VA To Expand Care To ‘Other-Than-Honorable’ Discharges

veteran_suicide_crisisline_graphicAnd estimated 500,000 former military service members with “Other-Than-Honorable” (OTH) discharges could receive mental health treatment through the VA.

Dr. David J. Shulkin, Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary,  testified Tuesday, March 7, 2017, that he intended to expand urgent mental health care needs to OTH service members.

“The president and I have made it clear that suicide prevention is one of our top priorities,” Shulkin said in a VA news release. “We know the rate of death by suicide among Veterans who do not use VA care is increasing at a greater rate than Veterans who use VA care. This is a national emergency that requires bold action. We must and we will do all that we can to help former service members who may be at risk. When we say even one Veteran suicide is one too many, we mean it.”

You can read full details in the VA news release.

Growing A Community Of Farmer Veterans

Raising chickens is one of many skills veterans will learn at the Veterans Garden under construction in Tampa.

Raising chickens is one of many skills veterans will learn at the Veterans Garden under construction in Tampa.

There’s a growing movement to help veterans transition from the battlefield to a more bucolic setting. Whether it’s a community agriculture initiative or a functioning farm – researchers are finding that raising food can offer veterans both a therapeutic and an economic value.

A garden where veterans can learn to work the land and grow food is under construction at The Sustainable Living Project, on Sligh Avenue, just across from Tampa’s Lowry Park Zoo. Continue reading

Florida VA Nursing Homes Only Meet 20 Percent Of Need

One of Florida's existing VA sponsored nursing homes. Photo courtesy of FDVA.

One of Florida’s existing VA sponsored nursing homes. Photo courtesy of FDVA.

By its own analysis, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs calculates that Florida only has 20 percent of the VA-sponsored nursing home beds it needs to serve aging veterans. And it’s put the state on a “critical” list when it comes to building VA nursing homes.

“I need nursing homes,” said retired Army Lt. Col. Glenn Sutphin, executive director of the Florida Department of Veterans’ Affairs. “The VA says there are two states that have critical needs Texas and Florida. I’m supposed to have 4,049 beds. That’s what they say I should have. I’ve got like 810. I’ve got two nursing homes I’m trying to build. We need to keep building them. But they changed the design. They went from $38 million to $58 million.”

The cost of the nursing home planned for Port St. Lucie, jumped $20 million because of design changes according to an online video, “We have taken a concept of creating a home environment for our residents, for our veterans who live with us. We create an environment where it’s not as institutional as your traditional nursing home creating small neighborhoods where possible.”

That includes private rooms for veterans, a necessity for today’s military according to VA Secretary Bob McDonald. Continue reading

USA Today Opens Up VA ‘Secret’ Ratings System

VA Sec McDonald visit to Phoenix VA

Bob McDonald’s first visit as VA Secretary was to the Phoenix VAMC where he met with veterans and employees like Medical Support Assistant Michael Logie. He also visited the Las Vegas VAMC during the trip. Photo courtesy of the VA blog Vantage Point

Reporter Donovan Slack with USA Today reveals internal ratings from the 2015 fourth quarter where the VA ranked the quality of care at 146 VA medical centers. But when she

But VA Undersecretary for Health David Shulkin told USA Today that the rating system p that uses from one to five stars – might not be understood if it was made public because it was designed to only be an “internal improvement tool.”

But without the star ratings, members of the public — including patients, members of Congress and others outside the agency who could hold it accountable — have no way of knowing whether VA medical centers are improving or declining, except to plow through a dizzying array of hundreds of spreadsheets on the agency’s website.

“The data’s there, but you’d have to be an expert to get through it,” Shulkin conceded.

He said 120 of the 146 medical centers that the VA rates on the star scale have shown improvement since he began overseeing the Veterans Health Administration in July 2015.

The newspaper has set up a searchable

Bob McDonald’s first visit as VA Secretary was to the Phoenix VAMC where he met with veterans and employees like Medical Support Assistant Michael Logie. He also visited the Las Vegas VAMC during the trip. Photo courtesy of the VA blog Vantage Point

database if you want to checkout the star rating of your the VA medical center nearest you. You can read the full USA Today article here.

The VA has published a response to the Dec. 7, 2016 USA Today article about their internal ratings tool called Strategic Analytics for Improvement and Learning (SAIL). The VA said it worked with the reporter for more than a month on the story and wanted to explain what the ratings represent.

All of us at VA care very much about the quality of care our patients receive. We are committed to continuously improving that quality. In fact, our latest SAIL data indicates that 82% of VA medical centers (120 of 146) have made improvement between the 4th Quarter of FY2015 and the 3rd quarter of FY2016.

You can read the full response and Dr. Shulkin’s comments here.

Law Schools And Students Join Forces For Veterans

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The Stetson Veterans Advocacy Clinic sits across the street from the College of Law main campus in Gulfport, FL.

There’s a small but growing legal community in the U.S. that’s helping veterans with their benefits claims while working to improve the VA system. And their work continues even as President-elect Donald Trump prepares to name a new VA Secretary to “make the VA great again,” as promised during his campaign.<--break->

Veteran advocacy clinics offer free help to veterans with legal problems. The law school clinics come in many different sizes with many different missions. Continue reading

Trump Names Former CENTCOM Gen. Mattis For Secretary

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March 22, 2013. From left, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff U.S. Army Gen. Martin Dempsey and Army Gen. Lloyd Austin III applaud in recognition of Marine Corps Gen. James Mattis during the U.S. Central Command ceremony at MacDill Air Force Base, Tampa, Fl.

An update — President-elect Donald Trump confirmed Thursday night, Dec. 1,, 2016, that he has selected retired Marine Gen. James “Mad Dog” Mattis to serve as Secretary of Defense. But that will only be possible if congress grants Mattis a waiver. Law currently requires at least seven years pass before a retired active-duty military member can serve as head of the DOD.

Retired U.S. Marine Corps Gen. James Mattis, who was part of the military leadership based at Tampa’s MacDill Air Force Base, is being considered for a cabinet post in the new Trump Administration.

On March 22, 2013, Gen. Mattis handed over command of U.S. Central Command to Army Gen. Lloyd Austin III. In tribute to Mattis’ leadership – several high ranking officers including then, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, attended the ceremony at MacDill AFB.

“Mr. Secretary, Chairman (Gen. Marin Dempsey), I would gladly storm hell in the company of these troops who I haven’t the words sufficient to praise. So, I will not try. They know how strongly I believe in them, how strongly they have demonstrated to the world that free men and women can fight like the dickens,” Mattis said in his remarks.

You can listen to Mattis’ entire farewell speech where he praised the soldiers, seamen, airmen and Marines of the joint command who he said are working seven days a week on continued deployments.

Also in attendance for Mattis’ ceremony: Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey: Gen. James Amos, Commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps; Gen. Carl Mundy, Jr. (ret.), former Commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps; Gen. Joseph Hoar (ret.), former Commander U.S. CENTCOM; and Admiral Bill McCraven, Commander of the U.S. Special Operations Command.

Mattis was the 13th commander of CENTCOM that has brought recognition and turned several of its former commanders into household names such as Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, Gen. Tommy Franks, Gen. John Abazaid, and Gen. David Petraeus.

VA Appeals Backlog Could Swell To A 10 Year Wait List

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James Clarke enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps in 1967 and volunteered to serve in Vietnam. Almost 50 years after his service and 10 years after his initial disability claim, Clarke received his first disability compensation check from the VA in November 2016.

The Department of Veterans Affairs is struggling with another huge backlog and this time it is not veterans waiting for medical appointments.

Currently, a veteran who has had a disability claim denied must wait – on average four to five years – for an appeals hearing. And VA Secretary Bob McDonald predicts that will grow to a 10 year backlog if laws aren’t changed.

James Clarke is one example of who is on that list.

It’s been almost 50 years since James Clarke joined the Marines in August 1967. He served on the flight line – fueling aircraft 12-to-14 hours a day, seven days a week in Vietnam.

“I’m proud to say I was a member of the Tomcats,” Clarke said.

vli_sign_exteriorClarke filed his original claim more than 10 years ago for disability associated with his Vietnam service. He’s survived throat cancer and lives with chronic artery disease. It took the VA four years to deny the claim.

“They turned me down in 2009,” Clarke said. “I filed an appeal and you never hear from them. I’d go over to the regional office from time to time. And ‘Oh, yes sir Mr. Clarke, we’re still working on it,’ and nothing.”

Clarke went to the Veterans Advocacy Clinic at Stetson College of Law in Gulfport, Florida for help. There law students worked at developing his claim finding background material about his time in Vietnam and gathering medical details.

Then in late 2015, with the Stetson Veterans Advocacy Clinic representing him, Clarke finally made it before a Board of Veterans Appeals judge.

The judge agreed, Clarke’s disability claim was connected to his service and Agent Orange exposure. And she ordered the VA to give him an exam to rate the severity of his disability.

Cases like Clarke’s are why VA Secretary McDonald supports legislation currently working its way through congress.

“The appeals process is 80 years old,” McDonald said during his recent visit to Tampa. “By 2036, it will take 10 years to get an appeal decided. That’s too long. That’s unacceptable to me and it’s unacceptable to other veterans. We need to change the law.”

The U.S. House passed the VA Accountability First and Appeals Modernization Act of 2016 (HB 5620) that would streamline the appeals process and provide additional resources.

Veterans’ advocates agree the process needs to be changed, but they’re not thrilled with some parts of the legislation.

Trista Miller is an attorney with the Stetson Veterans Advocacy Clinic which is a member of the National Coalition of Veterans Law Clinics.

“I think the disagreement comes in as to how best to readjust the system and efficiency is always on one hand and due process and protecting veterans rights is on the other,” Miller said.

The coalition, Miller said, objects to the Appeals Modernization Act reforms on two counts. It fears the appeals process will become adversarial because the reforms remove the VA’s “duty to assist” veterans. And there are provisions that limit a veterans’ right to provide new evidence to support their claim.

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Trista Miller is an attorney with the Stetson College of Law Veterans Advocacy Clinic and supervises the pro bono program.

Miller said the coalition recommends delaying passage of the legislation until there’s consideration of the veterans being allowed to hire an attorney if they choose to at the beginning of the process.

If it hadn’t have been for the attorneys and law students at the Veterans Advocacy Clinic, Vietnam veteran Clarke admitted he might have given up on his claim.

“Physically I can’t do more, so you’re kind of relying on – this is going to come through,” Clarke said.

But even after his appeal was finally heard, 10 months passed before the regional VA scheduled the exam the judge ordered. And that only happened when the VA learned a reporter was following Clarke’s case.

And Clarke is waiting no longer. Finally, this month the VA decided how much disability compensation he should get and sent the first check.

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