Trump and Clinton to speak at the American Legion convention (MilitaryTimes)
Presidential candidates Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton will again present their plans for veterans program reforms during separate appearances at the American Legion’s national convention in Cincinnati later this month. The speeches come a month after both candidates spoke about those plans at the Veterans of Foreign Wars convention in North Carolina, and amid a host of extra attention on veterans issues in the wake of the Republican and Democratic conventions in July. Legion officials said Democratic Party standard bearer Clinton will address the convention Aug. 31, while Republican nominee Donald Trump will speak on the convention’s final day, Sept. 1. Both candidates have laid out a broad slate of changes to the Department of Veterans Affairs, and are expected to repeat those goals during the Legion appearances. Clinton has promised to provide more resources to the department and better accountability procedures for problematic bureaucrats, but has also vowed not to allow conservatives to massively shift veterans health care to physicians outside existing VA systems. Trump has made that a centerpiece of his plans, saying that the department as constructed is too overburdened to provide adequate care to many veterans. He has also promised more direct involvement in addressing VA problems, including a White House hotline to field veterans’ complaints. But many of those policy discussions have been overshadowed in recent weeks by military-related gaffes by Trump. He has been criticized by opponents for appearing to attack a Gold Star father who spoke at the Democratic convention, and added to the problem by awkwardly bragging about a Purple Heart medal given to him by a veteran supporting his campaign. Both candidates have also called the other unfit to serve as commander in chief, questioning each other’s temperament and honesty. The Legion convention runs from Aug. 26 to Sept. 1.
U.S. Senators push for automatic disability status for poisoned vets (WWAY)
Today, Senators Richard Burr and Thom Tillis wrote a letter to Office of Management and Budget Director Shaun Donavan urging the Department of Veterans Affairs to grant presumptive disability status to veterans suffering from diseases caused by poisoned water at Camp Lejeune, including Parkinson’s Disease, Bladder Cancer and Leukemia, among others. It was one year ago, August of 2015, that the Department of Veterans Affairs first announced those victims would receive disability benefits. “While affected veterans are receiving health care, many have lost their homes and their ability to work and financially support themselves because of the disabilities caused by the illnesses they developed from toxic exposure,” the Senators wrote. “Many more are teetering on the brink of losing their homes and bankruptcy. This is not just a North Carolina problem; this is a national problem.”
Top Army Doctor Leery of Treating PTSD with Marijuana (Time)
The Army’s top doctor is skeptical that the first-ever federally-approved study will show that marijuana can help U.S. veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. “It’s been found that using marijuana has a lot of adverse health effects,” Lieut. General Nadya West says. In April, the federal government approved a three-year study to try to determine if actual marijuana, not merely chemicals extracted from it, can help those with PTSD. Many veterans say smoking marijuana has eased their symptoms of PTSD. Like the Army, the Department of Veterans Affairs has doubts about its effectiveness. Proponents, the Army surgeon general adds, too often emphasize the benefits without acknowledging the downsides. Marijuana “is more dangerous, with some of the carcinogens that are in it, than tobacco,” West says. “So to make it sound as if it’s perfectly safe, the impact that it has long-term on certain areas of the brain, especially young people developing, that’s been proven: irreversible damage to the hippocampus and things like that that can really have impacts on individuals long-term.” The Army’s existing PTSD treatments ease symptoms in 80% of soldiers, the three-star officer tells TIME, and any soldiers try to self-medicate with pot will be disciplined. “The Army policy is still that [marijuana] is an illegal substance,” she says. But some veterans aren’t waiting for the government’s, or anyone else’s, stamp of approval. Jose Martinez knows trauma. As a U.S. Army infantryman in Afghanistan, he lost both legs, his right arm and his left index finger to a land mine in 2012. Recovery was challenging. “In my eyes, I had pretty much failed when I stepped on a bomb and lost three limbs,” he says. “I was going insane because I did not understand why I was still alive.” Then, last December, he broke his maimed left arm, his lone remaining limb, when his car flipped over after hitting black ice in the high desert near his Apple Valley, Calif., home. It’s no surprise, then, that he also knows PTSD. Doctors plied him with pills after both calamities. “I started taking so many prescription pills,” he recalls, “I was numb to the world.” Over time, he ended up replacing those pills—up to 150 a day, he says—with marijuana. While Martinez says he smoked pot occasionally before enlisting in the Army in 2010, he obeyed the military’s prohibition against it before that bomb blast near Kandahar. He says marijuana has stayed his pain and tamed his demons. “My brain’s telling me to freak out because I’m missing my limbs, but when I’m on cannabis, it tells me to calm down, you’re O.K., you’re fine,” Martinez says. Not only does it soothe the phantom pain of his missing limbs, but it also eases a racing and apprehensive mind riven with PTSD. “It relaxes me and helps me sleep at night,” he says. “I’m so super-vigilant, and it really calms my anxiety, which can shoot up when I’m around a lot of people I don’t know.” Back home, Martinez, 28, is once again a frontline soldier, now in a new battle—to prove that the ancient herb can help veterans like him who suffer from PTSD, a signature wound of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. But marijuana’s checkered legal, medical and social history make it a controversial treatment. The federal government estimates that as many as 500,000 of the 2.7 million troops who served in those countries may have some kind of PTSD. Despite her misgivings, West, the Army’s top doctor, endorses the research. “I don’t know if we need to have the full spectrum of what’s in marijuana as its typically administered, if that’s necessary, she says. But “we should always, at least, have an open mind to look at things in an evidence-based way for something that could be useful for our soldiers.”
Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst wants answers about VA “ghost panels” (WQAD)
Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst wants answers about why the Veterans Affairs hospital in Iowa City – as well as others – assigned up to 2,300 patients to so-called “ghost panels.” A ghost panel is made up of primary care doctors who no longer work at the hospital. Ernst sent letters to the director of the Iowa City VA as well as the VA Midwest Health Care Network director, in response to a federal audit that showed hospitals in Iowa and South Dakota were using the panels, despite the fact the practice violates department policy. That reports found that the Iowa City VA Health Care System assigned 1,245 active patients to ghost panels. Critics say the practice is a way some VA hospitals have made caseloads appear artificially small. It can be disruptive for patients, who have to see different doctors if they need care and may face longer wait times. In her letter, Ernst requested that a “concrete plan of action describing exactly how and when these 1,245 veterans will be re-assigned or re-distributed to quality care providers. These veterans deserve to know whether they were assigned to primary care providers who do not even work at the VA, and I request that these servicemembers be notified immediately of their status of care.”
31 veterans are headed to the paralympics with Team USA (Task & Purpose)
Beginning Sept. 7, a team of athletes will compete in Rio de Janeiro across 23 sports in the 15th Paralympic Games. Many of these paralympians have persevered in the face of illness, injury, and stigma to make it to this year’s games. Perhaps none more so than the 31 military veterans who are part of the U.S. Paralympic Team. A number of them were made eligible through accidents or combat injuries, and have used exercise as a means of rehabilitation. But a greater passion for the sports they found has brought them to Rio for gold and glory on the world stage.
VA provides service dog benefits to veterans with mental health disorders (News4Jax)
The Department of Veterans Affairs announced Thursday that it is piloting a program that will provide service dogs for veterans with mobility issues associated with mental health disorders. “We take our responsibility for the care and safety of veterans very seriously,” said VA Under Secretary for Health, Dr. David J. Shulkin. “The Department of Veterans Affairs is committed to providing appropriate, safe and effective, compassionate care to all veterans. Implementing the veterinary health benefit for mobility service dogs approved for veterans with a chronic impairment that substantially limits mobility associated with mental health disorders may prove to be significantly beneficial for some veterans. The service dog benefits pilot will evaluate this premise.” VA has been providing veterinary benefits to veterans diagnosed as having visual, hearing or substantial mobility impairments who need guide or service dogs. The pilot will extend those benefits to veterans with a mental health disorder that substantially limits mobility if a service dog is the best way for the veteran to manage the mobility impairment and live independently. Service dogs are distinguished from pets and comfort animals because they are specially trained to perform tasks or work for a specific individual with a disability who cannot perform the task or accomplish the work independently. To be eligible for the veterinary health benefit, the service dog must be trained by an organization accredited by Assistance Dogs International in accordance with VA regulations. Currently, 652 veterans with approved guide or service dogs receive the veterinary service benefit. The pilot will extend the benefit to another 100 veterans. The VA veterinary service benefit includes comprehensive wellness and sick care (annual visits for preventive care, maintenance care, immunizations, dental cleanings, screenings, etc.), urgent/emergent care, prescription medications, and care for illnesses or disorders when treatment enables the dog to perform its duties in service to the veteran.
KISS pays tribute to veterans (KMOV)
You may not recognize them without their trademark make-up, but some very famous faces were at the Aleda E. Lutz VA Medical Center in Saginaw on Wednesday. Members of KISS played at the Dow Event Center on Monday, but they didn’t leave town right away. Instead, they visited veterans to thank them for their service. “We don’t like to publicize these kinds of things, but we might as well say that without veterans there is no country. And if we can make a visit to a veteran’s hospital, and thank personally the people who make it possible, those are the heroes that make America great,” said guitarist Paul Stanley. But the veterans weren’t so quiet when they got wind of who was coming to see them. “When they heard that KISS, the actual KISS band, was coming out here to see them, you couldn’t get the smiles off their faces they were so happy,” said Jason Christianson, Chief of Voluntary Service.
Atlanta VA Medical Center names new director (Atlanta Business Chronicle)
The Atlanta VA Medical Center (Atlanta VAMC) named Annette P. Walker as its new director responsible for 4,700 employees and an operating budget of more than $700 million. Walker will oversee the main hospital in Decatur, campuses at Fort McPherson and in Carrollton, as well as clinics in Atlanta, East Point, Oakwood, Austell, Stockbridge, Lawrenceville, Newnan, Rome, and Blairsville, Ga. The Atlanta VAMC reported Walker is currently the associate director at the John D. Dingell VA Medical Center in Detroit, a position she has held since March 2013. Beginning in January 2016, Walker served a four month term as interim director at the Jesse Brown VA Medical Center in Chicago. Walker has over 22 years of experience with VA beginning as a staff nurse and having held roles in nursing management, medical administration, and seamless transition (OEF/OIF) coordination, as well as serving as the current advocate for former Prisoners of War. The Atlanta VA Medical Center is a Joint Commission and Magnet accredited 371-bed tertiary care facility that oversees health care delivery to more than 102,000 veterans. Walker’s appointment as the Atlanta VA director begins Sept. 4.