Obama’s final address to veterans meets rebuke from some vet groups (Military.com)
In what he called “my final address to our nation’s veterans as president,” Barack Obama declared Monday that the nation had a “sacred covenant” with its veterans to ensure they receive the health care, support and benefits they need and to fix broken services. Obama paid tribute to the nation’s wounded warriors and its Gold Star families during the speech at the Disabled American Veterans annual convention in Atlanta. He recapped achievements during his eight years in office – from reducing homelessness by nearly 50 percent to increasing health care for millions of veterans. But he also spoke plainly about scandals that have wracked the Department of Veterans Affairs during his two terms – in particular the data manipulation to hide long wait lists for doctor appointments, benefits claims that were destroyed or left to languish in bins by overwhelmed staff and retaliation against whistleblowers. Obama said that neither he nor VA Secretary Bob McDonald were satisfied with the efforts to fix the problems and vowed that transforming the VA and holding people accountable would continue. “Long wait times, veterans denied care, people manipulating the books – inexcusable,” Obama said to loud applause at the annual convention. The nation’s commitment to veterans is a sacred covenant, he said. Sacred, because of the solemn request to ask someone to risk their life “on our behalf” and a covenant, because in return, America owes its veterans. “We pledged to take care of you and your families when you come home,” he said. “That’s a sacred covenant. It’s a solemn promise and it is binding. And upholding it is a moral imperative.” About 200,000 service members become veterans every year. Obama outlined where services for veterans had improved and where they went wrong. He also highlighted five areas in which improvements need to continue: access to health care, more resources, access to claims, homelessness and veterans transitioning to the civilian workforce. But while the president’s address was met with applause inside the convention, some veterans’ advocates slammed it for touting successes while veterans face so many problems and the VA continues to come under fire for a lack of accountability. “There has been some progress but this is not time for the president to celebrate success,” Paul Rieckhoff, CEO and founder of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, said in a statement. “The VA scandal was predictable, preventable and many of the core issues still remain two years later.” Rieckhoff said Obama’s speech was “tone deaf” and that the president needed to “be candid in acknowledging the failures during his presidency and turning the corner now.” He called on Obama to press for and institute “true reform” at the VA. Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., who chairs the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, also charged that Obama had sugarcoated the problems. He said VA wait time data was “still misleading,” whistleblower retaliation is “still a major problem” and poor performance was continuing despite a VA budget that has nearly quadrupled since 2001. … In his address, Obama said he has increased funding for veterans by more than 85 percent since he’s been in office. But he warned the Republicans in Congress have threatened to cut that and urged them to pass the budget. He called on veterans to keep pressuring Congress to reform the “broken” claims appeals process. He said more than 2 million vets who didn’t have benefits now do, but there are still more waiting for care. Thousands of doctors, nurses, clinicians, mental health care providers have been hired. Funding for mental health care was increased more than 75 percent – billions of dollars, he said. But the demand also keeps growing. … He also argued that while the VA needs to be fixed, it cannot be privatized. “Don’t destroy VA health care,” he said to huge applause. “Fix it. But don’t break our covenant with our veterans.” Ahead of his speech Monday, the secretaries of the VA and the Department of Housing and Urban Development held a telephone news conference, announcing a dual-pronged milestone: Veterans homelessness has been reduced by 47 percent since 2010, but that’s still 50 percent more than the administration’s goal to end the plight by 2015. … Obama called veterans homelessness a travesty and vowed that efforts to house them would not stop until every veteran has a home. But Rieckhoff said that the announcement about the reduction in homelessness only highlighted the administration’s failures. “The truth is that the president missed his own goal of zero homeless veterans by 2015,” Reickhoff said. “He has also failed to reach his goal of ending the VA backlog by the beginning of 2016 – which still stands at over 70,000 today. “VA funding increases are extremely helpful,” he added. “But as we’ve seen over the last few years as funding has repeatedly increased, funding alone will not fix the VA.”
Veteran gives Trump his Purple Heart medal (Task & Purpose)
During a campaign rally in Ashland, Virginia, Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump took something out of his pocket and shared it with the crowd. It was a Purple Heart medal. The decoration awarded to U.S. service members who are killed or wounded in the direct actions against the enemy, it is one of the most heralded medals in the armed forces. “You know something very nice just happened to me,” Trump said. “A man came up to me and handed me his Purple Heart.” Trump said he asked the man if the medal was real, or if it was a duplicate. Trump said the man said, “That’s my real Purple Heart, I have such confidence in you.” “Man,” Trump said, “That’s like big stuff. I always wanted to get the Purple Heart. This was much easier.” He then invited the man, who he identified as a retired lieutenant colonel, up on the stage. He emerged to raucous applause, wearing a Purple Heart recipient hat and walking with a cane, and shook Trump’s hand. The exchange comes as Trump is being widely criticized for his interactions with the military community, largely over his rhetoric with the Khan family. Khizr and Ghazala Khan, parents of Army Capt. Humayun Khan, who was killed in action in Iraq, appeared at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia on July 28. Trump later said Khizr Khan had no right to criticize him and questioned whether Ghazala Khan was allowed to speak. Yesterday, the New York Times published an article delving into Trump’s life during the Vietnam War, where he received four draft deferments for college and then a medical deferment for having bone spurs in his feet.
Court denies sea-based Vietnam vets’ claim against VA over Agent Orange benefits (AllGov)
The D.C. Circuit upheld the dismissal of “blue water” Vietnam veterans’ claim that the Department of Veterans Affairs wrongly refused to compensate them for injuries caused by Agent Orange exposure. The U.S. military used Agent Orange as a defoliant to clear forested areas throughout the Vietnam War, and thousands of soldiers were exposed to the herbicide mixture. A list of potential health consequences posted on the VA’s website notes that exposure can lead to increased rates of acute leukemia, Hodgkin’s lymphoma and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, throat cancer, prostate cancer, lung cancer, colon cancer, Ischemic heart disease, soft tissue sarcoma and liver cancer. Exposure to Agent Orange was so prevalent that Congress eventually recognized the long-term health effects of the chemical and passed the Agent Orange Act of 1991, which creates a presumption that veterans who served between 1962 and 1975 were exposed. If these veterans develop diseases linked to Agent Orange, they can receive disability compensation without proving they were exposed to the herbicide. However, the VA does not offer such benefits to veterans who served on ships offshore, never set foot on Vietnamese soil, or served on ships that entered inland waterways. Instead, these “blue-water” veterans must prove exposure on a case-by-case basis. The Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Association unsuccessfully challenged the distinction in a 2015 lawsuit. The veterans noted that the presence of Agent Orange in the waters off the coast of Vietnam was unmistakable. “Whenever ships anchored, the anchoring evolution would disturb the shallow seabed and churn up the bottom,” they claimed. “Weighing anchor actually pulled up a small portion of the bottom. The cavitation of military ships moving along the coast line, especially within the 10 fathom curve, at high speeds, further impinged on the sea bottom. This caused the Agent Orange to constantly rise to the surface.” After churning up Agent Orange while traversing and anchoring offshore, unsophisticated methods of turning saltwater into potable water intensified the chemical, furthering their exposure, the veterans said. On Friday, the blue-water veterans lost their appeal of the dismissal of their case. D.C. Circuit Judge Thomas B. Griffith acknowledged that proving individual exposure is “an extremely difficult task,” but insisted that his hands were tied. His 15-page opinion (pdf) focused almost totally on jurisdiction, stating that federal law has long been interpreted to “preclude judicial review of VA decisions affecting the provision of veterans’ benefits.” Griffith wrote that although the law “does not give the VA exclusive jurisdiction to construe laws affecting the provision of veterans benefits,” the D.C. Circuit cannot review either individual benefits determinations or policy-level challenges to veterans’ groups. Friday’s opinion suggests that the veterans may be able to bring their challenge in the Federal Circuit if it can be construed as a challenge to a regulation. The group may also have access to the Board of Veterans’ Appeals or the U.S. Supreme Court. Last year, the VA expanded its Agent Orange regulations to cover reservists who flew planes previously used to spray the chemical.
Loss of VA health-care providers grows as demand for care increases (The Washington Post)
Two trend lines in veterans’ health care are not encouraging. Demand for Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) services is going up, but so are losses among the agency’s health-care providers. Annual VA outpatient medical appointments rose by 20 percent, or 17.1 million visits from fiscal 2011 through 2015, according to a new Government Accountability Office report. But also increasing during that period was the number of staffers in five critical occupations who left the agency. In 2011, 5,897 physicians, registered nurses, physician assistants, psychologists and physical therapists said goodbye. By 2015, that number had grown to 7,734. The rate of loss rose from 7.3 percent to 8.2 percent. The GAO said similar problems affect other health-care organizations because of national shortages and increased competition for clinical employees. “These staffing shortages directly impact patient care and makes the work of these dedicated employees even more difficult,” said J. David Cox Sr., president of the American Federation of Government Employees, which represents VA staffers. VA, however, released a flurry statistics to show service is good. Among them, in May, 96.7 percent of appointments were within one month “of the clinically indicated or Veteran’s preferred date,” 85.6 percent were within one week and 21.6 percent were the same-day. “Improving VHA’s (Veterans Health Administration) ability to forecast, recruit, and retain a workforce continues to be a priority,” the department wrote in a response included in the GAO report. VA is trying to improve staffing levels with various initiatives. Among other things, it has increased pay for certain health professionals “to close the pay gap with the private sector and to make VA an employer of choice,” according to an agency statement. “With more competitive salaries, VA will be better positioned to retain and hire more health-care providers to care for veterans.” Breaking down the numbers, GAO found that 28 percent linked their departures to issues involving advancement and 21 percent to dissatisfaction with aspects of the work. “Voluntary resignations and retirements accounted for 84 percent of VHA’s losses from the 10 occupations with the highest loss rates annually from fiscal year 2011 through fiscal year 2015,” according to the report. The good news is that nearly two-thirds were generally satisfied with their jobs. Paralyzed Veterans of America’s (PVA) Executive Director Sherman Gillums Jr. said the report echoes what his organization has been saying, particularly about nursing shortages. “Nurse staffing directly impacts the number of available operating beds for paralyzed veterans requiring initial rehabilitation, acute care, and annual evaluations. Because of under-budgeting and inadequate staffing, VA was forced to use excessive overtime hours and flawed staffing methodologies as band aids to make up for a problem that required more serious intervention,” he said. “This had led to costly turnover and low morale among staff, not to mention artificially suppressed demand due to open but unstaffed beds, all of which render care less than optimal.” PVA and VA have worked on a new staffing formula that calculates staff needed for patients with severe disabilities. “We hope to see it implemented sooner rather than later,” Gillums added. In addition to the national shortages in these occupations, VA also has to overcome the stigma associated with the headline grabbing scandal over the coverup of long patient wait times that erupted two years ago. Staffing shortages apparently contributed to the long waits, then the coverup tarnished the agency’s reputation, which probably didn’t help with recruitment. “The GAO report points out what DAV (Disabled American Veterans) has been saying for years,” said Garry Augustine, executive director of DAV’s Washington headquarters. “The primary reason for veterans’ access problems and waiting lists is there are not enough doctors, nurses and other health-care providers to meet the demand.” Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) said he requested the GAO report because “understanding the needs of VA’s workforce is absolutely fundamental to ensuring the Department is able to meet growing demands for its services. It’s simple: a VA that is able to attract and retain good employees will also be able to provide continuous services and the highest quality care.”
VA hospital’s secret nuclear reactor officially out of service (The Daily Nonpareil)
Nearly six decades after entering the atomic age with its small-scale research reactor, the VA Nebraska-Western Iowa Health Care System is now officially out of the nuclear business. Effective Monday, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission terminated the operating license for the Alan J. Blotcky Reactor Facility, which had run in the basement of the Omaha VA hospital for 42 years. From 1959 until 2001, VA researchers used the reactor primarily for neutron activation of biological samples. It also was used to train operators of the nuclear plant in Fort Calhoun, Nebraska. In Omaha, few people even knew the reactor was there. The reactor was shut down because of security concerns soon after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Its 58 spent fuel rods were quietly removed during the 2002 College World Series. In the years since, tests showed only trace levels of radiation in the reactor space. Last year, the Department of Veterans Affairs spent $1.3 million to dismantle what was left of the reactor, on top of $5.9 million spent in 2001-02. In the months since, NRC officials have inspected the space and found no health or safety concerns – results confirmed in surveys by the Oak Ridge Associated Universities. The future of the former reactor space hasn’t yet been determined, said Anna Morelock, a VA spokeswoman, though it’s hoped it will soon be converted for offices. “Right now, it’s still an empty room,” Morelock said. “In our space-deficient hospital, we’re always anxious for more space.”
VA finds more test-mailing errors (The Journal Gazette)
The medical test results of at least 14 military veterans were erroneously mailed to other patients of the VA Northern Indiana Health Care System, according to a report on the matter by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Jay Miller, acting director of the system, said Monday that an eight-person committee has been formed by the system to consider “avenues of improvement” in mailing procedures. “We’ll review the whole program and process to eliminate possibilities of mail-out errors,” Miller said in a telephone interview. Deana Bonner, privacy and Freedom of Information Act officer for the VA Medical Center in Saginaw, Michigan, reviewed the mistaken mailings but said in her findings that she “was unable to determine if the error was a result of an employee handling or a malfunction of the equipment.” Bonner recommended that the Northern Indiana system implement a process to ensure that mailing machinery functions properly and evaluate the types of letters that are run through the machinery. Miller said all the letters that missed the intended patients – “at least 14 that we’re aware of” – apparently were processed June 22 at a VA mailing hub in Marion. The committee tasked with reviewing and perhaps improving mail procedures was informed that a letter-folding machine might have malfunctioned, the machine operator might have selected the wrong number of pages to be folded or staff might have sorted letters incorrectly. WANE-TV reported July 12 that a Fort Wayne veteran had received medical test results meant for two other veterans who are patients of the Northern Indiana system, which has medical centers in Fort Wayne and Marion and clinics in Goshen, South Bend, Peru and Muncie. On July 18, Sen. Joe Donnelly, D-Ind., called on Miller to investigate and produce a “long-term solution to ensure this never happens again.” Bonner reported to Miller on July 25: “Envelopes containing test result letters to multiple patients were mailed and received by more than one patient. Fourteen patients were identified that their test result letter was mailed to a different patient.” Those 14 patients were notified by telephone of the errors, Bonner wrote. She said the letters were prepared for mailing by a machine that folds and inserts each letter into an envelope, seals the envelope and stamps postage on it. Miller said Bonner’s report had been sent to Donnelly, whose office confirmed receiving it. “I look forward to hearing from Director Miller about the VA Northern Indiana Health Care System’s plan to implement the necessary policy changes to protect the privacy of veterans,” Donnelly said in an email. Miller said VA officials could consider increasing the use of electronic communications with patients or contracting with a private mailing company. He said the Northern Indiana system already uses a private contractor for a portion of its mailings. “We want to look at the whole program and take a real hard look in terms of specifically what we’re mailing out, where we’re mailing out. I think it’s important to review the whole process,” Miller said.
Ceremony set for new Omaha National Cemetery for veterans (Stars and Stripes)
A long-awaited national cemetery for U.S. military veterans and their families south of Omaha will be dedicated this week before accepting its first burials this fall. The Omaha National Cemetery will be dedicated Friday at an off-site ceremony in Sarpy County. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs is expected to complete an initial segment of several acres of the property to be used for in-ground casket and cremation burials as early as September, cemetery director Cindy Van Bibber said. “Toward the end of August … we’re going to start allowing them to schedule services,” Van Bibber said Friday. The VA began taking calls for the first burials at the Omaha cemetery on June 6, Van Bibber said. By Friday, families of 100 veterans had contacted cemetery officials to establish a case for burial at the cemetery along South 144th Street. “We actually have someone from 1996 that has been waiting for burial,” she said. The first phase of construction is expected to open about 60 acres to provide burial options for 10 years, she said. National cemeteries provide burial spaces for honorably discharged veterans, their spouses and eligible dependents at no charge. The entire 236-acre cemetery, once complete, will serve the burial needs of more than 112,000 veterans in eastern Nebraska and western Iowa for the next 100 years. The closest national cemetery is about 180 miles away in Leavenworth, Kansas. Area veterans have been eagerly awaiting the opening of the national cemetery, said Korean War veteran Allen Holley, 84. Holley, a member of the Bellevue Cemetery Committee who purchased his burial plot there years ago, had been involved in the early planning of the national cemetery, but had to beg off for health reasons when asked to serve on the Omaha National Cemetery Committee. That has not kept him from singing the praises of the new veterans cemetery. “There is a tremendous amount of interest in it,” said Holley, who lives in an assisted living facility in Bellevue. “We have about 100 residents here, and the vast majority of them are military. I just absolutely know that they and their wives are going to be choosing Omaha National Cemetery for their burial.” Jim Skaja, 90, of Bellevue, is a veteran of World War II and the Korean and Vietnam wars who has been tapped to lead the Pledge of Allegiance at Friday’s ceremony. He said the new cemetery is drawing lots of interest from veterans he knows — particularly Air Force retirees from Offutt Air Force Base south of Omaha. “I’m sure it’s going to be my future home,” he said. Plans for the cemetery had been in the works for more than a decade, but officials weren’t able to move on them because of a rule requiring at least 170,000 veterans to live within a 75-mile radius of the proposed cemetery site. President Barack Obama’s administration relaxed the rule in 2009 and started budgeting for the cemetery the next year. A committee selected the site south of Interstate 80 and purchased it for $6.2 million in 2012. Last fall, excavators began digging to clear space for roads, buildings, drainage and graves. Even with this fall’s opening, construction will continue into 2018 on the first phase of the cemetery, which will include 5,500 in-ground and above-ground plots for casketed and cremated remains. The site also will include permanent administrative and maintenance buildings, an honor-guard building and a public information center.