Representatives Vote against Veterans

Originally posted at Florida Veterans for Common Sense

Columnist Jeremy Wallace wrote a column in the Herald Tribune on Sunday, July 7, 2013 arguing that Rep. Buchanan and Rep. Rooney did not vote against veterans when they voted against an amendment to the VA Budget bill. The amendment would have added more claim processors to work down the backlog of VA disability claims.

Of course, they voted against veterans.

As Mr. Wallace notes, motions to recommit provide the opportunity to amend a bill by voting to send it back to a committee for more work, typically with a specific request — such as fixing the VA backlog. This is exactly what should have happened if the goal is to support veterans like they need and deserve.

It’s true that the amounts set forth in the VA budget that passed will speed up VA claims processing, but they are not sufficient to end the backlog. The VA budget should not have been approved until enough money was appropriated to end the backlog.

Rep. Rooney attempted to explain his vote by saying the Motion to Recommit was merely a “political game” and said that he has been working on ways to fix the benefits backlog.

Veterans’ disability claims shouldn’t be viewed as a political game. Disabled veterans’ needs are real especially for those who have to wait for months, and sometimes years, to have their claims finalized. If Rep. Rooney has been working on the VA backlog, he has failed. Why have you not voted to fund sufficient dollars to end the backlog?

The money is available to fund enough claims processors to end the VA backlog if we quit wasting money at the Pentagon and for counterproductive war.

Why does Congress not make the Pentagon account for what it spends? The Sarasota Herald Tribune reported on Wednesday, July 10, 2013 that Pentagon mismanagement is rampant. As an example, the article points out that the Pentagon spent $34 million on a 64,000 square foot headquarters building in Afghanistan that will never be used.

In view of the waste, fraud, and abuse at the Pentagon, Representative Rooney’s and Buchanan’s votes against veterans are particularly galling when they both routinely vote to fund counterproductive war. We note that voting to help disabled veterans doesn’t enrich private corporations and mercenary companies while voting for perpetual war does.

Notice the irony. The representatives routinely vote for war which guarantees that more veterans will need VA services so the cost ever increases. Nobel Prize winning economist, Joseph Stiglitz, calculates the cost of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars already exceeds $5 trillion when the costs to care for the wounded, injured, and sickened veterans are included. And the costs go up by millions of dollars every day we stay in Afghanistan.

Yet, there is hope. Columnist David Ignatius of the Washington Post, who has been an apologist for the wars of Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz, has had a change of heart. Now, he says that in the last dozen years we should have learned, among other things, not to send U.S. troops to fight Middle East wars.

Isn’t it past time that Representatives Rooney and Buchanan learn the same lesson and vote for veterans instead of funding counterproductive war and Pentagon waste?

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From our partner EPIC: Putting Iraq back on the agenda

For more than ten years, Veterans for Common Sense has worked hand in hand with our partner EPIC (The Education for Peace In Iraq Center) on national security issues and on Iraq.

Ten years ago the United States launched Operation Iraqi Freedom with the intent to remove a tyrant, establish security in Iraq, and restore stability to the region. As the world looks back on this historical marker, Iraqis look forward, striving to guarantee a brighter future for generations to come.

Iraqi youth in Baghdad

Although U.S. forces have been withdrawn from Iraq, the war is far from over. Ten years later, Iraq at ‘peace’ is as dangerous as Afghanistan at ‘war.’ Despite the President’s promise to help end the violence, there were significantly more violent deaths in Iraq in 2012 than in 2011.

To coincide with the 10th anniversary of the US invasion of Iraq, VCS’s partner organization EPIC has launched a petition urging President Obama to put Iraq back on the agenda by clearly articulating and supporting a long-term strategy of US diplomacy and assistance, including efforts to increase government accountability, strengthen civil society, and improve educational opportunities for the 20 million children of Iraq.

We hope to gain 10,000 signatures, which we will then present to Congressional leaders, President Obama, and his administration to show that Americans like you care about Iraq’s future. We will also share the petition with young Iraqis like Maisam so that she and other Iraqi youth will know that they are being heard by a growing number of concerned citizens throughout the world.

You can help. Please join the campaign and sign the petition today to Put Iraq Back on the Agenda!



Erik Gustafson
Executive Director
Education for Peace in Iraq Center

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Report: New vets showing Gulf War illness symptoms

WASHINGTON — Veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan may be suffering from the 20-year-old set of symptoms known as Gulf War Illness, according to a new report released Wednesday by the federal Institute of Medicine.

“Preliminary data suggest that (chronic multisymptom illness) is occurring in veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars as well,” the report says.

This may be the first time that the symptoms suffered by veterans of the 1991 Gulf War have been linked to veterans of the current wars, which started in 2001 and 2003, said Paul Rieckhoff, CEO of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.

It also means the Department of Veterans Affairs’ definition of who qualifies for Gulf War veterans’ benefits should include those who served in Afghanistan, said Paul Sullivan, a 1991 Gulf War veteran and founder of Veterans for Common Sense.

Read the complete article here.

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VCS v. VA Update

On Monday, January 7, 2013, we lost our bid for the Supreme Court to hear our appeal so no Veteran waits for care or benefits, especially for mental healthcare.  Since our landmark lawsuit was filed in July 2007, Veterans for Common Sense generated hundreds of pro-Veteran news articles, more than twenty appearances before Congress, a few trips to the White House, and several productive meetings with top VA leaders in Washington, DC.
Formed in 2002 by Gulf War Veterans raising concerns about a second invasion of Iraq, VCS is a non-profit based in Washington, DC.  One of our top concerns raised in March 2003 was a lack of preparedness by VA to handle a tidal wave of new patients and claims due to the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars.  We were right.  VA failed to plan.
So far, VA has treated more than 834,000 new, first-time Iraq and Afghanistan War Veteran patients.  Among those are 445,000 diagnosed with mental health conditions by VA professionals.  VA also received more than 750,000 disability claims from recent war veterans.  Only half of the PTSD claims are approved by VA.  Although that number is low, the percentage has improved substantially since VA published new PTSD regulations in 2010.
Unfortunately, after 11 years of renewed war in Asia, VA still has no plan to make sure our Veterans don’t wait for care and benefits.  The current wars placed an unprecedented set of new strains on VA, and VA is still catching up with new resources, even as the Iraq and Afghanistan wars wind down.
We are disappointed the Supreme Court did not hear our case.  Yet our effort was not in vain, as we exposed many severe problems at VA, and we offered many pragmatic solutions, several of which were adopted.  Our suit was joined by Veterans United for Truth, the Vietnam Veterans of America, the National Veterans Legal Services Program, and the American Legion.  We thank them for their support.
This update has two sections: VCS Lawsuit Accomplishments, and VA’s Continuing Crisis.
First, Our VCS Lawsuit Accomplishments
Thanks to the efforts of so many volunteers and the help of the law firm Morrison / Foerster in San Francisco, our landmark case prompted many progressive reforms for VA that are improving the lives of Veterans.  Although we lost at the Supreme Court, our VCS lawsuit, along with advocacy of other organizations, reporters, legislators, and volunteers, prompted VA and/or Congress take action on several fronts, including the following:
VA Actions
• Suicide Prevention in 2007.   In response to our lawsuit, in 2007 VA set up a suicide prevention hotline, saving 25,000 Veterans so far, out of 800,000+ calls and texts placed by distraught Veterans to VA.  This is our best accomplishment.  Our many thanks to the thousands of current and new mental healthcare providers making a significant difference at VA and in the lives of our Veterans.
• Suicide Prevention in 2012.  In August 2012, President Obama increased Veteran suicide prevention funding 50 percent, again, as a result of our unique lawsuit.  Unfortunately, thousands of the new VA positions remain vacant, and we hope VA fills them soon as a top priority.
• Suicide Prevention Coordinators.  VA hired suicide prevention coordinators for each facility.  VA now proactively screens Veterans for suicide risk.  This means VA is finally treating mental health conditions as nearly as equal as physical conditions.  Let’s hope this positive trend continues.
• Appointments.  VA issued a first-ever policy where Veterans get mental health appointments in 14 days.  Veterans in need of emergency care are now seen right away.  Although in 2012 U.S. Senators found VA isn’t living up to the standard in all cases, at least VA now has a goal and collects more data on this serious problem.
• PTSD.  In January 2009, VCS petitioned VA to rewrite PTSD regulations to reduce the burden on veterans filing claims. In response to our petition, VA issued new PTSD regulations in July 2010.  This helps hundreds of thousands of new war Veterans, plus hundreds of thousands from prior wars, obtain VA disability benefits and the free mental healthcare that comes with it.
• TBI. VA issued new TBI regulations in 2012, again, after VCS testified before Congress and raised the issue at meetings in Washington.  This helps hundreds of thousands of Veterans obtain VA healthcare and disability benefits for conditions associated with traumatic brain injury.
• Claim Forms. In March 2010, VCS held a press conference called “Fix VA,” with Chairman Bob Filner, head of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, where we highlighted the 26-page form required for veterans to file a claim with VA. In response, VA developed a six page claim form, replacing the unreasonable 26-page form.  This new form helps hundreds of thousands of Veterans a year.  VCS successfully argued that the long form was an unfair burden on Veterans with TBI and PTSD.
Suicide Suits. For individual veterans who already completed suicide, our VCS case highlighted the issue and paved the way for their families win their individual cases.  Most families of Veterans improperly turned away by VA received out-of-court settlements from VA.
Suicide Condolence Letters. After a VCS meeting with White House officials in 2011, President Barack Obama began sending condolence letters to families of Veterans who completed suicide in the war zone. With a stroke of a pen, stigma was significantly reduced.
Lifetime Electronic Records. For discharging service members, DoD and VA will have a seamless, single computerized medical record.  This addresses the issues of claims and medical care delayed or denied based on lost military paper records.  Although not complete, much progress was made.  The sooner this is finished, the more VA can rely on computers instead of paper.
Computers. VBA has launched the “Veterans Benefits Management System,” with the goal of computerizing veterans claims. This should end the current paper-based system, thus ending issues such as shredded and lost claim folders. Although we have reservations on how this is implemented (VBMS slowed to a crawl in December and there is no contingency in the event of failure), the goal of expediting claims is a good idea.
      Congressional Actions
Advocacy. VCS testified before Congress in support of increased funding, and VA’s budget soared from $100 billion to $140 billion in the past four years.  That helps all Veterans.
Five Years of Free VA Care.  VCS met with then-Senators Obama, Clinton, Bond, Snowe, Collins, and others starting in 2006 to press for free medical care for returning veterans to be extended to five years. Congress finally enacted this extension.  This helps 2.5 million Veterans deployed overseas since 9/11, plus all future deployed Veterans.
In 2010, Congress exempted VA from the “fiscal cliff.”  Veterans can thank then-Speaker Pelosi for removing VA from the austerity programs proposed by the Tea Party and Republicans in order to preserve tax cuts for the rich.  Veterans can rest assured their medical care and disability benefits will continue during these turbulent and unproductive times in Congress.
In 2011, VCS exposed U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann’s Tea Party plan to cut billions of dollars from VA spending on healthcare and disability benefits in order to preserve Bush-era tax cuts for the wealthy.  After VCS shared Bachmann’s plan with the New York Times and newspapers in her home state of Minnesota, she withdrew her outrageous plan.
• Congressional hearings forced VA to make embarrassing admissions such as the Ira Katz  e-mails.  His e-mails revealed VA’s negligent, disgraceful, and adversarial actions towards Veterans by concealing the suicide statistics.  Our supporters in Austin remember the outrage among Veterans and families at the suggestion by a VA psychologist supervisor in Texas that VA avoid PTSD diagnoses due to budget and staffing constraints.
Second, VA’s Continuing Crises
VA remains mired in several crises.
Veterans for Common Sense intends to continue fighting to reform VA so that no veteran waits for VA healthcare or benefits.  
We are deeply disappointed the Supreme Court did not hear the urgent plea of suicidal Veterans who currently face delays of months, and often years, seeking VA assistance.  No Veteran should ever wait for quality healthcare and disability benefits for physical and mental health conditions.
Although significant improvements were made in some areas within VA, many at the prompting of VCS, the nation’s second largest department remains in deep crisis due to decades of underfunding and a lack of significant Congressional oversight of VA’s $140 billion per year budget.  For example, did you know that the Republicans and Democrats only have one professional staffer each at the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee’s Subcommittee on Disability and Memorial Affairs who performs oversight of VBA’s budget of $75 billion per year?
VA’s own statistics provide the greatest indictment of an agency needing reform:
• A shocking 18 Veterans commit suicide every day.  This information is from 2006.  VA has not released any new information, even though VA promised to do so several times in the past six years.  The revelation of this grim fact was possible only due to our VCS lawsuit that forced VA to release e-mails and reports on suicide.
More than 18,000 Veterans contact VA for suicide prevention each month.  The good news is the 810,000 contacts Veterans made with VA’s suicide prevention hotline since August 2007.   VA has rescued more than 25,000.  Imagine how much worse the situation would be if not for dedicated, professional VA staff helping veterans 24/7.
Last year, the families of nearly 20,000 Veterans were paid disability benefits after the Veterans died.  That’s a shocking disgrace that so many veterans died while waiting on VA claims.
More than 1.1 million Veterans still await VA disability claim decisions.  VA’s goal is to process all claims within 125 days with an error rate of two percent.  However, VA’s Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA) continues failing:
  – 900,000 cases wait an average of nine months for a new or re-opened claim decision, up from 634,000 claims waiting five months for a decision in July 2007.
  – 250,000 cases wait four more years for an appealed claim decision, up from 160,000 appeals in July 2007.
  – VBA’s Aspire reported a 14 percent VBA error rate in 2012.  Since VBA’s Aspire error rate is new, there is no comparison from 2007.
  – VA’s Office of the Inspector General reported a 30 percent VBA error rate in 2012.    These error rate reports for each VBA Regional Office generated by VA’s OIG began under the Obama Administration in 2009.  Note: There has been a significant improvement in PTSD claim errors, and that is attributed by VA’s OIG to VA’s new PTSD regulations implemented in 2010.
• VA did not fully implement the Joshua Omvig Suicide Prevention Act.
Conclusion and Next Steps
The bottom line is that VA continues making substantial improvements, many prompted by the VCS lawsuit, news coverage, and Congressional action.  However, VA still has a long way to go so that no Veteran is improperly delayed or denied earned healthcare and benefits.  In addition to VA’s notorious claim processing disaster, and VA’s lack of publicly available suicide research and statistics, VA’s other major scandal not addressed by the VCS lawsuit is VA’s continuing failure to provide healthcare and disability benefits for Gulf War, Afghanistan War, and Iraq War Veterans who are sick and disabled due to toxic exposures.
With the Iraq War nearly over (about 1,500 troops remain), and with plans to reduce troops in Afghanistan (about 60,000 remain), our attention must focus on reforming VA over the long-term.  Demand for care and benefits will continue increasing for decades among the current generation of war Veterans, with an estimated cost of $1 trillion over the next 40 years.  And we must also care for all prior Veterans of peace and war who use VA.
Our warmest thank you to our foundation sponsors, donors, staff, volunteers, and supporters for your loyal assistance during the past six years as we embarked on a bold legal effort to improve Veterans’ lives by reforming a beleaguered VA.  We prompted VA to improve, and VA saved many lives that otherwise may have been lost due to undiagnosed and untreated mental health conditions.
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Veterans Vow Continued Fight to Fix VA

Supreme Court Denies Hearing on Suicidal Veterans Turned Away from VA

For Immediate Release

January 7, 2013

Contact: 202-558-4553

Washington, DC – On Friday, January 4, 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the landmark case brought by Veterans for Common Sense (VCS) and Veterans United for Truth VUFT on behalf of Veterans delayed and denied medical care and benefits by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).

Originally filed in July 2007, the VCS – VUFT lawsuit highlighted the chronic delays and denials for specific conditions associated with the tidal wave of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and traumatic brain injury (TBI) casualties resulting from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.  In response to the Court’s decision, VCS issued the following statement.

VA remains mired in crisis, and Veterans will continue fighting to reform VA so that no veteran waits for VA healthcare or benefits.  We are deeply disappointed the Court did not hear the urgent plea of suicidal Veterans who face delays of months, and often years, seeking VA assistance.  Although significant improvements were made in some areas within VA, such as a suicide hotline set up after our lawsuit that rescued 23,000 distraught Veterans, the nation’s second largest department remains in deep crisis due to decades of underfunding and a lack of significant Congressional oversight of VA’s $140 billion per year budget. 

Although Veterans lost on a technicality, no one disputes the number of preventable Veteran deaths associated with VA’s negligence.  Last year, the families of nearly 20,000 Veterans were paid disability benefits after the Veterans died.  A shocking 18 Veterans commit suicide every day.  More than 12,000 veterans call VA for suicide prevention each month.  During our nation’s worst economic disaster in 80 years, more than 1.1 million Veterans still await VA disability claim decisions.  Of those, 900,000 cases wait an average of nine months for a new or re-opened claim decision, plus an additional 250,000 cases wait four more years for an appealed claim decision.  VA’s Inspector General reported in 2012 that VA makes errors in approximately 30 percent of VA’s claim decisions.  While our Veterans wait, they remain unable to pay their mortgage or rent, and face great challenges feeding their families.

Let us hope VA Secretary Eric Shinseki and Congressional leaders make sure VA has the funding, staffing, laws, regulations, training, and oversight urgently needed so no more Veterans die while waiting.  

Originally filed in July 2007, Veterans for Common Sense v. Shinseki went to trial in April 2008 before Senior Federal District Court Judge Samuel Conti.  Despite finding that “the VA may not be meeting all of the needs of the nation’s Veterans,” Judge Conti concluded that the power to remedy the crisis facing Veterans lies with the other branches of government, including Congress and the Secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs.  In May 2011, a three-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the District Court’s decision, and berated VA for the staggering 18 Veteran suicides each day.  However, in May 2012, an en banc panel of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of VA.

On September 5, 2012, Veterans for Common Sense and Veterans United for Truth, represented pro bono by Morrison & Foerster LLP and Disability Rights Advocates, submitted a petition for writ of certiorari requesting the Supreme Court to review the Ninth Circuit’s en banc decision.  The issue presented to the Supreme Court was whether the Veterans Judicial Review Act allows Veterans to challenge in federal court the systemic delays in the VA’s provision of mental health care and death and disability compensation.  On January 7, the Supreme Court announced that it denied the petition for writ of certiorari, thereby bringing an end to this landmark case.

The issue of prompt PTSD care is vital for recently returning veterans. Up to 30 percent of returning Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans may return home with PTSD, according to a recent Stanford University Study, or as many as 750,000 of the 2.5 million deployed to war in the past 11 years.  A new 2008 law, advocated by VCS, provides up to five years of free VA care after deployment to a war zone.  A new 2010 VA regulation, prompted by a VCS petition to VA, provides streamlined PTSD claims processing based on scientific research.

Suicidal Veterans and Veterans who don’t know where to get help for PTSD can call VA’s Crisis Line at 800-273-TALK.  ###

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