Veterans Roundup: Opioid Abuse, Success of Young Vets, Doctor Appointments by Phone, GI Bill Passes Senate and More

Posted by Fred Wellman

Veterans using private doctors at greater risk for opioid abuse
Ben Kesling (@BKesling), The Wall Street Journal
According to a report from the VA’s Office of Inspector General, veterans utilizing private care are more likely to become addicted to opioids, due in-part to a lack of communication between the VA and private health care providers. In 2014, the VA began utilizing tools that allow physicians to track which veterans were being prescribed these medications, as well as pushing for alternative treatments for veterans in need of pain-management. When VA-provided healthcare is unavailable, either due to distance or long wait times, veterans can seek care from privately-funded healthcare institutions who may not be aware of the VA’s regulation of opioid medications, or who do not carefully track the medications given to patients. In order to combat this, the Inspector General recommends informing private care providers about the opioid epidemic, as well as facilitating a bidirectional flow of information between the two sectors. –KB
Bottom line: Opioid abuse is a nationwide and uniquely American epidemic that has affected a wide swath of demographic groups. Veterans have been a major component of this problem, as they have historically been prescribed a wide number of medications to address numerous conditions, sometimes in lieu of more time-consuming and hands-on counseling and treatment. The VA became aware several years ago that it was contributing to the problem, and began in 2014 a complex and concerted effort to reduce opioid abuse and improve tracking within the VA healthcare system. A vast majority of veterans in the VA system using opioids are still receiving their drugs directly from the VA, but a growing number—14,000 in 2016—are obtaining their opioids from outside the system, using VA funding. This does not indicate in any way that VA Choice is exacerbating a problem that the VA is still struggling with, as are providers across America, but as the watchdog report shows, the lack of accountability and data sharing in the private sector could open up a loophole to support the addictions of the most egregious abusers, putting lives at risk in a way that the VA cannot directly track and confront. This is just one of the many issues that the VA will have to confront in the coming years as it juggles paying for care within and outside the VA healthcare system. –BW

Report: Young vets are more successful than their civilian peers
Leo Shane III (@LeoShane), Military Times
The Graduate Center at the City University of New York recently released a study detailing socioeconomic trends of veterans over the past decade. Their report found that, generally, 9/11 veterans were more likely to be employed and have a higher salary than their civilian counterparts, along with being more likely to have obtained a bachelor’s degree. While researchers were careful to steer clear of stating that the military causes this type of success, they did indicate that the correlation between these variables and military service was extremely high. –KB
Bottom line:  As a company that focuses heavily on data driven decisions we always like to make it clear that causation is not always correlation. For example, it’s obvious that veterans are going to be more likely than their peers to have a high school degree because it’s a requirement to have one to join the military so we probably don’t want to jump too far to conclusions but the fact remains that this is yet more data backing up the strength of our beliefs about veterans. We believe fiercely that today’s veterans are poised to change the nation just as those that came home from WWII and other wars before changed the nation for the better after their service. While many struggle after service and will always need a network of care to support them and their transition, the overwhelming majority then moves forward to lead lives of significance and success. This is good for all of us. –FPW

New tools let vets schedule appointments, meet with doctors through their phones
Leo Shane III (@LeoShane), Military Times
The VA recently announced new telehealth options to help expand access to medical care for veterans in rural areas, or who otherwise might not have direct access to VA healthcare. These options will include the ability to schedule medical appointments online, along with the ability to access physicians via mobile devices. The department will also offer training on how to use the services to older veterans who may not be tech savvy. VA Secretary Dr. David Shulkin said that, with these expansions, he expects the number of veterans accessing telehealth services through the VA to surpass a million. –KB
Bottom line: At a White House press event, the president and VA Secretary Shulkin announced that a new app would give veterans more flexibility in scheduling appointments, giving veterans a shortcut around a sometimes frustrating experience that can include long hold times by phone. More fanfare was perhaps deservedly given to the VA expanding its regulations to allow an “anywhere to anywhere” telemedicine program so that VA doctors in any location can treat veterans by phone in any location. This follows a trend in the civilian medical world towards telemedicine and is widely touted as helping the VA reach more rural veterans. The initiative holds a lot of promise, particularly in mental health where there is a limited number of doctors who are not always perfectly geographically dispersed. By introducing more telehealth options, the VA can make its doctors more efficient and deliver better treatment to patients. Yet, there is some concern that the veterans this is most intended to help—older, rural veterans—are not the most comfortable with mobile video conferencing and that broadband infrastructure is not necessarily up to standards in these rural areas. So it will be important to track the VA’s metrics on service delivery in these priority areas and use the outcomes to influence national policies that enrich rural areas appropriately. –LJ

101st Airborne Division: Close-knit military community feels pain of deaths in wars the nation has forgotten
Dianna Cahn (@DiannaCahn), Stars and Stripes
The history of the 101st Airborne Division has a reputation that is well-known throughout the military community. The 101st community, while close-knit, has also experienced its fair share of tragedy. Fort Campbell holds a memorial service every fall for those who have died since September 11, 2001. Several programs are in place to help widows long after the Casualty Assistance Officers have completed their duties. While many feel alone in their loss, the 101st Airborne Division has relied on its strong-knit community for resiliency. –DD
Bottom line: Dianna Cahn is an incredibly talented storyteller and has once again delivered a beautiful and difficult narrative of how one of the most storied units of the U.S. Army continues to serve a nation at war, continues to lose soldiers to that war, and continues to support a close-knit community bonded by service. As a seven-year and combat veteran of the 101st it holds a special place in my heart. When you wear that black, white and gold patch that descended upon Normandy and led the charge into Iraq in 1991 and again in 2003, it carries a significance that is part of who you are for the rest of your life. While the nation goes on about its business, arguing over Tweets, frustrated with daily life, men and women and their families at Ft. Campbell go about the business of fighting our nation’s wars overseas. It’s important we don’t forget that at any time. –FPW

Senate approves six senior VA nominees after a congressional delay
Leo Shane III (@LeoShane), Military Times
Prior to their August recess, the Senate confirmed six Veterans Affairs nominees, filling a number of posts that are essential to helping facilitate the reforms promised by President Donald Trump. The confirmations included filling the positions of deputy secretary, assistant secretary for legislative affairs, and general counsel for the department, as well as the appointment of three judges to the veterans claims appeals court. These rapid-fire appointments come shortly after the Senate Democrats agreed to allow the nominations to move forward in the wake of the failure of the Senate health care bill. –KB
Bottom line: Amidst continued turmoil and internal dissent in other federal departments, the VA continues to live a largely peaceful life in the first year of the Trump Administration. Thanks to Secretary Shulkin’s positive relationship with the president and with the relevant Congressional committees, and a bipartisan desire to empower the VA to make the changes it has been exploring for the last few years, the VA has been able to serve veterans and tinker with its model of providing care and benefits in relative calm. The unopposed confirmation of six senior nominees is a sign of that continued goodwill and also a positive sign for the VA’s ability to operate moving forward. Deputy Secretary Thomas Bowman is well respected on Capitol Hill, where he was previously a senior committee staffer, and in the military community as a Marine veteran, and will be an important player in supporting Shulkin’s agenda moving forward. At the same time, potential discord looms on the horizon as the VA skirts around the privatization debate, which will likely return to the forefront when the latest tranche of VA Choice funding runs out. –BW

New GI Bill passes Senate
Natalie Gross (@ByNatalieGross), Military Times
With the passage of the Forever GI Bill all but certain at the beginning of the week, the Senate ended up unanimously passing the legislation Wednesday afternoon sending the bill to the president’s desk where it is expected to be signed into law quickly. The legislation that expands benefits among purple heart recipients protects veterans set back by sudden school closures, and removes the 15-year “use-it-or-lose-it” cap on benefits, as well as other much-needed policy changes that provide a more consistent and efficient use of the education benefits owed to our service members. ­–JG
Bottom line: At the end of April, it looked like the GI Bill reforms being sought by a host of veteran and military family organizations faced complete failure after scheduled hearings were cancelled and advocacy groups were in a battle over various aspects of the proposed legislation. However, in an unprecedented cooperative effort over the past several months, the Harry W. Colmery GI Bill, or Forever GI Bill, is now headed to President Trump’s desk for signature. The measure had bipartisan, bicameral support as well as a diverse coalition of more than 40 military and veteran organizations who lead efforts to ensure the bill was passed by the Senate prior to summer recess. This effort proved that ensuring Purple Heart Recipients, National Guard and Reserve members, families of the fallen and veterans receive the educational opportunities they deserve is something we can all agree upon. We are proud of our client, Student Veterans of America, and all of those who organized to make this reform effort a reality. –RB

Military scrambles for transgender policy after Trump tweets
Lolita Baldor (@LBaldor), Associated Press
Tweets posted on President Trump’s personal account last week are still the source of much confusion in the Armed Forces. The announcement, which took many military leaders by surprise, still has yet to be coordinated with the Department of Defense. The announcement has received staunch opposition from Americans across the country, including Coast Guard Commandant Admiral Paul Zukunft and perhaps most notably, a letter signed by 56 retired generals. Public polls find the majority of military families disagree with Trump’s decision. Advocates believe that whatever policy comes from the implementation of this ban will have many legal court battles ahead. –JG
Bottom line: In an early morning tweet storm two weeks ago, President Trump indicated he would roll back an Obama-era policy change that allowed transgender service members to serve openly in the U.S. military. The Tweets came as a shock to many, and raised a host of issues. Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee-Sanders faced multiple questions from the podium regarding the new “policy”, and continually echoed that the decision to ban transgender troops was a military readiness decision. While the White House claims that this was a decision made after careful consideration by the military, the policy was announced while Secretary James Mattis was on vacation and the White House later said that the Secretary was informed after the president made his announcement. The confusion that followed the announcement—by military leadership, political spokespeople, and actively serving military members—proved that the policy announcement was ill-planned, ill-informed and ill-executed. Discussions between the White House and defense officials began this week and have heightened concerns that the Administration will continue to push to enact the policy, spiking fear and anxiety amongst individuals and families who could be impacted by this policy. Trans service members are now left wondering whether they will be pulled from their service as their families concern themselves about whether they will need to find a new way of life. Communicating a complex and logically unfounded military personnel policy by Tweet is wrong, and compromises readiness. Creating an environment where military leadership is in the dark about the implementation of personnel policy compromises readiness. Hatching a hasty plan that incites panic amongst currently serving, forward deployed service members compromises readiness. Trans members are serving now and serving well. It is our hope that this country will continue to allow and encourage those individuals who meet the physical, mental and security requirements to serve in our military. –RB

Congress approves plans to build a Global War on Terror memorial
Leo Shane (@LeoShane), Military Times
Last Thursday, the day before breaking for their August recess, the U.S. Senate hotlined and unanimously passed the Global War on Terrorism Memorial Act from the House. This cleared the final legislative barrier for the Global War on Terror Memorial Foundation (GWOTMF), whose mission is to coordinate efforts in building a memorial on the National Mall in Washington D.C. to honor our fallen warriors in our nation’s longest war. The bill was strongly supported by a number of veterans in Congress. Though the bill will not provide any financial support towards the project or specify any design plans, it does authorize the GWOTMF to oversee fundraising for and construction of the memorial. Organizers now have full confidence that the bill will receive President Trump’s signature in the near future, allowing them to begin the process of securing a location on the National Mall. –CB

15 Events in August With Free Tickets For Troops, Veterans, And Families
Steven Weintraub (@weintraub_sd), Task and Purpose
Entertainment events are at an all-time high during the summer months, with some sporting seasons finishing up and others just getting started. Musicians are also on tour, and venues are offering activities for young kids who are on summer break. The Veteran Tickets Foundation (Vet Tix), a national nonprofit that serves the military community, offers discounted tickets to a variety of community-based events around the nation. During August, they have thousands of tickets available to events such as NFL preseason games, WNBA match-ups, comedy shows, top concerts and more. Any service member, veteran, military spouse, caregiver or families of troops killed in action can sign up for Vet Tix and bring their friends or family to an event. –DD

With Rare Unanimity, Senate Sends G.I. Bill Expansion to Trump
Nicholas Fandos (@Npfandos) The New York Times
With the passage of the Harry W. Colmery Veterans Educational Assistance Act of 2017, also dubbed the Forever GI Bill, veterans, Purple Heart recipients and survivors will finally receive the educational benefits they’ve earned. Jared Lyon, President and CEO of Student Veterans of America – the organization leading the legislative push for this bill – praised the hard work of everyone involved in the effort that ended the arbitrary 15-year time limit for education benefits for service members, among providing policy that patches legislative holes left from the post 9/11 GI Bill. –JG

Ivanka Trump spotlights military spouses’ employment challenges
Betsy Klein (@Betsy_Klein), CNN
This week Hiring Our Heroes President Eric Eversole and Military Spouse Program Director Elizabeth O’Brien were invited to a listening session hosted in the White House by senior advisor Ivanka Trump.  According to the Hiring Our Heroes Military Spouse Employment survey, 16 percent of military spouses are unemployed – four times the national average. This is closely related to the frequent need to relocate as a spouse, which often prevents them from working their way up the employment ladder to higher leadership positions. Additionally, state by state licensing requirements have proven to be a significant barrier against military spouse employment. ­–JG

Sen. Tammy Duckworth Introduced Legislation to Stop the US From Deporting Veterans
John Stanton (@dcbigjohn), Buzzfeed
On Thursday, Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) announced a series of proposed bills that would prevent the deportation of veterans convicted of nonviolent offenses. The proposal features a provision that would allow deported veterans to return to the U.S. to seek treatment at VA hospitals for their service-related conditions. Sen. Duckworth’s legislation would also mandate that all naturalization offices at military training sites safeguard pathways to citizenship for noncitizens currently serving. Current regulations don’t require the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to monitor and record the number of deported veterans, but Senators Duckworth and Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.) argue that this data would facilitate the creation of a “fast track” for veterans’ applications for citizenship. –NJ

Nancy Youssef heads to the Wall Street Journal
Former BuzzFeed national security and Pentagon correspondent Nancy Youssef (@nancyayoussef) is taking her talents over to the Wall Street Journal D.C. team. Youssef started out at the Baltimore Sun, then wrote for the Detroit Free Press and also has experience from working at McClatchy’s Washington Bureau. –AB

Tradeshows & Conferences

None this week.

Congressional Hearings

House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs: Veteran Care in Rural Areas: Increasing Access through Choice and Capacity Improvement
Who: Paul Force-Emery Mackie PhD., LISW, President-Elect, National Association for Rural Mental Health; Hugh Quinn, Chairman, Itasca County Veterans Council; Jonathan P. Gervais Aud., Co-Owner, Hearing Wellness Center; Dr. Kameron Matthews, Deputy Executive Director, Provider Relations and Services, Office of Community Care; Patrick Kelly, Medical Center Director, Minnesota VAMC; Dr. Thomas Klobucar, Acting Executive Director, Office of Rural Health; Martin Caraway, 1st Vice President, National Association of County Veterans Service Officers; Judge Jon Stafsholt, Pope County Courthouse, Veterans Treatment Court; Michael McLaughlin, County Veteran Service Officer, Member, Veterans Rural Health Advisory Committee, Department of Veterans Affairs; Jason Marquardt, President, Minnesota Association of County Veteran Service Officers; Wilson Spence, Chairman, Minnesota Department American Legion Rehabilitation Committee; James Golgart, Past President, National Association of County Veteran Service Officers; Rita Plourde, Chief Executive Officer, Sawtooth Mountain Clinic; Sherri Rodriquez, Director, Saint Louis County Veterans Services; Bill Kerzie, Commander, 8th Congressional District, Veterans of Foreign Wars; Rick Stoehr, Chairman, 8th Congressional District Legislative Committee, Veterans of Foreign Wars; Tom Moors, Commander, VFW Post 1764.
When: 9:30 AM, Thursday, August 10, 2017
Where: Duluth Law Enforcement Center

Other Events

VA Innovators Network: VA Innovation Demo Day
Who: Frontline VA staff
When: 8:30 AM, Tuesday, August 8, 2017
Where: Georgetown University, Rafik B. Hariri Building, Lohrfink Auditorium, 37th & O Streets, NW, Washington, DC 20057

Beyond the Choir: Veterans Organizing Institute Accepting Applications
Who: Progressive veterans involved in social change, or who are looking to get involved
When: Application deadline – Tuesday, August 15, 2017
Where: The Watershed Center, 44 Kaye Rd., Millerton, NY, 12546

Fred WellmanFred Wellman, President ScoutComms, brings us his weekly review of 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, August 07, 2017 11:07 am

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