July 8 Veterans News

July 8 Veterans News


New data, but no new names for vets’ suicide prevention organizations (Military.com)
What do actor Cuba Gooding Jr., comedian Rob Riggle and mixed martial arts hall-of-famer Randy Couture have in common? They’ve all been known to publicly sport black rings on their index fingers inscribed with “22Kill” — a slogan designed to raise awareness about the number of veterans who take their own lives every day. That 22-per-day number, extrapolated from a 2009 Department of Veterans’ Affairs report, has long been the subject of criticism by those who say the number is inaccurate and the data old. On Thursday, the VA released new, more comprehensive data that indicates 20 veterans die by suicide a day, a figure that alters the 22-per-day statistic but still places the rate 21 percent higher than that for American civilians. But for 22Kill, the veterans’ suicide prevention organization that makes the popular trigger-finger rings, this new data won’t prompt a change in the name, or the mission, officials said. “Listen, 22Kill is a movement,” the group’s executive director, Jacob Schick, told Military.com. “Not only that, but we’ve become a brand. We’re not changing the name. It never crossed my mind.” Schick, a medically retired Marine corporal who was wounded in combat in Iraq in 2004, said he never had a lot of faith in the data generated by the federal government. The organization began in 2013 and received a shot in the arm in the last year thanks to a viral social media campaign in which participants pledge to do 22 push-ups a day for 22 days to raise awareness. From June 1, 2015, to June 1, 2016, Schick said, the organization has sold or distributed about 20,000 of their signature rings in rubber, tungsten and titanium. While Schick still doubts the accuracy of the new VA data, he said it confirms the need for his organization’s work. “It looks like we’re moving in the right direction, albeit very slowly,” Schick said. “Obviously there’s a lot of hard work to do and this just reassures us of that fact.” Mission 22, another veteran-founded organization that is raising funds to create a mobile memorial to veterans who die by suicide, will also keep its name, executive director Sarah Dawdy told Military.com. If anything, Dawdy said, the new VA data confirms the scope of the problem and the need for a solution. “With the 2009 study being so inaccurate, people have always said, ‘Well, what if it’s drastically lower?'” she said. “But this study goes to show that we are facing those drastic numbers. We aim to end that.” Dawdy said the organization planned to keep its name and its mission until the veterans’ suicide rate diminished to zero per day. “It’s been glazed over for too long,” she said. “I think people aren’t talking about it. Nobody wants to talk about suicide. That’s the whole point of Mission 22, is bringing it to the surface.” There are several prominent voices in the military community who disagree with using the figure in any context to raise awareness about suicide. Kim Ruocco, chief external relations officer for the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, which serves surviving family members and friends of those who die on active duty, is outspoken on the point. Ruocco joined TAPS after her husband, a Marine AH-1 Cobra pilot, died by suicide in 2005. She told Military.com she worries that the oft-used “22” figure fosters a sense of hopelessness among veterans and glosses over the fact that many veteran suicides are correlated with a number of pre-existing factors, including mental illness. Twice in the last year, she said, TAPS has encountered stories of veterans who died by suicide who left notes saying that they would be one of the 22 that day, so “Why even try?” “We would prefer to talk about the fact that there are so many evidence-based treatments out there that can care for our veterans who are suffering,” Ruocco said. “We want to encourage them to go and get treatment before they feel suicidal and hopeless.” Schick defended the in-your-face name of his organization, saying it was meant to engage people who might otherwise ignore the real problem of veterans’ suicide. “Well, you know, to me the name is supposed to get your attention, just like AIDS or Cancer.” Schick said. “Those aren’t names like lollipops or roses. This is a very morbid epidemic that we’re dealing with.”

House, Senate at odds over preference for veterans in federal hiring (Washington Post)
The House has voted overwhelmingly to make no changes in the hiring preferences veterans receive when seeking federal jobs, taking a position opposite to that of the Senate. The House voted 409 to 14 late Thursday in favor an amendment stating that “no funds may be used to revise any policy or directive related to hiring preferences for veterans of the Armed Forces.” The amendment, offered by Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.) is a response to several provisions in the Senate-passed version of a defense-spending bill to limit the advantage veterans have when applying for federal jobs. The more far-reaching of the two would apply hiring preference only for an initial federal job being filled on a competitive basis, and not for any afterward. “While this change might seem innocuous, it could have serious negative implications for the men and women who served our nation in uniform,” Gallego said during House consideration of his amendment. ”Under the Senate proposal, if a particular federal job isn’t a good fit, or if a veteran wants to move up the ladder at a different agency, he or she will be deprived of this benefit.” “Simply put, the Senate language is a step in the wrong direction. After years of painful progress in combating economic distress and homelessness among our veterans, now is not the time to dilute a system which has proven highly successful in promoting veteran employment,” said Gallego, himself a veteran of the Marines. The other Senate provision would reinstate a general policy that military retirees cannot move into civil service jobs within six months of their retirement, ending an exception that has been in effect since 9/11 and that has been commonly used. The House vote comes in advance of a conference between the two chambers on the defense-spending bill. The amendment was added to an unrelated spending bill passed by the House on Thursday but effectively stakes out the House’s position going into that conference. Veterans preference does not guarantee veterans a federal job, but it generally moves them ahead of non-veterans for positions being filled competitively. Most such positions are filled through a process called category rating, in which candidates are grouped according to their qualifications; veterans are listed first at each level, and hiring managers generally must select them over non-veterans. Some other positions are filled through a points-based system in which veterans receive extra points, boosting their standing. In the 2014 budget year, veterans accounted for 33.2 percent of total new hires by federal agencies; excluding part-time, seasonal and temporary positions, the percentage was 47.4. Preference does not apply to actions such as promotions, transfers and reassignments, however. There are separate preferences in more limited circumstances for jobs being filled on a non-competitive basis.

Former Japanese leader starts fund for US vets who helped Fukushima (Military.com)
A former Japanese prime minister is calling on his countrymen to donate to a fund for U.S. veterans who say they were sickened by radioactive fallout from the 2011 disaster at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant. “They went so far to do their utmost to help Japan,” Junichiro Koizumi told a news conference Tuesday in Tokyo alongside fellow former Prime Minister Morihiro Hosokawa, according to Asahi Shimbun. “It is not the kind of issue we can dismiss with just sympathy.” Hundreds of veterans, claiming a host of medical conditions they say are related to radiation exposure after participating in Operation Tomodachi relief efforts, have filed suit against the nuclear plant’s operator, the Tokyo Electric Power Co. A massive earthquake caused a tsunami that swamped a large stretch of northeastern Japan and inundated the power plant. Experts are still dealing with continuing leaks from the reactors. The suit asserts that TEPCO lied, coaxing the Navy closer to the plant even though it knew the situation was dire. General Electric, EBASCO, Toshiba Corp. and Hitachi were later added as defendants for allegations of faulty parts for the reactors. Illnesses listed in the lawsuit, which is making its way through the courts, include genetic immune system diseases, headaches, difficulty concentrating, thyroid problems, bloody noses, rectal and gynecological bleeding, weakness in sides of the body accompanied by the shrinking of muscle mass, memory loss, leukemia, testicular cancer, problems with vision, high-pitch ringing in the ears and anxiety. People can donate to the fund, called the Operation Tomodachi Victims Foundation, at Japanese credit union Jonan Shinyo Kinko, Eigyobu honten branch, account No. 844688. Donations, accepted through March 31, 2017, will be transferred to a U.S. bank and used, under the management of a judge, to support the veterans, according to a news release from the credit union.

One reason so many veterans are homeless? They can’t afford lawyers (Washington Post)
David Garrett returned home from war to find he had no home. A disabled veteran from Maine who had served in Iraq and Afghanistan, Garrett soon fell into homelessness. After almost a year of camping out, he found an apartment he could afford by negotiating a deal in which he paid lower rent in exchange for paying four months in advance. When his landlord sold the building, the new owner said he found no evidence of Garrett’s prepaid rent and tried to evict him. Facing homelessness once more, Garrett needed a housing solution. But to get one, he urgently needed something else: a lawyer. With nearly 50,000 veterans sleeping on the streets each night, it’s clear we are failing to serve those who have served our country. But the solution isn’t as obvious as it might seem. Veterans don’t need simply more doctors and shelter beds; new research shows that veterans need lawyers to fight on their behalf as well. According to a new study from the Department of Veterans Affairs, at least five out of the top 10 problems leading to homelessness among veterans cannot be solved without legal help. The study surveyed more than 6,000 homeless veterans and service providers, asking them what services veterans need to become stably housed. The survey found that many veterans are able to secure food, medical services and substance-abuse treatment. But for problems that require legal assistance such as fighting evictions, upgrading military discharge status or restoring a driver’s license, many veterans are not receiving the help they need. Legal assistance is often critical to ensure that veterans find justice and get the benefits they have earned — and can keep a roof over their heads. Securing benefits and services can involve a byzantine maze of procedures that many cannot navigate on their own. Even something that sounds simple, such as restoring a driver’s license that expired during service — essential for applying for much-needed resources that can keep veterans off the streets — may require the help of a lawyer, particularly if the veteran has other unresolved legal issues. Given these realities, legal help is as much a necessity as housing and health care. Civil legal aid — legal representation in civil cases for people who can’t afford a private attorney — has proven effective in keeping veterans in their homes. As Garrett was facing homelessness, a civil legal-aid group called Pine Tree Legal Assistance stepped in. Pine Tree runs a program to support veterans with housing challenges and took Garrett’s case on the day of his eviction hearing. Pine Tree’s lawyers successfully negotiated an agreement with the new owner to prevent his eviction, secured federal funds through a partner nonprofit to help him pay rent and worked to help him obtain a Section 8 housing voucher. Garrett’s eviction case was dismissed, and he has been able to stay in his home. Increasingly, VA health-care teams are acknowledging the role legal needs play in shaping veterans’ health and well-being and are embedding civil legal-aid lawyers in their teams. At these medical-legal partnerships, doctors, social workers and nurses work in tandem with civil legal-aid attorneys to identify and resolve problems at the root of homelessness so they can keep veterans healthy and housed. … Medical-legal partnerships and other civil legal-aid interventions for veterans show the promise of a holistic approach to veterans care. It’s time to make the investments we must to ensure we don’t leave any veterans behind.

Will Senate put vacation before veterans? (Billings Gazette)
Gazette opinion: Fresh from their Independence Day holidays, members of Congress are scheduled to be working in Washington for less than two weeks. Their long summer recess is on the calendars for July 15 through Sept. 5. Whatever Congress fails to do by the end of next week won’t get done at least until September. There are precious few work days in the Capitol after Labor Day. It’s election year and politicians are anxious to go back to campaigning for re-election. Among the many important legislative jobs left undone at this writing is improving U.S. veterans health care. The Senate Veterans Affairs Committee gave strong bipartisan support to S.2921, the Veterans First Act, in mid-May. The bill is sponsored by Committee Chairman Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., and cosponsored by the ranking Committee Democrat, Sen. Jon Tester of Montana. The bill has 48 cosponsors, including Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont. Yet this broadly popular, bipartisan legislation that addresses problems with veterans’ access to care, health care professional shortages, caregiver support, disability services, education and other veteran needs is stuck. It hasn’t been brought to the Senate floor for a vote – and time is running out. Even after the Senate votes, the veterans legislation will have to go to a conference committee to reconcile differences with a multitude of House bills. The Senate bill put the various veterans’ service upgrades into one bill. “Despite receiving support from every senator on the Veterans Affairs Committee, the Veterans First Act is now being held up by one senator who is blocking the bill,” Tester wrote in a Gazette guest opinion published Thursday. Arcane Senate rules allow a single member to block any bill. This is usually done without the objecting senator publicly announcing the hold. In this case, the hold is from Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. We don’t know why McCain, a veteran and former POW, would block the Veterans First Act. But we do know that this legislation must pass the Senate before Congress leaves for vacation. “VFW strongly supports the Veterans First Act,” Joe Davis, VFW director of public affairs, told The Gazette this week. “We want it done before the Senate recesses.” The Disabled American Veterans “is definitely supportive of this major piece of legislation,” said Joy Ilem, DAV national legislative director in Washington, D.C. The DAV issued a member alert on its website that has generated more than 4,000 emails from disabled veterans calling on senators to move forward with S.2921. “Everybody’s frustrated,” Ilem said. “There’s a short window of opportunity.” Although the Senate bill has broad support, Ilem said that House bills include more accountability measures aimed at firing VA employees, withholding bonuses, encouraging whistleblowers and other provisions that would affect employees’ due process. It would be outrageous if legislation that would help millions of American veterans is being delayed because it doesn’t penalize VA employees. Who would really be penalized by such a delay? It’s good to see that both Montana senators are strong supporters of the Veterans First Act. We call on Tester and Daines to work with their colleagues to overcome all obstacles to passing this bill before July 15. It would still take a miracle for veterans’ legislation to reach the president’s desk this summer. But if the Senate delays past next week, veterans will wait till year’s end – or next year. In a statement issued Wednesday, DAV Washington Executive Director Garry J. Augustine agreed with overall conclusions of the just-finalized Commission on Care report, but disagreed with some of its conclusions saying: “VA provides high quality health care but has challenges providing access to all veterans seeking care. VA provides high quality health care but has challenges providing access to all veterans seeking care.” That’s what Montana veterans generally report: The problem is timely access; care usually is very good when the veteran can get it. The U.S. Senate must not exacerbate unconscionable delay in care for American veterans.

VA health care is both good and in need of ‘dramatic change’ (Washington Post)
A congressionally mandated commission offers two views of health care provided by the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). Care for veterans is “in many ways comparable or better in clinical quality to that generally available in the private sector.” At the same time, VA health care, operated by the department’s Veterans Health Administration (VHA), needs “fundamental, dramatic change — change that requires new direction, new investment, and profound reengineering.” The statements seem to clash, but they both can be true as the 300-page Commission on Care report documents. The point is, no matter how good the care, it could be much better particularly when it comes to access. The 12-member commission, appointed by President Obama and members of Congress, said access to health care is the VA’s “most public and glaring deficiency.” Access was at the heart of the scandal over the cover-up of long wait times that two years later continues to rock the department and led to the resignation of the former VA secretary. The commission’s first recommendation is to create a system of “high-performing, integrated, community-based health care networks.” Increased use of community-based providers would right “a misalignment of capacity and demand that threatens to become worse over time. Some facilities and services have low volumes of care that can create quality concerns, and in high demand areas, VHA often lacks the capacity to avoid lengthy wait times and other access issues.” Community-based providers include VA facilities, “Department of Defense and other federally funded providers and facilities, and VHA‐credentialed community providers and facilities,” according to the report. The same law, known as the Choice Act, that created the commission encouraged broader use of private-sector health care by veterans. Approved during the heat of the scandal in 2014, it allowed the use of private health care by veterans who live at least 40 miles from the nearest VA facility and who cannot be seen within 30 days. But the “design and implementation of the law have proven to be flawed,” according to the report. Instead of making things better, “in execution, the program has aggravated wait times and frustrated veterans, private-sector health care providers participating in networks, and VHA alike.” Rep. Jeff Miller (R-Fla.), chairman of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee and a prime mover of the Choice Act, said the report “makes it abundantly clear that the problems plaguing Department of Veterans Affairs medical care are severe.” One problem is the management of the private sector provision he pushed was contracted out to two companies, “thus blurring lines of responsibility and leaving both patients and providers confused about who exactly holds responsibility for what.” Another issue is a shortage of health care professionals and support staff. Too few support staffers means “doctors and nurses often escort patients; clean examination rooms; take vital signs; schedule; document care; and place the orders for consultations, prescriptions.” The commission also cited a 2007 VHA report that found racial and ethnic health care disparities. The new report said the department should establish “health care equity as a strategic priority.” On the workforce, the report suggested placing VHA employees under a section of the law, known as Title 38, which would allow the agency greater flexibility in pay and hiring and firing. Currently, many of those staffers are under another section, Title 5, which “was not created with a modern health care delivery system in mind,” according to the report. VA Secretary Robert A. McDonald welcomed the report, saying many of its recommendations are in-line with his efforts “to transform the VA into a Veteran-centric organization.” Now, according to McDonald’s statement, 90 percent of veterans surveyed say they are “‘satisfied or completely satisfied’ with the timeliness of their appointments.” “However, until all Veterans say they are satisfied,” he added, “I won’t be satisfied. Nobody at VA will be satisfied.”

Post-9/11 vet unemployment at 4.4 percent in June (MilitaryTimes)
Unemployment for the latest generation of veterans rose slightly in June but still remains near record-low levels, government data show. The unemployment rate for post-9/11 veterans ticked to 4.4 percent, up from May’s 4-percent mark. But the May unemployment rate was the lowest ever recorded since the Bureau of Labor Statistics started tracking the group in September 2008. And if this June’s 4.4 percent rate had come out one year earlier, it would have been an all-time low at that time. The nation as a whole added a robust 287,000 jobs in June, a substantial improvement from May’s 38,000 new jobs, while the national unemployment rate ticked up from 4.7 percent to 4.9 percent. After years of double-digit unemployment rates, which sometimes reached into the teens, post-9/11 veterans have seen an unprecedented run of success in the job market. Their unemployment rates of late have regularly bettered both the standard national unemployment rate, which is seasonally adjusted and makes for an inexact comparison, and the nonveteran unemployment rate, which, like the post-9/11 rate, is not seasonally adjusted and is thus more comparable. The nonveteran unemployment rate in June was 4.8 percent. Unemployment for veterans of all generations stood at 4.2 percent in June, up from May’s 3.4 percent mark.

Republican pushes VA on contracts for veteran-owned businesses (The Hill)
A top Republican wants to make sure the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) is following a Supreme Court ruling that directs agencies to follow laws to increase the number of federal contracts to veteran-owned small businesses (VOSBs). In a letter to Thomas Leney, executive director of the VA Office of Small and Disadvantaged Business Utilization, Rep. Mike Coffman (R-Colo.) urged the VA to embrace the ruling as a way to reach more “qualified VOSBs.” Coffman is chair of the House Veterans Affairs’ Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations. In June, the court unanimously sided with Kingdomware Technologies Inc. in a case against the VA. The web software company argued that the agency should have given it priority as a service-disabled VOSB under the Rule of Two. The company was bidding to provide an emergency notification service for four medical centers. The Rule of Two under the Veterans Benefits, Health Care and Information Technology Act of 2006 says a contracting officer “shall award contracts” by restricting competition to veteran-owned small businesses if the officer reasonably expects that at least two businesses will submit offers and that “the award can be made at a fair and reasonable price.” “Many of the ‘mundane low-cost or repetitive items that VA cited in its Kindgdomware briefs, such as griddles and food slicers, are exactly the sort of products hundreds of VOSBs are well qualified to supply,’ ” Coffman said in his letter. “VA has repeatedly been subject to protests as a result of not setting these procurements aside.” Coffman raised concerns with the VA’s interim implementation policy, which says the VA will implement the court’s ruling in every context where the law applies and would rescind any inconsistent guidance. He asked the VA to clarify in what instances it believes the ruling would not apply and if it plans to apply the Rule of Two to smaller purchases. Coffman asked the agency to respond by July 22.

Veteran tuition program in Wyoming saved from budget cuts (Military.com)
A program that provides tuition assistance for veterans has been restored for now by Gov. Matt Mead after being targeted for elimination because of budget cuts. Mead announced Wednesday that he would continue funding the program through the coming fall semester. And he didn’t rule out the possibility of continuing it after this year. The program administered by the Wyoming Community College Commission provided assistance to 162 veterans at the state’s seven community colleges and the University of Wyoming last fall. Just at UW, about 60 students had been enrolled in the program, costing the state about $312,000 a year in tuition support. Veterans who had been deployed to combat zones could receive 10 free semesters at any Wyoming community college and the university. Veterans’ surviving spouses and dependents are also eligible. “This program is important to our veterans and their families — many rely on it as they pursue their degree,” Mead said in a statement. “Declining revenues make the state budget difficult to predict. Veterans, colleges and the University will now have time to transition to a program that leverages existing federal assistance and looks at state priorities.” Students in the program, which was administered by the Wyoming Community College Commission, had been told recently that the program was being eliminated to save money. The state’s seven community colleges are slashing budgets because of cuts in state aid brought on by a downturn in Wyoming’s mineral extraction industry. Community colleges across the state have been forced to eliminate about 175 jobs and cut back on other expenses as a result.