Obama opposes privatization of VA health care (ABC News)
President Barack Obama is opposing suggestions the government privatize the Department of Veterans Affairs to improve health care veterans receive. In an interview with the Colorado Springs Gazette, the president said his administration has made progress modernizing the VA and providing veterans with more timely health care following criticism over wait times. Privatizing the agency would delay that progress, he said. The administration came under fire when it was disclosed that secret wait lists were uncovered at a VA health care system in Arizona amid reports that several veterans had died waiting for health care. Government investigations found significant system failures. “The notion of dismantling the VA system would be a mistake,” Obama told The Gazette during an interview on Thursday that was published Sunday. “If you look at, for example, VA health care, there have been challenges getting people into the system. Once they are in, they are extremely satisfied and the quality of care is very high.” Obama said during his last term in office, he will continue to work on issues plaguing the Veterans Administration. “It’s a big ocean liner, and on any given day, given how far-flung the agency is, we’re still seeing problems crop up that we have to correct. I think the main message is that we’ve still got a lot of work to do. It’s an all-hands-on-deck process.” Obama appointed a new VA secretary in 2014 after Eric Shinseki resigned. Robert McDonald, former CEO of Procter & Gamble, took his place. “I think Secretary McDonald has done a terrific job,” the president said. “Since there’s only eight months left in my administration, he’s got all the way until then to run through the tape.” U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn, R-Colorado Springs, a member of the Veterans Affairs Committee, agreed with Obama that total privatization would be a mistake, but he said veterans need more options, including private care. To cope with the problems, Obama signed the Veterans Access to Care Act that requires the VA to contract with private providers when a clinic isn’t within 40 miles of the veteran seeking care or the wait time for care is more than 30 days.
Agent Orange research center has backing among many in Congress (Omaha.com)
In Washington, some lawmakers are calling for research into whether Agent Orange and other toxic substances are responsible for the health problems of veterans’ children and grandchildren. The Toxic Exposure Research Act is the latest incarnation of a bill that would establish a research center within the Department of Veterans Affairs. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office has estimated the cost of establishing the center at $74 million over the next four years. Supporters come from both parties and include about half of the members of Congress. In the House, all Nebraska and Iowa representatives are co-sponsors except for Adrian Smith, R-Neb. In the Senate, Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, is the only one from Nebraska or Iowa who has signed on. The Vietnam Veterans of America is one veterans group that is pushing hard to pass the bill to spur Agent Orange research. “Without the scientific proof,” said Mokie Pratt Porter, the group’s communications director, “we can’t get off ground zero.” VA officials say they support more research but don’t agree that their agency is the right one to study next-generation health impacts, because the VA lacks experience with children’s health issues. “We don’t have a lot of pediatricians on our staff,” said Dr. Ralph Erickson, the VA’s post-deployment health consultant. “The National Institutes of Health probably should have the lead in this type of research.” That’s the reason U.S. Sen. Deb Fischer, R-Neb., hasn’t signed on. “She remains committed to ensuring our veterans receive the care they need,” said Tom Doheny, Fischer’s communications director, but he said she would like lawmakers to explore the details further. Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., supports the bill’s goals and is reviewing it, a spokesman said. And while Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, has not sponsored that particular measure, she supports the Veterans First Act, a comprehensive VA reform bill that includes a provision establishing a research center, said Brook Hougesen, an Ernst spokeswoman. “Sen. Ernst agrees that there needs to be additional research over Agent Orange and the potential impact it might have on veterans and their family members,” Hougesen wrote in an email. In the House, the measure has been folded into a larger bill called the VA Construction and Lease Authorization, Health, and Benefits Enhancement Act, Porter said. To build support for the bill, the VVA has been running a series of town hall-style symposiums across the country for the past eight years called Faces of Agent Orange. These seminars offer a chance for veterans and their relatives to tell their own stories about suffering from diseases they believe stem from Agent Orange exposure. One was held in Des Moines in April and drew about 300 people. Another is planned for Aug. 12-13 in Omaha. “Some of these stories are very ugly,” Nancy Switzer, co-chairwoman of the VVA’s Toxic Exposure Committee, said during the Des Moines event. “But we need to hear them.” … Since there’s been little research into the second- and third-generation effects of Agent Orange, there is no proof so far that these birth defects are linked. Dan Gannon, a Marine Corps veteran from Ankeny, Iowa, who serves on the state’s Commission of Veterans Affairs, helped moderate the Des Moines event. An infantry platoon leader in Vietnam, he later fathered a daughter, Kelli, who became gravely ill from Type 1 diabetes when she was 14 months old. She died of hypoglycemia in 2010, at age 36. He himself survived Stage 4 prostate cancer in 2003. There was no family history. “In my opinion, it all came from my exposure to dioxin,” Gannon said. “We’ve got to get these bills passed for our children down the road.”
Red Cross looks to fill gap in veterans’ emergency financial needs (MilitaryTimes)
The American Red Cross is testing the idea of providing financial assistance to veterans who don’t qualify for help through military agencies. When a veteran has left the military before retirement, he or she isn’t eligible for financial assistance through the military relief societies — Army Emergency Relief, Navy-Marine Corps Relief Society, and Air Force Aid Society. The Red Cross is examining how it might fill that gap, said Kevin Boleyn, director of the organization’s Hero Care Network. The network includes Red Cross emergency call centers, financial assistance and referrals to other organizations in communities. It is creating a national registry of services for veterans and working on a system where trained case workers can use the registry to connect those in need to the appropriate agencies. The Red Cross also has reorganized its Service to the Armed Forces division, which will help expand the financial assistance it provides to veterans as well as to active-duty members. It has turned its Springfield, Massachusetts, emergency communications site into a Center of Excellence for Financial Assistance. The center’s staff will focus on referring military families and veterans who need financial help. The call centers in Fort Sill, Oklahoma, and Louisville, Kentucky, are still the initial entry points for emergency communications, but financial assistance requests will be transferred primarily to the Springfield office. These requests generally take more time to process because staff members have to validate them and work with landlords, financial institutions, utility companies and others to prevent eviction, foreclosure and utility shut-offs. Two pilot Red Cross programs also are underway on a smaller scale. One began in April in Southern California and Clark County, Nevada, helping veterans who need emergency financial assistance. The other began a year ago in western Missouri, helping active duty, retirees and veterans with financial needs that don’t qualify under the military relief societies’ regulations. Donations from sources other than the military relief societies provide the assistance in these pilot programs. The Red Cross toll-free emergency hotline is 877-272-7337. Currently, the Red Cross acts as an agent for the military relief societies when a request comes in after hours, or for service members or retirees who can’t get to one of the installation relief societies or live more than 50 miles away. The relief societies reimburse the Red Cross for the financial assistance; the Red Cross pays for administrative costs. A number of advocates have expressed concern about transitioning service members and their families, who are leaving the military and lose various assistance. The Red Cross has seen an upward trend in requests for help, said spokesman Peter Macias, and that played a role in the organization’s focus on the problem. … The Red Cross will also direct veterans to groups that may be able to assist them with their particular need.
The controversial plan to slash military housing allowance faces opposition (MilitaryTimes)
Military advocates are baffled over a Senate plan to overhaul troops’ housing stipends, saying the change appears unneeded and potentially crippling to family finances. “We view Basic Allowance for Housing as an earned benefit, and we don’t agree with trying to reduce that benefit,” said Michael Barron, deputy director of government relations at the Military Officers Association of America. “This is not just frivolous money being spent by troops.” Included in the Senate Armed Services Committee’s draft of the annual defense authorization bill are plans to overhaul how BAH is paid out troops. Instead of flat fees based on rank and ZIP code, the new system would refund only what troops pay out in rent and utilities costs, stopping troops from pocketing leftover stipends if they find cheaper housing. The Defense Department opposes the idea, calling the housing stipends part of troops’ larger compensation package. But Senate officials say the change could save the department tens of millions while still providing adequate housing benefits for troops. Both Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, and Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, have amendments which would strip the BAH changes out of the measure when it reaches the Senate floor next week. Outside critics support that move. “If it isn’t broke, don’t try and fix it,” said Kelly Hruska, government relations director for the National Military Family Association. “The [Military Compensation and Retirement Modernization Commission] looked at this issue last year, and they found the system wasn’t perfect, but it works.” Michael Little, director of legislative affairs for the Association of the United States Navy, said the Senate plan still has too many unanswered questions, such as how utilities costs will be calculated into the new housing stipend and how exactly the change will impact family finances. “We should be trying to find ways to keep men and women interested in the military,” he said. “But by putting restraints on them and taking away pay and benefits, we are making the military a place where morale is low and retention is even lower. “Our government should want to find a way to make the military a career decision for more Americans. Cutting benefits will not do that.” House lawmakers did not include the change in their draft legislation. If the proposal passes the Senate, a conference committee with lawmakers from both chambers will have to work out a compromise in coming months.
Federal workers union warns of privatized veterans health care (Military.com)
A commission studying health care is just one vote shy of endorsing a privatized Department of Veterans Affairs, a gathering of veterans and VA employees in Tomah, Wis., was told Friday. The American Federation of Government Employees local that represents workers at the Tomah VA medical center organized the town hall meeting to warn that the “national VA system is under attack.” “Many members of Congress, some presidential candidates and commissions are calling for the reduction and, in some cases, the total elimination of VA health care,” said Wisconsin Disabled Veterans of America legislative director Al Labelle. At issue is a “strawman” document developed by seven members of the 15-member Commission on Care, which was created by Congress in 2014 as part of legislation aimed at reducing waiting times at VA hospitals. Labelle said the document calls for “the total elimination of VA health care no later than 2035.” Commission on Care chairwoman Nancy Schlichting said via the commission’s website that the report hasn’t been finalized. “As the term strawman implies, the document was created by a subset of commissioners to describe their personal ideas, which ultimately facilitated and focused public discussion and prompted new proposals,” she wrote. “It was not presented as a final report.” The commission is divided equally among members appointed by the U.S. House of Representatives, U.S. Senate and President Barack Obama. AFGE spokeman Mike Rosenblatt said the final report due June 30 doesn’t carry the force of law but has the potential to be influential in the light of recent negative publicity involving VA hospitals. He urged union members to get involved and make sure any privatization proposal is “undermined and sits on the shelf.” Wisconsin U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Oshkosh, has openly called for privatization and blamed recent problems on a public-sector model that lacks accountability. “They are working within a single-payer, government-run bureaucratic health care system,” Johnson said Tuesday in Tomah prior to chairing a hearing that presented a 359-page report detailing reckless prescription drug practices and abusive management practices at the Tomah VA. Labelle rejected the criticism. He said the VA faces many of the same problems as private medicine but that the media has “focused like a laser beam on the VA” while the private sector is “getting a pass.” He said the vast majority of VA patients are satisfied with their level of care. “The problem is access, not quality of VA health care,” he said. Rob Hilliard, who receives care at the Tomah VA, agreed. He blasted the private choice program created by the 2014 legislation. “The choice program has been a debacle from day one,” Hilliard said. “Once we get on the outside, we’re going to be just a number. The best therapy we get is being around other veterans while we’re waiting for appointments. If we lose the VA, that’s going to go away.”
Poll reveals vast support for medical marijuana for veterans (The Denver Post)
Veterans Administration doctors should be allowed to prescribe marijuana pills to veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, according to 87 percent of registered American voters who participated in a recent Quinnipiac University National poll. The poll, released Monday, asked 1,561 registered voters nationwide whether they support the use of marijuana for veterans, as well as broader questions, including whether general use of marijuana should be made legal in the U.S., and whether it should be made legal for adults if prescribed by a doctor for medical purposes. The university surveyed voters from May 24 through May 30, and separated demographics by political party affiliation, gender, age, ethnicity and whether they had a college degree. The results in total revealed vast support in favor of marijuana use for medical purposes, overwhelmingly as it pertains to veterans. Of the 1,561 total registered voters, only 9 percent opposed marijuana prescriptions in pill form for veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. For voters in a military household, meaning one or more members is a veteran or on active duty, 82 percent showed support for veterans’ use of marijuana. “If you serve your country and suffer for it, you deserve every health remedy available, including medical marijuana in pill form,” said Tim Malloy, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Poll in a news release. “That is the full-throated recommendation of Americans across the demographic spectrum, including voters in military households.” Voters were more divided on the use of marijuana in a general sense, with only 54 percent supporting marijuana legalization. Men also far outweighed women in the same category, with 60 percent of male voters showing support for the general marijuana legalization, compared to just 48 percent of female voters. “The fact that a majority of American voters favors legalizing marijuana in general shows how attitudes about the drug have changed,” Malloy said. Categories that showed opposition to the nationwide legalization of marijuana included Republican voters, with 62 percent opposing the general legalization of marijuana, as well as older demographics, with 57 percent of voters over age 65 also expressing opposition. Still, where it involves medical use for adults, as prescribed by doctors, voters were far more likely to show support for marijuana use. When used for medical purposes, that same category of voters over age 65 showed 89 percent in favor of marijuana legalization. The Quinnipiac University Poll conducts public opinion surveys in states including Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Florida, Ohio, Iowa and Colorado.
Manager misused $62,000 raised for homeless veterans (The News Tribune)
A former Pierce County employee who misspent tens of thousands of dollars that had been collected to help poor veterans may face criminal charges in Thurston County Superior Court, and he may be compelled to repay some of the money. Clyde Drury III faces the additional scrutiny over his mismanagement of the Pierce County Veterans Bureau because a new report from the state auditor’s office suggests he may have begun misusing his office well before Pierce County leaders realized when they fired him last year. Allegations then said he directed $24,000 to a friend, kept gift cards donated to help veterans and steered government spending to his wife’s business. The firing followed a Pierce County investigation that concluded Drury had misused $36,600 from December 2014 through April 2015. Now a state audit has found another $26,008 in questionable spending dating back to January 2014. The new report urges Pierce County to try to recover some of the money, as well as to bill him for the $3,582 the state spent on its investigation. Pierce County referred the case in April to the Thurston County Prosecutor’s Office. A deputy prosecutor is reviewing the investigations, said Anne Larsen, a spokeswoman for the prosecutor’s office. Pierce County spokeswoman Libby Catalanich said the decision of whether to try to recover money from Drury rests with the Thurston County office. Drury, a retired Air Force senior master sergeant, acknowledged to a county investigator last year that he allowed the questionable spending that apparently benefited his friend and family members. He wrote that he was grieving over his mother’s death and not paying proper attention to his work. “I was dysfunctional during that time,” he told the investigator. During Drury’s tenure, the veterans bureau managed an annual budget of up to about $800,000 with little oversight from other county executives. The money came from a special property tax earmarked for veterans programs. After Drury’s ouster, Pierce County sought to provide better administrative oversight to the Veterans Bureau by putting it under the leadership of a different department. The bureau’s three employees now report to the county’s Community Connections department, which offers services to low-income families. “That gives some opportunities for co-located services and referrals,” Catalinich said. The county has not filled Drury’s management position. Drury’s salary in 2015 was $82,000. The 2015 audit from Pierce County showed Drury hand-delivered four $6,000 checks to a friend who claimed he was providing housing to homeless veterans. Drury did not check whether the money was actually helping veterans. He claimed he a had a “handshake deal” with county Executive Pat McCarthy and county executive attorney Al Rose to make deals as he saw fit. Rose last year wrote the letter firing Drury, calling Drury’s actions “among the most appalling I have ever encountered.” Drury is being represented by defense attorney Michael Stewart. Stewart said he would comment after a potential criminal case against Drury is resolved. The county audit also found that Drury received $6,800 in gift cards for veterans but could not show that he gave them to anyone. The report found that he gave a car donated to the veterans bureau to his stepson, and that he cut a $6,000 check to a consignment store where his wife worked. The new report from the state auditor’s office found a similar pattern, with Drury sending money to programs that ostensibly provided services to veterans but failing to provide documentation that would prove taxpayer resources actually helped people in need. It cited him for spending $22,000 on counseling for incarcerated veterans without showing any invoices for services. Another $2,000 went to a group that claimed to make quilts for wounded veterans. The rest of the reportedly misused money came in the form of gift cards and questionable travel expenses.