Roe, Walz, Baldwin Lead VCS-Requested Efforts to Support Funding for Gulf War Illness Treatment Research

(SOURCE:  91outcomes.com) – A large, bipartisan group of members of both houses of Congress in letters this week called for the funding needed to continue the treatment research efforts of the Gulf War Illness Research Program (GWIRP).

The program, aimed at improving the health and lives of Gulf War veterans affected by Gulf War Illness, is part of the Congressionally Directed Medical Research Programs (CDMRP), which in turn is part of the U.S. Department of Defense.

Led by Rep. Phil Roe, M.D. (R-TN) and Rep. Tim Walz (D-MN) in the U.S. House of Representatives and U.S. Senator Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) in the U.S. Senate, eighty Members and Senators this week called on the leadership of both chambers’ Defense Appropriations Subcommittees to continue funding for the program in this year’s Congressional appropriations.

The House cosigners includes House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Rep. Jeff Miller (R-FL) and Ranking Member Rep. Corrine Brown (D-FL), nearly two-third of the committee’s members, and five of eight Subcommittee leaders.  Also included are 12 House Armed Services Committee members, including three important Subcommittee leaders.

The Senate cosigners include several members of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Senate Armed Services Committee, and the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee (SVAC), including immediate past SVAC chairman Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT).

Gulf War Illness, which affects between one-fourth and one-third of veterans of the 1991 Gulf War, resulted from toxic wartime exposures and resulted in lifelong disabling symptoms that typically include debilitating fatigue, chronic widespread pain, and cognitive impairment including memory loss, and generally also include one or several additional symptoms from an array of other neurologic, respiratory, skin, and other symptom sets.

The letters noted the research program’s progress:

“GWIRP-funded studies have found treatments—like CoQ10, acupuncture, and carnosine—that help alleviate some GWI symptoms, and ongoing evaluations of treatments include off-the-shelf medications and alternative therapies for which there is a rationale for GWI symptom relief.  Other studies by multisite, multidisciplinary teams are focused on identifying treatments to attack the underlying disease and are showing great promise, finding that even low-dose chemical warfare agent and/or pesticide exposure leads to the following findings, among others: persistent brain changes associated with GWI; evidence of a GWI chronic central nervous system inflammatory state; a potential explanation of GWI immunological dysfunction; inflammation and immune dysfunction in GWI after exercise challenge; evidence suggesting small fiber peripheral neuropathy in a subset of GWI veterans; and lipid dysfunction following GWI exposures.

“In addition to improving the health of Gulf War veterans, these important discoveries also will help protect current and future American servicemembers who could be at risk of toxic exposures.”

Sen. Baldwin, member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said the following in the cosigned letter she led:

“We are writing to share with you the progress being made by the GWIRP and to request that you include the funding necessary to continue this successful program’s work on behalf of Gulf War veterans.  While we have made progress in the fight against Gulf War Illness, many challenges remain.”  “It is critical to the program’s success and accountability that it remains a stand-alone program within CDMRP.”

Rep. Roe, M.D., member of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, released the following statement on the letter:

“As a member of the House Veterans Affairs Committee and a veteran myself, I believe we have a huge responsibility to ensure that these efforts continue, for these veterans and for current and future U.S. forces at risk of similar exposures and outcomes. As combat continues to evolve, we must have the capability to provide quality care to our returning servicemembers. This letter encourages appropriators to continue supporting this important research and I am proud to lead this effort.”

Rep. Miller, Chairman of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, released the following statement:

“Our obligations to the men and women who have worn the uniform don’t stop when wars end. In order to keep faith with those who have served, we must always strive to provide them with the care and benefits they have earned. Maintaining robust veteran-related medical research efforts, such as DoD’s Gulf War Illness Research Program, is an important part of this equation. That’s why ensuring this program has adequate resources is of vital importance.”

Rep. Mike Coffman (R-CO), Chairman of the House Veterans’ Affairs Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations and a combat veteran of the Gulf War, released the following statement:

“As a Gulf War veteran, I have always held a deep distrust for the Department of Defense because they refused, for years, to acknowledge that our troops had been exposed to chemical weapons. I will always stand by my fellow Gulf War veterans to make sure that their sacrifices are never forgotten and that they receive the necessary health care and benefits that they have earned through their service to our country.”

Rep. Walz, member of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee and the highest ranking enlisted soldier ever to serve in Congress, released the following statement on the letter:

“When our warriors return from battle, it’s our duty as a grateful nation to provide them with the best care possible, based in sound medical research. In order to achieve this goal, we must continue to invest in research that helps us better understand the risks and exposures they faced in combat. That is why I am proud to join my friend and colleague, Rep. Roe, to lead this letter in support of the successful Gulf War Illness Research Program.”

Anthony Hardie, director of Veterans for Common Sense, released the following statement:

“As an ill and affected Gulf War veteran myself, I’m deeply grateful for the leadership of Dr. Roe and Rep. Walz in helping ensure this treatment research program is allowed to continue its critically important work.”

Jim Binns, former chairman of the Congressionally-mandated Research Advisory Committee on Gulf War Veterans Illnesses (RAC), released the following statement:

“Gulf War veterans and the researchers working to improve their health are exceedingly grateful for Congressman Roe and Congressman Walz’s leadership. No members of Congress command higher respect among their colleagues on veterans’ health issues than Dr. Roe as an M.D. and Mr. Walz as the highest-ranking enlisted veteran in Congress.”

The letters noted the support of numerous national veterans service organizations, including the American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars, Disabled American Veterans, AMVETS, Vietnam Veterans of America, Sergeant Sullivan Center, National Vietnam and Gulf War Veterans Coalition, Paralyzed Veterans of America, and Veterans for Common Sense.

The signed Senate letter is available here:  https://www.scribd.com/doc/260152211/Senate-Baldwin-Letter-to-Sac-d-Fy16-Gwirp-Final-2

The signed House letter is available here:  https://www.scribd.com/doc/260152215/House-Roe-walz-Letter-to-HAC-D-GWIRP-Final-Fy16

The full press release issued by the office of Rep. Roe is below, followed by the final lists of the House and Senate cosigners.

###

News from Congressman Phil Roe
REPRESENTING TENNESSEE’S 1st CONGRESSIONAL DISTRICT
Friday, March 27, 2015 For Immediate Release
Roe Leads Nearly 70 Members in Effort to Support Funding for Gulf War Illness Treatment ResearchWASHINGTON, D.C. – Today, Rep. Phil Roe, M.D. (R-TN) led nearly 70 members of the House in a letter to appropriators encouraging funding for the Department of Defense’s (DoD) Gulf War Illness Research Program within the DoD Congressional Directed Medical Research Programs.The letter, found here, is supported by the American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars, Disabled American Veterans, AMVETS, Vietnam Veterans of America, Sergeant Sullivan Center, National Vietnam and Gulf War Veterans Coalition, Paralyzed Veterans of America and Veterans for Common Sense.

Rep. Roe, M.D., member of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, released the following statement on the letter:

“As a member of the House Veterans Affairs Committee and a veteran myself, I believe we have a huge responsibility to ensure that these efforts continue, for these veterans and for current and future U.S. forces at risk of similar exposures and outcomes. As combat continues to evolve, we must have the capability to provide quality care to our returning servicemembers. This letter encourages appropriators to continue supporting this important research and I am proud to lead this effort.”

Rep. Miller, Chairman of the Veterans Affairs Committee, released the following statement:

“Our obligations to the men and women who have worn the uniform don’t stop when wars end. In order to keep faith with those who have served, we must always strive to provide them with the care and benefits they have earned. Maintaining robust veteran-related medical research efforts, such as DoD’s Gulf War Illness Research Program, is an important part of this equation. That’s why ensuring this program has adequate resources is of vital importance.”

Rep. Coffman, Chairman of the Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations and a combat veteran of the Gulf War, released the following statement:

“As a Gulf War veteran, I have always held a deep distrust for the Department of Defense because they refused, for years, to acknowledge that our troops had been exposed to chemical weapons. I will always stand by my fellow Gulf War veterans to make sure that their sacrifices are never forgotten and that they receive the necessary health care and benefits that they have earned through their service to our country.”

Rep. Walz, member of the House Veterans Affairs Committee and the highest ranking enlisted soldier ever to serve in Congress, released the following statement on the letter:

“When our warriors return from battle, it’s our duty as a grateful nation to provide them with the best care possible, based in sound medical research. In order to achieve this goal, we must continue to invest in research that helps us better understand the risks and exposures they faced in combat. That is why I am proud to join my friend and colleague, Rep. Roe, to lead this letter in support of the successful Gulf War Illness Research Program.”

Anthony Hardie, director of Veterans for Common Sense, released the following statement:

“As an ill and affected Gulf War veteran myself, I’m deeply grateful for the leadership of Dr. Roe and Rep. Walz in helping ensure this treatment research program is allowed to continue its critically important work.”

Jim Binns, former chairman of the Research Advisory Committee on Gulf War Veterans Illnesses, released the following statement:

“Gulf War veterans and the researchers working to improve their health are exceedingly grateful for Congressman Roe and Congressman Walz’s leadership. No members of Congress command higher respect among their colleagues on veterans’ health issues than Dr. Roe as an M.D. and Mr. Walz as the highest-ranking enlisted veteran in Congress.”

###Visit www.roe.house.gov for more press, floor speeches, member resources and to sign up for our e-newsletter. 

HOUSE COSIGNERS – FY16 GWIRP

Title FIRST LAST Party State District
Rep. Dan Benishek R MI 1
Rep. Gus Bilirakis R FL 12
Rep. Vern Buchanan R FL 16
Rep. Mike Coffman R CO 6
Rep. Bill Johnson R OH 6
Rep. Walter Jones R NC 3
Rep. Jeff Miller R FL 1
Rep. Phil Roe R TN 1
Rep. Bob Brady D PA 1
Rep. Corrine Brown D FL 5
Rep. Julia Brownley D CA 26
Rep. Tony Cardenas D CA 29
Rep. Andre Carson D IN 7
Rep. Matthew Cartwright D PA 17
Rep. Judy Chu D CA 27
Rep. David Cicilline D RI 1
Rep. Katherine Clark D MA 5
Rep. Emanuel Cleaver D MO 5
Rep. John Conyers D MI 13
Rep. Joe Crowley D NY 14
Rep. Elijah Cummings D MD 7
Rep. Susan Davis D CA 53
Rep. Peter DeFazio D OR 4
Rep. Dian DeGette D CO 1
Rep. John Delaney D MD 6
Rep. Lloyd Doggett D TX 35
Rep. Keith Ellison D MN 5
Rep. Elizabeth Esty D CT 5
Rep. Lois Frankel D FL 22
Rep. Raul Grijalva D AZ 3
Rep. Alcee Hastings D FL 20
Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee D TX 18
Rep. William Keating D MA 9
Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick D AZ 1
Rep. Ann McLane Kuster D NH 2
Rep. Jim Langevin D RI 2
Rep. Rick Larsen D WA 2
Rep. Barbara Lee D CA 13
Rep. Dan Lipinski D IL 3
Rep. Dave Loebsack D IA 2
Rep. Alan Lowenthal D CA 47
Rep. Stephen Lynch D MA 8
Rep. Jim McDermott D WA 7
Rep. James P. McGovern D MA 2
Rep. Beto O’Rourke D TX 16
Rep. Donald Payne D NJ 10
Rep. Ed Perlmutter D CO 7
Rep. Scott Peters D CA 52
Rep. Collin Peterson D MN 7
Rep. Chellie Pingree D ME 1
Rep. Stacey Plaskett D VI At-Large
Rep. Mark Pocan D WI 2
Rep. Chuck Rangel D NY 13
Rep. Kathleen Rice D NY 4
Rep. Raul Ruiz D CA 36
Rep. Gregorio Sablan D NMI At-Large
Rep. Linda Sanchez D CA 38
Rep. Jan Schakowsky D IL 9
Rep. Adam Schiff D CA 28
Rep. Kyrsten Sinema D AZ 9
Rep. Louis Slaughter D NY 25
Rep. Jackie Speier D CA 14
Rep. Mark Takano D CA 41
Rep. Chris Van Hollen D MD 8
Rep. Marc Veasey D TX 33
Rep. Filemon Vela D TX 34
Rep. Tim Walz D MN 1
Rep. Peter Welch D VT At-Large

SENATE COSIGNERS – FY16 GWIRP

Title FIRST LAST Party State
Sen. Tammy Baldwin D WI
Sen. Sharrod Brown D OH
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand D NY
Sen. Mazie Hirono D HI
Sen. Edward Markey D MA
Sen. Jeff Merkley D OR
Sen. Gary Peters D MI
Sen. Bernard Sanders I VT
Sen. Brian Schatz D HI
Sen. Charles Schumer D NY
Sen. Jeanne Shaheen D NH
Sen. Ron Wyden D OR
Posted in Gulf War, Legislative News, Toxic Wounds | Leave a comment

VA Ends “Informal Claims”, Disadvantaging Thousands of Veterans

SOURCE:  Bergmann & Moore, March 24, 2015.  Kelly Kennedy reporting.

***

Today, Veterans Affairs ends the “informal claims” process veterans have used for generations to get a jump start on their benefits, and while the move could decrease the backlog by thousands of claims, it comes at the expense of veterans.

“We believe the most immediate response to the new regulation will be a sharp reduction in claims filed—potentially hundreds of thousands,” said Glenn Bergmann, partner at Bergmann & Moore, a national law firm that focuses on veterans’ appeals cases. “The changes also place the burden on the veterans, who don’t understand the intricacies of beneficiary law.”

In the past, vets could send a letter to Veterans Affairs saying that they would like to file a claim. This effectively acted as a placeholder—a date from which future benefits would begin—as the veteran worked to file his claim.

It was a popular option: Fully half of all veterans who filed claims in 2014, approximately 600,000 people, filed an informal claim.

And, in the past, it was clear that it was VA’s job to help that veteran gather his or her medical records, whether that be from the military, VA or even private medical practitioners – a fact a recent Supreme Court opinion acknowledged.

Instead, veterans now face a four-page document that inexplicably informs them in its second sentence that they must obtain all medical records before filing their claim.  Bergmann fears this will cause veterans to throw up their hands and give up, especially if those veterans are dealing with any issues that can make red tape seem insurmountable, such as traumatic brain injury, post-traumatic stress or other severe physical injuries.

These changes will likely work well for VA. The department has promised to end the initial claims backlog by the end of 2015, but they’re far behind in this goal. The new rule could help them reach the goal by effectively preventing veterans from filing claims that VA will reject because they are “incomplete.”

Not only are the forms confusing, there has been almost no notice that things have changed. Because veterans’ advocates did not see the forms until this month, there has been no training for the people who are supposed to help veterans file these claims. VA just announced the new forms on a blog on its website last week, but has done no advertising, instead relying on organizations like Disabled American Veterans to explain the new changes.

And, there’s no word on what happens if a veteran files an informal claim and sends it to VA. Will VA send the proper form back to the veteran? If so, how long does VA have to send it? Advocates don’t know: The rule does not say. In February, CBS News reported VA adjudicators hid 13,000 informal claims in file cabinets without responding to them. Under the new rule, what happens to those old letters? If there’s no formal response required, could they simply disappear?

“We suspect the next month—the next year—will be a boondoggle as veterans try to figure out the new process and keep tabs on their paperwork,” said Bergmann, a former VA litigator. “Claims on improper forms will disappear, veterans will grow frustrated, and the backlog will most certainly decrease as veterans go without the care and benefits that they earned.”

In the comments for the proposed rule in the Federal Register, several advocates suggested making the new forms voluntary until veterans and veterans service officers get used to the new process. VA stated in the final rule that voluntary forms would still require VA employees to “engage in time-intensive interpretive review of narrative submissions.” In other words, it would be too much work for VA to act in favor of the veterans.

In addition, veterans who file the new claims paperwork online instantly gain a claims date, as well as one year to finish the process. While electronic claims could certainly be beneficial, Bergmann fears veterans who do not have access to the Internet—The American Legion reports only 45 percent of people older than 65 have Internet access, while the average age of a male veteran is 64—could be at a disadvantage. This also includes the poor and the homeless.

Disabled American Veterans, Veterans of Foreign Wars and The American Legion have all come out against this new rule. Rep. Ralph Abraham, R-Louisiana, submitted legislation, HR 245, that would rescind it.

If the new program moves forward, Bergmann expects to see the rate of claims filed fall to historic lows. At the end of last week, 207,697 claims were backlogged—or waiting for a decision for more than 125 days. But if fewer new claims come in, VA could put more resources toward the old claims. It appears, once again, that VA is pushing its own goals ahead of the veterans.

-Kelly Kennedy, for Bergmann & Moore

Posted in VA Claims | Leave a comment

VCS IN THE NEWS: New VA-Tomah Investigation “Feels Like Deja Vu”

SOURCE:  Center for Investigative Reporting, Aaron Glantz reporting, January 30, 2015

http://www.revealnews.org/article/investigator-visit-to-wisconsin-veterans-hospital-feels-like-deja-vu/

According to the Center for Investigative Reporting:

U.S. Secretary of Veterans Affairs Robert McDonald dispatched a team of investigators to the Tomah VA Medical Center in Wisconsin this week to review patients’ charts and grill hospital staff after reports of runaway painkiller prescriptions, preventable overdoses and abuse of authority by the hospital’s chief of staff.

For many, it was déjà vu, since the same allegations had been scrutinized for two years by the VA’s Office of Inspector General – in a report that has never been released officially. That left some questioning whether the agency charged with caring for America’s military veterans is capable of policing itself.

Our latest story, which will be running in newspapers across Wisconsin, is up on CIR’s new website “Reveal”. 

Along with a comment about the implications of VA’s secret Inspector General Reports from House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman, today’s breaking news story includes a quote from Veterans for Common Sense:

Anthony Hardie, a Gulf War veteran and director of Veterans for Common Sense, said the existence of “secret IG reports is massive, absolutely massive. At the end of it all, who knows what kind of secret IG’s reports are out there. Who knows what we don’t know.”

Rep. Jeff Miller, the Florida Republican who chairs the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, saw a repeat of the scandal on hidden hospital waiting lists and undisclosed patient deaths that prompted the resignation of the previous VA secretary in May.

“We’re very concerned about what else VA OIG may be hiding,” Miller said.

In October, after allegations that political interference led the inspector general to downplay the role that secret waiting lists played in the deaths of veterans served by the Phoenix VA, Miller wrote to the agency’s acting inspector general, Griffin, asking for “all draft and final versions” of reports “at the time they are originally provided to the Department of Veterans Affairs.”

On Dec. 30, Griffin responded, denying the request, saying he only would send copies of reports to Congress as they are made available on the VA’s website.

“Providing these reports to Congress absent a compelling legislative purpose would have a chilling effect” on the watchdog’s relationship with the agency, Griffin wrote.

Read the full story here:

http://www.revealnews.org/article/investigator-visit-to-wisconsin-veterans-hospital-feels-like-deja-vu/

Posted in Legislative News, VA Healthcare Crisis, Veterans Articles & News | Comments Off

VCS IN THE NEWS: Is St. Pete VA Regional Office Just the Tip of the VA Claims Crisis Iceberg?

SOURCE:  McClatchy Washington Bureau, Chris Adams reporting, Jan. 30, 2015

http://www.mcclatchydc.com/2015/01/30/255013/congressmen-push-va-for-answers.html

***

The McClatchy news wire service is reporting that two Florida Members of Congress are seeking further investigation into the myriad problems plaguing the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Regional office (VARO) in Bay Pines, near St. Petersburg, Florida.

The issues at St. Pete go back many years and an “interim” VA Inspector General report dated last May touched on some of them.  Citing ongoing concerns that remain unresolved by an “interim” VA Inspector General report, Congressmen Patrick Murphy (D-FL-18) and Vern Buchanan (R-FL-16) launched a letter this week to top VA benefits official, VA Undersecretary of Health Allison Hickey.

The report details an institutionalized loss of veterans’ claims and medical records.  According to the IG report, “files were stored on end caps, on shelves built around the perimeter of the room, and in loose boxes stored against the outside walls of the room. As a result, RO personnel have encountered difficulties locating files.”

The report also details a St. Pete office’s failure to date-stamp incoming claims and materials, which would negatively impact veterans’ “date of claim” and make management of the overall claims process impossible.

Today’s McClatchy news wire story, “Congressmen push VA for answers on ‘unacceptably long’ delays in Fla.,” (January 30, 2015) included quotes and background information from Veterans for Common Sense aimed at highlighting the seriousness of these issues.

According to Anthony Hardie, national director of the Washington-based advocacy organization Veterans for Common Sense, the problems in the St. Petersburg office have existed for years.

“Veterans who are waiting on their claims to be approved should not have to suffer through the incompetence of the St. Pete regional office,” said Hardie, who lives in Bradenton; he was in Washington this week advocating on behalf of veterans.

Leading the effort, Buchanan lambasted the VA’s St. Pete office.

“It appears to me it hasn’t changed much,” Buchanan, whose congressional district includes Bradenton, said in an interview. “We have a million and a half people in Florida who are veterans, and I think it’s outrageous people have to wait 125 days to have their claim decided.”

His district is one of the most veteran-heavy in the country, ranking third among all districts for its share of older veterans.

Typical to form at the embattled VA, Kerrie Witty, director of the St. Petersburg office, completely brushed aside any remaining concerns:  “The problems that they found a year ago – they are completely resolved.

A photo with the story is captioned as follows:

Anthony Hardie of Bradenton, Florida, stands outside the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 30, 2015. A top official with the Washington-based advocacy organization Veterans for Common Sense, Hardie was in Washington advocating on veterans’ issues. He says problems have persisted for years at Department of Veterans Affairs St. Petersburg, Florida, office. (Chris Adams/McClatchy)

Hardie met with Buchanan’s DC office today on Capitol Hill in Washington and suggested additional areas for further inquiry.

Read the full story here: http://www.mcclatchydc.com/2015/01/30/255013/congressmen-push-va-for-answers.html#storylink=cpy

Posted in Legislative News, VA Claims, Veterans Articles & News | Comments Off

New Bill Would Create VA Whistleblower Protections, More Accountability for Retaliators

SOURCE:  PRESS RELEASE, U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, 1/28/2015

****

Miller Proposes New VA Whistleblower Protections, More Accountability for Retaliators

 WASHINGTON, D.C. — Yesterday Chairman Miller introduced the Veterans Affairs Retaliation Prevention Act of 2015. The bill would provide VA whistleblowers with a means to solve problems at the lowest level possible, while offering them protection from reprisals and real accountability for those who reprise against them. 

Specifically, the bill would:

  • Establish a new system employees could use to report retaliation claims that emphasizes addressing problems at the lowest level possible. Supervisors would be required to report all retaliation claims to facility directors, eliminating the possibility for facility leaders to claim plausible deniability of such claims
  • Codify prohibitions against negative personnel actions for employees who file whistleblower complaints or who cooperate with congressional, Government Accountability Office or Inspector General investigations
  • Establish mandatory disciplinary penalties for employees found to have engaged in retaliation against whistleblowers
  • Establish a mandatory whistleblower protection training program for all VA employees

In the months since VA’s medical care wait times and accountability crises were exposed, the department’s treatment of whistleblowers has generated much discussion and controversy. Although VA leaders have pledged that whistleblower retaliation will not be tolerated, many VA whistleblowers contend little has changed in the wake of the department’s vows to protect employees who expose wrongdoing.

Incredibly, even as the department has reached legal settlements with whistleblowers who endured retaliation, those who retaliated against them have gone unpunished. According to Phoenix VA Health Care system whistleblower and settlement recipient Dr. Katherine Mitchell, “the physician chain of command and the HR chain of command that retaliated against me remain intact and, as far as I know, have never been held accountable.” Even after paying out more than $1 million taxpayer dollars to settle recent claims from employees who endured retaliation, VA has refused to say whether it would discipline the retaliators whose actions led to the settlements.

After introducing the bill, Chairman Miller released the following statement:

“Even though Sec. McDonald says VA will not tolerate retaliation against whistleblowers, the fact remains the department still has much more work to do when it comes to fully addressing this issue. This problem went unchecked at VA for years, and it would be naïve to think it would simply vanish upon the appointment of a new secretary and in the absence of the thorough housecleaning the department so desperately needs. VA’s transformation won’t be complete until employees at all levels understand there are tangible consequences for retaliating against whistleblowers.

“This will only be achieved through actions, not words. Though Sec. McDonald and other VA leaders have said protecting whistleblowers is important, they must also ensure the department moves swiftly to fire any employees who have engaged in whistleblower retaliation. That hasn’t happened yet, and this bill will give VA leaders more tools to ensure that it does.” – Rep. Jeff Miller, Chairman, House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs

 Read the text of the bill here.

###

 

Posted in Legislative News, Veterans Articles & News | Comments Off

MILITARY TIMES: “Delay, Deny, Wait ’til they Die” — McDonald must turn around VA

SOURCE:  Military Times editorial board editorial, Jan. 23, 2015

http://www.navytimes.com/story/opinion/2015/01/23/bellwether-va-moment/22224705/

ARCHIVED ARTICLE:

Editorial: A bellwether VA moment:  Bob McDonald must turn around the VA.

2:27 p.m. EST January 23, 2015

New Veterans Affairs Secretary Bob McDonald has the Herculean task of trying to right his scandal-plagued department, a mighty challenge forcefully defied by institutional resistance to change and a bureaucratic belief that its core mission is to serve the best interests of the government rather than those of the men and women who served the country in uniform.

VA’s latest success in embarrassing itself involves the Air Force’s fleet of C-123 aircraft that sprayed the toxic defoliant Agent Orange on the jungles of Southeast Asia in the Vietnam War.

After the war, the planes were scrubbed down and kept in service, with 1,500 to 2,100 troops flying on them before they were retired for good in 1982. Many of those troops are now sick with cancer and other illnesses that they’ve long claimed were caused by toxic residue lingering in those C-123 airframes.

That charge was backed up in 2012 in a government report. In customary fashion, VA’s response was complete denial. Now, a new scientific review has come to the same conclusion as the earlier report — “with confidence.”

It’s the latest in decades of VA health controversies: depleted uranium, burn pits, tainted anthrax vaccine, and more. In the pointed words of Rick Weidman of Vietnam Veterans of America, VA’s standard approach to veterans’ environmental health issues is “delay, deny, wait ’til they die.”

McDonald somehow must turn around this massive, calcified outfit that still lacks vision, accountability, and, most importantly, trust among many of the veterans it was created to serve.

VA officials promise to respond to the newest C-123 report. That response will go a long way toward determining whether McDonald can effect the changes so badly overdue at VA.

###

Posted in Veterans Articles & News | 3 Comments

BERGMANN & MOORE: Data Show Increased Respiratory, Other Disorders In Iraq/Afghanistan War Veterans

SOURCE: Bergmann & Moore, Kelly Kennedy reporting, 1/21/2015

http://www.vetlawyers.com/respiratory-disorders-go-up-slide-back-down-as-deployments-do-same/

ARCHIVED ARTICLE:

Respiratory disorders go up, slide back down, as deployments do same

Bergmann & Moore compiles 13 years’ worth of DoD morbidity data

Morbidity burdens per 10,000 active-duty service members

 Year

’03

’04

’05

’06

’07

’08

’09

’10

’11

’12

’13

COPD

124

111

142

145

167

179

218

184

178

163

147

Chronic sinusitis

107

115

149

197

221

229

245

236

238

224

221

cardio-vascular

515

549

562

604

622

569

626

638

647

642

612

other neurological conditions

78

77

79

142

132

145

190

229

211

240

251

Source: Bergmann & Moore compilation and analysis of Defense Department morbidity reports

by Kelly Kennedy

Bergmann & Moore

The Supreme Court ruled today that service members and contractors who believe their health was affected by massive, open pits of burning garbage in Iraq and Afghanistan could sue KBR Inc., the businesses charged with operating those pits.

While it’s hard to know how those lawsuits will play out, it could mean that more information emerges about what the troops were exposed to and how it affected them.

Some of those service members lived just a mile from a pit at Balad Air Base that burned 240 tons of trash a day. A thick, black plume—large enough that pilots used it as a landmark while flying—carried smoke from burned Styrofoam used at the dining facility, broken computers and even vehicles deemed unworthy of rehabilitation, and the tons of plastic water bottles used for almost every ounce of water imbibed in the war zone.

An airman tosses unserviceable uniform items into a burn pit, March 10, 2008 at Balad Air Base in Iraq. (Julianne Showalter/U.S. Air Force)

Others worked in the pits, tossing in trash or monitoring from towers to ensure the flames did not spread outside the pit.

The Department of Veterans Affairs says the burn pits likely caused temporary, and not long-term irritation, and cited an Institute of Medicine report as stating there was insufficient evidence to show long-term problems. “Research does not show evidence of long-term health problems from exposure to burn pits at this time,” states VA’s website.

That’s not exactly what the IOM said: They said there was not enough good data taken by the Defense Department in Iraq to show anything at all. And one of the investigators,  David Tollerud, an environmental health scientist at the University of Louisville and chairman of the study, told me when I worked at USA TODAY, “I think the long-term health questions still remain.”

He said research on health outcomes performed five to 10 years after exposure is probably too early to determine if heart and vascular problems or cancers are due to the burn pits. And some groups exposed to similar materials have seen problems: Firefighters have higher rates of heart and vascular problems. Research has linked firefighters and incinerator workers with brain, testicular, colon and prostate cancer.

Now it is five to 10 years later for some vets, and we’re seeing more people come forward with cancers they believe are connected to the burn pits, or with a constant nasal drip that doesn’t respond to allergy medications, or unable to walk up a flight of stairs without becoming winded–even though they ran marathons before they deployed.

The IOM said, in it’s 2011 report, that it would be important to keep watching these service members because of “the carcinogenic nature of many of the chemicals potentially associated with burn-pit emissions.”

Continuing the lawsuits may allow for exactly that: more data, more health evaluations and more answers.

While at USA TODAY, I looked at Defense Department morbidity reports. We found that cardiovascular issues for service members increased from 65,520 in 2001 to 91,013 in 2010. Looking at the latest numbers, they’ve slipped back down to 84,941 in 2013 as deployments slowed and after the majority of the burn pits were shut down after an outcry in Congress and new rules in the 2010 Defense Authorization Act.

The data showed neurological conditions increased from 9,688 to 32,667 in the same time period, and hit 34,873 in 2013.

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease increased from 13,554 cases in 2001 to a high  of 30,778 in 2009, before going back down to 20,412 in 2013. COPD usually appears in smokers and, in 92 percent of the cases, is diagnosed in people older than 45, according to the American Lung Association.

Brain, testicular and thyroid cancer numbers also went up, and continue to do so.

At Fort Campbell, Kentucky, military health workers became so concerned when an infantry unit returned from Iraq with several members unable to pass the run portion of a physical fitness test that the soldiers were sent to Vanderbilt University Medical Center for further testing. There, Robert Miller performed lung biopsies and determined that more than 50 of the soldiers have constrictive bronchiolitis, a rare disease that closes the smallest passageways of the lungs. Miller said the disease should have showed up on X-rays, but did not.

Rather than aggressively going after that research, the Army simply stopped sending troops to Miller, saying the biopsies were unnecessary. Miller said that’s troubling because, without the biopsies, it’s hard for veterans to prove they’re sick for disability benefits.

Another researcher, Anthony Szema,  an assistant professor at Stony Brook School of Medicine who specializes in pulmonology and allergies, found that 14 percent of service members who went to Iraq or Afghanistan experienced shortness of breath, coughing, wheezing and chest tightness.

Szema’s research has shown that 14% of servicemembers who deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan had new-onset respiratory problems, including shortness of breath, coughing, wheezing and chest tightness.

Again, rather than pushing for more of this research, whistle blower Steven Coughlin, a former epidemiologist in the VA’s public health department, told Congress VA didn’t release any data that showed there might be problems.

Perhaps with some outside help, the veterans will be able to prove what they’ve suspected all along and get the health care and benefits they earned while serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Bergmann & Moore, LLC, is a national law firm dedicated to serving the needs of veterans in compensation claims before and against the Department of Veterans Affairs. The firm’s partners are former VA attorneys who are very familiar with the VA system. Bergmann & Moore handles all kinds of cases, but has a concentration in claims involving PTSD, military sexual trauma, Gulf War illness and complex medical issues, such as brain cancer or degenerative issues, veterans exposed to Agent Orange often face. For more information, to submit news or to sign up for an email version of this blog, contact Kelly Kennedy at kkennedy@vetlawyers.com

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Congress to Hold Hearing on Veterans’ Claims Appeals

SOURCE:  Press release, U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Veterans’ Affairs

House Veterans’ Affairs Committeee To Examine Appeals System for Veterans Claims

WASHINGTON, D.C.— The House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs Subcommittee on Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs will hold a hearing on Thursday, Jan. 22, 2015, at 10:30 AM in room 340 of the Cannon House Office Building to examine the litany of issues related to the appeals process used by the Department of Veterans Affairs Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA) and Board of Veterans’Appeals (BVA).

BVA is responsible for adjudicating appeals veterans file when they disagree with VA claim decisions regarding issues such as disability benefits compensation. The number of pending claim appeals has risen steadily over the past year and stood at 289,988 as of Jan. 17, 2015, surpassing VA’s backlog of 245,877 pending disability benefits compensation claims.

Currently, VA’s claim appeals process is plagued by long-ignored failures, which are a primary contributor to the current backlog of appeals. In some extreme cases, appeals have been pending for more than 20 years without a final decision.

This hearing will explore problems with VA’s current approach to appeals and what actions may be required to ensure a more efficient and effective appeals process.

The following event is open to the press:

WHO:       Subcommittee on Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs

WHAT:    Veterans’ Dilemma: Navigating the Appeals System for Veterans Claims

WHEN:    10:30 AM, Thursday, Jan. 22, 2015

WHERE:  340 Cannon House Office Building and streaming at veterans.house.gov

 

WITNESS LIST

Panel 1

Beth McCoy, Esquire, Deputy Under Secretary for Field Operations, Veterans Benefits Administration, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs

accompanied by

Mr. Ronald S. Burke, Jr., Director, Appeals Management Center, Veterans Benefits Administration, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs

Laura H. Eskenazi, Esquire, Executive-in-Charge and Vice Chairman, Board of Veterans’ Appeals, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs

Panel 2

Mr. Gerald T. Manar, Deputy Director, National Veterans Service, Veterans of Foreign Wars

Mr. Zachary Hearn, Deputy Director for Claims, Veterans Affairs and Rehabilitation Division, The American Legion

Diane Boyd Rauber, Esquire, Associate General Counsel for Appeals, Paralyzed Veterans of America

Mr. Paul R. Varela, Assistant National Legislative Director, Disabled American Veterans

James R. Vale, Esquire, Director, Veterans Benefits Program, Vietnam Veterans of America

 

Panel 3

Barton F. Stichman, Esquire, Joint Executive Director, National Veterans Legal Services Program

Kenneth M. Carpenter, Esquire, Founding Member, National Organization of Veterans’ Advocates

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