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Veterans Roundup: Focus on Veterans’ Mental Health, Two-Thirds of GI Bill Dollars in CA Going to For-Profits

Posted by Fred Wellman

Are Budget Battles Slowing Health Care Reforms for Veterans?
Stacy Kaper (@KaperSLK), National Journal. After failing to send reforms to the President before the Fourth of July recess, Congress is under pressure to produce legislation stopping veterans from dying while waiting for medical care. The biggest challenge facing lawmakers is the estimated $50 billion yearly budget by the Congressional Budget Office (CBO). Although a new budget estimate came out to $30 billion on Friday, funding remains a major challenge. As veterans groups continue pushing for change, the House and the Senate may have to rely on several alternative sources for funding. –MC
Bottom Line: With only about 30 days of working days left for this Congress, veteran and military organizations will be putting the pressure on Congress to pass a VA reform bill in addition to a couple other critical military funding bills. Cost has been the major obstacle and now that it’s more palatable, the bill may be more likely to move forward as Members of Congress looking to show support for veterans ahead of tight elections need to show action. –LJ

VA Health Care Failed Suicidal Vets, Families Testify
Patricia Kime (@patriciakime), Military Times. Last week, three families who lost sons to suicide and one veteran who overcame his battle with suicidal thoughts testified before the House Veterans Affairs Committee. Each provided an emotional, human element to a committee that generally hosts fairly clinical and staid hearings. Each also provided lawmakers with sensible next steps to take in order to ensure not one more parent appears before Congress decrying the treatment their son or daughter received from the VA. The Selkes, parents of Clay Hunt, one of the first Team Rubicon members and a staunch advocate for veterans, testified that when something went wrong towards the end of Clay’s life, the VA wasn’t there for him. His local VA didn’t stock the medication he needed, there were no mental health care appointments for two months, and the intake area was stressful to someone like him with PTSD. Because he didn’t receive the care the VA was supposed to deliver, Clay ended his life. Daniel Somers’ and Brian Portwine’s parents told similar stories of loss that never should have been. Each wants to work within the current VA system to reform it and make care more tailored to the individual veterans in need. IAVA and the VFW worked on the introduction of a House bill, the Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for American Veterans Act, which would take a number of steps to improve mental health care for veterans if passed. –LJ

With U.S. Encouragement, VA Disability Claims Rise Sharply
Alan Zarembo (@AlanZarembo), L.A. Times. There has been a steady increase in the number of veterans seeking disability compensation from the Department of Veterans Affairs in the last decade. Much of that increase can be tied to encouragement by the government telling veterans to file for their benefits associated with the medical ailments and injuries accrued during military service. In the last 12 years enrollment in the benefits system has grown from 2.3 million to 3.7 million and Iraq and Afghanistan veterans are signing up in far higher numbers than previous generations as 43% are now receiving disability pay. This has led to a doubling of the amount VA pays now with some $49 billion a year in disability nearly matching the budget of the VA healthcare system. Many are led to wonder if the system hasn’t become too generous and whether it’s an anachronism in many ways when you find out that sleep apnea leads to a 50% disability even though it’s easily correctable through weight loss and wearing of a CPAP device at night. When it was decided that those with 50% disability ratings could get both VA payments and military retirement there was a steady rise in sleep apnea claims from just 11,742 to 164,107 in a decade. It’s unquestioned that a disability system is needed and even 3.7 million beneficiaries is really only a small portion of the 21.3 million veterans in the U.S. however the increasing payouts for afflictions that aren’t truly disabling means the system needs to be modernized and updated in light of today’s technologies and modern workforce capabilities. None of this touches on the continuing struggles of the VBA to keep up with the flood of claims as testimony they will provide to Congress this week shows continuing problems and errors in claims processing remains a problem. The benefits system will be next in line for serious reform after the Veterans Health Administration gets done getting its scrubbing by everyone. –FPW

Congressional Inaction Threatens Program for Brain-Damaged Vets
Michael M. Phillips (@MPhillipsWSJ), Wall Street Journal. A five-year pilot program placing brain-damaged veterans in group homes as a means of providing intense therapy is set to expire on October 6th without Congressional intervention. The VA has already begun notifying residents they will have to seek alternative living arrangements to avoid waiting until the last minute. Congress is bipartisan in talking about supporting the extension of the program but like with almost everything else they have tried to do for the last two years, Congress can’t get their house in order to pass an extension of the authority. The effort was designed to see if residential settings would be more effective than hospitals in treating traumatic brain injuries that have become the signature wound of today’s wars thanks to heavy reliance on improvised explosive devices by enemy forces. But now, thanks to political ineptitude and failure to lead in Congress, hundreds of veterans will be forced out of their successful programs or at the least face stress up to the last minute for a deadline reprieve if legislators are able to do the right thing. Of course, VA for their part hasn’t actually accomplished a full assessment of the programs effectiveness either. So, while Congress is to blame for not extending the effort you have to wonder why they would be motivated to extend a pilot program when the agency running it hasn’t actually assessed effectiveness while conducting it. The cycle of chronic bureaucratic intransience continues and once again non-profits, companies, and veterans themselves will be left without a chair when the music stops and all of the seats are filled by Congressman who always get re-elected and bureaucrats who can’t be fired. –FPW

Iraq War Vet Lived to See Birth of ‘Burn Pit’ Registry for Ill Troops
Bill Briggs (@writerdude), NBC News. A new federal registry for veterans and service members exposed to toxic smoke from downrange trash burn pits is up and running, if imperfectly, and already has some 11,000 eligible names signed up. That list includes the Iraq veteran who was the driving force in creating the project and was sure he wouldn’t live to see it launched. New Mexico Air National Guard Master Sgt. Jessey Baca has been pushing for the registry since 2010 after being diagnosed with constrictive bronchitolitis, a progressive illness that is sometimes fatal. He believes he got sick from the smoke from a massive trash burn pit near his airbase where he worked on repairing fighters and the smoke often hung at knee level like fog. The hope is that the registry will reveal the scope of the problems of deteriorating lungs among the 2.6 million veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan and lead to more detailed scientific studies and treatments for the many maladies associated with the issues. A 2009 study found that some 14% of deployed service members reported respiratory related symptoms and that number will likely grow over time. For now veterans are encouraged to sign up on the registry and get their voices in the mix. –FPW

A Growing Number Of Veterans Struggles To Quit Powerful Painkillers
Quil Lawrence (@quillawrence), NPR. Troops are prescribed painkillers at three times the rate of civilians complaining of pain and about 650,000 veterans are being treated with opiates at VA facilities. That might not be a problem in and of itself, but prescription drug abuse and addiction rates among troops and veterans are also higher than in the civilian population. In Iraq, Bryan McDonel was taking six Vicodin per day as prescribed to keep the pain from a back injury sustained in pre-deployment training at bay. On another deployment, this time to Afghanistan, Bryan traveled to another FOB without enough pills and ended up going through withdrawal. A base doctor prescribed him Percocet instead. Back in the US, Bryan had developed a tolerance to opiates and the pills no longer worked. He became the drug addict who would steal money from his parents to get high. The VA has four pilot programs looking for alternatives to prescriptions for chronic pain and an office on opiate safety because of the recognition that prescription drug addiction plays a large role in veteran homelessness and suicide. Prescribing a pill is significantly easier than working with a veteran on a long-term solution meaning this is another issue of VA culture rather than funding. –LJ

Is GI Bill Benefitting For-Profit Colleges Instead of Helping Veterans?
Aaron Glantz (@aaron_glantz), Center for Investigative Reporting. Over $10 billion was spent just in the last year to educate Iraq and Afghanistan veterans and their dependents through the Post-9/11 GI Bill, but some veterans’ advocates are worried too much of that money is going to for-profit colleges that aren’t giving veterans the skills and education promised. The Center for Investigative Reporting found that in California, nearly two of every three dollars spend on the GI Bill goes to a for-profit school. Almost 300 schools in California which are banned from receiving state aid because they lacked accreditation still received GI Bill funds, more than $600 million. The biggest for-profit college in the space is the University of Phoenix which has taken in nearly $1 billion from the GI Bill over the last five years. In California, the Phoenix campus in San Diego has received $95 million in five years from the GI Bill, more than any other brick-and-mortar campus in the US. Phoenix says veterans choose it because of the numerous academic programs it offers. The school even allowed CIR to observe the California Department of Veterans Affairs auditors inspecting documents, but their goal was to ensure Phoenix wasn’t overbilling the state for non-existent students. The auditors weren’t inspecting graduation rates, student loan failure rates, or anything about the quality of education. On the Hill, Sen. Tom Harkin is hoping to change the way for-profit colleges account for GI Bill dollars. Advocates like IAVA say opposition from the for-profit colleges’ lobbyists have made any kind of regulation impossible. As more data about student veterans’ success is collected and the cost of the GI Bill continues to rise, expect the for-profit college debate resurface. –LJ

Evening Meetings Boost Attendance at House VA Panel
Leo Shane (@LeoShane), Military Times. Veterans issues wonks likely have noticed the increasingly frequent Monday evening House Veterans Affairs Committee hearings. Typically Congressional hearings start between 9:00 AM on Tuesday and 3:00 PM on Thursday so Members of Congress and Senators have ample time to travel back and forth to their districts or states. Since the VA scandal broke wide open, HVAC has been demanding VA officials show up at 7:30 PM on Mondays. Perhaps most surprising: lawmakers show up in force. The evening hearings also mean the committee’s work isn’t interrupted by votes and they get a prime spot on C-SPAN—something no lawmaker would pass up. –LJ

Boot Camp Comes to the White House as 100 Veterans Learn Entrepreneurship Basics in Two Days
Last weekend, a 100 veterans and veterans’ spouses packed a room in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building adjacent to the White House for a two-day boot camp on entrepreneurship led by the U.S. Small Business Administration and the Institute for Veterans and Military Families at Syracuse University. It was the first of 12 initial classes of Boots 2 Business: Reboot to be held across the country. After completing the two-day boot camp, veterans have the option to continue their entrepreneur education through an eight-week course offered by IVMF. Reboot is an expansion of the successful Boots to Business program developed by SBA and IVMF that is available to transitioning service members through TAP classes. To learn more or register for an upcoming Reboot class, visit boots2businessreboot.org. –LJ

Hiring Our Heroes
Sheila Gray, WKRC. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation’s Hiring Our Heroes initiative recently visited Cincinnati, Ohio. The revitalized manufacturing city is particularly targeting veterans for the region’s advanced manufacturing jobs. Veterans interested in manufacturing careers not only got to meet companies at the job fair, they also learned about Get Skills to Work, a coalition of companies and colleges training veterans in manufacturing skills so they are qualified for the open positions in and around Cincinnati. Get Skills to Work was founded by GE, Alcoa, Boeing, and Lockheed Martin and launched a pilot program in 2012 at Cincinnati State that has since expanded to over 50 schools. –LJ

Pentagon Report Finds Litany of Problems with Effort to Recover MIAs
Meg McCloskey, (@MegMcCloskey) Pro Publica. The Department of Defense’s Inspector General has drafted a very direct report outlining a long list of failings at the organizations in charge of recovering and identifying missing service members. It’s clear that even with $100 million a year dedicated to the effort, a mere 60 identifications in all of 2013 out of the tens of thousands of personnel missing or laying unidentified in graves is a failing effort. Common sense makes it obvious but the IG found that the mission lacks agreed upon goals, objectives, and priorities. There is no strategic plan or up-to-date policies, standard operating procedures, central databases of the missing and a host of other issues. The findings mirror outside reports from NPR and Pro Publica previously and changes are coming in the system. SecDef Hagel ordered a major overhaul of the effort in March bringing both agencies involved in the mission under one agency within the next year. Many are not sure having a single agency will help since DoD has yet acknowledge widely reported leadership problems at the organizations and is instead focusing on structural and procedural issues. An interesting aspect of the IG’s findings is that since no priorities and policies have been set the total number of missing servicemembers to be investigated includes at least 50,000 that were known to be lost at sea and thus never recoverable. By having them all in one single count it reflects the failure to prioritize and focus the efforts. Many complain that the 10,000 “unknowns” in military cemeteries could probably be identified with methodical exhumations and DNA testing yet the agency focuses on wildly expensive excursions into far flung jungles or inaccessible locales. The final report will be released later this month. –FPW

Marine Corps Dilemma with Women Prompts Change at Infantry School
Dan Lamothe (@DanLamothe), Washington Post. It’s two years into the Marines’ three years of research into allowing women try to pass the Infantry Officer Course at Quantico and while the military has made strides in opening more combat arms positions to women, the infantry remains a hotly contested battlefield for supporters and critics. Worries about privacy, lowered standards, and the ability for men and women to co-exist under duress remain, but perhaps the biggest obstacle is physical: none of the 20 female Marines who have attempted IOC have passed. Until now, the Marines were allowing only newly commissioned female officers to attempt the course, but now they will open it up to company-grade volunteers. To qualify for the volunteer assignment, female Marines will have to pass the physical fitness test to a first-class male score that includes five pull-ups. Additionally, female marines headed to IOC will now spend 60 to 90 days with a training platoon that assists Marines raise their physical fitness ahead of IOC. These new changes come in response to criticisms that female Marines don’t get the same training as males ahead of IOC. With these changes, the Marines are obviously looking at ways to integrate women into the infantry without lowering physical standards. Whether it works remains to be seen. –LJ

Bergdahl Is Set to Resume Life on Active Duty
Eric Schmitt (@EricSchmittNYT), New York Times. Today, Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl is expected to show up at his job at U.S. Army North headquarters at Ft. Sam Houston in San Antonio. Bergdahl is just six weeks out of his five-year captivity by the Taliban and has been undergoing therapy and recovery since his repatriation. He is expected to move into the barracks, though he will have two soldiers with him to help his continued readjustment. –LJ ­

Good News:

Unlikely Friendship Between Toddler and WWII Vet Will Melt Your Heart
Yazhou Sun, Good Morning America. 89-year-old World War II veteran Erling Kindem has found himself with an unusual shadow in his neighborhood in Minnesota as 3-year-old Emmett Rychner has become his constant companion. The boy’s parents hardly knew the elderly neighbor until their young son started asking for tomatoes from Erling’s garden and before long they were driving matching tractors and biking around their houses in the small town. The inseparable duo will unfortunately be a few miles apart soon as the family moves to a larger house and Erling has to move to an adult living facility as he reaches his nineties. In the mean time you should check out the pictures in this piece. It will brighten your day. –FPW

Tradeshows & Conferences

Farnborough Airshow (Sat-Sun, 19-20 July); Farnborough Aerodrome, Hampshire, UK

115th VFW National Convention (Sat-Wed, 19-23 July); America’s Center, St. Louis, MO

For a full list of upcoming events, check out our recently updated Events page

Congressional Hearings

Both chambers are in session this week.

House:

Veterans Affairs: Evaluation of the Process to Achieve VBA Goals When: 7:30 PM, Monday, July 14, 2014 Where: 334 Cannon

Veterans Affairs: Creating Efficiency through Comparison: An Evaluation of Private Sector Best Practices and the VA Health Care System When: 10:00 AM, Wednesday, July 16, 2014 Where: 334 Cannon

Budget: The President’s Funding Request for Overseas Contingency Operations Who: The Honorable Heather Higginbottom, Deputy Secretary for Management and Resources, Department of State, The Honorable Robert O. Work, Deputy Secretary, Department of Defense, Admiral James A. Winnefeld, Jr., Vice Chairmen, Joint Chiefs of Staff When: 10:00 AM, Thursday, July 17, 2014 Where: 210 Canon

Senate:

Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense: Defense FY15 Subcommittee Markup When: 10:00 AM, Tuesday, July 15, 2014 Where: 192 Dirksen

Armed Services Subcommittee on Strategic Forces and Committee On Commerce, Science, and Transportation: Testimony on Assured Access to Space Who: Honorable Alan F. Estevez, Principal Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics, General William L. Shelton, USAF, Commander, Air Force Space Command, Mr. Robert M. Lightfoot, Jr., Associate Administrator, National Aeronautics and Space Administration When: 9:30 AM, Wednesday, July 16, 2014 Where: 216 Hart

Veterans’ Affairs: The State of VA Health Care When: 10:00 AM, Wednesday, July 16, 2014 Where: G50 Dirksen

Armed Services: Nominations Who: General Joseph F. Dunford, Jr, USMC, for reappointment to the grade of General and to be Commandant of the Marine Corps, Admiral William E. Gortney, USN, for reappointment to the grade of Admiral and to be Commander, United States Northern Command and Commander, North American Aerospace Defense Command, General John F. Campbell, USA, for reappointment to the grade of General and to be Commander, International Security Assistance Force and Commander, United States Forces, Afghanistan, Lieutenant General Joseph L. Votel, USA, to be General and Commander, United States Special Operations Command When: 9:30 AM, Thursday, July 10, 2014 Where: G50 Dirksen

Think Tanks & Other Events

Cato Institute: When is Foreign Internal Defense (FID) a Smart Tool for Washington? Who: David S. Maxwell, Associate Director, Center for Security Studies & Security Studies Program, Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University; Sean McFate, Senior Fellow, Atlantic Council, Vanda Felbab-Brown, Senior Fellow, Foreign Policy, The Brookings Institution; James B. Story, Director, Office of Western Hemisphere Programs, Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, U.S. Department of State When: 11:00 AM, Monday, July 14, 2014 Where: Hayek Auditorium, 1000 Massachusetts Ave, NW, Washington, DC

National Veterans Center: Stress Relief Meditation for Veterans When: 5:00 PM, Monday, June 23, 2014 Where: The National Veterans Center, 2013 H Street NW, Washington, DC

The Brookings Institution: A Discussion with Marine Corps Commandant General James Amos Who: General James F. Amos, Commandant, U.S. Marine Corps When: 10 AM, Tuesday, July 15, 2014 Where: 1779 Massachusetts Ave, NW, Washington, DC

Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments: Sustaining Strong Defense Posture in the Era of Austere Budgets Who: Rep. Randy Forbes, Chairman of the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Seapower and Projection Forces, Todd Harrison, Senior Fellow and Director of Defense Budget Studies at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments When: 1:30 PM, Wednesday, July 16, 2014 Where: 2226 Rayburn

Bipartisan Policy Center: Putting Military Personnel Costs in Context: Analysis by AEI and BPC Who: Professor Linda Bilmes, Daniel Patrick Moynihan Senior Lecturer in Public Policy, Harvard Kennedy School, Charlie Houy, Former Staff Director, Senate Appropriations Committee, Scott Lilly, Former Staff Director, House Appropriations Committee, Ann Sauer, Former Staff Director, Senate Armed Services Committee When: 9:00 AM, Friday, July 18, 2014 Where: Russell Senate Office Building, 2 Constitution Ave, NE, Washington, DC

Fred WellmanFred Wellman, President ScoutComms, brings us his weekly review of defense industry and veteran news via The Scout Report. Fred served over twenty years as an Army officer in both aviation and public affairs. Follow Fred on Twitter @ScoutComms.

This entry was posted on Monday, July 14, 2014 9:43 am

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