Friday, January 18, 2019

Rep. Gabbard Leads Landmark Burn Pits Legislation in Congress

Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, joined by Brian Mast (FL-18) and Senators Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) and Dan Sullivan (R-AK), introduced bipartisan and bicameral legislation to evaluate the exposure of U.S. service members to open burn pits and toxic airborne chemicals on Thursday, Jan. 17, 2019.
Rep. Gabbard, Founder and Co-Chair of the Post-9/11 Veterans Caucus, said:
“Burn pits are the Agent Orange of post 9/11 veterans. Over 165,000 veterans have registered their names in the Burn Pit Registry, something that’s voluntary, but there are millions of our troops who have been exposed to these toxic burn pits during their deployment. They deserve recognition. They deserve care, and they deserve the services they have earned. So far, our government has failed to fulfill its responsibility to them, and to recognize the toxins they have been exposed to—just like what happened to our Vietnam veterans decades ago when our government ignored their exposure and the ensuing illnesses that came from Agent Orange.
“When I was deployed to Iraq, the cloud of toxic smoke and fumes from the massive burn pit in our camp was a daily reality. I know the damage they cause. I’ve seen the devastating toll that’s taken on my brothers and sisters in arms who survived combat and came home, but are now suffering from rare cancers, lung diseases, neurological disorders and more. Today, my colleague and fellow veteran, Brian Mast, are reintroducing burn pit legislation, joined by Senators Klobuchar and Sullivan in the Senate, to make sure they get the services they have earned.”
“When I was serving in Afghanistan, trash and human waste were often burned in open air pits,” said Rep. Mast.“These burn pits are emerging as the Agent Orange of my generation.  Service members that were exposed in Iraq and Afghanistan are seeing terrible health effects at a very young age, and we must do more to get them the care they have earned.”

Veterans Claiming Illness From Burn Pits Lose Court Fight

A decade-long fight ended at the Supreme Court this week, when justices refused to hear an appeal by veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan who say that toxic smoke from burn pits made them sick.
Hundreds of those veterans had sued the military contracting giant KBR, Inc., but lost first in U.S. district court and then again last year in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit. The 4th Circuit said KBR was under U.S. military direction when it burned tires and medical waste next to soldiers' barracks, and can't be held liable.
"America has turned its back on its war heroes. It's disgusting," said Rosie Torres, whose husband Leroy was a plaintiff in the case.
Leroy Torres served in the Army Reserve for 23 years. In 2007 he was stationed at Balad Air Base in Iraq, a city-sized military installation that produced tons of garbage.
KBR had a contract with the U.S. military to dispose of that trash,. Torres, like many service members, was breathing the smoke from the massive open burn pit.
By the time he came home in 2008 Torres needed immediate hospitalization for what turned out to be lung disease.
"As a husband, a father and a first responder, I have been deprived of my dignity, honor and health," Torres told a congressional hearing last June.
"I returned home from war to face a health care system that failed me and an employer too afraid to understand an uncommon war injury resulting in termination of my law enforcement career," he said — "subsequently facing foreclosure, while at the same time receiving VA denial letters for compensation for illnesses still not recognized by VA."

Trump’s Under-the-Radar Push to Dismantle Veterans Health Care

New legislation threatens to dismantle the most successful American experiment in government-delivered health care. 
Last June, President Trump signed the VA Mission Act, commonly considered the biggest overhaul of veterans’ health care in a generation. Mission was designed to replace the hastily enacted Veterans Choice Program of 2014, which has made it easier for veterans to get care in the private sector if they lack fast or easy access to care inside the Veterans Health Administration (VHA).
Choice was a temporary program, one that would offer supplementary private care to veterans while Congress bolstered the VA’s capacity. Yet this work has not happened. Instead, Mission is making permanent the privatizing principles set forth in Choice.
The logical conclusion from the Mission is not as its boosters claim, to shore up the VA for the future and create a system that would be “veteran centric,” but to tear down the agency, brick by brick, visit by visit. This strategy will not only erase what has been the most successful American experiment in government-delivered health care, but will also send veterans out into a private system that is more expensive, less accountable, and unable to meet their particular needs.
The key notion underpinning the Mission Act, that the private sector can offer comparable care to the VHA, is deeply flawed. Study after study (after study) has found that the VHA generally outperforms the private sector on key quality metrics, and that private providers are woefully unprepared to treat the often unique and difficult veteran patient population. The most recent evidence came in a Dartmouth College study published in December, which compared performance between VHA and private hospitals in 121 regions across the country. The results: In 14 out of 15 measures, government care fared “significantly better” than private hospitals.

David Shulkin, Former U.S. Secretary of Veterans Affairs

The Honorable Dr. David J. Shulkin was the ninth Secretary of the US Department of Veterans Affairs.  Nominated by President Trump to serve in his Cabinet, Secretary Shulkin was confirmed by the US Senate by a vote of 100-0.  Dr. Shulkin previously served as Under Secretary for Health having been appointed by President Obama and confirmed unanimously by the US Senate.
As Secretary, Dr. Shulkin represented the 21 million American veterans and was responsible for the nation’s largest integrated health care system with over 1,200 sites of care, serving over 9 million Veterans. VA is also the nation’s largest provider of graduate medical education and major contributor of medical research and provides veterans with disability payments, education through the GI bill, home loans, and runs a national cemetery system.

Screwing Veterans - The New National Pastime

courtesy Bruce Jasinski via Paul Sutton
CBO Options for Reducing the Deficit: 2019 to 2028
Published Dec 2018
This CBO Report has been making the news. I went through it and pulled out the parts relevant to veterans and have created this page so you can see what they are looking at. Nothing has been decided as of yet and some seem very unlikely; but, you never know.
Forewarned is Forearmed.
Mandatory Spending Options
Option 34: Narrow Eligibility for Veterans’ Disability Compensation by Excluding Certain Disabilities Unrelated to Military Duties
Option 35: End VA’s Individual Unemployability Payments to Disabled Veterans at the Full Retirement Age for Social Security
Option 36: Reduce VA’s Disability Benefits to Veterans Who Are Older Than the Full Retirement Age for Social Security
Option 37: Narrow Eligibility for VA’s Disability Compensation by Excluding Veterans with Low Disability Ratings
Discretionary Spending Options
Option 30: End Enrollment in VA Medical Care for Veterans in Priority Groups 7 and 8
Revenue Options
Include Disability Payments from the Department of Veterans Affairs in Taxable Income
Full Report:

Monday, January 7, 2019

I’m Enjoying My Journey Despite Parkinson’s Interference

I received an email from someone concerned that they may be in the beginning stages of Parkinson’s disease (PD). I have met others who have PD, but not someone in the throes of wondering if their symptoms indeed result from Parkinson’s disease.
I can’t stop thinking about them because the email takes me back to my diagnosis, to the days of wondering what was going on inside and outside of me. I can relate so well, and I can understand all too well.
They are scared, wondering if they have Parkinson’s. I can look back and see myself where this person is now — scared, uncertain, and desperate. I can now see that although the future is still uncertain, I have been blessed with a wonderful doctor, the support of friends and family, and more than anything, the opportunity to encourage others with empathy.
I was not able to see those things at first. Fear took away everything good in my present and future and left hopelessness.
Isn’t the future uncertain for each of us, whether we have been diagnosed with a disease or not? None of us know how the end will turn out or if tonight will be the last time we will tuck our babies into bed.
I recall a favorite quote at times like these: “Dance as if no one were watching, sing as if no one were listing, and live every day as if it were to be your last.”
That is how I want to live each day, whether I am fighting Parkinson’s or making peace with it. I want to dance without reserve, even if I stumble. I want to sing at the top of my lungs, even if others think I’m still whispering. I want to live each day as if it is my last opportunity for anything, even if I think I’ll be given a tomorrow.

Privatizing VA health services a bad idea

Military veterans beware. I am writing to let you know there is serious discussion by the current administration in Washington, D.C., to privatize the Veterans Administration’s health services and place the welfare of America’s veterans in the hands of corporate magnates like the Koch brothers and other profit-driven entrepreneurs.
This is an urgent matter for all Alaska veterans and nonveterans alike. Whether you use the VA or not, it is there for most veterans if ever needed.
New rules are being drafted that will govern how veterans can access taxpayer-funded medical care in their community under the new Mission Act. These rules are set to take effect in June of this year. This legislation was passed to get veterans more access to care, which is great, but the Mission Act provides cover for moving veterans care outside of the VA and into the private sector, where profit — and not the welfare of patients — is the great motivator.
Line for service at privatized VA
What is at stake is the future care for millions of Americans who have served our nation. For some veterans, that service brought with it emotional and or physical scars they will carry with them the rest of their lives. For some of these veterans, the scars are obvious: lost limbs or severe physical disabilities. Others suffer from toxic wounds after they were poisoned with Agent Orange or pesticides. Younger vets have suffered from severe brain injuries in recent wars. And of course, there are emotional scars and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Our veterans need the best care available, and that is from the Veterans Administration health care services. Veterans know the best place for them to get care is the VA. The VA is the only place that offers treatment that is specifically designed for veterans, where doctors, nurses and other caregivers are trained to look for service-related illnesses such a toxic wounds and PTSD.

Study after study shows that care in the VA is equal to or superior to care in the private sector.
 (Read the following article for more information:
In addition, it costs less to treat a veteran in the VA than it does in the private sector in part because there is no effort to make a profit. There is no profit incentive when one works for the federal government on a salary.
Right now, the unions, including National Nurses United and American Federation of Government Employees, are fighting the privatization effort. The current administration is trying to silence that opposition and has come after the unions by stalling contract negotiations, issuing executive orders designed to gut the unions and washing away worker’s protections that have been in place for decades.

Editorial: Trail of broken promises to Agent Orange victims

THE FAILURE OF the U.S. Senate in December to pass the Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act is the latest in a long history of wrongs associated with our country’s use of Agent Orange.
Time is running short for many of the veterans who are suffering ailments that may be related to the use of lethal herbicides in the Vietnam War.
You could say the wrongs go back to the 1960s and the decision to use Agent Orange to clear the jungles of Vietnam — without knowing the possible effects on U.S. troops.
But that’s history now, and there’s nothing to be done except perhaps learn from the disaster.
What could be done is to extend to the estimated 52,000 so-called Blue Water Navy veterans and Marines who were on Navy ships the same Agent Orange-related benefits that those who served on the ground or on inland waterways can receive. Instead, the Department of Veterans Affairs has repeatedly chosen to deny the benefits to those who served on ships just off Vietnam.
And Congress has dragged its collective feet on legislation that would ensure sailors and Marines who patrolled the offshore waters have the same benefits as other veterans affected by Agent Orange.  
When officials approved the use of the herbicides in Vietnam, they naively thought that since they would be targeting enemy areas, the dioxin in the herbicides wouldn’t harm U.S troops. They were wrong.
Then, when increasing numbers of Vietnam veterans and their families began reporting cancers, type 2 diabetes, leukemia, birth defects and other ills associated with Agent Orange, it took lawsuits and challenges all the way to the Supreme Court before veterans began to get help from the chemical companies that made the herbicides. That delay was wrong.

Ben Dover takes charge at VA - The Trump Administration Is Launching Stealth Attacks on Veterans

The Republican Party stands with America’s veterans — until America’s veterans stand up to the party’s donor class.
The GOP relies on former servicemen and women as both a constituency (in 2016, Donald Trump won them by a two-to-one margin), and as reinforcements in its culture war. Veterans command broad, bipartisan respect — and thus, have the power to turn any cause they’re associated with into a sacred cow. Republicans have had little difficulty reframing calls for cutting America’s gargantuan military budget or ending misbegotten wars — or even reducing police violence against African-Americans — as affronts to those who fought and died for this country.
But veterans’ cultural cachet is a double-edged sword for the GOP. The conservative movement exists to undermine the notion that the federal government has an obligation to safeguard the well-being of working-class Americans. And veterans are both largely working-class and disproportionately likely to rely on public programs and public-interest regulations for their well-being. Vets get their health care from the single most socialized segment of America’s health-care sector — and most of their advocacy organizations want to keep it that way. Meanwhile, veterans’ acute vulnerability to predatory lenders has abetted the passage of bipartisan legislation strengthening federal regulations on the finance industry. Which is to say that on a number of economic issues, Democrats are the ones holding the “support our troops” card.
All this presented the Trump administration with a stark choice: It could either show deference to the interests of one of its core constituencies, or maximize its cronies’ ability to profit off of deregulation and privatization (at considerable political risk).
It’s now clear that president Trump has opted for door No. 2.

Reforming veterans benefits will be controversial, but necessary


As part of our commitment to those that have served, taxpayers will spend $100 billion in 2019 towards benefits programs for veterans. Costs for these programs have more than quadrupled since the year 2000. Few programs of this size and importance have received less attention from a policy perspective.
The VA’s disability compensation system is complex, cumbersome and frequently difficult to navigate. The approval process can be frustrating and slow — from obtaining copies of military service records to undergoing a comprehensive evaluation known as the Compensation and Pension examination, which is used to assign a disability rating from 0-100 percent.
The exam itself was first conceived in the 1940’s. It has only been modified through iterative changes and may fail to properly acknowledge some of the most common issues facing today’s veterans, such as post traumatic stress (PTS).  
Veterans who are dissatisfied with initial decisions often seek higher ratings. Despite real progress by VA in recent years, the backlog of appeals remains large and hundreds of thousands of veterans wait on a system impeded by legislative restrictions and its own bureaucracy. This perpetuates an adversarial relationship between the veteran and VA. Many veterans who struggle to obtain an initial benefits’ decision become locked into a complicated process to prove their needs.

Veterans’ Groups Compete With Each Other, and Struggle With the V.A.

WASHINGTON — For generations, Veterans of Foreign Wars and American Legion posts have been as integral to American political culture as pancake breakfasts, town squares and state fairs. In advocating for veterans — among the country’s most revered and coveted voters — the groups have wielded unquestioned power on Capitol Hill and inside the White House.
Now, nearly a generation after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the oldest and largest veterans’ service organizations — known colloquially as “the Big Six” — are seeing their influence diluted, as newer, smaller organizations focused on post-9/11 veterans compete for money, political influence and relevance.
The newer organizations reflect cultural shifts in a smaller community of younger and increasingly diverse veterans who are replacing the older, predominantly male veterans — many of them having served because of a draft for now long-ago wars.

Thursday, January 3, 2019

Back to Square One - Ranking Member Roe Introduces the Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act of 2019

Washington, January 3, 2019 
Washington, D.C. - Today, Rep. Phil Roe, M.D. (R-Tenn.) Ranking Member of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs introduced the Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act of 2019.
“The Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act of 2019 would ensure that our Vietnam
Veterans receive the benefits they deserve. This bill mirrors the language of the Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act of 2018, which passed the House 382 - 0 during the 115th Congress. One of my final acts as Chairman in 2018 was holding a bipartisan press conference to urge the Senate to pass H.R 299. Needless to say, despite the endless efforts of Senate Veterans Affairs' Committee Chairman Isakson and Ranking Member Tester, the Senate never passed the legislation. This is why I have introduced this bill that mirrors the Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act of 2018 and I encourage my colleagues in the House to once again swiftly pass this bipartisan piece of legislation.
"Currently, Blue Water Navy Vietnam veterans are unable to receive the presumption of exposure to Agent Orange because VA’s presumption policy extends only to those who served on land in Vietnam or in Vietnam’s inland waterways. This legislation would extend the presumption of exposure of Agent Orange to our Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans. I hope that my colleagues in the House and Senate waste no time in passing this bill and sending it to President Trump so we can ensure that Blue Water Navy Vietnam veterans receive the benefits they deserve.”

New in 2019: Advocates hope to reignite debate over long-term effects of burn pits

Toxic exposure from combat burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan isn’t a new topic, but veterans advocates hope it will get new attention in 2019.
Several groups — most prominently, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America — in recent months have been pushing the issue back into the public spotlight, in hopes of spurring more public policy reaction from lawmakers.
The hope is that Congress and Veterans Affairs officials can move more quickly on research and support services before another generation of former military personnel starts showing grave health effects from the chemical poisoning.
In fact, much of 2018’s veterans policy on Capitol Hill revolved around Vietnam veterans’ exposure to the chemical defoliant Agent Orange during that conflict. Decades later, the substance has been linked to numerous rare cancers and other detrimental health effects, and veterans groups are still lobbying VA to expand their illness definitions to expand veteran benefits.

New in 2019: VA’s health care rules will be completely rewritten this year

President Donald Trump has been promising expanded health care choices for veterans dating back to his election campaign in 2015.
But 2019 could be the year his administration actually makes that happen.
Veterans Affairs has been working on expanded community care rules for veterans' medical appointments since last summer, when Congress approved the VA Mission Act. Details of that work are expected to be released in early 2019, and a full set of new regulations is scheduled to be released in early spring.
Among other priorities, the legislation mandated a retooling of the department’s policies for veterans seeking private-sector care, a massive undertaking that supporters have hailed as giving more flexibility and freedom to veterans who face long lines at VA hospitals and clinics.
VA Secretary Robert Wilkie in December hailed the work as part of “a real transformational period at the department.”

Connecticut Veterans demand expanded medical care for Agent Orange victims

Vietnam War veterans say they're fighting for medical coverage due to only some qualifying for Agent Orange benefits at Veterans Affairs clinics.
American soldiers dumped millions of gallons of Agent Orange during the Vietnam War. Connecticut veteran Gerry Wright says he had no idea the government was poisoning them with the herbicide.
Currently, only ground troops qualify for Agent Orange benefits. Veterans say they want Congress to expand Agent Orange disability benefits to sailors who served on Navy ships off the Vietnamese coast.
"I went to Vietnam and now I'm sick from the Agent Orange," says Paul Scappaticci, a Navy veteran. "I have chronic diseases. I've had two cancers."
A bipartisan plan to expand Agent Orange benefits did not pass in Congress last month. Veteran Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie says it's because of cost concerns.
"We came so close during the last session," says Sen. Richard Blumenthal. "... We're going to push for this measure in the very first days of the new Congress."
The new Congress starts Thursday.
Some members of Congress questioned whether the science really links the sailors' illnesses to Agent Orange.

Wednesday, January 2, 2019


We update our meetings regularly on the Town Hall Meeting Calendar:

January 15, 2019
Lebanon, Oregon
Contact: Tom Owen

March 23, 2019
Portland, Oregon
Contact: Steve Carr

Parkinson’s Disease Information for Veterans….

From our friend Zack Earp

Massachusetts Judge Sides with 'Bad Paper' Veterans Denied Bonuses

A Massachusetts judge sided with three Afghanistan war veterans who filed a lawsuit against the state, after being denied "Welcome Home" bonuses because of their other-than-honorable military discharges.
In a decision handed down Wednesday, Associate Justice Michael Ricciuti ordered the Massachusetts Veterans' Bonus Appeal Board to reconsider rejecting the veterans. Lawyers in the case estimate that beyond their three clients, the decision means that about 4,000 Massachusetts veterans are now eligible for the bonuses.
"Veterans with bad paper discharges are among the most at-risk veterans and yet are often told that they are ineligible for traditional veteran services and programs," said Laurel Fresquez, an attorney who represented the three veterans. "Thanks to this decision and these three veterans, thousands of Massachusetts veterans will finally have a right to some recognition for their honorable service to our country."
The Massachusetts legislature created the Welcome Home Bonus in 2005 for post-9/11 service members. Under the program, people who deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan -- and lived in Massachusetts for a period of least six months before enlisting -- are eligible to apply for a one-time, tax-free $1,000 bonus. The program is run by the state treasury.
Jeffrey Machado, Washington Santos and Herik Espinosa -- three Army veterans named in the lawsuit -- each completed enlistments and re-joined multiple times. They applied for the Welcome Home Bonus and were denied by the treasury and then the Veterans' Bonus Appeal Board, which argued their other-than-honorable discharges from their final enlistments made them ineligible.
Machado, Santos and Espinosa, represented by student attorneys at Harvard Law School's Veterans Legal Clinic, filed a lawsuit in 2017 in Massachusetts Superior Court. In the complaint, they argued the board should take into consideration their prior enlistments, which they completed honorably.
The judge agreed, calling the state's denial "erroneous as a matter of law, arbitrary and capricious." He said the board's decision to deny the benefit disincentivized service members from enlisting multiple times.
"The Bonus Law was designed to reward service to the country," Ricciuti's order reads. "The board's reading would penalize such service for military members who voluntarily remain in combat, a result at odds with the legislature's intent."
In a statement Sunday, Machado, the lead plaintiff, said the decision meant more than the $1,000 - it was a symbolic win for veterans with other-than-honorable discharges.
Those discharges, known as "bad paper," can prevent veterans from receiving federal assistance, such as Department of Veterans Affairs health care, disability payments, education and housing. Some lawmakers and veteran advocates have long argued servicemembers with bad paper were, in many cases, unjustly released from the military because of mental health issues.
The Government Accountability Office released findings in 2017 that the Defense Department separated approximately 92,000 service members for misconduct from 2011 through 2015, and 57,000 of them were diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury or other conditions that can change service members' moods and behaviors and lead to disciplinary problems.