Veterans Roundup: VA’s Plan to Widen TRICARE, Recruits With a History of Mental Illness, Stateside Schools for Military Children and More

Posted by Fred Wellman

7 Milestones in our 7th Year
Scout Blog
ScoutComms turned seven years old last Friday, Nov. 17! We didn’t give it a birthday cupcake, which is blasphemy around here, but we did have a dozen Sugar Shack donuts ready in the morning for our hardworking employees. And in the middle of eating said sugary treats, we also took a moment to reflect on some of the awesome things we were able to accomplish in just one short year. Check out our latest Scout Blog breaking down just seven of those milestones. –AB

VA’s quiet plan to widen private care with TRICARE stirs ire
Hope Yen (@HopeYen1), Associated Press
According to memos between the VA and the White House, the administration is exploring an alignment of VA healthcare and the military’s TRICARE system that some are characterizing as a “merger” and others worry would reduce VA’s role to that of payor. Members of Congress and veterans advocates expressed frustration that the White House and VA have not consulted them about the proposal. Secretary Shulkin has called these discussions “beyond preliminary” emphasizing that Congress will be able to provide their input once enough background information is gathered evaluating whether transitioning to a TRICARE model of care is remotely viable. –JG  
Bottom line: Surprise! DoD and VA are working together to fundamentally alter healthcare delivery for active service members, military retirees, their families, and over 21 million veterans in secret without informing Congress. It’s almost impossible to examine the implications of what this discussion means since neither organization is offering any insight into what they are thinking but it can’t be understated how dramatic a change to how healthcare is provided to millions of military families and veterans this could imply. Don’t forget that the VA is a healthcare provider, not an insurance system that is provided free to all eligible veterans. Tricare is essentially an outsourced healthcare insurance system for service members and retirees complete with co-pays, premiums and approval processes for active service members, military retirees and their family members. So, discussing a “merger” is not just combining like systems, it’s actually a dramatic re-imagining of both organizations on a massive scale not seen in the history of DoD or VA. Needless to say this story caused a lot of Veteran Service Organizations to head into the weekend with headaches and frustration. Watch this discussion because this could be the most dramatic overhaul of healthcare for those associated with the military in the last 75 years. –FPW

Army: no lower standards for recruits with history of mental illness
Meghann Myers (@MeghannReports), Army Times
According to a recently USA TODAY article, the U.S. Army was set to lift a ban on recruiting individuals with certain mental health conditions in order to meet its goal of enlisting 80,000 new soldiers by September 2018. The Army denied the report, saying such a policy change is nonexistent and that these waivers would be approved by a case-by-case basis. Individuals with past behavioral issues are typically prevented from enlisting, but the Army granting waivers in some cases. The policy change that was enacted lowered the level at which waivers would have to be approved. –SM
Bottom line: After a few days of confusion, in the end what the Army has done is move the decision on granting waivers for an individual recruit with a history of mental health issues from the highest levels down to the head of Army Recruiting Command. This aligns it with the other services on waiver decision making authority. Army Chief of Staff Gen. Milley stressed that no blanket changes had been made on what mental health issues would require waivers. Yet, this incident shows the Army has put some thought into what it means to live with a mental illness and how that affects a person’s ability to serve. Given the medical histories available on recruits, it appears the Army remains open to granting waivers to individuals who may have had a mental health issue when they were very young who could provide evidence from doctors that they had recovered. Still, with the connection between pre-enlistment mental health issues and suicide risk while in the military or post-service, mental health does and should remain an issue worthy of screening people. Until the military can more effectively treat those within its ranks who develop mental health issues, it probably should not be recruiting those with untreated conditions. –LJ

Pentagon may stop running stateside schools for military children
Karen Jowers (@KarenJowers), Military Times
After searching for cost savings in the Defense Department budget, the Trump Administration may consider closing DoD stateside schools and transitioning those students into local public school systems. Thus far, some parts of the Pentagon are in favor of this proposal, however many military children-focused organizations and parents feel such a drastic change could have negative outcomes on the kids along with a lower quality education. While DoD costs would be reduced long term, there would be a cost associated with such a merge. Marine Corps Base Quantico, Virginia would serve as a pilot and based on the “lessons learned” officials would implement the process in phases to other DoD schools around the nation. This process would remain in stateside schools and would not affect DoD schools overseas. –DD
Bottom line: In an austere budget environment, it seems that family programs of various sorts are consistently on the chopping block. As the current administration seeks to shrink the federal workforce, DODEA schools are currently in the crosshairs. Education of military kids is always a hot-button issue, as many military-connected students face numerous challenges that impact their educational opportunity and achievement. DoDEA schools are often seen as a higher quality alternative to school systems outside the gates of bases. The current proposal, which suggests a pilot divestiture program at Quantico, has not yet been publicly discussed by Pentagon officials. This is a much larger issue than simply shrinking the federal workforce, and we can be sure that military advocates will not remain silent on this issue as the official proposal comes to light. –RB

VA asks for quick funding fix to start 10-year medical record overhaul
Leo Shane III (@LeoShane), Military Times
In order for the VA to integrate its electronic medical records with the military’s, it needs $800 million. With the VA’s mixed results in modernizing records and standing up new technology, House appropriators are hesitant. VA Secretary David Shulkin said that his department needs to move forward with this by the end of the year in order to keep pace with the military and to realize overall savings. Congressional budget talks have been put on pause in the meantime, meaning the VA does not have the funds to move forward. The first test sites for the new VA electronic medical records are expected to go online within 18 months if the funding issue is resolved. –SM
Bottom line: Sharing medical records between the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Pentagon seems like a no brainer, and would seemingly simplify lifelong medical care for members of the military. VA officials say it will take 10 years to fully match their electronic medical records with the military’s system, and they need nearly $800 million by the end of the year or else risk taking even longer. House appropriators are understandably skeptical, noting that billions have already been invested in the department’s records modernization efforts with mixed results. VA officials are currently negotiating a contract with Missouri-based Cerner Corp., which signed a similar deal with defense officials in 2015 to work on the MHS GENESIS records system. Several lawmakers noted that six years ago, VA and Pentagon officials pledged to work together on a joint electronic medical records system only to abandon the idea two years later. Secretary Shulkin insisted the latest move will eventually end that ongoing saga. He also expressed hope that Congress would adopt the fiscal 2018 budget for his department, giving VA planners the funds they need to move ahead. Congressional budget talks are currently stalled until at least after the Thanksgiving break. –CB

Advocates for military caregivers shift focus from awareness to action
Leo Shane III (@LeoShane), Military Times
The Elizabeth Dole Foundation and the Department of Veterans Affairs convened their second annual Military Caregivers convention on Monday, Nov. 13, attended by approximately 300 community activists, to announce and discuss plans to aid and support caregivers. The plans include additional research on caregivers led by the VA, developing new care curriculum for physicians that is more inclusive of caregivers, as well as creating a “caregiver map” to aid community leaders and families needing applicable outreach plans. Attendees worked through group editing sessions for the caregiver map project which the foundation expects to complete by mid-2018. The foundation, with support from USAA, will partner with the VA on the launch of the Campaign for Inclusive Care which aims to offer new training for VA doctors so that they can “better support caregivers throughout their journey.” Additionally, the VA is expected to release new caregiver proposals soon, and those could include changes to the VA caregiver stipend program which currently is only accessible to post-9/11 veteran caregivers, a limitation VA Secretary David Shulkin has openly criticized. –KG
Bottom line: What the Elizabeth Dole Foundation has done is rally a community towards action. After the convening, advocates who had been working in the space for decades were abuzz about the fact that they had finally attended an interactive, productive conference. Given the challenges we know military and veteran caregivers continue to face, collective action is necessary. We’re seeing the VA be truly responsive as much as it can be, but it will eventually take congressional action before the VA can extend its caregiver services to caregivers of veterans of all generations. Caregivers themselves are the leading voices for these changes, thanks to the Elizabeth Dole Foundation, and give the advocacy a sense of urgency. It is hard for the VA or Congress to make the case for “more time” when its caregivers and their veterans describing the hurdles they must overcome each and every day. –LJ

Green Beret Discovered SEALs’ Illicit Cash. Then He Was Killed.
Kevin Maurer (@ScribblerSix) and Spencer Ackerman (@attackerman), The Daily Beast
A startling report by The New York Times unearthed an investigation of two Navy SEALs in the murder of 34-year old Green Beret, Staff Sgt. Logan Melgar. Melgar was assigned to an intelligence operation in Mali, along with the two SEALs in question, Tony DeDolph and Adam Matthews. According to Ret. Gen. Donald Bolduc, it is standard practice for special operation forces to be allotted money to aid in meeting operational requirements, however, witnesses claim that Melgar discovered DeDolph and Matthews keeping some of those funds for themselves. In addition, other information indicates that an altercation and perceived slight by Melgar towards the SEALs the night before resulted in conversations as to how to “get back” at the soldier. SEALs reported to superiors that Melgar was drunk when he stopped breathing during hand-to-hand fighting exercises, but testimony from a former AFRICOM official indicates that no drugs or alcohol were found in Melgar’s system. NCIS has launched a full investigation, with Col. Rob Manning cautioning against speculation until the investigation is complete. –KG
Bottom line: This story just keeps getting worse and worse and DoD isn’t doing much to help it as it insists on keeping the investigation secret. That is understandable in a lot of ways but they didn’t even announce that the soldier had died in Mali at all. While they say that is not unusual that simply is not true. The services announce every death of a service member even when it’s an accident in the U.S. off post. None of this adds up and there are layers and layers here to unpack based on continuing reports that the Navy SEALS are dealing with rising drug abuse and other problems after years of combat. At the same time the Navy has some 60 admirals and senior leaders under investigation for the Fat Leonard bribery scandal. The American people deserve to know the extent of the problems in their military and if elite combat operators are involved in criminal activities all the way up to murdering another service member that is certainly an issue that needs to be discussed and reviewed. It has been months since the death of SSG Melgar and no charges have been brought or questions answered not just surrounding his death but the larger issues faced by the special operations community. –FPW

Lawmakers: Stop deporting noncitizen veterans
Nikki Wentling (@nikkiwentling), Stars and Stripes
On Nov. 16, 2017, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and other lawmakers renewed efforts to stop the deportation of veterans from the U.S. and increase protections for them. Noncitizen veterans convicted of a crime are deported from the U.S., separated from their families and are unable to access federal benefits that are otherwise guaranteed to them. Letters were sent to the House Committee on Armed Services, the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs and the Committee on the Judiciary, requesting deported veterans to be allowed back in the U.S. and that a pathway be created for citizenship for service members and allow them to receive VA health care. Noncitizens who serve in the U.S. military are granted the right to citizenship, although the American Civil Liberties Union said many of them are not aware that their naturalization is not automatic and they can be deported depending on convicted crimes. –SM
Bottom line: Noncitizens who serve in the U.S. military are granted the right to citizenship, but they must apply for it, and many simply aren’t aware of the nuances of the process, and the additional repercussions they face if they commit a crime. More than 10,000 noncitizens serve in the U.S. military and more than 11,500 are in the Reserves. Advocates for immigrants say there may be thousands of deported veterans now scattered across the globe. Hector Barajas, who founded Deported Veterans Support House, a support house located in Tijuana, Mexico, has identified 350 deported U.S. veterans born in more than 30 countries. Right now, there are eight bills in the House that address issues facing deported veterans. The closest medical providers authorized to examine veterans in Tijuana for a possible VA disability rating are more than a thousand miles away in Mexico City or Guadalajara. Additionally, deported veterans in Mexico are currently unable to reach the Veterans Crisis Line without special hardware. Rep. Kathleen Rice makes a compelling point when she said, “It is absolutely disgraceful that they stepped up for this country and sacrificed for this country, and when their service is done, this country kicks them out. Regardless of where they’re from, they wear the uniform of this country. We should honor them and take care of them.” You can read more about the work being done by Deported Veterans Support House here. –CB

Survey: Family separation concerns top pay and benefits as key issue for troops, spouses
Karen Jowers (@KarenJowers), Military Times
Recent findings from the Blue Star Families’ Military Family Lifestyle Survey indicate that the top issue amongst respondents is a concern about time apart and the impact of military life on their children: a notable change since pay and benefits have topped the list since 2013. Anthony Kurta, acting undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness notes that some sailors are reporting 100-hour work weeks. He elaborated: “There’s no time with your family in a 100-hour work week. Part of this is the challenge we’re under. The force that we have generally is getting smaller and demands are rising.” Kurta also offered a reminder that the future of an all-volunteer force is not guaranteed, underscoring the alarming nature of the finding that those currently serving are gradually becoming less likely to recommend military service to their children, down to 40 percent from 45 percent in 2015. –KG
Bottom line:  Blue Star Families and Syracuse University’s Institute for Veterans and Military Families continue to ask the tough question when it comes to the needs and issues facing service members, veterans and their families. While the annual survey is not a random sample and cannot necessarily be scaled to the entire military community, the findings and trends reported this year continue to paint a troubling picture with regards to family readiness.  As we approach two decades of war, we know that family readiness issues (separation, military spouse employment, military child education) are already impacting retention. Data from this year’s survey also notes service members are less willing to recommend military service to their own children or another young person than they have been in previous years. It is imperative that the Pentagon take a long hard look at the issues facing our families and think about the impact not just on those families, but on our defense readiness writ large. If the goal is to maintain a strong and effective all-volunteer force, we absolutely must examine possible solutions to the stressors impacting this community. –RB

‘The Long Road Home’ Provides An Intimate Look At Soldiers’ Lives During Iraq War
Sarah Harris (@AmHomefront), The American Homefront Project
National Geographic’s most recent mini-series, “The Long Road Home” recreates the horrific 2004 ambush that occurred in Sadr City, Iraq, now known as “Black Sunday.” Based on Martha Raddatz’s best-selling book, creators of the mini-series leveraged soldiers and their families from the battle to serve as ongoing production consultants. This allowed producers to gain insight on each soldier’s experience and ultimately develop an accurate portrayal of the ambush. The set of the show was built from scratch at Fort Hood, Texas and one soldier described it as an exact replica, minus the smell. Eric Bourquin, a soldier in the ambush, describes the mini-series as “a way from people to finally understand what’s happening behind the scenes that’s outside the media that’s really happening in war.” Some family members of fallen soldiers and surviving soldiers from the ambush find the set of the show in Fort Hood to be extremely therapeutic and something that has helped in the healing process. –DD

National Geographic’s ‘The Long Road Home’ gets a mental health-focused app for veterans
Sara M. Moniuszko (@SaraMoniuszko), USA TODAY
The honesty and sincerity of storytelling in a show like National Geographic’s The Long Road Home is bittersweet – while it is incredibly informative to its audience and oftentimes therapeutic for those who were involved in or privy to the Black Sunday ambush of 2004, it can also be triggering. For this reason, National Geographic made a point to provide counseling at the various screenings of The Long Road Home. Now, they’re going a significant step further with the creation of a mental health-focused Google Assistant app called Bravo Tango Brain Training, in partnership with 360i. As of Nov. 9, the app is currently available to all veterans and seeks to help with meditation, relaxation and more. –AB

Organization puts support behind vets running for office
Morning Joe (@Morning_Joe), MSNBC
With Honor President and CEO Rye Barcott spoke on MSNBC’s Morning Joe to explain why America needs more next generation veterans in Congress to divide up partisan gridlock and empower those that are willing to put their country first and work until the job is done. Rye pointed to a degradation of values and lack of a leadership as to why Congress has record low approval ratings and levels of public trust. This is why With Honor is supporting 25-35 veterans that are running for public office in 2018, regardless of political party. Visit their website to learn more and contribute to this important cause.­ –JG

Veterans lobby Sessions to erase restrictions on Marijuana
Nikki Wentling (@NikkiWentling), Stars and Stripes
Last week, Nick Etten, a former Navy SEAL and founder of the Veteran Cannabis Project, advocated on behalf of veterans and the need to allow research on medical marijuana, including its ability to replace opioid-based pain medication for some patients. Etten and his team are dedicated to lobbying on Capitol Hill once a month for as long as it takes to educate lawmakers and ultimately shift the perception of marijuana, especially in cases where it helps veterans. –JG

Congress Needs More Veterans
Richard Lugar & Tom Daschle (@TomDaschle) US News and World Report
Former Senators Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) and Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) have come together to support With Honor, a cross-partisan organization that is focused on getting more next generation veterans elected to Congress. With partisan gridlock, and distrust in government at all-time highs while the number of veterans in Congress is at record lows, With Honor is committed to supporting as many as 35 candidates for 2018 elections that will be able to put service to their country ahead of pressure from one side of the political aisle or the other. –JG

The Elizabeth Dole Foundation, VA and USAA Launch New Alliance to Integrate Caregivers Into Veterans Medical Care
PR Web
On Monday, Nov. 13, the Elizabeth Dole Foundation and its partner the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs announced the launch of a new initiative called “The Campaign for Inclusive Care.” This campaign, sponsored by USAA and backed by research from the RAND Corporation, will focus on efforts to ensure military caregivers are fully included into the service member or veteran’s medical management team. The first-year pilot will impact roughly 125,000 caregivers and should expand quickly. –KG

Veteran Tickets Foundation Officially Partners with Jim Beam® Brand to Benefit Arizona Military Members with an Exclusive Event on Veterans Day, November 11th
Vet Tix (@VetTix), Veteran Tickets Foundation
The national nonprofit Veteran Tickets Foundation (Vet Tix) officially announced a partnership with Jim Beam to spread the word about Vet Tix in the state of Arizona. Vet Tix supports the military community of all branches of currently serving military including the Guard and Reserve, veterans of all eras, their families, immediate family of those killed in action and caregivers. The partnership will drive more currently serving military and veterans to take advantage of free tickets in their local community to strengthen bonds. –DD

6 Organizations Serving Military Caregivers Around the Nation
Steven Weintraub (@weintraub_sd), PRWeb
With November being National Family Caregivers month, Chief Strategy Officer of Veteran Tickets Foundation (Vet Tix) Steven Weintraub highlighted world-class organizations making a difference in the lives of military caregivers. Weintraub emphasizes the various opportunities for caregivers from attending community entertainment events for free through Vet Tix, nonprofits offering online education, peer to peer support for caregivers and more. Check out just 6 of the many organizations serving caregivers this month and year-round. –DD

She returned from the Vietnam War to another battle: fighting for recognition
Neema Roshania Patel (@neema_rp), The Lily
Diane Carlson Evans was only 21 years old when she was shipped off to Vietnam with 11,000 of her “sisters” to serve as nurses in combat zones throughout the war. After coming home to the brutal realization about the lack of support for the troops and the ignorance of the country in general to the fact that women also served, she decided she needed to step up. She was turned down multiple times and made to feel less than as she lobbied for more than nine years to build a Vietnam Women’s Memorial. Finally, in 1993, after gaining the support from national media and many male troops that served alongside her and her sisters, a bronze monument was dedicated to the women of Vietnam as part of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. –CB

Military Widow Seen on Viral Gender Reveal Won’t Get Benefits
Taheshah Moise (@Taheshah), WTMY News
A North Carolina widow who announced her gender reveal in a viral video won’t be getting any military benefits. Cassie Lohrey discovered she was pregnant just a few weeks after her husband Ryan, a U.S. Navy member, died when a KC-130 crashed in Mississippi on July 10. Because the couple had only been married for a few weeks, it is unclear whether the proper steps were taken to ensure that Cassie would be eligible for death gratuity, which would have provided her with $100,000 in tax-free money to help her cover expenses. Due to details that were unresolved before and following Ryan’s death, Cassie and their child will be “financially on their own.” –RS

Army to Provide Medical Care for Thousands of Veterans Who Were Test Subjects
Bill Chappell (@publicbill), NPR
Thousands of U.S. veterans won a class action suit against the military over its use of chemical and biological testing, and now the Army says it will pay for their medical care. The lawsuit was filed by Vietnam Veterans of America and other plaintiffs in 2009 who wanted to know which chemical agents they had been exposed to and whether those agents might have caused health problems. After a court decided in the plaintiffs’ favor in 2016, the Army stated that veterans could be treated for any injuries or diseases caused after the service used the soldiers as research subjects in the period from 1942 to 1975. They also stated that its Medical Command is conducting “an exhaustive search” for veterans who may have been research subjects “so that no individual who may benefit from medical care is inadvertently omitted.” –RS

2 Companies Managing VA’s Private Care For Vets Are Suspected Of Skimming Millions
Adam Linehan (@adam_linehan), Task and Purpose
Two large healthcare companies are under investigation for over-billing the VA for services contracted through the Choice Program. In 2014, Congress created the Choice program to alleviate long wait times at VA hospitals and provide more access to private providers for veterans living 40 miles away from VA clinics. The Arizona Republic reports that between the two health care companies, the VA has been over-charged by tens of millions of dollars. Errors in billing range from duplicated bills, charging medical providers a figure larger than what was set by Medicare or contracts and more. The extent to which this has infiltrated into taxpayers’ dollars has not been determined. VA Inspector General Michael Missal has ordered both companies to issue reimbursements. –DD

Congressional Hearings

Veterans’ Affairs: The State of VA Services in Ohio
Who: Chip Tansill, Director, Ohio Department of Veterans Services; Keith Harman, Commander-in-Chief, Veterans of Foreign Wars; Benjamin Fitzgerald, Westlake, Ohio; James Powers, Massillon, Ohio; Melissa Twine, Batavia, Ohio; Ronald Burke, Assistant Deputy Under Secretary for Field Operations, Veterans Benefits Administration, Department of Veterans Affairs; Robert Worley, Director of Education Service, Veterans Benefits, Administration, Department of Veterans Affairs; Robert McDivitt, Director of Veterans Integrated Service Network 10, Veterans Health Administration, Department of Veterans Affairs; Dr. Kameron Matthews, Deputy Executive Director, Provider Relations and Services, Veterans Health Administration, Department of Veterans Affairs
When: 1:15 PM, Tuesday, November 21, 2017
Where: Main Auditorium, Columbus Metropolitan Library

Other Events 

None this week.

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, November 20, 2017 12:05 pm

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Notify me of updates to this conversation