2015 the Year to End Vet Homelessness & Restore VA Trust ?

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

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

The year 2015 could bring about some momentous changes for veterans.

First, it is the year that the Department of Veterans Affairs set as the deadline for ending veteran homelessness according to a 5-year plan adopted in 2009.

“As that deadline fast approaches, I’m pleased to report that the VA has succeeded in reducing veteran homelessness by approximately 33 percent,” said US Rep. Jeff Miller (R-FL).

Miller, as chairman of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs, presided over the final committee hearing of the 113th Congress that examined the effectiveness of VA homeless prevention programs.

Miller is troubled by a VA Inspector General’s audit issued December 3, 2014 that found that the VA National Call Center for Homeless Veterans failed to help more than 40,000 callers.

These missed opportunities occurred due to lapses in the Call Center’s management and oversight. The Call Center relied on answering machine technology, instead of counselors, to ensure continuous telephone coverage. (page 3)

“I think you’ll agree this is unacceptable for any government program, but particularly a population that’s as vulnerable as this one is – a population that for some the ability to even make a phone call is a logistical challenge,” Miller stated during the opening committee hearing.

crisis_line_veteransMiller also questioned the need for the roughly 20 different VA programs aimed at getting veterans off the street and into housing.

The executive director of the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans, Baylee Crone, offered an explanation for the range of veterans homeless programs.

“The full picture is complicated,” Crone testified before the committee. “Ending veteran homelessness starts with the veteran and people are complicated. Some individuals with complex needs profiles will be served by several programs. This does not mean that the services are being duplicated but rather the organizations and programs are working together to address specific barriers to permanent housing.”

U.S. Rep. Jeff Miller (FL-R) on the left, listens to new VA Secretary Bob McDonald, on the right, during their visit to Tampa's James A. Haley VA Polytrauma Center on Oct. 1, 2014.

U.S. Rep. Jeff Miller (FL-R) on the left, listens to new VA Secretary Bob McDonald, on the right, during their visit to Tampa’s James A. Haley VA Polytrauma Center on Oct. 1, 2014.

Veteran suicide is another topic tackled by the House of Representatives which passed the Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for American Veterans Act in early December.

The bipartisan legislation increased veteran access to mental health care while requiring annual reviews of program effectiveness.

But the bill was killed in the Senate by retiring, US Sen. Tom Coburn, a Republican from Oklahoma.

Veteran organizations are hoping the bill will reemerge in 2015.

And this is also the year when new VA Secretary Bob McDonald hopes to regain the trust of veterans after the crisis of confidence over delayed health care and backlogged claims at several VA facilities.

A January 1st VA blog posted this article, “21 Reasons Why the VA Is Headed in the Right Direction,” with links to videos and documents detailing McDonald’s reorganization plans.

VA Secretary: Our National Cemeteries Should Be Shrines

Patriot Plaza at night. Photo by Steven Brooke courtesy of The Patterson Foundation.

Patriot Plaza at night. Photo by Steven Brooke courtesy of The Patterson Foundation.

There’s one section of the VA that gets really high marks. The National Cemetery Administration (NCA) is ranked first in the American Customer Satisfaction Index which surveys private businesses as well as other government agencies.

There are 131 national cemeteries. Florida has seven — with others on the way.

Just one of dozens of photographs showing service members from the Civil War through the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

Just one of dozens of photographs showing service members from the Civil War through the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

But VA Secretary Bob McDonald said the Sarasota National Cemetery is a showcase among VA cemeteries because of Patriot Plaza. The $12 million amphitheater and art installations was funded by The Patterson Foundation of Sarasota. The hope is that it will become a model for other communities to turn their veteran cemeteries into a place of honor and contemplation.

“We want our national cemeteries to be shrines,” McDonald said, “Shrines that really demonstrate the care of our American people for our veterans.”

McDonald believes the Sarasota National Cemetery is such a showcase, or shrine, with its Patriot Plaza Amphitheater and numerous art installations worth $12 million, all privately funded by the Patterson Foundation based in Sarasota.

“They have done an outstanding job choosing the artwork in that facility,” McDonald said. “There are photographs- for me as veteran, an airborne ranger, that capture many of the situations I’ve been in.”

The stone plinths that hold the photographic exhibit are carved from the same marble as the veterans' headstones.

The stone plinths that hold the photographic exhibit are carved from the same marble as the veterans’ headstones.

The Patterson Foundation funded Patriot Plaza and the public art to create a place for “deep experience” at the Sarasota National Cemetery, said Debra Jacobs, president and CEO of the Patterson Foundation.

“By having Patriot Plaza, those who come to visit family, those who come now to visit the art, they will each have their own private time and space for reflection and experiencing and affirming why we live in the greatest country on the globe,” Jacobs said.

The Patterson Foundation partnership with NCA is the first of its kind among the 131 cemeteries run by the VA. Jacobs hopes Sarasota’s Patriot Plaza will serve as a model for others to follow.

One of the eagle sculptures that guards a side entrance into Patriot Plaza. Just beyond are the seals for all branches of the Armed Forces.

One of the eagle sculptures that guards a side entrance into Patriot Plaza. Just beyond are the seals for all branches of the Armed Forces.

U.S. Rep. Jeff Miller (FL-R), chairman of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs, called it a “perfect partnership.”

“That facility down there from start to finish was magnificently designed. And then, to have an organization to come in and put the money behind it, a private organization,” Miller said. “Public-private partnerships work.”

Miller added that Patriot Plaza gives people an opportunity to learn about freedom and the sacrifice of those who serve to defend the country.

To celebrate Patriot Plaza and in honor of Veterans Day, the Patterson Foundation is sponsoring a national, Veterans Legacy Summit Nov. 14-15 which is designed to build connections for veterans and military families.

All the summit events are free from the film festival and discussion panels to performances by the West Point Band and the keynote address by best-selling author Wes Moore. However, registration is required for the Veterans Legacy Summit.

Reporting for the WUSF Veterans Coming Home project is made possible by a grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Patriot Plaza is integrated into the pastoral setting of the Sarasota National Cemetery.

Patriot Plaza is integrated into the pastoral setting of the Sarasota National Cemetery.

NPR Report on ‘Other Than Honorable Discharge’

NPR correspondent Quil Lawrence.

NPR correspondent Quil Lawrence.

This week, NPR’s Quil Lawrence is reporting on veterans who did not receive an honorable discharge after service in the military.

Eric Highfill spent five years in the Navy, fixing airplanes for special-operations forces. His discharge papers show an Iraq campaign medal and an Afghanistan campaign medal, a good conduct medal, and that he’s a marksman with a pistol and sharpshooter with a rifle.

None of that matters, because at the bottom of the page it reads “Discharged: under other than honorable conditions.”

The “other-than-honorable discharged” have been turned away from medical care at the Department of Veterans Affairs and from programs offered by other veterans’ organizations.

… more than 100,000 other troops left the armed services with “bad paper” over the past decade of war. Many went to war, saw combat, even earned medals before they broke the rules of military discipline or in some cases committed serious crimes. The bad discharge means no VA assistance, no disability compensation, no GI Bill, and it’s a red flag on any job application.

Yet, many with a bad discharge said it is due to post traumatic stress and other conditions directly tied to their military service.

You can read the full story and listen to the report here.

VA Disability, Benefits Checks to Increase 1.5 Percent

Photo courtesy of VA.gov

Photo courtesy of VA.gov

Veterans, their dependents and survivors will receive a 1.5 percent cost-of-living increase in their disability and benefits compensation checks starting Jan. 1, 2014 according to a release from the Department of Veterans Affairs.

“We’re pleased there will be another cost-of-living increase for Veterans, their families and their survivors,” Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric K. Shinseki stated in a news release. “The increase expresses in a tangible way our Nation’s gratitude for the sacrifices made by our service-disabled and wartime Veterans.”

In fiscal year 2013, VA provided over $59 billion in compensation benefits to nearly 4 million Veterans and survivors, and over $5 billion in pension benefits to more than 515,000 Veterans and survivors.

5 Things to Know About Suicide: #1 Ask Straight Out

Photo courtesy of DCoE website.

Photo courtesy of DCoE website.

They’re called “responders” – the folks at the other end of the Veterans Crisis Line. But they aren’t the only ones serving on the front-line of suicide prevention.

As a society, as colleagues, as friends, as family, we cannot leave the work of suicide prevention to the “responders” alone.

It is up to all of us to act or at least “ask” if we see someone unduly stressed according to psychologist, Dr. Caitlin Thompson, deputy director of suicide prevention at the Department of Veterans Affairs.

“If worried – asking people straight out saying, ‘I’m so concerned about how you seem to be, have you been thinking about suicide at all?'” Thompson advised. “It’s just that simple really to just ask the question that can be a very scary question.”

It’s time to stop being “scared” and start becoming informed.

Here are tips from the Defense Suicide Prevention Office website:

How to ask the question

There is no evidence to suggest that asking someone if they are having thoughts about hurting themselves causes suicide. When asking about this, be direct – for example, ask “Are you thinking about killing yourself?” or “Are things so bad that you’re considering suicide?”

Remember, if you never ask, there is no way to intervene and get the person help. Even if they aren’t thinking about it, they will know you are concerned about them and what they are going through.

You don’t need to be an expert

A common myth about suicide is that you can’t do anything if someone is suicidal because you’re not an expert. This isn’t the case. You don’t need to be an expert in psychological health to recognize when someone you care about is having a hard time.

Know the warning signs

The best way to prevent suicide is to recognize troubling signs. Some of the most common warning signs to look for in an individual include:

  • Expressing hopelessness, like there’s no way out
  • Appearing sad or depressed most of the time
  • Feeling anxious, agitated or unable to sleep
  • Neglecting personal well-being
  • Withdrawing from family and friends
  • Losing interest in day-to-day activities
  • Frequent and dramatic mood changes
  • Expressing feelings of excessive guilt or shame
  • Feelings of failure or decreased performance
  • Feeling like there’s no reason to live
  • Increased alcohol or drug abuse
  • Talking about death

Learn what to do

If you don’t ask, there’s no way to intervene and get help. Experts suggest the following advice for family and friends who suspect someone is suicidal:

  • Trust your instincts that the person may be in trouble
  • Be willing to listen
  • Ask direct questions without being judgmental (“Are you thinking about killing yourself?” or “Have you ever tried to end your life?” or “Do you think you might try to kill yourself today?”)
  • Determine if the person has a specific plan to carry out the suicide
  • Don’t leave the person alone
  • Don’t swear to secrecy
  • Don’t act shocked
  • Don’t counsel the person yourself
  • Get professional help on the phone or escort the person to a counselor, chaplain or other professional mental health provider
  • Remove potential means of self-harm

Know how to get help

Free, confidential help is available 24/7 through the Military Crisis Line (also known as the Veterans Crisis Line and National Suicide Prevention Lifeline) at 800-273-8255 (military members and veterans press 1).

You can also online chat with a Military Crisis Line responder or send a text to 838255.

Even if there’s no immediate crisis, trained counselors can offer guidance on how to help someone and point you to services (for mental health and substance abuse) and resources (suicide prevention coordinators).

A lot of circumstances can contribute to mental health issues, but there’s help online.

A New HBO Documentary – Crisis Line: Veterans Press 1

vet crisis lineEvery day, 22 veterans take their own lives.  That’s according to a report released earlier this year by the Department of Veterans Affairs.  And that number could actually be higher.

The rate of veteran-suicide is much higher than for the general population.

The Veterans Crisis Line was established six years ago to try and slow the flood of veteran suicides.

A new HBO documentary, Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1, takes us past the cubicles and down the hallways at the Veterans Crisis Line Center based in Canandaigua, N.Y.

There, you hear the piercing ring of telephone and catch snippets of conversations with the first responders trying to nudge that suicide rate down:

“Thank you for calling the Veterans Crisis Line, my name is Lewis. How can I help you?”

“… I know you said you have a knife nearby you. Do you agree to not use that knife while I put you on hold?”

“… What you’re telling me is that people have to do something drastic before they get help.”

Responders answer calls 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

The hotline is not just for veterans considering suicide. Any veteran experiencing any kind of distress can call at any time.

“Whether they’re dealing with relationship issues, problems finding work, problems just adjusting back into civilian life, there’s a ton of things they could run into and they need to understand they’re not alone and these things can be worked out,” said Jason Edlin, an Army veteran who has worked as a Veterans Crisis Line responder for almost five years.

Edlin was there when HBO filmed the documentary. He isn’t in the movie but says it delivers a message the public needs to hear.

A display table featuring key chains and kitchen magnets with the Veterans Crisis Line was set up this week for student veterans at the University of South Florida by staff at the James A. Haley VA Medical Center.

A display table featuring key chains and kitchen magnets with the Veterans Crisis Line was set up this week for student veterans at the University of South Florida by staff at the James A. Haley VA Medical Center.

I hope that people can better understand what veterans go through,” Edlin said.

The Veterans Crisis Line fields more than 22,000 calls a month.

Since 2001, more veterans have died by their own hand than in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan. And while suicide has been increasing, the deputy director of suicide prevent at the Department of Veterans Affairs, Dr. Caitlin Thompson, likes to point out some distinctions.

“We’re finding that of those veterans and service members who die by suicide less than half of them have actually have been deployed,” Thompson said. “So, we can’t just put it on ‘well they were deployed and they all saw combat and that’s why they’re dying’ because that’s actually been shown to not be the case.”

Thompson said suicide is complex. Many veterans and service members have the same reasons as the general population for killing themselves such as financial and relationship problems. But military service can compound those issues.

“We’re working so hard at the VA and at the DoD (Department of Defense) as well in our suicide prevention effort,” Thompson said. “Another thing I want to bring up is the culture of using firearms in a veteran population. And it’s been shown that veterans die by suicide by firearms far more than the general population. Veterans and service members are very comfortable with firearms and so gun safety is also a very important consideration as we continue to look ahead.”

Thompson helped the Department of Defense set up their Suicide Prevention Office and she spent four years as one of the psychologists overseeing the responders, the people who answer the Veterans Crisis Line.

Some of the free paraphernalia used to promote the Veterans Crisis Line.

Some of the free paraphernalia used to promote the Veterans Crisis Line.

“It’s such a unique environment in that way. It’s a very emotional environment to work in. it’s very high stress,” Thompson said.

The HBO documentary shows  supervisors comforting  responders after some of the more difficult calls.

Thompson said that’s the value of the documentary. It shows veterans the compassion of the responders on the other end of the phone.

We want veterans and service members to pick up the phone and call and at times it may be very, very hard for people to do that,” Thompson said.”But I’m hoping that after seeing some of the faces on the other end of the phone and hearing some of the stories that that will help promote the crisis line as an option.”

That option also extends to family members and friends of veterans and to service members. The Crisis Line is open to them. And there is also live online chats and texting.

You can listen to the radio version of this story on WUSF 89.7 News.

The HBO documentary, Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1, airs again Sunday at 6:00 a.m., 3:15 p.m.; Nov. 19 at 10:45 a.m. and Nov. 23 at 12:15 p.m. HBO2 playdates: Nov. 18 at 9:30 a.m. and Nov. 26 2:10 p.m.

Shutdown Could Stop November VA Disability Payments

VA Sec. Eric Shinseki Photo credit: va.gov

VA Sec. Eric Shinseki Photo credit: va.gov

The Two-Way with National Public Radio reports:

Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki warned lawmakers on Wednesday that the partial government shutdown means that about 3.8 million veterans will not receive disability compensation next month.

Shinseki, in testimony before the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, said pensions to more than half a million vets or surviving spouses will also be derailed if the stalemate over a temporary spending measure drags on into late October.

The Associated Press reports:

“Shinseki drew comparisons to the last shutdown in 1996, a time of sustained peace. The current shutdown occurs as the war in Afghanistan is in its 13th year and as hundreds of thousands have returned from Iraq. They are enrolling in VA care at higher rates than previous generations of veterans.

” ‘They, along with the veterans of every preceding generation, will be harmed if the shutdown continues,’ Shinseki said.”

Rep. Jeff Miller, the Republican chairman of the committee, questioned whether the administration had given accurate and complete information to veterans as to the full impact of the shutdown.

“We’ve had some difficulty in the last couple of weeks getting good information about VA’s contingency plan and the effects a lapse in appropriation would have on veterans,” he said.

Shinseki told the committee that the VA had planned for an orderly shutdown but that “unprecedented legal and programmatic questions” have arisen.

Goverment Shutdown Impact on Veterans, Military

VA Secretary Eric Shinseki speaking at the suicide prevention conference. Photo courtesy of the VA blog.

VA Secretary Eric Shinseki speaking at the suicide prevention conference. Photo courtesy of the VA blog.

There will be little or no impact at least on the largest part of the Department of Veterans Affairs which runs VA clinics and hospitals.

The VA health care administration is on a two-year budget cycle, so it already has advanced appropriates for 2014 fiscal year according to Karen Collins, public affairs officer for James A. Haley Veterans Hospitals and Clinics.

“So, this means that a majority of our employees will continue to provide health care services to our veterans and active-duty service members here at James A. Haley,” Collins said.

But there is a VA Contingency Plan which lists the suspension of some functions like:

  • Claims appeals will be discontinued before the Board of Veterans’ Appeals.
  • The Office for Congressional and Legislative Affairs will suspend all functions including: Congressional relations; Responding to congressional requests for information; Processing testimony and questions for the record; Congressional correspondence; Constituent casework; Advisory Committee Management; GAO coordination.

The USA Today newspaper answered 66 questions about the shutdown .Here are a few relating to veterans services like benefits that are not part of health care:

  • What will happen to veterans receiving compensation for service- or combat-related wounds and injuries? The Department of Veterans Affairs said if the shutdown continues into late October, it will run out of money for compensation and pension checks to more than 3.6 million veterans who rely on the money to support themselves.
  • Does that mean I can’t get a VA mortgage? No. The Department of Veterans Affairs says loans are funded via user fees and should continue. However, during the last shutdown, “loan Guaranty certificates of eligibility and certificates of reasonable value were delayed.”
  • Will deceased veterans still be able to get a burial benefit? Yes. Burial benefits, headstones and death notices will still be available.

Department of Defense

Under Secretary of Defense and Chief Financial Officer Robert Hale. Photo courtesy: Department of Defense

Under Secretary of Defense and Chief Financial Officer Robert Hale. Photo courtesy: Department of Defense

According to a release Friday from the Department of Defense, about half of the civilian employees will be furloughed. That means some 400,000 workers will not go to work.

Priority is given to operations relating to the war in Afghanistan and to safety operations such as fire, police and emergency medical.

A DoD news release states that pay of government employees could also be seriously affected.

“Military and other civilians directed to work would be paid retroactively once the lapse of appropriation ends,” Robert F. Hale, Under Secretary of Defense and Chief Financial Officer.  “Civilians on emergency furloughs … would be paid retroactively only if a law is enacted providing the authority to pay them.”

“We would also be required to do some other bad things to our people,” Hale said. “Just some examples, we couldn’t immediately pay death gratuities to those who die on active duty during the lapse, we would have to close stateside commissaries, promotion boards and other similar personnel activities would be disrupted — probably would have to be stopped — and a number of other actions.”

The Department of Defense has created a website: Government Shutdown What You Need to Know  with guidance for contingency plans.

VA Releases Details on Naval Yard Gunman’s Treatment

The following is a media release from the Department of Veterans Affairs on the care given to Navy Reservist and alleged gunman in the shooting deaths Monday at the Washington D.C. Naval Yard :

Aaron Alexis photo provided by the FBI.

Aaron Alexis photo provided by the FBI.

Health care treatment

Aaron Alexis received treatment on August 23, 2013, when he visited the emergency room at the VA Medical Center in Providence, R.I., complaining of insomnia. After a medical examination, he was given a small amount of medication to help him sleep and was instructed to follow up with a primary care provider.

On August 28, he went to the emergency room at the VA Medical Center in Washington, D.C., to request a medication refill and attributed his insomnia to his work schedule.  He was given a small refill and was instructed to follow up with a primary care provider.  On both occasions, Mr. Alexis was alert and oriented, and was asked by VA doctors if he was struggling with anxiety or depression, or had thoughts about harming himself or others, all of which he denied.

Alexis enrolled in VA health care in February 2011.  According to VA records, he never sought an appointment from a mental health specialist, and had previously either canceled or failed to show up for primary care appointments and claims evaluations examinations he had scheduled at VA medical centers.

 Benefits

Alexis filed a disability compensation claim with the VA and was granted a 20 percent disability rating by VA for orthopedic issues on December 12, 2011, which was increased to 30 percent on December 19, 2012, when he was awarded an additional 10 percent for tinnitus.  Alexis received benefits in the amount of $395 monthly.  The 30 percent was retroactive to his separation from service.

Obama: VA Disability Claims Backlog Is Shrinking

Veterans take photos of President Barack Obama as he works a ropeline after speaking at the Disabled American Veterans convention in Orlando, Fla., Saturday, August 10, 2013. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

Veterans take photos of President Barack Obama as he works a ropeline after speaking at the Disabled American Veterans convention in Orlando, Fla., Saturday, August 10, 2013. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

President Barack Obama acknowledged the obvious when addressing the Disabled American Veterans gathering Saturday in Orlando. He noted that there’s still a backlog of benefits claims at the Department of Veterans Affairs.

However, it’s just under 500,000 claims according to the Associated Press. And that’s smaller than the 611,000 claims backlog in March.

“Today I can report that we are not where we need to be, but we are making progress,” Obama said. “So after years when the backlog kept growing, finally the backlog is shrinking.”

A claim is considered “backlogged” if it’s been in the system for four months.

The president also unveiled a  national plan for prevention, diagnosis and treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI).

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