LeeZeldinCongressman Speaks-Out: In an Op-Ed that is heavy on rhetoric and light on specifics, Representative Lee Zeldin of New York (pictured) tells us “how to keep the VA accountable.”

Another Suicide: A New York veteran who had just been discharged from a VA medical center has died after jumping from a parking garage at that facility. This comes one week after a similar incident in Pennsylvania.  (If you or anyone you know has thoughts of suicide please reach-out for help: call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at (800) 273-8255, or chat online by visiting their website. You are not alone.)

Vets Stand in the Rain: Controversy is brewing for Walmart after pictures surfaced of veterans standing out in the cold and rain to collect money for Toys for Tots and it was revealed that the store would not allow the vets inside. 

Caring for Female Veterans: A Pennsylvania newspaper is joining the call for the VA to improve the medical services it offers to the ever-growing population of women vets, noting that 280,000 women served in Iraq and Afghanistan, compared to a mere 7,000 in Vietnam.

Treatment Court Success: An interesting story details the history of veteran treatment courts which send vets with mental disabilities to treatment rather than prison.

Another Improvement Plan: After being hit with scandal after scandal, the Tomah VA Medical Center in Wisconsin is trying to turn itself around with a new 100-day plan aimed at improving healthcare for veterans.

Fishing for Veterans: A retired Navy officers who went into the hospital for surgery came out at the leader of an organization that helps veterans heal through camaraderie and fly fishing.

Town Leaves Vet Homeless: While a veteran was in the hospital for surgery and treatment, a New York town declared his house abandoned and demolished it, destroying all his possessions and leaving him homeless.

Did you see an interesting story about veterans or the VA in the news today? Let us know by sending us an email (links@brokenVA.com) or by visiting the contact page. We’ll try to include your link in our next edition of Veteran Links.

Saying “thank you for your service” or calling a veteran a “hero” are common ways for civilians to show their appreciation to veterans. But many veterans worry that the word “hero” is becoming devalued, and that the use of these platitudes are obscuring real issues facing veterans and members of the armed services. “We don’t need parades and celebrations, we need people to give us an opportunity when we come home,” remarked one veteran. In an interesting piece, the BBC takes a look at the intensely private issue of heroism that has become an intensely public matter.

(Hat Tip to BBC News America for this thoughtful story)

USS_Frank_KnoxBrown Water Navy Grows: The VA has announced that is is expanding the list of ships considered to have served on the inland waterways of Vietnam, meaning that a number of veterans will become eligible for presumptive service connection due to Agent Orange exposure.

More Legionnaire’s Disease: Internal memos suggest that the water system of the VA medical center in Minneapolis has tested positive for Legionnaire’s disease, a form of pneumonia that has broken out in other VA facilities in recent years.

Dueling Editorials: A Pennsylvania newspaper takes an optimistic view of the discipline in the relocation scandal and changes to the Choice program, while an Arizona newspaper flips-it’s-lid over what it calls: “VA, a two-letter synonym for insanity.”

Widow Run-Around: A number of widows of deceased veterans say that the VA is demanding repayment, without any explanation, of death benefits paid to them following the deaths of their husbands.

Returning to Vietnam: A Colorado news crew tagged-along on a trip to the other side of the world as a number of veterans returned to Vietnam for the first time since the war.

Homeless on Thanksgiving: To bring attention to the plight of homeless veterans, President Obama and his family visited a shelter in Washington yesterday.

Did you see an interesting story about veterans or the VA in the news today? Let us know by sending us an email (links@brokenVA.com) or by visiting the contact page. We’ll try to include your link in our next edition of Veteran Links.

HappyThanksgiving

Thanksgiving is a day that we would not get to celebrate if it was not for the sacrifices of America’s veterans. Thank you veterans for your everything you have done for this country and everything you continue to do. We are all thankful for your service.

There will be no Veteran Links this morning on account of the holiday. However, we would like to share an excellent story from the Washington Post about the way one veteran spent his Thanksgiving during World War II:

On Thanksgiving Day in 1944, Dick Graff opened his Army-issue mess kit and took comfort in his turkey and mashed potatoes, a welcome respite from the brutal battlefront near Weisweiler, Germany. As a soldier with the 104th Infantry Division, the 20-year-old who grew up on a hog and cattle farm in Iowa was grateful for the hot meal a world away. Things had changed in the few weeks since he had narrowly survived his first combat experience.

Read More at the Washington Post

HomelessVA Turns-Away Homeless: Senator Patty Murray of Washington is urging her colleagues to act fast to stop the VA from denying services to homeless veterans who served for less than two years or who received a less than honorable discharge.

Latest on Relocation Scandal: The VA says it lacks “legal authority” to recoup $400,000 from the official implicated in the relocation scandal. Meanwhile, members of Congress are expressing outrage that the two women who caused the scandal were not fired.

Calls for Secretary’s Head: The occasionally-hyperbolic veterans group Concerned Veterans for America is arguing that Secretary McDonald is “part of the problem” and that he has not acted swiftly to fix the VA.

Destroy the VA: In a scathing editorial, the Washington Examiner argues: “If there was ever an agency that had to be destroyed and rebuilt, Veterans Affairs is it.”

Agent Orange Delay: A Florida veteran says that he has been waiting for over seven years to receive a VA medical evaluation relating to herbicide exposure during his service in Vietnam.

Improbable Reunion: In a strange turn of events involving a man who immigrated to the U.S. from Vietnam, a Vermont veteran was reunited with a dog tag he had lost 46 years ago on the other side of the world.

No Service for Disabled Vet: A New Jersey veteran of Afghanistan and Iraq who suffers from PTSD and other disabilities was recently turned away from a restaurant because of his service dog despite laws forbidding such discrimination.

Did you see an interesting story about veterans or the VA in the news today? Let us know by sending us an email (links@brokenVA.com) or by visiting the contact page. We’ll try to include your link in our next edition of Veteran Links.

MarijuanaMany reasonable people have differing opinions on medical marijuana. Most advocates argue that it offers a level of relief to patients that is unavailable from conventional pharmaceuticals, while opponents worry that it can lead to drug abuse. In recent years, an increasing number of states have made the move to legalize marijuana for medical and even recreational purposes, bringing these states into conflict with federal laws outlawing use of the drug. The legal tension between states and the federal government has placed the Department of Veterans Affairs in a difficult situation.

The case of veteran Robert Lee highlights the legal gap into which many veterans have fallen. Lee, a Vietnam veteran with arthritis and PTSD, uses medical marijuana to deal with the symptoms of his ailments. His VA doctor also prescribes him a small dose of opiate painkillers. He lives in Oregon, where medical marijuana has been legal since 1998, and where voters recently approved a measure to legalize the drug for recreational purposes. Yet, after a recent change of doctors at the VA facility where he receives treatment, Lee found himself in a tough spot.

Lee’s new doctor gave him an ultimatum: choose opiate painkillers or marijuana. According to Lee, his former VA doctor had gone as far as writing a letter saying that a small dose of opiate painkillers combined with marijuana was good for Lee’s health. Despite this, the new doctor told him that his dosage of opiate painkillers would be increased and that he must cease all use of medical marijuana. Lee says he is wary of increasing his dosage of opiates due to the risk of addiction and the fact that it has wreaked havoc on his liver. The doctor says he will not allow the combination of painkillers and marijuana to continue.

Studies have suggested that marijuana and opioids do not have dangerous interactions, and that when used in combination, the marijuana might actually enhance the effects low-dose opiate painkillers. Further, statistical analysis has suggested that the use of opioids with marijuana does not increase the risk of substance abuse. Thus, from this standpoint, it is unclear why Lee’s doctor would be reticent to allow the combination. However, with the existing legal conflicts between state and federal governments, it is understandable why a doctor employed by an arm of the federal government might be hesitant to allow a patient to use both opiates painkillers and marijuana at that same time.

Nonetheless, recent headlines have suggested that VA doctors are over-prescribing opiate painkillers to the detriment of veterans. In fact, one VA doctor in Wisconsin became known as the “Candy Man” for his liberal prescription of opioids. Congress taken notice of the problem and just this week legislation was introduced to curb the abuse of opiate painkillers among veterans. Still, the path forward for the VA remains unclear.

With the recent scrutiny of VA’s use of opiate painkillers in treating veterans, it is worth noting that a study has found that states that legalize marijuana have seen a decrease in opioid overdoses and a reduction in addiction treatment admissions. In other words, the use of marijuana appears to have curbed the abuse of opiate painkillers in states that have legalized medical marijuana.

And this brings us back to Mr. Lee, the veteran from Oregon. His VA doctor wants him to replace his marijuana use with a higher dose of opiate painkillers, a type of drug which is responsible for more deaths each year in this country than suicide, guns, or car crashes according to the CDC. At the end of the day, while his doctor may feel that marijuana is not the answer for Mr. Lee’s pain, it is clear that a better answer will not come from painkillers. As we work to solve the opiate epidemic among veterans, our lawmakers would be wise to look at Mr. Lee’s case, and to consider for a moment whether medical marijuana might be part of a solution, rather than part of a problem.

More Money in Relocation Scandal: On the heels of the news that the two VA women at the center of the relocation scandal would be demoted and further relocated, a VA official has confirmed that the women will be eligible for more taxpayer money to fund their moves.

More Scandal for Phoenix: The VA has named a new director for the VA medical center in Phoenix, and the new executive is no stranger to scandal. Meanwhile, one of the officials implicated in the relocation scandal is being sent to Phoenix as well.

PillsFewer Painkillers: As was discussed during the hearing we covered last week, a Wisconsin Congressman has now introduced legislation to reform the use of prescription painkillers in VA hospitals.

Dirty Surgical Equipment: A VA hospital in Michigan has been forced to relocate dozens of surgeries to other facilities after it was discovered that some of the surgical equipment was contaminated.

Deadly Errors: A report has uncovered numerous errors at a VA hospital in Ohio, where multiple patients experienced a “delay in cancer diagnosis” or suffered burns during surgical procedures.

Still Waiting: Yet another news investigation has found that many veterans continue to face lengthy delays despite the billions of dollars spent to improve the problem in the last 18 months.

Veterans Worse Off: A study has discovered an unfortunate reality: “Today’s U.S. veterans are less educated, less healthy, less wealthy, and less employed than veterans 20 years ago.”

Did you see an interesting story about veterans or the VA in the news today? Let us know by sending us an email (links@brokenVA.com) or by visiting the contact page. We’ll try to include your link in our next edition of Veteran Links.

CapitolAs I’ve said before, despite an apparent decrease in the amount of delay that veterans face to receive an initial decision, veterans who choose to appeal such a decision face ever-increasing delays. There are a range of ideas floating-around out there about how the VA can fix the enormous backlog of appeals. Today I want to take a minute to take a look at some of the proposals that our elected representatives have put-forth to tackle the real backlog.

CREATE A TASK FORCE

The first member of Congress to take a stab at the backlog this year was Representative Dina Titus of Nevada. Titus’s proposal is for the establishment of a task force to study possible improvements to the appeals process. The task force would then report on its findings to the VA and the VA would be required to either implement those proposals or explain why it will not do so.

While I’m certain that Representative Titus’s proposal is well-intentioned, it lacks any concrete plan for action. As we have seen time and time again, the VA does not act to improve itself unless it is explicitly directed to do so by Congress. Against this backdrop, merely establishing a task force that makes polite suggestions to the VA is not likely to result in any material changes within the agency and, consequently, would do little to reduce the backlog of appeals.

Certainly, we need to know exactly why it takes so long for an appeal to be finally decided by the VA, and a task force might go a long way toward getting us that information. Yet when it comes time for action, Representative Titus’s plan simply does not have the teeth to get the job done.

FAST TRACK APPEALS

Another proposal to tackle the appeals backlog comes from Representative Beto O’Rourke of Texas. O’Rourke’s proposal would establish a voluntary pilot program where a veteran can opt to submit a “fully developed appeal” in lieu of the traditional notice of disagreement. Essentially, the program would require veterans to submit all the evidence they believe is needed to support their appeal along with an argument supporting their disagreement at the time they file an NOD. Thereafter, they would not be permitted to submit additional evidence.

Based on my experiences, I believe Representative O’Rourke’s proposal misidentifies the problem that needs solving. While it certainly might cause a minor decrease in delays to require a veteran to submit all their evidence and argument at the same time, my observations convince me that the largest source of delay in the appeals process is caused by the VA itself. Indeed, one need only look at the VA’s own data to see that veterans account for an average of 39 days of wait time compared to the VA’s 1,368 days.

Significantly, systems that begin as “pilot programs” often become standard operating procedure down the line. Were that to happen with this piece of legislation, veterans would be barred from presenting evidence or argument, no matter how meritorious, after the submission of their NOD. Such a rule would be fundamentally unfair in a bureaucratic and complex legal system where veterans often operate without the benefit of any assistance at all, let alone a competent attorney. Stated simply, Representative O’Rourke’s proposal does far more harm than good.

SEND APPEALS TO BOARD FASTER

The final proposal I would like to look at was made by Representative Robert Latta from Ohio. Latta’s proposal is simple: it requires the VA to send a veteran’s case to the Board within one year of receiving the form completing the appeal.

This proposal does not sound like much, but under present circumstances, it would be quite significant. As I explained previously, the stage of the appeal process that is most prone to delay occurs after a claimant submits the form completing his appeal. All the VA must do during this period is drop the claimant’s VA file in the mail, although in practice the VA often uses this period to do additional work that should have been completed earlier. On average, it takes the VA 681 days to wrap-up work on an appeal and forward the case to the Board. Under Representative Latta’s proposal, this delay would be cut in half.

While not earth-shattering, this is the only of the three proposals which would meaningfully reduce the amount of delay associated with filing an appeal. To be sure, this proposal would only impact one of many possible sources of delay. Nonetheless, something is better than nothing and Representative Latta’s proposal would shave 325 days off of the protracted appeals process for the average veteran. If we could only couple this proposal with a plan to eliminate the Statement of the Case, we would cut the average delay in half.

***

A lot could be done to reduce the appeals backlog, and at least one member of Congress has the right idea. Nonetheless, several of the proposals coming from our elected representatives would not significantly reduce the appeals backlog or reduce the years of delay faced by veterans who disagree with an initial VA decision. We must therefore conclude that Congress shares at least some of the blame for the broken appeals process.

AndyNelsonAppeals Backlog Grows: As we have been saying for a while, the VA’s efforts to reduce the backlog of undecided initial claims has lead to an explosion in the number of appeals.

VA Won’t Pay for Treatment: Andy Nelson (pictured), a WWII and Korea veteran, says that the VA told him they will no longer pay for his physical therapy because he is not getting better fast enough. The VA says that Nelson should simply be sent to a nursing home.

Relocation Scandal Discipline: As we reported on Saturday, the two VA officials at the center of the relocation scandal have been demoted and reassigned, but will not be fired from the agency.

VA Employee’s Private Business: An investigation found that a VA mental health worker in Puerto Rico was secretly selling vitamins and magnetic jewelry from her office at a VA facility while neglecting her VA duties.

Fired VA Doctor Speaks Out: A physician who was fired by the much-maligned Phoenix VA is now claiming that his termination was in retaliation for his raising concerns about improperly performed surgeries on veterans.

VA Doctor Certification Scandal Grows: After several news investigations revealed that the VA was misrepresenting the qualifications of the physicians it employs, a member of Congress is demanding an investigation.

VA Healthcare Above Average: A new independent report found that the healthcare provided in VA facilities is as good as or better than in many private facilities around the country.

Veterans Still Waiting: Despite implementing measures to decrease the amount of time that veterans must wait for healthcare, many Texas veterans are now waiting even longer than before for treatment.

Did you see an interesting story about veterans or the VA in the news today? Let us know by sending us an email (links@brokenVA.com) or by visiting the contact page. We’ll try to include your link in our next edition of Veteran Links.

After toppling Saddam Hussein and fighting insurgencies, some U.S. veterans are returning to Middle East to take up arms against ISIS. They say that they cannot bear to see the work they did securing Iraq undone.

(Hat Tip to CBS News for this fascinating story)