Vets will see same cost-of-living hike as Social Security in 2017 (MilitaryTimes)
Veterans benefits will match the Social Security cost-of-living increase in 2017, thanks to a measure finalized by Congress this week. But veterans groups hoping for a more permanent answer to the annual legislative hand-wringing over their benefits boost will have to wait longer for that solution. Under law, annual cost-of-living increases are automatic for Social Security benefits, determined by the executive branch without intervention from Congress. But veterans benefits fall into a different category, one that requires lawmakers to vote on an adjustment every year. In the last few decades, veterans have seen their annual adjustment differ from the Social Security COLA only one time (in 2000, as a result of a minor rounding difference between the two rates.) But outside groups have called having the two increases dealt with separately confusing at best and potentially ripe for abuse or mistakes. The measure finalized by the Senate this week — it passed without opposition late Wednesday — links the veterans benefits boost to Social Security rates for 2017 alone. Legislation to permanently tie veterans payouts to the Social Security cost-of-living calculations was passed by the House in February, but has languished in the Senate since then. Bill sponsor Rep. Ralph Abraham, R-La., said he is still hopeful that measure can advance through Congress later this year. “Providing a cost-of-living adjustment for veterans is an important step to ensure their financial stability,” he said in a statement. “It is certainly encouraging that both houses in Congress have passed my COLA bill this year, but we need to go further. “Veterans deserve the peace of mind that comes with knowing a COLA will come annually, rather than hoping Congress can break its gridlock to provide for them.” The change affects the annual rates of VA disability compensation, dependency compensation for surviving children and spouses, and medical clothing allowances for veterans, among other benefits. It will not affect adjustments for military retirement pay, which are calculated through other methods. In a statement, Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee Ranking Member Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., called the move an issue of fairness for veterans who sacrificed for the country. “Escalating living expenses are painfully squeezing veterans who rely on disability payments, and this bill would ensure their compensation keeps pace with rising costs,” he said. “It is our duty to provide veterans and their families the support they need to live with the dignity they deserve.” The president is expected to sign the measure in coming days. Congress won’t take up the issue of a permanent fix again for at least two months. Lawmakers started an extended election-year summer recess on Thursday. Social Security and veterans benefits did not see a cost-of-living increase in 2016, due to lower inflation costs and the methodology used by government officials to calculate the raise. No announcements have been made on a possible 2017 increase.
Senate fight stalls funding for troops, veterans (Military.com)
Divisive Senate politics on Thursday stalled funding for troops and veterans, and threw the defense budget into uncertainty for the second year in a row. Democrats continued their filibuster of spending bills for defense and the Department of Veterans Affairs after Republicans tweaked unrelated language on Planned Parenthood and Confederate flag displays — moves certain to raise the ire of lawmakers on the left. The impasse underscores the partisan rancor in Congress and means lawmakers are unlikely to pass a defense and VA budget in time for the start of the new fiscal year in October. Instead, they will leave Washington for a seven-week summer recess and be faced with passing a last-minute, stop-gap budget measure when they return. Each side blamed the other for playing political games. Republican senators used the impasse to hammer Democrats with claims of abandoning and endangering deployed servicemembers. “You don’t care about their safety, minority leader, while they selflessly serve for ours,” Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, told the top Democrat in the Senate, Harry Reid. “You don’t care that their families are counting on them to come home safely.” Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., the majority leader, said the Democrats will be faced with answering questions during the long summer recess — and presidential election campaign — about filibustering the budget bills and $1.1 billion in attached funding to fight the Zika virus. The disease has been linked to severe birth defects and is spreading in the United States. “What will they say to pregnant mothers this summer? What will they say to our veterans for the rest of the summer?” McConnell said. “I wonder what they will say to our activeduty troops, as well.” The VA funding bill initially passed with the support of Democrats in the Senate. But when the House and Senate appointed a committee to smooth out differences for a final bill to send to the White House, Republicans made a variety of changes, including the Zika rider, that rankled Democrats. The new version strips money for Planned Parenthood reproductive health services, removes a prohibition on Confederate flags on graves at veteran cemeteries, and eases environmental restrictions on spraying to kill virus-carrying mosquitoes. Minority Leader Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., said Thursday that the changes were made to “take care of right-wing crazies” and charged Republicans with being deceitful about what the bill would do. “How could anybody with a conscience vote for that,” Reid said. “We are not going to.” Similar wrangling last summer led to legislative disarray, including a rare presidential veto of the defense budget and a scramble on Capitol Hill to pass an omnibus federal spending bill in December. Congress had pledged to avoid political fights this year that endanger the budget and passed a law in November that was supposed to keep the peace for until 2018. But the deal splintered and has now given way to partisan divisions that have plagued Congress. In a sign of how broken the budget deal is, Reid praised the Democrats’ filibustering and brinkmanship last year that brought the budget process to a grinding halt — and said the party is using it again by blocking the military funding bill. He said the tactic could win his party a better deal and more money for domestic programs, particularly national security operations such as the FBI and Department of Homeland Security. “We want more resources for our troops,” he said. “But if we get more resources for our troops, we are going to get more resources that keep us safe and secure that are not related to the Pentagon.”
Study: Sleep disorders on steep rise among veterans (UPI)
A sharply increasing number of veterans of the U.S. Armed Forces have developed sleep problems, with researchers tying a large portion of the jump to the also rising prevalence of post-traumatic stress disorder. Researchers at the University of South Carolina found the number of veterans with sleep disorders went up six-fold during the last decade, while PTSD has become three times as common during the same time, they report in a new study published in the journal Sleep. Combat experience and other mental disorders have also helped push the number of sleep disorders among veterans up, but the increased rates are concerning regardless of the specific cause, they say. For the study, researchers analyzed medical data on all 9.78 million veterans who sought healthcare from the Veterans Health Administration between 2000 and 2010, of whom 93 percent were men and 751,502 were diagnosed with a sleep disorder. The most common sleep disorders diagnosed were sleep apnea and insomnia, which made up 47 percent and 26 percent of all diagnoses. The overall number of disorders diagnosed is a six-fold relative increase in total prevalence during the decade-long study period. During the decade, which included the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, researchers reported PTSD diagnoses tripled and were linked to 16 percent of sleep disorders — the most common condition linked to a sleep disorder among the veterans. While PTSD is a significant concern, as emphasized by the results of the study, the researchers say their findings indicate a growing need for sleep disorder management to be included in healthcare planning by veterans’ caregivers. “Because of the way this study was designed, this does not prove that PTSD caused the increase in sleep disorder diagnoses,” Dr. James Burch, an associate professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at the University of South Carolina, said in a press release. “However, we recently completed a follow-up study, soon to be submitted for publication, that examined this issue in detail. In that study, a preexisting history of PTSD was associated with an increased odds of sleep disorder onset.”
Tougher guidance on VA narcotics prescriptions headed to president’s desk (MilitaryTimes)
A new law designed to curb opiate and heroin abuse includes tougher prescription guidance for Veterans Affairs medical facilities nationwide. Sought by the family of Marine veteran Jason Simcakoski, who died of an accidental overdose at the Tomah, Wisconsin, VA Medical Center in 2014, the changes are designed to strengthen VA pain management guidance and training, improve prescription oversight and promote alternative therapies. Under the bill, VA must ensure that its prescribers are schooled in the latest practices and that all medical facilities stock overdose countermeasures such as naloxone and establish pain management teams to oversee opioid prescriptions for veterans with non-cancer-related pain. “The bill recognizes that too often, these drugs have been used inappropriately and ineffectively, and because they are so powerful and so addictive, this inappropriate use is very dangerous,” said Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., a sponsor of the veterans provisions. The Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act, which passed the Senate on Wednesday by a vote of 92-2 and is expected to be signed by President Obama, authorizes $181 million in new funding for a range of measures designed to fight the national opiate abuse epidemic. The bill requires the VA to ensure health care providers can access and provide information to state prescription databases. It also gives patient advocates more independence by providing an avenue for reporting patient concerns outside the hospital’s chain of command. It promotes alternatives to incarceration for those with substance abuse issues, to include grants to expand veterans treatment courts, and it broadens the number of health care providers who can oversee patients prescribed medications for opioid addiction by allowing some nurse practitioners and physician assistants to facilitate treatment. Simcakoski died Aug. 30, 2014, in the Tomah hospital’s short-stay mental health unit from “mixed drug toxicity,” having taken 13 prescribed medications, including several that cause respiratory depression, in a 24-hour period. Staff psychiatrists had added new medications to Simcakoski’s lengthy list of prescriptions in the days preceding his death and according to Baldwin, both Simcakoski and his family members had questioned staff whether the treatment was appropriate. Veterans also told a Center for Investigative Reporting journalist that distribution of narcotics was so rampant at Tomah, they nicknamed the place “Candy Land” and the center’s chief of staff Dr. David Houlihan the “Candy Man.” According to Baldwin, the patient advocacy measures in the new legislation were most important to the Simcakoski family. “In Jason’s case, he and his family questioned the treatment. But nevertheless, the patient advocate answered to the prescribing physician and the hospital chief of staff. That’s not independence,” she said. According to a 2014 VA inspector general report, the Veterans Health Administration issued 1.68 million prescriptions for opioids to 440,000 outpatients, or 7.7 percent of all VA patients, in 2012. The IG found that 13.1 percent of those prescribed opioids had an active substance use issue and 7.4 percent of patients taking opioids also had a prescription for benzodiazepine — a combination that can cause respiratory depression and death. In 2012, the Center for Investigative Reporting published an analysis showing that VA prescriptions for opiates such as hydrocodone, oxycodone, methadone and morphine have increased 270 percent over the past 12 years. The investigation also found that on average, VA has issued more than one opiate prescription per narcotic-prescribed patient for the past two years. Baldwin said the Simcakoski family worked hard to make sure the VA provisions were included in the final bill, and she praised their efforts. “This bill may have a real impact on the chances of [a veteran] becoming addicted,” Baldwin said. “My goal is to prevent Jason’s tragedy from happening to other veterans and their families.”
VA responds to mailing mishap: ‘That should never happen’ (wane.com)
How safe are your medical records? Earlier this week NewsChannel 15 exposed a huge gaffe made by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, when it sent the personal medical records of two patients to the wrong man. Since then, we haven’t stopped working to find out how this could happen. After several days of trying to get a comment from the VA, NewsChannel 15 traveled to South Bend to ask the VA Secretary in person. On Tuesday, we talked to Fort Wayne veteran Kenneth Hanks. He showed us he received two other veterans’ medical results in the mail, and was worried who may have seen his. When this was brought up to VA Secretary Robert McDonald while he was visiting the VA location in South Bend, his first reaction was passionate. “That shouldn’t happen,” McDonald said. McDonald turned the questions over to VA Northern Indiana Healthcare System Acting Director Jay Miller. Miller said he’s aware of this particular incident. “We see privacy of utmost importance,” Miller said. “Through a mailing a veteran did receive another veteran’s information. There was no social security number.” Hanks told us he called the VA when he opened the mail, and talked to a patient advocate whose response was “Oh no not again.” However, Miller maintains that out of the hundreds of thousands of mailings every year, this does not happen often. “It’s 99.999% in terms of the mailings we do on a day to day basis that don’t impact our veterans in terms of double mails,” Miller said. “This again is an occurrence we are apologizing for, and we’re sorry to the veteran.” McDonald said after an incident like this, there is an investigation and report made about the source of the problem. Miller said it’s believed this mishap happened at a mailing center in Marion.
‘Orange is the New Black’ criticized for portrayal of veterans (Fox News)
Leading veterans’ groups are disturbed by the way veterans hired as prison guards are portrayed in the new season of the Netflix series, “Orange is the New Black.” The veterans’ groups say they take issue with the way the new guards disparage the inmates throughout season four of the drama that takes place in a women’s prison and the way they talk about their combat experiences. The Veterans of Foreign Wars called the show “offensive.” Iraq And Afghanistan Veterans Of America said it will further stigmatize veterans, and Disabled American Veterans said the show is out of the touch with the reality of the veteran experience. Netflix didn’t respond to multiple messages left Thursday and Friday seeking comment. In one scene in the finale, a guard tells another guard about innocent people he killed in Afghanistan. After spending so much time chasing bad guys, he said, “you get so mad, tired and bored” that you “just grab a farm kid” and make him juggle live grenades until one blows up. That’s egregious, and just one way veterans are misrepresented, said Dan Clare, the national spokesman for DAV and an Iraq War veteran. The danger, Clare said, is that “Orange is the New Black” is a popular show airing at a time when many service members are returning home and looking for jobs. If the public has a negative perception of veterans, that will affect how they’re able to transition back into civilian life, he said. VFW national commander John A. Biedrzycki Jr. said the show’s writers and producers chose to offend all veterans because they needed new villains. He spoke out Thursday, after a 27-year-old Air Force veteran, Tahlia Burton, wrote an opinion piece about the show for a military news and culture website, Task & Purpose. Burton describes herself as a “huge fan” of the show. After binge-watching the fourth season, released in June, she said she was appalled because veterans are shown as “bloodthirsty, heartless killers and sexists.” She said she’s not saying veterans deserve “hero status,” but “don’t portray us as a group of monsters.” “‘Orange is the New Black’ had the opportunity to portray veterans in a way that shed light on an identity that’s widely misunderstood,” she wrote. “But instead, the show fed into the very worst stereotypes that we’ve been working so hard to overcome.” At IAVA, policy officer Jonathan Schleifer said the show’s producers are unfortunately telling stories that will further stigmatize a community that has been through so much. Biedrzycki said the “deranged veteran story line” must change and he asked for an apology. Burton, of New York City, said on Friday that she’s torn about whether to watch future seasons, but likely will, in the hopes that the audience will be given a chance to empathize with the veterans, much like they have with nearly every other character in the show.
San Diego VA reports progress in veterans’ care (KPBS)
San Diego County veterans aren’t waiting as long for disability and health care, according to San Diego’s top VA officials, who held a news conference on Thursday to give a status update. Disability benefits now take about three months, compared to 10 months in 2013. The wait for mental health care has been cut in half compared to last year, with the wait in May about five days, said Robert Smith, director of the San Diego VA Health Administration. “Same day visits are normally available for urgent issues, and we also offer extended hours for primary care in the early mornings and evenings,” Smith said. More clinical staff, expanded technology and increased services have optimized patient health care, Smith said. “Most notably, we’re working to expand in innovative ways our ‘telehealth’ and ‘telemental health services’— particularly for veterans in rural areas, but really throughout the health care system,” Smith said. This kind of treatment is provided using electronics or telecommunication technology. “And as you might imagine, for individuals with very severe PTSD who have trouble getting out of the house, that may in fact be the only way in which appropriate mental health care services can be provided,” Smith said. The improvements come two years after a national VA audit found a backlog of benefits claims and long wait times for health care. The Veterans Benefits Administration “has undergone its most significant transformation in its history to improve delivery of benefits,” said Patrick Prieb, director of the San Diego VA Regional Benefit Office. Prieb said 99.7 percent of benefits claims were filed electronically, increasing the speed and accuracy compared to the previous paper-intensive process. “So far this year we’ve completed 8,700 dependency claims, which is a 38 percent increase compared to the same time last year,” Prieb added. Despite all of the progress the VA system has made, challenges remain, Prieb said. “We do understand that there’s more work to be done,” he said. “We recently increased resources to improve processing for dependency claims and appeals as well.” The San Diego VA has seen a steady 5 percent per year increase in the number of veterans it’s serving, partly due to more post-9/11 service members who are entering the system, Smith said. “It is predicted that the total number of veterans within the United States will peak sometime around 2016 to 2017 as older veterans age and pass on,” he said.