Tag Archives: veterans

May 1, 2018

Sgt. Shaft caricatureDear Sgt Shaft
How does one go about introducing and passing legislation to help our nation’s veterans?

Garry Harrison
Silver Spring Md

Dear Garry,
To  begin with, contact the House  Veterans’ Affairs Committee.  The majority and the minority members of the 115th Congress are:

Republicans Democrats
Rep. Phil Roe (R-TN), Chairman Rep. Tim Walz (D-MN), Ranking Member
Rep. Gus Bilirakis (R-FL), Vice Chair Rep. Mark Takano (D-CA)
Rep. Mike Coffman (R-CO) Rep. Julia Brownley (D-CA)
Rep. Brad Wenstrup (R-OH) Rep. Ann Kuster (D-NH)
Rep. Amata Radewagen (R-AS) Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-TX)
Rep. Mike Bost (R-IL) Rep. Kathleen Rice (D-NY)
Rep. Bruce Poliquin (R-ME) Rep. J. Luis Correa (D-CA)
Rep. Neal Dunn (R-FL) Rep. Conor Lamb (D-PA)
Rep. Jodey Arrington (R-TX) Rep. Elizabeth Esty (D-CT)
Rep. John Rutherford (R-FL) Rep. Scott Peters (D-CA)
Rep. Clay Higgins (R-LA)
Rep. Jack Bergman (R-MI)
Rep. Jim Banks (R-IN)
Rep. Jenniffer Gonzalez-Colon (R-PR)

They should be able to further assist you.

Other ways to contact them are:

Mailing Address:
House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs
335 Cannon House Office Building
Washington, D.C. 20515

Phone: (202) 225-3527

Also you there is the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs
412 Russell Senate Office Building
2 Constitution Ave NE, Washington, DC 20510-6050

Phone: Majority Staff (202) 224-9126, Minority Staff (202) 224-2074

Republicans Democrats
Johnny Isakson (R – GA), Chairman Jon Tester (D – MT) Ranking Member
Moran, Jerry (KS) Murray, Patty (WA)
Boozman, John (AR) Sanders, Bernie (VT)
Heller, Dean (NV) Brown, Sherrod (OH)
Cassidy, Bill (LA) Blumenthal, Richard (CT)
Rounds, Mike (SD) Hirono, Mazie (HI)
Tillis, Thom (NC) Manchin, Joe (WV)
Sullivan, Dan (AK)  

For reference, the US House of Representatives website has this page describing the process of how laws are made.

USA.gov has this page available describing how laws are made, along with a handy info-graphic.

And there is a downloadable PDF brochure that describes the lawmaking process in detail.


November 22, 2106

Sgt. Shaft caricatureDear Sgt. Shaft
What’s the latest on the VA Transformation Initiative ?

Carl O
Via the internet

Dear Carl
The  U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs recently released a major update on the MyVA transformation, Secretary McDonald’s effort to transform VA into the top customer service agency in the federal government. This third edition of the program’s semi-annual report shows progress serving veterans with more services, in better time.

“Guided by Veterans’ needs, we’ve left old, unresponsive ways of doing business behind,” writes Secretary Robert McDonald. “We’ve changed leadership. We’ve added staff. We’ve adjusted policies. We’re eliminating bureaucracy and unproductive work. We’re encouraging inno­vative approaches to serving Veterans, and we’re sharing best practices across the Department. In short, we’re making VA the high-performing organization that it can be, and that my fellow Veterans, expect and deserve.”

Key results in the report include:

  • Veteran trust of VA is on the rise. In June 2016, nearly 60% of veterans said they trust VA to fulfill our country’s commitment to Veterans – a 47% improvement from six months before.
  • We are completing more appointments, faster. In FY 2016, VA completed nearly 58 million appointments – 1.2 million more than in FY 2015 and 3.2 million more than FY 2014. More of them are provided by a network of more than 350,000 community providers – a 45% increase in the number of providers since last year.
  • Processing of disability claims is faster and more accurate, too. The average wait time to complete a claim has dropped by 65%, to 123 days. We completed nearly 1.3 million claims in FY 2016, and reduced pending claims by almost 90%.
  • Urgent care is available when a Veteran needs it, and for non-urgent appointments, wait times are down. By September 2016, the average wait time for a completed appointment was down to less than 5 days for primary care, less than 7 days for specialty care, and less than 3 days for mental health care.
  • Veteran homelessness has been cut in half; it’s down 47% since 2010 nationwide, thanks in part to VA’s work with nearly 4,000 public and private agencies.
  • In the last 18 months, VA has facilitated dozens more collaborations, bringing in more than $300 million in investments and in-kind services to support America’s veterans.
  • Quality is improving. 82% of VA facilities improved quality overall since the fourth quarter of FY 2015.

The report details the changes and innovations, large and small, which produced these results. It also lays out a path forward for the agency – including an important role for Congress before the end of 2016.

Blue military style mailbag with BAVF red letters stenciled on it. Below the BAVF is a tag that says SGT. SHAFTShaft Notes
After recent unanimous House passage this month, the Senate voted today to send the Gold Star Families Voices Act (HR 4511) to the President for his signature. The legislation, authored by Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04), will allow immediate family members of servicemembers who are killed or missing in action or have died as a result of their service to participate in the Library of Congress’ Veterans History Project.

Today’s vote honors the men and women who gave ‘the last full measure of devotion’ in the service of our Nation by allowing their family members to tell their stories, so that all Americans can hear, appreciate, remember, and honor these patriots,” said Smith, former chairman of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee. “Preserving their memories will allow current and future generations of Americans to better understand and appreciate the sacrifices borne by those who served in uniform, the realities of war, and the narrative that helps define who we are as a nation.”

Senate passage today—which was secured by the hard work of my good friend and colleague Chairman Roy Blunt—will build on this collection and ensure we record and remember the lives and sacrifices of all who have served and provide the very deserving family members with the opportunity to create a lasting record of their fallen loved ones,” Smith continued.

Congress created the Veterans History Project at the Library of Congress in 2000 to collect and catalog the stories of American war veterans. The project has been a great success. Earlier this year, the Library announced that it reached a milestone: it has collected more than 100,000 testimonies of veterans who have served in military engagements since World War I in our permanent record.

Currently the project accepts only first-hand accounts of living veterans, unintentionally leaving out the men and women who did not return from the battlefield. Under Smith’s bill, immediate family members can participate on a veteran’s behalf including parents, spouses, siblings and/or children.

     After passage in the Senate, Senator Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) added: “We would not be the nation we are today if not for the profound acts of courage and selflessness of our fallen heroes. We, as Americans, owe it to these men and women to know their names, to honor their deeds, and to preserve their memories. The Gold Star Families Voices Act makes an invaluable project even better by giving the family members of our missing and fallen service members the opportunity to share their stories and ensure they become a part of our nation’s historical record. I thank American Gold Star Mothers, Inc. and Representative Chris Smith for championing this bill, and my Senate colleagues for getting it to the President’s desk.”

Congress created the Library of Congress’ Veterans History Project to turn the memories of our warfighters into our history and memorialize the lives of heroes. Yet, conspicuously missing from the rich project’s history are the veterans who made the ultimate sacrifice,” said Smith.

Smith praised the Gold Star Mothers and highlighted their continued advocacy: “The Gold Star Mothers are an incredibly inspiring, committed and dedicated group of women who have worked tirelessly and successfully to bring about meaningful change to better the lives of servicemembers, veterans and their families.”

November 15, 2016

Sgt. Shaft caricatureDear Sgt Shaft
I hear that VA is sharing information with Social Security in an effort to speed up claims processing.  Have you heard anything about this?

Rob Y
Via the internet

Dear Rob
The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and the Social Security Administration (SSA) launched a new Health IT initiative that enables VA to share medical records electronically with social security disability processors. This secure process will save time and money resulting in better service for Veterans and dependents who apply for social security disability benefits. The SSA requests nearly 15 million medical records from health care organizations yearly to make medical decisions on about three million disability claims. For decades, SSA obtained medical records through a manual process.  This new national initiative puts in place an automated process to obtain Veterans’ medical records entirely electronically.

“VA’s partnership with Social Security will ultimately improve the quality of life for Veterans and their dependents by enabling Veterans to share their health information within a safe and secure health-related consumer application,” said Dr. David Shulkin, VA’s Under Secretary for Health.

The joint venture is expected to significantly speed up social security disability decisions, utilizing VA’s VLER Health Exchange under the Virtual Lifetime Electronic Record (VLER) Program. The VLER Health Exchange gives VA and participating community providers the ability to retrieve Veterans’ health information from each other for the purpose of treatment. Currently, VLER Health Exchange shares health data with over 79 community health care partners, representing 775 Hospitals, 427 Federally Qualified Health Centers, 142 Nursing Homes, 8441 Pharmacies and over 11,969 Clinics. The SSA now has access for the purpose of processing benefits for Veterans and their dependents.

“This SSA-VA partnership is another example of VA’s leadership in interoperability efforts among federal partners,” said VA Secretary, Robert McDonald. “Increasing federal partnerships to improve operation and resource coordination across agencies is among VA’s 12 Breakthrough Priorities for 2016.”

VA has partnership agreements with Health and Human Services (HHS), Department of Defense (DOD), Department of Treasury (DOT) among many others.

To learn more about VA health care visit: www.va.gov/health.

Blue military style mailbag with BAVF red letters stenciled on it. Below the BAVF is a tag that says SGT. SHAFTShaft Notes
Congressman Gus Bilirakis, Vice-Chairman of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, recently hosted a round-table discussion with local Veterans and Veterans’ service organizations in Oldsmar. Bilirakis has passed legislation, the PROMISE Act and the COVER Act, to help fight opioid abuse among Veterans and expand mental health services through the Department of Veterans Affairs. He continues to work to bring accountability and reform to the VA, and increase access to quality, timely care for Veterans.

In case you missed it, the Palm Harbor Beacon covered the event.

United States Congressman Gus Bilirakis, R-Palm Harbor, is known for being a staunch advocate of veteran’s rights, serving as vice-chairman of the Veterans’ Affairs Committee and co-chair of the Military Veterans Caucus while sponsoring numerous pieces of legislation designed to improve the quality of life for veterans and their families.

One way Bilirakis stays up to date on the issues affecting America’s veterans is by holding informal meetings with vets and representatives of veterans organizations in order to receive direct feedback about what veterans are looking for from their elected officials.

Recently, the congressman held a town hall meeting in Oldsmar, and after listening to stories, comments and suggestions from the roughly 3-dozen in attendance, Bilirakis came away from the event with a better understand of where the veterans stand on a number of key issues.

“I think it went well,” Bilirakis said following the meeting, which was held in the Oldsmar City Council Chambers on Tuesday, Oct. 4. “They were very honest and they had some good suggestions. We talked about alternative therapies and also the transition program – it’s very important, we need to fix the transition process and have better communication, no question. But I thought it was very good.”

While the main focus of the meeting was a pair of current pieces of legislation Bilirakis is working to pass – the Promise Act, which focuses on safe, quality pain management treatment at VA facilities, and the Cover Act, which seeks to incorporate complimentary, alternative therapies for veterans battling mental health issues – questions about a variety of veterans issues were raised during the two-hour session, as those in attendance stood up and told stories about how they have been overlooked, put off or neglected while searching for ways to help cope with the aftereffects of their service.

Another issue addressed was the lack of support and proper care for female vets.

After raising the subject during the discussion, former Air Force Capt. Julie Daniels spoke about Bilirakis’ dedication to fighting for all veterans’ rights, including women.

“Personally, I think Gus does a great job,” Daniels, a Desert Storm vet who sits on Bilirakis’ veterans advisory council, said after the meeting. “He is one congressman who has focused his entire career on veterans. I can say that he, more than anyone, takes the time out to listen to us. And I believe that he will take this information and actually do something about it. It’s just in his nature, it’s what he’s done, it’s what he’s going to do, and I believe that’s what his career is about.”

One leader of a local veterans organization had nothing but praise for Bilirakis and his efforts to help all vets.

“There’s a lot of issues out there and a lot of good solutions, and the congressman tells us that all the time,” Richard Weltz, a retired naval officer and commander of the local chapter of the Military Order of the Purple Heart, said. “You see what he’s up against with the federal government and the resistance to this VA stuff, and it’s extremely frustrating for vets and the taxpayers, too. You’re paying for a broke system.”

October 11, 2016

Sgt. Shaft caricatureDear Sgt Shaft
I would like to know if you have information about where a veteran can find help with inquires about Agent Orange outside of Viet Nam. I did not serve in VN but I do believe I was exposed to Agent Orange in Korea.

I have been shut down at every place I have looked for help. Also, I have not found any information on line concerning use of Agent Orange outside the DMZ in Korea nor can anyone tell me what is meant by the term “At of near the DMZ” in Korea.

Is there any way you can help or direct me to someone who would be able to assist me?

Thank You
Gale N
Via the internet

Dear Gale
I referred your missive to the Powers That Be at the Department of Veterans Affairs. I have as not as yet received an answer to your inquiry

Blue military style mailbag with BAVF red letters stenciled on it. Below the BAVF is a tag that says SGT. SHAFTShaft Notes
Hearing loss, including tinnitus, which is a ringing, buzzing or other type of noise that originates in the head, is the most prevalent service-connected disability among Veterans, with more than 30 million Veterans suffering from a form of it due to frequent exposure to loud noises from weaponry and aircraft. Because of the pervasiveness of hearing loss among Veterans, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) is recognizing October as Audiology Awareness Month by highlighting important VA research on the subject and advances made in treating Veterans with hearing loss.

“VA researchers have a rich history of contributions to audiology,” said VA Under Secretary for Health Dr. David J. Shulkin. “From working with the National Institutes of Health to develop and evaluate hearing aids to a comprehensive protocol for managing tinnitus at VA and other audiology clinics nationwide, VA is proud to be a leader in this field.”

VA researchers conduct a wide range of studies in audiology—from biomedical investigations to large clinical trials and epidemiologic database studies. Much of the work takes place at VA’s National Center for Rehabilitative Auditory Research in Portland, Oregon, one of the world’s leading facilities for research in the field. Studies include older Veterans whose hearing problems have been compounded by aging and younger Veterans who may have suffered hearing loss as a result of blasts in Iraq or Afghanistan.

Recent VA research includes the following:

  • In 2013, researchers at the VA Puget Sound Health Care System published the results of a study comparing group and individual visits for hearing aid fittings and follow up. The team found no differences in how well the hearing aids performed, or how often they were worn. They concluded that group visits could reduce costs while providing community support for patients.
  • In 2014, VA researchers in Loma Linda, California, linked exposure to jet propulsion fuel with auditory processing problems—changes that occur inside the brain rather than the ear.
  • A 2015 VA study yielded promising results on transcranial magnetic stimulation as a tinnitus treatment. The therapy involves holding a magnetic coil to the head. The team now hopes to conduct a larger trial.
  • A 2016 study of nearly 200 Veterans with tinnitus explored the impact of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) on how Veterans manage the hearing condition, and offered guidance for clinicians.
  • Below are a few examples of ongoing studies:
  • VA researchers in Pittsburgh, Sioux Falls, Omaha, and Portland are collecting data from nearly 470 Veterans to learn more about auditory complaints in those who have been exposed to blasts. The team will focus on the interplay among hearing problems, traumatic brain injury, and PTSD.
  • A VA trial aims to improve monitoring of hearing changes caused by the drug cisplatin, used to treat cancer. Some 4,000 Veterans receive the drug in a typical year, and up to 40 or 50 percent will experience some hearing loss or tinnitus. The researchers say early detection can prevent significant damage.
  • Together with a lab group at the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary, VA researchers are seeking biomarkers—including cellular changes— that could warn of impending hearing loss. The work is expected lead to new preventive measures or treatment.

In addition to VA’s audiology research work, the Department announced last month – ahead of National Audiology Awareness Month – that Veterans who need routine audiology appointments will be able to directly schedule them, without the need for a referral from their primary care provider. The move is expected to get Veterans into appointments more quickly. The new expedited process was piloted at three VA sites last year and is now being rolled out nationwide.

Congressman Gus Bilirakis, Vice Chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, released a statement on the recent Department of Veterans’ Affairs Inspector General report detailing the continued problems plaguing the Phoenix VA Health Care System:

“This report has revealed an unacceptable truth about the Phoenix VA Health Care System: Despite additional resources and funding, Veterans seeking care in the Phoenix area are not receiving the treatment they have earned through their service,” said Bilirakis. “It is particularly disturbing to hear that the continued delays and rampant mismanagement at this facility may have contributed to the recent death of at least one veteran. The Phoenix VA Health Care System has long been associated with lengthy wait-times and messy bureaucratic management, and yet this report does little to bring accountability to those responsible for the current problems. Clearly, fixing the issues in Phoenix and across the country is about more than providing resources and funding, it’s about changing the culture at this agency so that our Veterans come first.”

September 27, 2016

Sgt. Shaft caricatureDear Sarge
What’s new regarding the VA Compensation program?

Jason D
Via the internet

Dear Jason
The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) today announced the awarding of 12 contracts between 5 firms totaling $6.8 billion to improve the Medical Disability Examination process (Compensation and Pension or Comp and Pen Examinations) for Veterans. The awards are intended to reduce Veterans’ wait times for examinations for service-connected benefits, thereby providing faster claims decisions in a more efficient and streamlined way.

“This is good news for Veterans who are waiting for VA to determine whether a condition can be considered service-connected,” said VA Secretary Robert A. McDonald. “For these Veterans, we want the process to be smoother – from beginning to end. When we announced the MyVA initiative in 2014 to improve Veterans’ experience with VA, that meant looking at every process and every product. These awards represent a way for us to improve a significant process for Veterans.”

Contracts were awarded to the following firms:

  • VetFed Resources, Inc., Alexandria, Virginia;
  • Logistics Health, Inc., La Crosse, Wisconsin;
  • Medical Support Los Angeles, A Medical Corporation, Pasadena, CA;
  • QTC Medical Services, Inc., Diamond Bar, California; and
  • Veterans Evaluation Services, Inc., Houston, Texas.

The contracts are being awarded for a period of 12 months with (4) 12-month options, with an aggregate ceiling of $6.8 billion. The contracts will be managed by VA’s Strategic Acquisition Center based in Frederick, MD.

Shaft NotesBlue military style mailbag with BAVF red letters stenciled on it. Below the BAVF is a tag that says SGT. SHAFT
Chairman Miller released the below statement regarding the Department of Veterans Affairs Inspector General report on the replacement Denver VA medical center, the biggest construction failure in VA History.

“To this day, the department’s handling of the replacement Denver VA medical center continues to be a case study in government waste, incompetence and secrecy. This report makes two things abundantly clear: there are many more people responsible for the biggest construction failure in VA history than the department has led the public to believe, and it is possible that former VA construction chief Glenn Haggstrom or other employees committed perjury in hiding information regarding the project’s cost overruns during congressional testimony. Consequently, I will be asking the Department of Justice to determine whether charges are warranted against Haggstrom or others, and I am renewing my call for VA to immediately fire Office of Construction and Facilities Management Executive Director Stella Fiotes, who has presided over much of the Denver project’s mismanagement yet remains firmly entrenched at the department. It’s well past time for the department to fire all of those responsible for botching this project or explain to America’s veterans and American taxpayers why these individuals have earned the right to continued VA employment.” – Rep. Jeff Miller, Chairman, House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs

Rep.Tulsi Gabbard (HI-02) and a bipartisan group of Congressional Members delivered a letter to Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter calling for the Department of Defense (DoD) to address millions of dollars misused by DoD personnel on government travel credit cards.The letter follows a recent Department of Defense Inspector General (DoD OIG) report revealing inadequate action by the DoD to respond to multiple cases of abuse in recent years.

“In just one year, from July 2013 to June 2014, an initial audit found 4,437 transactions totaling $952,258 in which government travel cards were likely used at casinos for personal expenditures.Furthermore, the report noted more than 900 instances of these government-issued cards being used at adult entertainment establishments, totaling $96,576,” the lawmakers wrote.“The most recent report found that the Department of Defense has failed to take appropriate actions to resolve the issues highlighted by the previous audit.The Department has not taken steps to eliminate additional misuse of the government travel cards, initiated reviews for improper payments, or consistently considered the security implications of the misused travel cards.As a result, the government travel card program remains susceptible to continued waste and exploitation.”

The letter was also signed by Reps.Jim Costa (CA-16), Paul Gosar (AZ-04), Walter B.Jones (NC-03), Seth Moulton (MA-06), and Kyrsten Sinema (AZ-09).Full text is available below:

Dear Secretary Carter,
We are writing to express our concern about DoD personnel misusing government travel cards and American tax payer dollars.

The Department of Defense Inspector General (DoD OIG) has investigated these abuses on multiple occasions in recent years. The most recent investigation resulted in a report, issued on August 30, 2016, in which the DoD OIG found the Department has not done enough to respond to the infractions. The report findings also suggest the Department still maintains insufficient processes to address the problem: insufficient instruction on the appropriate use of the government travel card; improper reimbursements for personal expenses; and a tepid response from DoD management to correct these issues. Most troubling is that the most recent audit was conducted as a response to a previous report on DoD misuse of government travel cards released in 2015.

In a one year period from July 2013 to June 2014, the initial audit found 4,437 transactions totaling $952,258 in which government travel cards were likely used at casinos for personal use. Furthermore, the report noted more than 900 instances of cards being used at adult entertainment establishments, totaling $96,576.

The most recent report found that the DoD has not taken appropriate actions to resolve the issues highlighted by the previous audit. The DoD has not taken steps to eliminate additional misuse, initiate reviews for improper payments, or consistently considered the security implications of the misused travel cards. As a result, the government travel card program remains vulnerable to continued waste and exploitation.

The DoD IG made a number of recommendations to re-focus the Department’s efforts on identifying, investigating, and reporting the misuse or abuse of government travel cards. In light of the Department’s halfhearted response to the previous audit, we request a response on how the Department intends to implement the DoD IG’s recommendations. We will continue to monitor the Department’s progress.

We thank you for your attention to our concerns. We welcome further discussion on this issue.


August 23, 2016

Sgt. Shaft caricatureDear Sgt Shaft
I received a missive regarding a dying Marine veteran. I hope you can help this dying leatherneck and his wife.

George S
Via the Internet

Dear George

I referred the information you sent about him to the Secretary of Veterans Affairs. I am sure that he will see that this veteran gets the best resolution for him and his family.

Blue military style mailbag with BAVF red letters stenciled on it. Below the BAVF is a tag that says SGT. SHAFTShaft Notes
U.S. Senator Tammy Baldwin has welcomed support from veterans’ organizations in Wisconsin for her bipartisan legislation to support job creation for America’s veterans. Senator Baldwin introduced the Boosting Rates of American Veterans Employment Act (BRAVE Act) with Senator Thom Tillis (R-NC) last month. The legislation will reform the Department of Veterans’ Affairs (VA) contracting process to give preference to businesses that actively employ veterans.

“Wisconsin’s veterans have earned every opportunity to be productive and successful after they have completed their military service and returned to civilian life,” said Wisconsin Veterans Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Saul Newton. “The BRAVE Act is vital to ensuring veterans can have a career and support their families. Wisconsin’s veteran business community applauds Senator Baldwin for her leadership and support of businesses who hire military veterans.”

“The Veterans of Foreign Wars – Department of Wisconsin supports the BRAVE ACT and believe that this bill will increase veteran employment nationwide,” said Veterans of Foreign Wars – Department of Wisconsin Commander Michael B. Eggleston. Providing gainful employment to our nation’s veterans is the most productive way this country can thank them for their service. This nation will also realize the benefit of having these disciplined and innovative men and women fully integrated into its workforce. We hope to see this bill continue to move through congress and signed into law.

“The VA spends $19 billion on procurement and contracting. The American Legion wants to ensure that our fellow veterans are given due consideration in the awarding of federal contracts, both those employed by contractors and the many who own their own businesses,” said American Legion Department of Wisconsin’s Commander Dan Seehafer of Horicon Post No. 157. “This bill expands veterans preference to companies who go out of their way to employ veterans, as well as punishes companies who knowingly misrepresent their percentage of veteran employees in an attempt to gain an unearned advantage. The Wisconsin American Legion supports this bill and applauds Senator Baldwin for her efforts on behalf of our fellow veterans.”

“The Military Order of the Purple Heart-Department of Wisconsin is proud to support Senator Baldwin’s BRAVE ACT as it is an important bill that will help incentivize the hiring of our nation’s veterans,” said Military Order of the Purple Heart – Department of Wisconsin Legislative Officer Jason Johns. “After giving so much in service to our country abroad and within, the least we can do is to help these brave men and women find gainful employment when they get back home. I hope to see this bill continue to move through the Congress and be signed into law.”

The Boosting Rates of American Veterans Employment Act (BRAVE Act) is also supported by The American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars, and the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. Specifically, the BRAVE Act would allow the VA to consider the proportion of veterans employed by a prospective business when awarding federal contracts. The VA Secretary would have the authority to give preference to businesses that employ veterans based on its percentage of full-time veteran employees. The bipartisan legislation would encourage and incentivize VA contractors to employ veterans, and hold contractors responsible by requiring temporary debarment from contracting for businesses who knowingly misrepresent their proportion of veteran employees.

The U.S. Department of Defense has awarded Carolinas HealthCare System (CHS) a 2016 Secretary of Defense Employer Support Freedom Award, the highest recognition given by the Department to employers for their support of employees who serve in the Guard and Reserve.

CHS was one of just 15 employers nationally to be recognized with this top honor, from more than 2,400 employers nominated.

“These 15 employers have distinguished themselves through their outstanding support of our Guard and Reserve members and their families,” said Defense Secretary Ash Carter. “Without the unfaltering support of employers like them, the men and women of the National Guard and Reserve would not be able to fulfill their vital roles in our National Security Strategy. It is a great honor for me to recognize these employers, and I congratulate them on their receipt of the Employer Support Freedom Award.”

The nomination for CHS was submitted by Sylvia Wray, RN, nurse manager at Carolinas HealthCare System Kings Mountain and a flight nurse for the North Carolina Air National Guard.

Wray wrote, in part, “In the National Guard we talk quite a bit about how the guard functions as one big family. We take care of each other. That same feeling pretty much sums up the way that Carolinas HealthCare System takes care of their employees. Two main themes that are always present in the System are ‘one team’ and ‘caring.'”

Aaron Harper, CHS manager of military and veterans affairs, knows firsthand the work being done on behalf of CHS’ military teammates. “CHS, like all employers, is required to comply with USERRA (the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act) but we don’t just comply, we go above and beyond,” Harper said. “We aren’t doing this to win awards. We are engaged internally and externally because we truly care about our military, veterans and their families.”

CHS and the other 2016 award recipients will be honored at a ceremony in the Pentagon on Aug. 26.

August 16, 2016

Sgt. Shaft caricatureDear Sgt Shaft
Are Desert Storm Veterans joining our Veterans Services Organizations?

Randy N
Via The Internet

Dear Randy
Yes, in fact the Veterans of Foreign Wars of the United States recently concluded its 117th National Convention by electing Brian J. Duffy of Louisville, Ky., as its new leader.

His election also introduces a new era for America’s oldest and largest war veterans’ organization, in that he becomes the first Operation Desert Storm veteran to become the VFW commander-in-chief.

Duffy served in the U.S. Air Force as a jet engine mechanic on F-4 Phantom fighter aircraft, and later as a flight engineer aboard C-141 Starlifter transport aircraft. During his service, he deployed in support of several campaigns to include Grenada, Panama, and Operations Desert Shield and Storm in Southwest Asia. Following his military service he would be hired by United Parcel Service as a flight engineer instructor. He would rise through the UPS ranks until he retired in 2014 as assistant chief pilot, having flown worldwide as an instructor/check captain on the Boeing 757 and 767 aircraft.

During his acceptance speech, the new national commander strongly praised the work of the 117-year-old organization and encouraged its members to better educate others on exactly what the VFW does for veterans, service members and their families. He did note, however, that the VFW’s modest approach to reaching younger veterans wasn’t resonating with a newer generation that clearly identifies with belonging to something big, doing something cool, and touting their accomplishments more.

“This great big organization we call the VFW does something very cool that most Americans—and especially those who serve in uniform—just don’t know because we don’t shout from the rooftops enough,” he said. “Cool things like providing $5.6 million in grants to help nearly 3,900 military and veteran families through emergency financial situations; helping more than 80,000 veterans and transitioning military to receive $1.5 billion in earned compensation and pension from the VA; and providing millions in scholarships to veterans, service members, and high school and middle school students,” he said.

Duffy has been a member of the VFW for 33 years. He first joined VFW Post 6590 in Cookstown, N.J., after returning from Grenada in 1983. He later transferred his membership to VFW Post 120 in Garden City Park, N.Y., then to VFW Post 1170 in Middletown, Ky. He served as commander of the VFW Department of Kentucky in 2006, and achieved All-American status at the VFW Post, District and Department levels.

With leadership experience at all levels of the organization, Duffy’s tone throughout his remarks was one of experience and optimism for the future.

“We must push a message that the VFW is an organization that has always been rooted in service to others, that we are an organization of doers, and an organization comprised of men and women who returned home from their wars and conflicts as better, more compassionate and confident human beings,” he said. “We need your Departments and Posts to turn up the volume and communicate every story—and loudly!”

Among his primary objectives for the ensuing year is heightening the focus of mental health awareness and changing the veteran’s narrative—the veteran’s brand—which right now has 40 percent of Americans believing half of all veterans are experiencing mental health challenges, and an astounding 92 percent of employers believing veterans need access to mental health care programs.

He said it’s no secret that 20 veterans commit suicide every day, but what most folks don’t know is only five of those veterans are enrolled in the VA.

Blue military style mailbag with BAVF red letters stenciled on it. Below the BAVF is a tag that says SGT. SHAFT

Shaft Notes
The Department of Veterans Affairs’ Million Veteran Program (MVP) has reached an important milestone when an Army Veteran from Montgomery, Alabama, became the 500,000th to voluntarily enroll in the research database program – making MVP the largest genomic database in the world.

Launched in 2011, and part of the White House Precision Medicine Initiative, participants donate blood from which DNA is extracted. A baseline and periodic follow-up surveys track Veterans’ military experiences, health and lifestyles. Researchers believe the information contained in the database could hold the key to preventing and treating diseases.

“Our Veterans continue to demonstrate their selfless sacrifice, and the nation has yet another reason to owe them a debt of gratitude,” said VA Secretary Robert A. McDonald. “Many of our Veterans have saved lives on the battlefield and because of their participation in MVP, their participation has the potential to save countless lives – now and for generations to come.”

As part of the program, participating Veterans grant researchers secure access to their electronic health records and agree to be contacted about participating in future research. Samples and data used are coded to protect participants’ identification and privacy.

Research using MVP data is already underway, studying a range of medical issues like mental illness and heart and kidney diseases. The program also has rich data on various health conditions that are common in Veterans. Approximately 62 percent of MVP enrollees report a current or past diagnosis of high blood pressure and about a third report tinnitus. Also, nearly a third or 32 percent of Veterans present with a history or current diagnosis of cancer.

“We believe MVP will accelerate our understanding of disease detection, progression, prevention and treatment by combining this rich clinical, environmental and genomic data,” said Dr. David J. Shulkin, VA Under Secretary for Health. “VA has a deep history of innovation and research. MVP will allow the nation’s top researchers to perform the most cutting-edge science to treat some of the nation’s most troubling diseases.”

For more information about MVP, including how to participate, visit www.research.va.gov/MVP/. For information about the 52 VA sites currently enrolled in the program, visit www.research.va.gov/MVP/all-clinics.cfm.

August 10, 2016

Sgt. Shaft caricatureDear Sgt Shaft
I know VA Healthcare has been in the news a lot lately.  What improvements if any are in the works?

George O
Via the internet

Dear George
The Department of Veterans Affairs recently released results of The Joint Commission Special Focused Surveys on VA health care facilities. VA invited The Joint Commission to conduct unannounced, focused surveys at 139 medical facilities and 47 community-based outpatient clinics across the country to measure progress on VA access to care, quality improvements and diffusion of best practices across the system. The surveys also assessed barriers that may stand in the way of providing timely care to Veterans. Results indicate VA has made significant progress since The Joint Commission began its surveys two years ago.

“The Joint Commission is one of the most widely-respected health care organizations in the industry,” said VA Under Secretary for Health Dr. David J. Shulkin. “Their analysis shows that VA as national healthcare leader is making progress in improving the care we provide to our Veterans. This affirms our commitment to providing both excellent health care and an exceptional experience of care to all Veterans served.”

The Joint Commission assessed processes related to timely access to care; processes that may potentially indicate delays in care and diagnosis; processes related to patient flow and coordination of care; infection prevention and control; the environment of care; and organizational leadership and culture. For the survey, VA’s Veterans Health Administration provided organization-specific data addressing performance in the key areas targeted for review. .VA was the first system ever to request an assessment with an important focus on access so that deficiencies could be identified and rapidly addressed. The Joint Commission will track and report on the extent to which improvements were sustained, when the same facilities undergo their triennial accreditation surveys. To date, results from 57 hospitals that have undergone full accreditation are promising. We are pleased with VA’s ongoing commitment to quality improvement and patient safety.

Among the top findings:

  • Access to CareFacilities have seen improvements in providing patient appointments: Improvement efforts that were undertaken include leadership teams utilizing data to better understand where particular bottlenecks were and taking corrective actions. As the Joint Commission continues the regularly scheduled triennial surveys of VHA facilities after the special surveys were completed, the findings are encouraging. For example, as of April 1, 2016, 57 facilities have undergone follow-up surveys. Of these 57 sites, only one facility was found to have a repeat requirement for improvement (issue) related to patient access. Staffing continued to be a challenge in this area, but as new staff was hired, the wait times for appointments were more effectively addressed.
  • Choice Act: Early discussions with Veterans indicated a strong preference, and even a loyalty, for their “own” VHA organization, even if it would mean waiting longer to be seen. VHA facilities and Veterans also report that many times appointments in the community could not be made any earlier than would have been possible inside VA.

Efforts to Improve Veterans Access to Care

  • In 2014, VA introduced MyVA. MyVA is the largest transformation in the history of VA, which focuses on the needs of Veterans. As part of that transformation, in 2016, VA’s Veterans Health Administration established and launched MyVA Access. MyVA Access also puts Veterans more in control of how they receive their health care.
  • VA is moving to incorporate same-day access to primary care and mental health services for Veterans when it is medically necessary. At present, 39 VA facilities offer same-day appointments.
  • A new smart phone app called the Veteran Appointment Request App has been developed and is currently being piloted. This app allows Veterans to view, schedule and cancel primary care and mental health appointments as well as track the status of the appointment request and review upcoming appointments. VA expects to make the app available to all Veterans by early 2017.
  • Website enhancements are underway that will allow Veterans to check wait times in real time wherever they live – this includes a new, easy-to-use scheduling software program. The new program is being piloted and is expected to reduce scheduling errors and enhance VA’s ability to measure and track supply, demand and usage.
  • Nationally, VA completed more than 57.85 million appointments from July 1, 2015 through June 30, 2016. This represents an increase of 1.1 million more appointments than were completed during the same time period in 2014/2015.
  • From FY 2014 to FY 2015, Community Care appointments increased approximately 20 percent from 17.7 million in FY 2014 to 21.3 million in FY 2015.
  • In FY 2015, VA activated 2.2 million square feet of space for clinical, mental health, long-term care, and associated support facilities to care for Veterans.
  • VA held two Access Stand Downs, focusing on patients with the most urgent health care needs first. During a nationwide Access Stand Down that took place on February 27, 2016, the one-day event resulted in VA reviewing the records of more than 80,000 Veterans to get those waiting for urgent care off wait lists; 93 percent of Veterans waiting for urgent care were contacted, with many receiving earlier appointments.
  • VA increased its total clinical work (direct patient care) by 11 percent over the last two years as measured by private sector standards (relative value units). This increase translates to roughly 7.4 million additional provider hours of care for our Veterans.
  • VA is also working to increase clinical staff, add space and locations in areas where demand is increasing and extending clinic hours into nights and weekends, all of which have helped increase access to care even as demand for services increases.
  • In FY 2015, 677,000 Veterans completed more than 2 million telehealth visits, providing enhanced access to care.

August 2, 2016

Sgt. Shaft caricatureDear Sgt Shaft
Do you know if any of the veteran’s services organizations are sponsoring any scholarship programs?

Jerry W
Via the internet

Dear Jerry
The Veterans of Foreign Wars of the U.S. and Student Veterans of America are now accepting applications from student veterans interested in participating in the 2017 VFW-SVA Legislative Fellowship program. Now in its third year, the fellowship offers 10 selected student veterans the unique opportunity to meet face-to-face with their members of Congress during the annual VFW National Legislative Conference, as well as provides additional opportunities for fellows to address veterans’ issues in their communities.

Student veterans interested in applying for the 2017 VFW-SVA Legislative Fellowship must complete an application package that includes a proposal that addresses one of these four specific legislative issues:

  • The success of veterans in the civilian job sector;
  • The future of VA health care;
  • The success of veterans in higher education; or
  • The successful transition from military to civilian life

The essay should discuss why the issue is important to the veterans’ community, and how the fellowship candidate plans to address the issue through community-based advocacy. Selected fellows will then be flown to Washington, D.C., to storm Capitol Hill alongside fellow veterans’ advocates as part of the 2017 VFW Legislative Conference, Feb. 26 to March 3.

“The VFW has been advocating in Washington on behalf of veterans, service members and their families for more than a century, and we want to share our experience with a new generation of veteran leaders through our SVA partnership and our annual Legislative Fellowship program,” said VFW National Commander John A. Biedrzycki Jr. “Last year’s fellows showed me that a new generation of leaders is ready to step up and take action. I can’t wait to see what the 2017 fellowship class brings to the Halls of Congress.”

“Student Veterans of America is proud to partner with the VFW to provide 10 students the opportunity to bring the issues facing veterans from their campus to the Halls of Congress,” said Jared Lyon, SVA president and CEO. “In this the third year of the program, we’re proud to add a more robust academic component to the curriculum, so that our student veterans are receiving academic recognition for their efforts. We thank the VFW for their continued support of SVA and our nation’s veterans, and are excited to work together to help transform yesterday’s warriors into today’s scholars, and tomorrow’s leaders.”

VFW-SVA Legislative Fellowship opportunities are open to currently-enrolled student veterans at colleges and universities with active SVA chapters. Candidates must be VFW members, the criteria for which can be found here.

All applications must be submitted by close-of-business Oct. 21, 2016. Selected fellows will be notified before Thanksgiving, with a formal announcement of the fellowship class at the SVA National Conference in Orlando, Fla., in January 2017. For full details about the fellowship and to apply, visit www.vfw.org/StudentFellowship.

Many past fellows earned academic credit for their experience, as well as found internships, accepted additional academic opportunities, and even landed jobs as a result of their fellowship experience.

The VFW-SVA Legislative Fellowship is another example of the strong collaboration between VFW and SVA that resulted from a memorandum of understanding signed by the two organizations at the SVA National Conference in January 2013.

Shaft NotesBlue military style mailbag with BAVF red letters stenciled on it. Below the BAVF is a tag that says SGT. SHAFT
Chairman Jeff Miller recently  introduced H.R. 5620, the VA Accountability First and Appeals Modernization Act of 2016. The bill would strengthen protections for whistleblowers and help fix the Department of Veterans Affairs’ biggest problem – its pervasive lack of accountability for misbehaving employees. Additionally, the bill would reform the department’s disability benefits appeals process – a top priority for VA leaders and many veterans service organizations. Specifically, the bill would:

  • Shorten the firing/demotion/appeals process for rank-and-file VA employees from more than a year on average to no more than 77 days
  • Remove entirely the Merit Systems Protection Board from the firing/demotion/appeals process for VA senior executives
  • Provide VA whistleblowers with a means to solve problems at the lowest level possible, while offering them protection from reprisals and mandating strict accountability for those who reprise against them
  • Give the VA secretary the authority to recoup bonuses and relocation expenses from misbehaving employees
  • Give the VA secretary the authority to reduce the pensions of senior executives convicted of felonies that influenced their job performance
  • Reform the department’s broken disability benefits appeals process

“The biggest obstacle standing in the way of VA reform is the department’s pervasive lack of accountability among employees at all levels. Until this problem is fixed once and for all, long-term efforts to reform VA are doomed to fail. For too long, union bosses, administration officials and their enablers have used every trick in the book to help VA bureaucrats who can’t or won’t do their jobs remain firmly entrenched in the agency’s bureaucracy. The VA Accountability First and Appeals Modernization Act of 2016 gets rid of these loopholes, which have been unfairly forcing veterans and the many good VA workers to deal with deadwood employees for years. Union bosses and defenders of the broken status quo will oppose this bill, and that is exactly why it must become law.” – Rep. Jeff Miller, Chairman, House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs

July 26, 2016

Sgt. Shaft caricatureDear Sgt Shaft
I understand that when I reach 65, I will need to obtain Medicare parts A & B to maintain my TFL since Prime goes away. My spouse is two years older than I, so she will reach 65 prior to me. Do I understand correctly that I will need to purchase Medicare parts A & B for her while still maintaining Tricare Prime on me until I reach 65? Sounds like I am in for some astronomical medical costs during that two year period since neither of us can draw Social Security (she has never been employed in the workforce) until I’m 65 which is a requirement to avoid the $411 monthly cost of Part A. Any resources I can turn to in order to better understand this Medicare catch22 that I may be walking into. Any base services available that can give me counsel?

Doug D
Via the internet

Dear Doug
I have referred your inquiry to the powers that be at the Department of Defense. You should have your answer shortly.

Shaft Notes
The Department of Veterans Affairs, has  undertaken the most comprehensive analysis of Veteran suicide rates in the U.S., examining over 55 million Veteran records from 1979 to 2014 from every state in the nation. The effort extends VA’s knowledge from the previous report issued in 2010, which examined three million Veteran records from 20 states were available. Based on the data from 2010, VA estimated the number of Veteran deaths by suicide averaged 22 per day. The current analysis indicates that in 2014, an average of 20 Veterans a day died from suicide.

“One Veteran suicide is one too many, and this collaborative effort provides both updated and comprehensive data that allows us to make better informed decisions on how to prevent this national tragedy,” said VA Under Secretary for Health, Dr. David J. Shulkin. “We as a nation must focus on bringing the number of Veteran suicides to zero.”

The final report will be publicly released later this month. Key findings of the analysis will include:

  • 65% of all Veterans who died from suicide in 2014 were 50 years of age or older.
  • Veterans accounted for 18% of all deaths from suicide among U.S. adults. This is a decrease from 22% in 2010.
  • Since 2001, U.S. adult civilian suicides increased 23%, while Veteran suicides increased 32% in the same time period. After controlling for age and gender, this makes the risk of suicide 21% greater for Veterans.
  • Since 2001, the rate of suicide among US Veterans who use VA services increased by 8.8%, while the rate of suicide among Veterans who do not use VA services increased by 38.6%.
    • In the same time period, the rate of suicide among male Veterans who use VA services increased 11%, while the rate of suicide increased 35% among male Veterans who do not use VA services.
    • In the same time period, the rate of suicide among female Veterans who use VA services increased 4.6%, while the rate of suicide increased 98% among female Veterans who do not use VA services.

Please also see our Suicide Prevention Fact Sheet at the following link: http://www.va.gov/opa/publications/factsheets/Suicide_Prevention_FactSheet_New_VA_Stats_070616_1400.pdf

VA is aggressively undertaking a number of new measures to prevent suicide, including:

  • Ensuring same-day access for Veterans with urgent mental health needs at over 1,000 points of care by the end of calendar year 2016. In fiscal year 2015, more than 1.6 million Veterans received mental health treatment from VA, including at over 150 medical centers, 820 community-based outpatient clinics and 300 Vet Centers that provide readjustment counseling. Veterans also enter VA health care through the Veterans Crisis Line, VA staff on college and university campuses, or other outreach points.

Using predictive modeling to determine which Veterans may be at highest risk of suicide, so providers can intervene early. Veterans in the top 0.1% of risk, who have a 43-fold increased risk of death from suicide within a month, can be identified before clinical signs of suicide are evident in order to save lives before a crisis occurs.

  • Expanding telemental health care by establishing four new regional telemental health hubs across the VA healthcare system.
  • Hiring over 60 new crisis intervention responders for the Veterans Crisis Line. Each responder receives intensive training on a wide variety of topics in crisis intervention, substance use disorders, screening, brief intervention, and referral to treatment.
  • Building new collaborations between Veteran programs in VA and those working in community settings, such as Give an Hour, Psych Armor Institute, University of Michigan’s Peer Advisors for Veterans Education Program (PAVE), and the Cohen Veterans Network.
  • Creating stronger inter-agency (e.g. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Department of Defense, National Institutes of Health) and new public-private partnerships (e.g., Johnson & Johnson Healthcare System, Bristol Myers Squibb Foundation, Walgreen’s, and many more) focused on preventing suicide among Veterans.

Many of these efforts were catalyzed by VA’s February 2016 Preventing Veteran Suicide—A Call to Action summit, which focused on improving mental health care access for Veterans across the nation and increasing resources for the VA Suicide Prevention Program.

Suicide is an issue that affects all Americans. Recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) data reported in April 2016 that from 1999 through 2014 (the most recent year with data available from CDC), suicide rates increased 24 % in the general population for both males and females.

VA has implemented comprehensive, broad ranging suicide prevention initiatives, including a toll-free Veterans Crisis Line, placement of Suicide Prevention Coordinators at all VA Medical Centers and large outpatient facilities, and improvements in case management and tracking. Immediate help is available at www.VeteransCrisisLine.net or by calling the Crisis Line at 1-800-273-8255 (press 1) or texting 838255.