September 6 Veterans News

September 6 Veterans News


Study: Can marijuana improve PTSD symptoms for veterans? (Stars and Stripes)
Roberto Pickering’s story is all too familiar. The infantry Marine says he fought during the invasion of Iraq in 2003, lost some “good buddies” and returned to civilian life a “basket case” from battling a new enemy: post-traumatic stress disorder. Pickering says he was pumped full of medications — from Valium to Zoloft, OxyContin, Seroquel, Lithium, Ambien and more — by Department of Veterans Affairs doctors. He tried to go back to school but had trouble adjusting. He recoiled further after one friend took his own life and another died of a heroin overdose after becoming dependent on opioids through his medical care. Pickering moved into his parents’ California basement and found solace in the bottle while his life spiraled out of control. Unlike thousands of post-9/11 veterans who have committed suicide, Pickering then found another way to cope: He began experimenting with marijuana about 10 years ago. … Using marijuana regularly, he said, his angry outbursts diminished and he was able to get a good night’s sleep. He said he was able to kick his drinking habit and, best of all, he didn’t have to take the litany of pills he calls toxic. Pickering said he usually smokes a bit at night and calls himself a responsible family man, far from the stereotype of a coach-potato stoner. He doesn’t know why marijuana changed his life, and researchers can only guess, because the plant has never been studied as a treatment for veterans’ PTSD. Despite state ballot initiatives to legalize marijuana for medical and nonmedical use in recent years, earlier this month it again received the highest drug classification by the Drug Enforcement Administration. A recently approved $2.15 million study — paid for by the state of Colorado and conducted by researchers from the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, the University of Pennsylvania, the University of Colorado, Johns Hopkins University and the Scottsdale Research Institute — could change all of that. While Americans like Pickering, suffering from ailments including PTSD, cancer, rheumatoid arthritis, Tourette’s syndrome, complications from HIV/AIDS, glaucoma, epilepsy, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases have sought relief through medical cannabis — legal in half the country — the federal government’s position is that the plant has no accepted medical use in treatment and a high potential for abuse. “Smoked marijuana has not withstood the rigors of science — it is not medicine, and it is not safe,” a DEA position paper on cannabis from 2013 said. Federal authorities are digging in their heels on marijuana’s potential benefits, but they are also increasing the amount available for research and making it easier to manufacture for scientific purposes. The study, which is about to begin accepting participants, is a two-phase random, placebo-controlled, multisite study that will assess the safety and efficacy of four types of smoked marijuana to manage chronic, treatment-resistant PTSD symptoms, said Rebecca Matthews, a MAPS clinical trial leader working with the team. In the first phase, 76 participants will smoke randomly assigned types of marijuana, including a placebo strain, from a pipe for three weeks. They will keep a diary to describe their experiences. They will then abstain from smoking for two weeks. The second phase is a repeat of the first. Afterward, participants will follow up with the researchers for six months. The team will track measurements of PTSD and PTSD symptoms and safety data throughout. The aim is to provide information on “marijuana dosing, composition, side effects and specific areas of benefit to clinicians and legislators considering marijuana as an acceptable treatment for PTSD,” Matthews said. Researchers plan to start recruiting veterans in September, adding two participants per month, per site. The study should run about two years. … The study’s principal investigator, Dr. Sue Sisley of the Scottsdale Research Institute in Phoenix, said the hypothesis for the study is that cannabis may improve PTSD symptoms in a dose-dependent manner. … The study could discount or verify an argument by VA doctors and opponents of pot for PTSD treatment, who claim cannabis masks symptoms and doesn’t treat them like exposure therapy is thought to, Sisley said.

Trump and Clinton promise VA reform and attack each other’s plans (MilitaryTimes)
Just a day before a joint event on military and veterans issues, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton in separate speeches both vowed to build up the military and warned their opponent doesn’t understand the needs of troops. The dueling remarks from the Republican and Democratic presidential nominees also included promises from both to defeat Islamic State militants and reform the Department of Veterans Affairs, pledges each has repeated in recent weeks on the campaign trail. But the details of their plans differ significantly, and both candidates accused the other of offering a more risky and unstable path for the country. Trump’s remarks, delivered at a town hall-style event in Virginia, included a promise from the business mogul that any veterans who seek health care outside the VA system will have their costs fully covered. “You’re going to get taken care of 100 percent,” he said to enthusiastic applause. “Government is going to pay the bill. Should have been done a long time ago.” Republicans have called that an expansion of the existing VA Choice Card program, which allows some veterans facing long wait times to have private-care clinics cover their medical needs. Democrats have called it the first step to privatizing VA services, and Clinton has vowed to keep funding in the federal bureaucracy to improve services. She used her Florida speech to ridicule Trump’s veterans plans, calling them as misguided as his recent gaffes sparring with a Gold Star father and accepting a Purple Heart from from a supporter. “A man who is so wrong about our veterans is not fit to be commander in chief,” she said, repeating her campaign trail assertion that Trump is “temperamentally unfit and totally unqualified” to lead the country. She also promised to keep strong ties with American allies overseas, and “give our military everything they need” to succeed in fighting terrorists worldwide, adding that “I will also support them with care and benefits they deserve when they come home, including job training and mental health care.” Trump has labeled that as a false promise, accusing President Barack Obama — and by extension his former secretary of state — of shortchanging the military and creating a weak, under-resourced fighting force. “We don’t take care of vets, and we don’t take care of our troops in the field,” he said. “Their equipment is old. … This is not the (military) we want. We‘re going to rebuild it with the finest technology in the world.” On Wednesday, both candidates are scheduled to travel to New York for a joint NBC/Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America event to discuss in greater detail their plans for veterans programs and military support. They are not scheduled to be on stage simultaneously, but instead will field questions in separate 30-minute sessions. That event is scheduled to begin at 8 p.m. Eastern time.

VA estimates 107,000 vets have undiagnosed or untreated hepatitis C (Stars and Stripes)
With more than $2 billion appropriated for new hepatitis C drugs during the past two years, the Department of Veterans Affairs treated 65,000 veterans for the virus, but about 87,000 remain untreated and an additional 20,000 are undiagnosed. VA officials are seeking $1.5 billion in the 2017 fiscal year to treat more veterans, a group in which hepatitis C is especially prevalent. Funding for the latest drugs, which have a high cure rate, is not the biggest problem, said David Ross, director of the VA’s HIV, Hepatitis and Public Health Pathogens Programs. Instead, its challenge is finding ways to help veterans who are unwilling or unable to be screened or treated for the contagious virus, which lives in liver cells and is the most common blood-borne disease in the U.S. Until two years ago, the disease was considered incurable. “In some ways, the veterans already treated were the easiest to treat,” Ross said. Ross and Tom Berger, a leader within Vietnam Veterans of America, said there are several reasons that some veterans don’t volunteer to be screened or decline treatment. Some distrust the VA, are concerned with the stigma of hepatitis C and drug use, and fear traditional drug treatment with severe side effects, they said. Some veterans who test positive for hepatitis C suffer from mental illness or substance abuse — issues that “affect their ability to come in and take treatments reliably,” Ross said. For those veterans, he said, the VA needs to boost its psychological or psychosocial care. “We’re running into issues of veterans more frequently having these other issues,” Ross said. “If someone has alcohol or substance abuse issues, we want to integrate care for those conditions as well to get better outcomes. We need those support systems.” The VA and Vietnam Veterans of America are specifically targeting Vietnam War-era veterans born between 1945 and 1965. In that group, 8 percent of veterans screened have tested positive for the virus. In comparison, about 1.6 percent of the general U.S. population is estimated to have it. The VA has screened 73 percent of Vietnam War-era veterans enrolled in the VA system. There are about 700,000 veterans born between 1945 and 1965 who still must be screened, and the department is estimating about 20,000 of them have undiagnosed hepatitis C. Some blame the virus on unsterilized medical syringes used by the military during the Vietnam War to inject vaccines. While that is “possible,” Ross said, there hasn’t been a documented case. Blood exposure during combat is another concern, since transfusions were used in great number during the war. The virus also can be sexually transmitted or through intravenous drug use, which was common in Vietnam. The VA has started to reach out to veterans with hepatitis C to inform them that they have the resources to test and treat them, Ross said. … At one point, hepatitis C care was about money. When a new drug called Sovaldi came on the scene in 2013, it was called a “miracle” said to work nearly 90 percent of the time with few side effects. But it came at a cost: $1,000 a pill. Insurance companies balked at the price; doctors were encouraged to reserve the drug for the most dire hepatitis C patients. Until last spring, only VA patients with a progressed stage of hepatitis C were prescribed the drug. People who didn’t meet the criteria were redirected to Veterans Choice, an often-criticized program in which veterans see non-VA health care providers at the VA’s expense. At the time, Berger faulted the VA for choosing which veterans received treatments, saying it was rationing care. … In March, the VA announced it would start treating all hepatitis C patients with Sovaldi, regardless of a veteran’s age or the progression of the virus, because of increased funding from Congress and discounted drug prices. The average cost per patient to receive the 12-week treatment now is $41,460, a discount of 47 percent from the wholesale price, VA spokeswoman Sabrina Owen said. … In order to continue treatments, continued funding is essential, Ross said. According to the VA’s budget request, $1.5 billion in fiscal 2017 would provide treatments to approximately 35,000 veterans. But at the current price per treatment, it would cost more than $4.4 billion in taxpayer dollars to treat the 107,000 veterans who are untreated or undiagnosed.

VA Secretary Robert McDonald: House divisiveness hindering VA bills (Newsmax)
A divided House of Representatives is keeping several crucial pieces of key legislation for the nation’s veterans from advancing, Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert McDonald said Tuesday, while addressing the massive transformation the nation’s primary veterans agency has been undergoing in the past two years since he was brought on board. “We have put forward 100 different pieces of legislation that we need to continue this transformation,” McDonald told MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” program. “Some of them are absolutely critical to veterans getting [assistance].” The most important legislation would cover extensions and providers agreements, said McDonald, noting that the Senate has been working together and has passed the Veterans First Act out of committee unanimously. That legislation, if passed, will serve to improve the accountability of employees of the Department of Veterans Affairs and to improve healthcare and benefits for veterans while amending Title 38, the U.S. code governing veterans’ benefits.  However, the House’s divisiveness is “not allowing these things to get through committee and to the floor,” said McDonald, insisting the lag is not because of a funding issue. “I think there’s a tremendous unanimity what needs to be done, but it’s just the matter of having political will to get it done,” he told the program. McDonald was brought in from the private sector after being with Procter & Gamble for 30 years, including running the company, with President Barack Obama tasking him with making it the VA run like a successful healthcare business. “We have hired more doctors, put in more space, more nurses, expanded hours,” said McDonald. “We’ve driven down disability claim backlog by 90 percent, from its peak of 600,000 and we’ve cut veteran homelessness in about half since 2010. We are making progress but we’ve got more to do.” McDonald took over a VA that was plagued in scandal following revelations that wait lists had been falsified to conceal chronically long wait times for care. The VA is in the midst of implementing a new scheduling system, to replace one dating back to 1995, said McDonald, and has hired a former Johnson & Johnson IT director to work on the VA’s issues. “Fourteen of 17 of my top managers are new,” said McDonald. “We’re in the midst of a transformation.” GOP nominee Donald Trump has spoken of privatizing some of the VA’s functions, but McDonald thinks that is a bad idea. “When I came in, before my Senate confirmation, some senators asked me to look at that,” said McDonald. “I’m a business guy and I look at those kinds of things. What I discovered was not only do veterans need the VA and want the VA, but also American public and American medicine needs the VA.” Many key advances have come from the VA, including the nation’s first implantable pacemaker, the first liver transplant, the first kidney transplant, and the shingles vaccine, noted the secretary. “The VA trained 70 percent of doctors in this country,” said McDonald. “Without the VA, who would train those doctors? Then clinical care. Over 80 percent of veterans say they prefer getting their care at the VA, and they recommend it to a friend.” September is National Suicide Prevention Month, and McDonald said the VA is making a special effort toward preventing suicide among veterans, after a report this summer revealed an estimated 20 vets commit suicide every day.

Opinion: Union bosses, VA bosses rigging system for failure (
Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Florida, chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs: In an expletive-laden rant delivered earlier this year, a belligerent American Federation of Government Employees President J. David Cox threatened Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Bob McDonald with physical violence. Cox was “prepared to whoop Bob McDonald’s a–,” he said. “He’s going to start treating us as the labor partner … or we will whoop his a–, I promise you,” Cox continued. McDonald’s response? Absolutely nothing. The exchange perfectly encapsulates the corrosive influence government union bosses are having on efforts to reform a broken VA. It’s a never-ending cycle in which pliant politicians and federal agency leaders bow to the bosses’ demands to preserve the dysfunctional status quo of our federal personnel system, which almost guarantees employment for government bureaucrats no matter how egregious their behavior. The problem with union bosses like Cox is that they are more interested in protecting misbehaving VA employees than the veterans the department was created to serve. The problem with VA leaders like McDonald is that, in their perpetual quest to placate big labor’s powers that be, the taxpayers and veterans they are charged with serving are paying the price. It’s no wonder McDonald was silent after Cox’s violent threats. Cox’s bellicose behavior is precisely the type of employee conduct VA leaders and union bosses routinely defend. Take the case of a VA Caribbean Healthcare System employee who AFGE helped to keep her job after she participated in an armed robbery. Unwilling to admit the crucial role AFGE union bosses played in helping the criminal keep her job, VA has offered a series of outrageous excuses in order to explain her continued employment. “There was never any indication that the employee posed a risk to Veterans or VA property,” VA Under Secretary for Health David Shulkin said, adding that the employee couldn’t be terminated for her armed robbery participation because it occurred in her free time. Really? The fact that AFGE routinely defends the indefensible among VA employees is not surprising. After all, the organization’s first loyalty is to government workers above everyone else. What’s disappointing, however, is VA leaders’ refusal to challenge AFGE and its tactics. VA’s silence is more proof that the bosses — both VA and union — are all part of the same system, which specializes in protecting its own. Consider how VA safeguarded two senior bureaucrats when the department’s inspector general caught them orchestrating a scheme to rake in thousands in taxpayer-funded relocation benefits. According to the IG, VA regional office directors Diana Rubens and Kimberly Graves inappropriately used their authority, enabling them to benefit from a total of more than $400,000 in taxpayer-funded relocation payments. Rubens, alone, received more than $274,000 in benefits to make the roughly three-hour move from Washington, D.C., to Philadelphia. That’s almost $100,000 per hour of driving. When alerted to Rubens’ and Graves’ conduct, VA’s inspector general made criminal referrals to the Department of Justice, while VA leaders went out of their way to allow them to keep their jobs, as well as the benefits they collected as part of the scheme. VA Deputy Secretary Sloan Gibson even expressed confidence in the pair’s leadership abilities and said keeping them on the payroll as regional office directors was “the morally right thing to do.” For VA and union bosses, however, it’s about more than just protecting their own. They are also actively fighting to protect VA’s broken status quo. Case in point is the Veterans First Act, a Senate bill that was ostensibly designed to address the department’s number one problem: its widespread and pervasive lack of accountability for misbehaving employees. AFGE union bosses got their hands on an early draft of the legislation and demanded that senators water down the bill in four key areas. After senators made all of the changes the union bosses had dictated, AFGE endorsed the bill. Once the union bosses gave the revised Veterans First Act their stamp of approval, McDonald began rallying support for the legislation. McDonald’s sudden support for the Veterans First Act marked a remarkable change of heart for him on the subject of VA accountability. Previously, McDonald’s VA had opposed almost every bill that would have attempted to meaningfully help VA solve its accountability problems. Perhaps McDonald only supports accountability reforms that union bosses have had the chance to render toothless. And so it goes at VA, where union and VA bosses fight to maintain a system in which corrupt and incompetent employees have more rights than the veterans they are charged with serving. Meanwhile veterans and taxpayers are paying the price.

Troubled for-profit ITT Tech Institute closes its doors on thousands of student vets (Stars and Stripes)
ITT Technical Institute said Tuesday it was immediately closing all campuses, more than 130 in all, throwing into doubt the future education of thousands of student veterans attending there. The troubled for-profit school, roiled by scrutiny from the U.S. Department of Education, blamed the federal agency in a prepared statement, saying it showed “complete disregard” for due process by requiring ITT to put up nearly $250 million in guarantees to offset losses in federal loans if the school were to close. “We believe the government’s action was inappropriate and unconstitutional,” the Tuesday statement said. The Department of Education and 19 state attorneys general are investigating ITT over its marketing and job placement claims, along with the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Chicago Tribune reported. Nearly 12,500 students used the GI Bill at ITT in 2015, according to data from the national advocacy group Student Veterans of America. ITT is a vocational school with a combination of brick and mortar and online campuses with more than 40,000 students nationwide. The sudden closure of ITT forces thousands of student veterans to make immediate decisions about their education, said Carrie Wofford, the president of Veterans Education Success, a non-profit offering free financial advice to veterans deceived by for-profit recruiters. “One thing we have found is many students were promised the GI Bill would cover the cost, but they were signed up for student loans” often without their knowledge, Wofford said Tuesday. Veterans with debt typically carried around $30,000, though one veteran who was promised the GI Bill would cover tuition racked up $80,000 in student loans, she said. ITT provided a list of schools with transfer agreements, according to an email sent out to students Tuesday and obtained by Stars and Stripes, though the focus on schools similar to ITT concerned Wofford. Some of the schools listed are “pretty bad for-profit colleges under law enforcement investigation and are on shaky financial ground like ITT,” she said. “It will send students into the same problems they have now.” VES has advised veterans attending ITT and other troubled for-profits to transfer to community colleges, Wofford said, where the lower tuition cost will be helpful for students who have used up their GI Bill. Paul Allen, an Army veteran who received his associate degree at ITT in New York, woke up without a school on Tuesday. He moved to California in November to finish a bachelor’s degree in cybersecurity in California. His Albany campus advised him to transfer because it did not offer a four-year degree plan, he said. All eight schools in the area will not accept transfer credits from ITT, Allen said Tuesday. “I’m either going to give up or take out loans to restart my degree,” he said. Like many veterans attending school on the GI Bill, he relied on the alternative income of a housing stipend while focusing on school full-time. Allen received around $3,100 a month while attending ITT in California, but with that suddenly gone, his wife’s income will only cover rent and insurance. That leaves little left over for food and other expenses, he said. “The situation looks pretty gray. The jobs in cybersecurity I’ve been looking at require a bachelor’s degree,” he said. “I could qualify for a call center job, but I don’t need a degree for that anyway. I could have done that job without any of this.” The Department of Veterans Affairs said Tuesday that affected ITT students can use the department’s GI Bill comparison tool and its school selection guide to find a new college to attend. Students concerned about their benefits should also call 1-888-442-4551, a VA spokesperson said.

No third-party candidates to participate in upcoming vets forum (
No third-party presidential candidates will participate at next week’s forum dedicated to veterans issues. NBC’s Matt Lauer will host what’s being billed as the first-ever “Commander-in-Chief Forum” 8 p.m. Wednesday in New York City at the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum, site of the decommissioned aircraft carrier USS Intrepid. The hour-long event, organized by the veterans organization Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, will air on the NBC and MSNBC cable channels and live-stream on IAVA’s Facebook page. During the event, Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump and his Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton will make separate appearances to field questions from Lauer and veterans rather than debate issues together on stage. Third-party candidates Gary Johnson, a former Republican governor of New Mexico running on the Libertarian ticket, and Jill Stein, a physician backed by the Green Party, won’t participate in the forum but may do so at a future event, according to IAVA. “We are a non-partisan organization and IAVA members are extremely diverse,” Paul Rieckhoff, founder and chief executive officer of the organization, said in a statement on Friday after speaking to Johnson the day before. “IAVA has always been committed to the most robust public conversation around veterans issues and we are eager to engage Gov. Johnson and all candidates further in the days to come,” he added. The group has said it extended a formal invitation to Johnson to participate in a separate event and also reached out to Stein. A spokeswoman didn’t immediately return an email and call requesting comment on Friday evening, nor did a spokesperson Stein campaign. Joe Hunter, a spokesman for Johnson, confirmed the Libertarian candidate was not invited to participate in next week’s IAVA event. “He has, however, spoken with IAVA CEO and Founder Paul Rieckhoff, and we are exploring possibilities with IAVA for a future event,” Hunter said in an email. Clinton and Trump carry sizeable leads over the third-party candidates in national polls of likely voters. A recent poll by USA Today and Suffolk University of a four-way presidential ballot showed Clinton leading with 42 percent of the vote, followed by Trump with 35 percent, Johnson with 9 percent, Stein with 4 percent. About 10 percent of respondents were undecided. The poll of 1,000 likely voters was conducted Aug. 24 through Aug. 29 and has a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points. Even so, the majority of likely voters want to see third-party candidates on the debate stage, even if they don’t hit the 15-percent threshold to do so, according to David Paleologos, director of the Suffolk University Political Research Center in Boston, who helped conduct the poll. Johnson has reportedly received slightly higher support from U.S. military members — 13 percent of almost 2,000 active-duty, Guards and reserve respondents in a Military Times survey conducted in July. And some veterans have reacted strongly to his exclusion in the upcoming IAVA forum.

Feds award $14M to fight homelessness among Ohio veterans (nbc4i)
The federal government has awarded more than $14 million to 15 organizations that works to prevent homelessness among Ohio military veterans and to quickly rehouse those who lose their homes. U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown announced the grants last week. They are part of the Supportive Services for Veteran Families program of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. The money will be used to reach out to more veterans and help veterans obtain VA benefits. The money also helps provide case management to low-income veteran families that are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless. Participating organizations also provide veterans with critical services, such as health care, financial planning, child care, legal services, transportation and housing counseling.