Merger of VA and DoD Health Systems Being Considered


By Debbie Gregory.

The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) provides healthcare to veterans through medical centers and clinics owned and run by the federal government, although veterans can also see private doctors through the Choice if VA wait times are too long. The Department of Defense provides healthcare to current servicemembers, retirees and their families through TRICARE,  insurance that is paid for by the government and uses private doctors and hospitals.  But soon, the two may be one and the same.

The VA generally serves older, sicker veterans, while TRICARE’s patients are generally healthier.

VA Secretary David Shulkin has been exploring the option of integrating VA and Pentagon health care. This follows the VA’s planned adoption of utilizing a similar electronic health record (EHR) platform as the Defense Department’s MHS GENESIS.

“VA’s adoption of the same EHR system as DoD will ultimately result in all patient data residing in one common system and enable seamless care between the Departments without the manual and electronic exchange and reconciliation of data between two separate systems,” said Shulkin.

Since an overhaul of VA’s EHR won’t be completed for another seven to eight years, a TRICARE merger would more than likely take at least as long.

News of the plan is worrying various veterans groups. The American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars, AMVETS and Disabled American Veterans have expressed that a TRICARE merger is likely to be a “non-starter” if the goal is to transform VA care into an insurance plan.

Louis Celli, director of veterans’ affairs and rehabilitation for The American Legion, said outsourcing services away from the current VA system via its medical centers and clinics would be financially unsustainable.

Bob Wallace, the executive director of VFW’s Washington office  said that his organization  would oppose any effort to reduce the VA’s role of providing care for veterans.

What do you think?

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Advice on Obtaining VA Benefits


By Debbie Gregory.

Most veterans know that if they experience a disabling event while they are serving, they are entitled to VA disability compensation. But the process may be a little more involved than they might first anticipate. Here are some tips to help navigate the process.

The VA will require you to prove you have the condition you are claiming, and that this occurred or was first experienced during service. This can usually be accomplished through a physician’s diagnosis and service records. If the problem wasn’t reported, a buddy or witness statement may suffice.

Channel your inner Sherlock Holmes. Gather as much evidence as you can to support the claim. While the VA will assist you, it’s in your best interest to do the legwork on your own, since no one your case better than you do. Make sure you have a copy of your Official Military Personnel File, and if you don’t, request it from the National Personnel Records Center.

Double check what forms you need to fill out. This is a great time to ask the VA or your Veteran Service Officer for assistance. Their expertise will prevent you from wasting time filling out the wrong forms, and making sure you fill out the ones you need. Stay on top of deadlines and requests for additional information.

If the VA schedules a Compensation and Pension exam for you to meet with a VA examiner, you must show up for the appointment. Failure to do so may cost you your claim.

Don’t underestimate the value of your Veteran Service Officer. Their services are free, and they can help you navigate the system. They can also help you file appeals for denied claims. In addition to State Veteran Affairs Offices, the following organizations also have Veteran Service Officers nationwide:

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Decision Ready Claims – VA To Turn Around Disability Claims in 30 Days or Less


By Debbie Gregory.

The Department of Veteran Affairs (VA) has announced the official launch of the Decision Ready Claims (DRC) initiative, a program that should deliver faster claims decisions for veterans.

Veterans who submit their claim under DRC with accredited Veterans service organizations (VSO) can expect to receive a decision within 30 days from the time VA receives the claim. These organizations include Disabled American Veterans, the American Legion, and Veterans of Foreign Wars.

While DRC is currently limited to claims for increased compensation (commonly known as claims for increase), VA’s goal is to expand the types of claims accepted under the initiative.

VSOs will ensure that all supporting evidence (e.g. medical exam, military service records, etc.) is included with the claim submission. This advance preparation by the VSOs allows claims to be immediately assigned to claims processors for a quick decision.

The system has been in the pilot phase since May 1.

Under the DRC process, veterans can opt to do the paperwork legwork themselves ahead of time.

Then, a VSO representative can review the documents to ensure everything is in order. The VSO rep can then mandate additional evidence for the claim if it’s needed before the claim is submitted. Once filed, the VA has 30 days to respond.

The hope is that by shifting the legwork from VA representatives to veterans and VSOs, the claims backlog will be a thing of the past.

Of course, it will be up to each individual veteran to decide whether DRC will work in their case.

“It’s an aggressive pilot program, and we’re going to work with VA to make sure it works and meets the needs of veterans, that’s our top priority,” said Ryan Gallucci, VFW’s director of the national veterans service. “Anyone interested in this program should have an honest conversation with your veteran service officer.”

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Most Disabled Veterans Don’t Have Access to Full VA Caregiver Support


By Debbie Gregory.

Family caregivers sacrifice so much of themselves in order to give their loved ones the highest quality of life possible. Yet most people are unaware of who these caregivers are and the role they play and the unique obstacles they face, especially those who are caring for a disabled veteran.

Veterans who were injured after Sept. 11, 2001 and require at-home care have access to for the full package of caregiver supports through the VA. However, this is not true for veterans who were severely injured prior to 2001.

Veteran service organizations such as Disabled American Veterans (DAV) are working with the VA and Congress to change this policy, in the hopes of expanding VA caregiver benefits, such as training and education, financial stipends, health insurance and respite care to all veterans, regardless of when they served.

Of the 5.5 million caregivers who provide support to current and former service members, roughly 80%, (4.4 million) are caring for veterans from military service prior to 2001. The majority of caregivers are spouses who receive very little in the way of benefits or support.

Expanding the VA’s caregiver support program is not just the right thing to do, but the smart thing to do, as family caregivers not only enhance the quality of life for those they care for, but also save the government significantly in long-term health care costs.

And with some 57% of veteran caregivers over the age of 55, they are more likely to experience health concerns of their own, which could result in increased strain on both the veteran and the caregiver.

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Will VA Choice be Replaced with CARE Plan?

CARE Program

By Debbie Gregory.

Key senators were bolstered by veterans groups to conditionally endorse a plan from VA Secretary David J. Shulkin to replace the current VA Choice program with the Veterans Coordinated Access and Rewarding Experiences (CARE) Program.

Representatives of the American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars, Disabled American Veterans and Paralyzed Veterans of America endorsed Shulkin’s vision to drop Choice and its metrics of wait times and geographic distance, and use clinical need instead to determine whether to refer patients to community care.

Dr. Shulkin’s CARE program would resemble a managed care program, with VA healthcare providers assigned to see their patients, and then deciding whether to treat them inside the VA or refer them to an outside network of private sector care providers under contract to VA.

“When I treat patients,” said Dr. Shulkin, an internist who still sees patients as a VA physician, “I listen to my patients and I understand what their needs are…I think what good doctors and providers do is they recognize it is a joint decision.”

But these same groups adamantly oppose the VA’s plan to fund the new plan by cutting disability compensation, paid through the Individual Unemployability (IU) program,  to more than 200,000 severely disabled veterans, ages 62 and older, who also are eligible for minimum social security benefits.

The Choice program, which allowed veterans to seek private sector healthcare if they reside more than 40 miles from a VA hospital or had to wait longer than 30 days for access to VA care after seeking an appointment, has generally been called a failure.

Ranking Democratic Senator. Jon Tester (MT), called the current Choice plan “a train wreck” that “hasn’t improved access. In fact, it’s made it worse. And in the process, it’s caused a lot of veterans and community [healthcare] providers to lose faith in the VA.”

But the veteran groups have urged Congress and the VA not to fund any of  new program by cutting IU compensation or other benefits.

Shulkin said he heard their “strong concerns” about the IU cuts and would take them “very seriously. Nobody wants to be taking away unnecessary benefits from veterans, and certainly not putting them into poverty,” he said.

But, he added that mandatory VA benefits have climbed by $12 billion in the past two years.

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Trump Holds Meeting on VA Issues


By Debbie Gregory.

President Trump held a series of “White House listening sessions” with various groups and then met with veterans advocates the following day. But apparently when it came to discussing the ways his administration could reform the embattled Department of Veterans Affairs, he failed to invite officials from the American Legion, Disabled American Veterans and the Veterans of Foreign Wars.

Trump’s pick to head the Department of Veterans Affairs, David Shulkin, did attend the White House meeting hours before his confirmation vote in the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs.

Kellyanne Conway, a top adviser to Trump, told reporters outside the White House that the president had a “very productive conversation” with advocates about veterans issues.

Conway said veteran care should be “a bipartisan issue, if not a nonpartisan issue.”

Toby Cosgrove, CEO of the Cleveland Clinic, said after the meeting that the discussion had ranged “from governance to modernization to accountability across the organization.”

Cosgrove was once a rumored front-runner for the VA secretary job.

During the campaign, Trump described the VA as “the most corrupt” and “probably the most incompetently run” of all federal agencies.

The president has proposed an ambitious 10-point plan for VA reform that includes giving veterans the option to seek private healthcare if they want to bypass the government-run system.

Trump promoted Shulkin, Obama’s VA undersecretary of health, to a Cabinet position.

Shulkin, a physician who would be the first nonveteran to lead the government’s second-largest agency, is expected to receive broad support in the Senate and is one of few Cabinet nominees who has not faced coordinated opposition from Democratic lawmakers. The Senate Veterans Affairs Committee voted unanimously to advance Shulkin’s nomination out of committee on Tuesday.

Military Connection salutes and proudly serves veterans and service members in the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, Coast Guard, Guard and Reserve,  and their families.

Military Connection: Study Finds Holes in Treatment: By Debbie Gregory

female-veteranWith the number of women separating from the military, and the increasing number of women joining the ranks, there is a growing concern that the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and other government agencies are not doing enough to aid them and their distinctive needs. A report recently released by the Disabled American Veterans (DAV) details areas where policies are lacking in their support of female Veterans.

On Wednesday, September 24, 2014, the DAV released their report, Women Veterans: The Long Journey Home. The report identifies serious gender gaps in nearly every government program intended to serve Veterans, including health care, finance, job training, housing, social issues and combating sexual assault.

The DAV report found multiple inadequacies in the way that the VA cares for female Veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. The report blamed most of the shortcomings on a lack of regard for the separate needs of female Veterans. The study points out that these programs focus on male Veterans, who make up nearly 90% of the Veteran population, as well as current military personnel.

The VA healthcare system treated approximately 390,000 female Veterans last year at various facilities. While this number has more than doubled since September 11, 2001, it is still far lower than the estimated 5.3 million male Veterans who were treated by the VA.

Currently, one in four VA hospitals do not have a full time gynecologist on staff. Out of 920 community-based clinics that serve Veterans in rural areas 140 do not have a designated women’s health provider. According to the report, one in five female Veterans was subjected to delayed treatment or went without treatment.

With the number of women in the military increasing, the number of female Veterans is rapidly rising as well. In fact, women are the fastest growing population of Veterans by percentages, according to the VA. If the VA and the federal government do not focus on plans to care specifically for women and their needs, then they will be failing all women in uniform.

While many officials and members of the public will attempt to justify the discrepancies in treatment for female Veterans by saying that the agencies are just providing for the greater good, it is an unacceptable defense. Medical treatment cannot be a “one size fits most” mentality. Every Veteran deserves individualized care, regardless of their gender, ethnicity or ailment.

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Military Connection: Study Finds Holes in Treatment: By Debbie Gregory