NPR Series Shines Light On VA ‘Choice’ Program

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Quil Lawrence – NPR reporter. Photo courtesy of NPR.

National Public Radio reporter Quil Lawrence took the lead on an investigation into the Veterans Health Administration plan to lessen wait times at VA medical clinics and hospitals by allowing veterans to see private medical providers.

It was called the “Choice Program.”

However, as the title of the first three stories shows, the hastily assembled program left veterans without more medical options: “How Congress And The VA Left Many Veterans Without ‘Choice.'”

Another part of the investigation looked at how attempts to improve the system has instead prolonged wait-times for veterans trying to get a medical appointment: “Despite $10B Fix Veterans Are Waiting Even Longer To See Doctors.”

 

 

Judge Asks University To Readmit Expelled Veteran

Hillsborough Circuit Judge Greg Holder with a graduate from Veterans Treatment Court in August.

Hillsborough Circuit Judge Greg Holder with a graduate from Veterans Treatment Court in August.

A Hillsborough Circuit judge is calling on the University of South Florida to live up to its recent ranking as a top “veteran friendly” university.

Judge Greg Holder has asked USF President Judy Genshaft to readmit a student veteran who was expelled after an off-campus incident in August 2014.

Holder said the charges against former Army Staff Sergeant Clay Allred were serious – threatening a store clerk with a firearm and later discharging the firearm into the air – but Allred’s actions were directly related to his combat service in Iraq and Afghanistan.

When Allred was accepted in the Veterans Treatment Court, he admitted his guilt, accepted responsibility and was sentence to two years on house arrest followed by three years of probation.

Now after a year of court supervision and treatment for traumatic brain injury (TBI) and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) that had gone undiagnosed, Holder said the former Green Beret deserves a second chance to complete his degree.

In his letter dated Nov. 13, 2015, the judge requested that USF re-admit Allred as an online student so he can finish his senior year. Holder even offered to amend Allred’s house arrest to prohibit him from going onto USF property.

“I’m providing whatever protections Dr. Genshaft or her personnel might deem appropriate,” Holder said. “So, that hopefully consistent with USF status as the number two veteran friendly school in this nation, we can get this man back as a member of the ‘Bull Nation.’”

A USF spokeswoman said the university has received Holder’s letter, but could not say if Genshaft has read it. The university declined comment on Allred’s status citing federal privacy laws and added that “USF does not offer online exclusive undergraduate programs.”

Along with his letter, Holder included 40 pages of supporting documentation including Allred’s citation for the Army Bronze Star Medal awarded for his service in Afghanistan training members of the Afghan National Police.

Veterans And Family Invited To ‘Debt Of Honor’ Preview

wusf_debt_of_honor_invitationFor veterans living in the Tampa Bay region, WUSF Public Radio invites you to participate in a panel discussion and preview of the new Ric Burns film “Debt of Honor: Disabled Veterans in American History.”

The WUSF Florida Matters Town Hall taping is Thursday, Nov. 5 at the University of South Florida Tampa campus, in the College of Public Health’s Samuel Bell Auditorium (13201 Bruce B. Downs Blvd., Tampa, FL 33612).

Please join us at 5:30 p.m. for an opening reception, and the taping that starts at 6 p.m. Seating is limited and registration is required. Please RSVP at this link, or call 813-905-6901.

A preview of the film will be followed by a panel discussion with:

  • Filmmaker Ric Burns
  • Actor and national veterans’ spokesman JR Martinez
  • Taylor Urruela, a disabled veteran who lives in Tampa

It will be moderated by Carson Cooper, the host of WUSF’s weekly public affairs show.

 

Veterans Show Up for Pasco’s Stand Down

A Marine Corps helicopter door gunner in Vietnam, Maurice Buff, said the Veterans Treatment Court judge at the Stand Down was very fair dealing with his court costs and fines.

A Marine Corps helicopter door gunner in Vietnam, Maurice Buff, said the Veterans Treatment Court judge at the Stand Down was very fair dealing with his court costs and fines.

There’s a military tradition called a “Stand Down.” It’s when soldiers get a temporary break from combat for a shower, hot meal and peaceful night’s sleep.

Recently, Pasco County held a Stand Down for veterans in our community who are fighting a different kind of battle with homelessness, substance abuse or mental health issues.

This is the fourth year One Community Now (OCN), a group of local churches, sponsored the event according to Mary Miller, a member of the OCN Stand Down Core Team and St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Church in Pasco County.

Army veteran Ira James Holt, who served in Operation Iraqi Freedom, gets a free haircut from a Great Clips volunteer.

Army veteran Ira James Holt, who served in Operation Iraqi Freedom, gets a free haircut from a Great Clips volunteer.

What started as a one-day event to connect homeless veterans has grown into three days with 500 volunteers from the community at Veterans Memorial Park in Hudson.

“This is the first year we have two dental buses,” Miller said, adding that the dentists and dental hygienists were kept busy with extractions and teeth cleaning.

Portable hot showers were set up next to the concession stand where veterans could get a free haircut.

A donations tent where homeless veterans could shop for free clothing, shoes and food was set up on one ballfield next to the tent housing the temporary Pasco Veterans Treatment Court.

Pasco Circuit Judge Shawn Crane brought the Veterans Treatment Court to the Stand Down to assist veterans with pending cases.

Pasco Circuit Judge Shawn Crane brought the Veterans Treatment Court to the Stand Down to assist veterans with pending cases.

That’s where Sixth Circuit Judge Shawn Crane presided over 52 cases handling issues like overdue fines and court fees and suspended drivers’ licenses.

“Things we take for granted and probably shouldn’t, they are very important for folks homeless or veterans,” Crane said. “We have to understand and appreciate the sacrifices our veterans have made for our country and appreciate some of the things they come back with.”

Crane helped Vietnam veteran Maurice Buff with his legal problems.

“The judge was very fair to me,” Buff said.  “I figured if I got my fines and court costs taken care of I’d be able to get my license back and be able to support myself.”

He landed in Pasco county jail after a dispute with his long-time girlfriend. When he got out, all his possessions were gone and he was homeless.

“I’m a proud person, but I actually went to St. Vincent DePaul Veterans Department and they’re helping me find a home,” Buff said.

He was one of 181 homeless or at risk veterans at Pasco’s 2015 Stand Down. That’s 60 more veterans than in 2013.

Foxtrot, Echo, Delta, Charlie were the tent names for the Stand Down sleeping quarters.

Foxtrot, Echo, Delta, Charlie were the tent names for the Stand Down sleeping quarters.

Florida Veterans Courts Grow Despite Little State Funding

Hillsborough Circuit Judge Greg Holder with a graduate from Veterans Treatment Court in August.

Hillsborough Circuit Judge Greg Holder with a graduate from Veterans Treatment Court in August.

It was only a few years ago that the Florida legislature gave counties permission to create Veterans Treatment Courts as an alternative to criminal prosecution of former military members charged with misdemeanors and third degree felonies.

And in that time 23 courts have been created, but only nine including Pinellas and Pasco counties are funded by lawmakers.

Others like the Veterans Treatment Court in Hillsborough County get no state money.

“We did this within the resources of our offices. Our bosses committed the resources for this court to work,” said Marie Marino with the Hillsborough Public Defender’s Office who represents many of the veterans.

In addition to carrying a full felony docket, Hillsborough Circuit Jude Greg Holder hears all the cases that come before the Veterans Treatment Court (VTC).

“In defense of the legislature though, until we expanded, perhaps it was thought that we didn’t have the need,” Holder said. “Now that it’s expanded, we have over 50 veterans. That need exists and we can use that money and use it wisely.”

Holder took over the veterans’ court in February from Judge Richard Weis when third degree felony cases were added.

Retired Army Col. D.J. Reyes was the first to volunteer as a mentor for the Hillsborough VTC. He now coordinates 33 other mentors – some retired, some still active-duty – along with handling his own caseload.

“It’s been grass roots campaigning on my part because I have no money, I have no funding, I have nothing except me, my time and my energy,” Reyes said.

The mentors are key to the success of the specialty court. All volunteer, they are considered a veteran’s “battle buddy” someone who provides help and accountability. The veterans must check with their mentor at minimum once a week – more often if needed.

Veterans also are assessed by the VA for service related physical and psychological problems. Many need treatment for things like domestic violence, drug and alcohol abuse. The VTC gets them enrolled in programs some at the VA others through public, non-profit or even private providers.

Choosing to go through the Veterans Treatment Court is not the easier route. Veterans will spend anywhere from six to 18 months under its supervision. And just like in regular criminal court, the veterans still have to do community service hours and report to the Department of Corrections if on probation.

“The difference in veterans court is the defendants are here voluntarily,” said Hillsborough assistant state attorney Stephanie Ferlita. “They want to seek treatment. They realize they do have a problem. Most of them are embarrassed to have come in contact with the criminal justice system and we are providing them a way to hopefully have a onetime contact with the justice system.”

Another difference in the veterans court – the judge, prosecution, defense, mentors and caseworkers act as a team.

“Even the defense attorney is the first to say, ‘You’ve got to clean up’ or ‘that’s a violation.’ Where in a traditional courtroom, it’s all about defense and mitigation,” Marino said.

The number of veterans seeking admittance into the VTC is growing. And despite having no direct state funding, the court continues to accept qualified veterans.

State Rep. Dwight Dudley from St. Petersburg recently represented one of the veterans in Hillsborough’s VTC. He believes veterans courts should be funded throughout the state.

“If people say they’re patriots and they believe in the value of the service of veterans, they need to step up and put their money where their mouth is and fund the courts the way they need to be funded,” Dudley said.

But the earliest Hillsborough could see any funding would be after January when the legislature meets.

The Veterans Treatment Courts receiving state money this fiscal year:

·         Okaloosa ($150,000)

·         Clay ($150,000)

·         Pasco ($150,000)

·         Pinellas ($150,000)

·         Alachua ($150,000)

·         Duval ($200,000)

·         Orange ($200,000)

·         Escambia ($150,000)

·         Leon ($125,000)

According to the senate president’s office, at this time, there is no specific criteria that determine how and which veterans’ courts get state money.

Chairmen Call for Wholesale Change in VA Health Care

The official  photo of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs.

The official photo of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs.

The House Committee on Veterans Affairs has set a hearing Oct. 7 at 10 a.m. to discuss A Call for System-Wide Change: Evaluating the Independent Assessment of the Veterans Heath Administration.

The 168-page Independent Assessment was also the focus of a joint statement released Friday, Sept. 18, 2015 by Rep. Jeff Miller (FL-R), Chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, and U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson (GA-R), Chairman of the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs.

“When we requested an independent assessment over a year ago, many of the failures at individual hospitals were well-documented. However, we all feared that they were just the tip of the iceberg. This in-depth review justifies those fears, and validates Congress’ efforts for years to investigate and uncover the many serious issues preventing the Department of Veterans Affairs from providing America’s veterans with quality, timely healthcare. The VA can no longer deny that its problems, as outlined in this report, are deep-seated and systemic. From delays in care and scandal cover-ups, to rampant unaccountability and a lack of leadership, the VA is an organization challenged at every level.

“This is not just another report to sit on a shelf collecting dust. Failing to act on its findings would be a great disservice to the men and women who have worn the uniform and to the values that make our nation great.

“We know that the Commission on Care will be closely examining these assessments and recommendations, and we look forward to the commission’s plan to end this continuing national tragedy. As the assessment confirms, fixing the VA will require a lot of time and hard work. This report is yet another reminder that it is far past time for President Obama to come to the table and work with Congress to transform the VA into an organization worthy of those it serves.”

Florida Puts Out Call To All Women Veterans

Florida has 160,000 women veterans living in the state, yet some of those women do not consider themselves a veteran and many more have never applied for veterans’ benefits.

 Female Veterans in Iraq. A New Resource for Female Vet on VA health care and benefits: 1-855-VA-WOMEN. Credit Department of Veterans Affairs


Female Veterans in Iraq. A New Resource for Female Vet on VA health care and benefits: 1-855-VA-WOMEN.
Credit Department of Veterans Affairs

Matching women veterans with available benefits, resources and support is the goal of the 2nd Annual Women Veterans’ Conference July 30-31, 2015 at the University of South Florida

“Women veterans have a lot of gender specific issues,” said Alene Tarter, director of benefits and assistance for the Florida Department of Veterans’ Affairs (FDVA). “But often they don’t consider themselves veterans because male veterans or male family members have told them that they are not.”

She said many of the older women veterans are unaware that their veterans or entitled to veterans benefits.

“I’m a veteran. I only served a couple of years in the Air Force and I didn’t know I was a veteran for 25 years,” said Larri Gerson, supervisor of claims for FDVA.

From a previous Operation Stand Down.

From a previous Operation Stand Down.

Raising awareness and then helping women file for their veteran benefits is one reason why the state agency is planning the free, two-day conference in Tampa.

“I’ll be talking about the appeals process having women veterans understand what we can do to help them with their claim for PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) and MST, military sexual trauma,” Gerson said.

Sessions also will cover employment, vocational training, and an elder law expert along with an opportunity to sit down with benefits experts from the FDVA who will help women vets with their claims.

The 2nd Annual Florida Women’s Veterans Conference is free and open to women vets, their spouses and support. Online registration is available through the Florida Department of Veterans’ Affairs.

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