullet killed my cousin over there,” Wiskus said. “But I lose my friends now to Agent Orange every day.”

Learn more about Agent Orange exposure

Veterans warn against stereotyping PTSD (KHOU)
The gunman killed by police on Memorial Drive was an Army veteran, who friends believe was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). But local veterans say it’s dangerous to connect the shooting to PTSD alone. “Just because we’ve seen war, just because we’ve seen death—not everyone is like the individual who did what he did in the Memorial area,” said Justin Masters, a veteran and veteran coordinator at Camp Hope, a facility that helps veterans and their families with the effects of PTSD. These veterans all have their own stories. “Each one of us had different jobs in the military. My PTSD comes from being a medic,” said Ron Youngblut, Camp Hope’s director of operations and veteran. Their struggles are real. “Just counting the people I’ve lost from my unit to suicide is getting up there,” Masters said. However, they all agree: using PTSD as an explanation for an Army veteran opening fire on Memorial Drive is unfair to them. “I’ve lost many friends and none of them were outwardly aggressive,” said Joseph Demase, a Camp Hope administrator and veteran. “They hear shooting, veteran, PTSD—they put the 3 together, quick easy answer,” said David Maulsby, Camp Hope’s executive director. It can be a lot more complicated, however. Maulsby says PTSD alone doesn’t manifest into mass shootings. So, what signs can people look for? “The hyper anxiety, the inability to be around a crowd, to be assessing everything they see,” said Maulsby. “How do we help them? The VA’s own research shows that peer mentoring is the best form of treatment for PTSD,” said Demase. That’s what they do at Camp Hope, helping veterans get back on their feet. “If it wasn’t for this place, I wouldn’t be here,” said Masters. They house around 40 vets, but just doubled their capacity to serve even more. “I found brotherhood, I found people that I can confide in and trust in when I felt like the whole world turned its back against me,” said Youngblut. It’s here, they say, where change is happening, and they hope the community sees veterans suffering with PTSD can be transformed. “There’s nothing in this world that brings me happiness than helping others through the struggles I’ve gone through and have been able to overcome,” said Masters. If you or someone you know needs help, call 1-877-717-PTSD.

Commentary: More needed to treat veterans affected by toxic exposure (CJOnline)
Sen. Jerry Moran (R), Kansas: The last week in May marks a special event. Each year on Memorial Day, we demonstrate our respect and appreciation for the liberty and safety secured by the actions of our nation’s military men and women. Yet memorializing those who have served isn’t just about pausing to recognize the fallen, as we did this week on Memorial Day. We have a year-round duty to provide the highest quality care and timely benefits to our veterans. One issue that continues to affect Kansas veterans is illnesses developed due to exposure to toxic substances like Agent Orange in Vietnam, neurotoxins in the Gulf War and chemical weapons and burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan. The VA may not acknowledge the service-related conditions Kansas veterans suffer from because they took years to develop. They refuse coverage for care required as a direct result of exposure to toxins, labeling the problems developed as “unexplained illnesses.” The kinds of conditions developed — ranging from skin, dental and vision problems to lifelong diseases such as diabetes, Parkinson’s, fibromyalgia and cancer — do damage to our veterans’ health, quality of life, and ability to hold down jobs and care for their families. To this end, I introduced the Toxic Exposure Research Act last year to address research on toxic exposure and the potential connection to heath conditions affecting descendants of veterans who were exposed to toxic substances during their military service. We can prevent the long-term wounds of war for future generations by understanding the health risks and symptoms of toxic exposure through scientific research conducted today. Providing quality health care and benefits for veterans who are still with us today is just as important as offering praise, admiration and gratitude for those who lost their lives in service to our nation.

Rep. Tipton hears about flawed billing under Veterans Choice (The Daily Sentinel)
The Department of Veterans Affairs Choice program, allowing veterans to see certain providers outside the system, remains a good idea, but needs lots of work, veterans told U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Colo., Thursday. “That program definitely needs a lot of work,” Dan Hendrix said to Tipton during a town hall meeting with other veterans at the Grand Junction City Hall auditorium. His wife, an Army veteran like him, sought treatment under the Choice program and was pleased with it, Hendrix said, until she was told she couldn’t return because her bills were going unpaid by the program. Veterans Service officers from around the Western Slope told Tipton also that they had encountered issues in which veterans sought treatment from Choice physicians, but were billed by laboratories for services ordered by the doctors. Exactly how payment agreements should be worked out — possibly requiring Congress to act — wasn’t clear, Tipton said, but added that veterans should not be saddled with bills that the VA is obligated to pay. The Choice program was famously amended by Congress to take into account the time it takes for patients to reach VA services when considering eligibility for the program. The measure at first set a minimum of 40 miles as the crow flies, but failed to take into account the rugged geography of Colorado and other mountainous states. The VA, meanwhile, has its own problems, said Joe Evans, a retired veteran, who detailed the difficulty he had in obtaining appointments to deal with his eyes. After enduring a saga in which his telephone number was entered incorrectly and couldn’t be corrected, once he was in contact with the appropriate physician he was told the authorization for his appointment had expired, Evans said. “There’s too much in the middle, between the doctor and the patient,” Evans said. Plenty of problems have cropped up with the VA and the Choice program, Tipton told the dozen or so veterans who attended the meeting. U.S. Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., chairman of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs, had urged House members to reassure constituents that Congress wants improvements. “Please tell your veterans,” Miller said, “this is not the end.”

Justice offers explanation for refusing to defend part of VA reform law (Washington Times)
The Justice Department said Thursday it won’t enforce a portion of a Veterans Affairs reform law signed by President Obama, who’s a former constitutional law professor, because it’s unconstitutional. A Justice spokesperson said the department’s legal view is “limited” and “narrow” on the question of a VA employee’s rights after being fired. “The department determined that one aspect of the procedures to review the lawfulness of the employee’s removal — the provision giving an administrative judge final and unreviewable discretion to determine if the removal was lawful — violates the U.S. Constitution,” the spokesperson said. “The department continues to defend all other aspects of the statute in this matter.” Attorney General Loretta Lynch notified House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, California Republican, this week that Justice wouldn’t enforce the clause in the case of Sharon Helman, a former VA official in Phoenix, Arizona, who is seeking her job back. Ms. Helman was at the center of the VA’s scandal over phony waiting lists and delayed care in which dozens of veterans died. Mr. McCarthy, other lawmakers and veterans groups blasted Ms. Lynch’s decision, saying it paves the way for a convicted felon to get her job back at the VA. In its statement Thursday, Justice said it believes that Ms. Helman “was properly removed from her position.” “The department’s role is to defend the U.S. Constitution and ensure justice for all,” the agency said. “That’s what this decision reflects. The department has a long-standing practice of declining to defend statutes in the absence of reasonable arguments for their constitutionality or when they infringe on the constitutional powers of the president, and we are continuing that practice. We also are continuing our commitment to vigorously protecting the rights and interests of our service members and veterans.”

After Enquirer stories, House sets hearing on VA (Cincinnati.com)
A House veterans subcommittee has scheduled a hearing next week to look at the relationship between VA hospitals and academic affiliates, the teaching hospitals that provide medical residents and other health care providers to care for the nation’s veterans. U.S. Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, announced that the committee’s panel on oversight and investigations will meet Tuesday. Miller’s statement announcing the hearing said: “The relationship between VA and academic affiliates, while beneficial, has resulted in many problem areas within VA. The purpose of this hearing is to address this relationship, with particular focus on sole-source contracting, billing issues, research funding, space, data and equipment.” The statement said the list of witnesses would be released “at a later date,” so it’s not clear what feature of the VA-affiliate relationship would be examined at Tuesday’s hearing. Miller’s announcement came after The Enquirer published stories in May about concerns raised by Dr. Barbara Temeck, the former acting chief of staff at the Cincinnati VA. Temeck said that for 2 ½ years, she clashed with officials from UC Health and the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine over the management of the Cincinnati VA. Temeck, 65, a thoracic surgeon and 35-year VA employee and hospital administrator, has told The Enquirer that officials of UC Health and UC College of Medicine resisted her efforts to improve the staffing and operation of the hospital. Some staff members grew so unhappy with Temeck that in September, 34 VA doctors, nurses and other health care providers joined an anonymous petition to VA Secretary Robert McDonald of Indian Hill, former chairman of Procter & Gamble Co. The petition complained that Temeck was managing medical care for veterans at the Cincinnati VA. In February, the VA demoted Temeck to a data-entry job in the basement of the Cincinnati VA while an inspector general investigation looking into the petition’s complains. The inspector general has not yet issued a report on any findings, except it did say that Temeck did not damage patient care at the Cincinnati Va. In March, Temeck filed a statement with the Office of Special Council, an independent federal agency designed to protect federal “whistleblowers” who have reported waste, fraud or abuse.