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Screening and Treating Veterans for Hepatitis C

hep c viet

By Debbie Gregory.

Veterans and organizations representing them have expressed considerable interest in the possible link between hepatitis C virus (HCV) infection and immunization with air-gun injectors or other military-related blood exposures, which were common during the Vietnam War, since transfusions were used in great numbers.

The virus also can be sexually transmitted or through intravenous drug use, which was also common in Vietnam.

The Department of Veterans Affairs has treated 65,000 veterans for the virus, but about 87,000 remain untreated and an additional 20,000 are undiagnosed.

VA officials are seeking $1.5 billion in the 2017 fiscal year to treat more veterans.

But the financial challenge is not near as great as the VA’s challenge in convincing veterans to be screened or treated for the virus. Some veterans distrust the VA, some are concerned with the stigma of hepatitis C and drug use, and some fear traditional drug treatment with severe side effects.

Some veterans who test positive for hepatitis C suffer from mental illness or substance abuse, and these issues can affect their reliability to show up for treatment.

According to Dr. David Ross, director of the VA’s hepatitis C program, “Historically, treatment rate has been low for two reasons. One, standard treatments have been awful. The drugs are horrible and don’t work that well. Secondly, a lot of patients have conditions such as depression or substance abuse problems that get in the way of treatment.”

The VA has screened 73 percent of Vietnam War-era veterans enrolled in the VA system. There are about 700,000 veterans born between 1945 and 1965 who still must be screened.

The VA has started to reach out to veterans with hepatitis C to inform them that they have the resources to test and treat them, Ross said.

“Facilities have for months now been taking lists and just calling people and saying, ‘Would you like to come in?’ ” he said. “We’re trying to let people know we’re very committed to doing this, and we have the resources to do it.”

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.

Veterans with Mental Health Challenges Now Eligible for Veterinary Service Dog Program

service-dog

By Debbie Gregory.

Mobility service dogs are now available for Veterans with mental disorders that prevent them from leaving their homes or moving around.  And the Department of Veteran Affairs (VA) has announced a pilot program to cover veterinary health benefits for the service dogs.
To be eligible for the veterinary health benefit, the service dog must be trained by an organization accredited by Assistance Dogs International (ADI) in accordance with VA regulations.

These dogs are distinguished from pets and comfort animals because they are specially trained to help their owners perform tasks such as getting out of bed, going outside to shop, or going to social functions.

While the VA already covers veterinary care for service dogs that assist blind or deaf veterans and those with mobility restrictions caused by a physical disability, this is the first time the benefit is being extended to veterans whose primary diagnosis is a mental health disorder.

Dr. Harold Kudler, Chief Medical Consultant for the Veterans Health Administration, said many mental health conditions such as anxiety, depression, schizophrenia and post-traumatic stress disorder can limit a sufferer’s mobility.

The VA veterinary service benefit includes the cost of travel to get the dog and veterinary care and equipment such as harnesses or backpacks for the animal, comprehensive wellness and sick care (annual visits for preventive care, maintenance care, immunizations, dental cleanings, screenings, etc.), urgent/emergent care, prescription medications, and care for illnesses or disorders when treatment enables the dog to perform its duties in service to the Veteran.

The veteran is responsible for the costs of food, over-the-counter medications, grooming, boarding and any other dog-related expenses.

Additional information about the VA’s service dog program can be found here.

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.

What Do You Think of the VA Buying Luxury Art?

rock

By Debbie Gregory.

Rep. Vern Buchanan, R-Fla., has joined forces with Concerned Veterans for America and Veterans for Common Sense to put a halt to the VA’s purchase of luxury artwork.

Citing the 70,000 veterans who continue to face “unreasonable delays” when attempting to obtain medical care from the embattled agency, Buchanan is working to refocus the agency on problems within its healthcare system.

Purchases made, according to a July report from nonprofit government spending watchdog Open the Books include: $330,000 for a glass-art installation in Palo Alto, $21,500 for an artificial 27-foot Christmas tree, $32,000 for 62 “local image” pictures for the San Francisco VA facility, $100,000 for a “Ribbons of Honor” glass sculpture for a VA outpatient center in Anchorage, AK, $65,000 for artwork for the “interior commons wall and $30,000 for the canteen artwork,  and a ridiculous $1.3 million for the installation of a rock sculpture outside a mental health center.

But probably the most outrageous purchases were the “Helmick Sculpture” at a cost of $385,000 and a parking garage exterior wall facade at a cost of $285,000, which were installed the Palo Alto Polytrauma and Blind Rehabilitation Center; yes, a facility that serves the needs of blind veterans.

“The VA’s flawed priorities are actively hurting our veterans — on the backs of American taxpayers,” said Dan Caldwell, vice president of policy and communications at Concerned Veterans for America. “While veterans nationwide are struggling to receive basic healthcare, the VA is spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on sculptures,”

Anthony Hardie of Veterans for Common Sense said, “There are much more pressing needs and systemic problems at VA facilities around the country that need to be addressed before the VA spends millions of taxpayer dollars on lavish new artwork, including fixing VA’s suicide hotline so it can always provide immediate assistance.”

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.

VA Fears Emergency Care Claims Could Open Floodgates

claimsva

By Debbie Gregory.

A recent ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims to pay claims for emergency care reimbursements could open the financial floodgates and cost the VA over $10 billion.

The case, filed by Richard W. Staab, appealed a December 6, 2013, Board of Veterans’ Appeals decision that denied Staab reimbursement of medical expenses incurred for emergency medical services provided at non-VA medical facilities.

Some two million claims for emergency healthcare services that were provided to VA-enrolled veterans through the private sector could be eligible for VA reimbursement if the decision is allowed to stand.

The VA has until September 20th  to appeal the decision to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit.

In the interim, VA officials say they are unable to begin to pay any of the emergency healthcare claims until they can prepare new regulations to support the complex review process.

In Staab’s case, the court agreed with lawyers for the 83-year Air Force veteran who was forced to pay $48,000 in healthcare costs following open-heart surgery in December 2010.

For a number of years, the VA has maintained that, by law, it can only reimburse VA-enrolled veterans for outside emergency care if they have no alternative health insurance. That includes Medicare, TRICARE, employer-provided health insurance or contracted health plans of any kind. Unfortunately for veterans with other health insurance, they are  often stuck paying hefty out-of-pocket costs that their plans won’t cover, while veterans with no other insurance see the VA routinely pick up their entire emergency care tab.

Effective in early 2010, Congress clarified the law on the VA coverage of outside emergency care. A single provision was changed to say the VA could “reimburse veterans for treatment in a non-VA facility if they have a third-party insurance that would pay a portion of the emergency care.”

The VA appears to be saying that the 2010 law was intended to allow the VA only to cover emergency costs not fully covered, for example, by the insurance of a driver at fault in an accident that injured a veteran. But to be eligible, the veteran still can’t have other health insurance.

The VA estimates that some 70 million claims could be eligible for reimbursement going back six years and forward for 10. The administrative costs alone could top $182 million over the next 10 years, raising total VA costs to $10.8 billion.

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.

Moving in the Right Direction to Reduce Veteran Homelessness

end

By Debbie Gregory.

Veterans are homeless for different reasons and have different needs, but one thing that every homeless veteran needs is a home. Because of veterans’ military service, this population is at higher risk of experiencing traumatic brain injuries and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), both of which have been found to be among the most substantial risk factors for homelessness

No veteran should be without a place to call home. Those who have risked their lives for our freedom should not come home and be forced to sleep on the streets.

According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), and the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness (USICH) the number of veterans experiencing homelessness in the United States has been cut nearly in half since 2010. Much of the success can be attributed in part to the effectiveness of the HUD-VASH Program.

Although that is a great statistic, as of January of this year, there were still approximately 13,000 homeless veterans living on the streets, with about 50% of those living in just two states: California and Florida.

Homeless veterans  or veterans at imminent risk of becoming homeless can call or visit their local VA Medical Center or Community Resource and Referral Center where VA staff are ready to help.

Veterans and their families may also call 1-877-4AID-VET (1-877-424-3838) to access VA services.

Explore va.gov/homeless to learn about VA programs for veterans who are homeless and share that information with others.

Additionally, CalVet is addressing California’s veteran homelessness by working with various government and non-government agencies and organizations, throughout the state, to provide advocacy and services needed by veterans who are homeless or at risk. To find housing assistance programs available in the area, call (800) 952-5626 or (800) 221-8998 (outside California).

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.

McDonald Promises Veterans Same-day Appointments for Health Care

same day

By Debbie Gregory.

U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert McDonald has made a lofty promise to Veterans: by December, they will have same-day access to primary care appointments and mental health services at the VA.

McDonald, who was hired in the wake of a scandal over appointment wait times that led to the resignation of then-VA Secretary Eric Shinseki, spearheaded a massive restructuring of the VA in 2015.

“You’ve heard many times hat VA is broken. So I’ll answer one question: Can the Department of Veterans Affairs be fixed? Can it be transformed? The answer is yes. Absolutely. Not only can it be transformed, transformation is well underway and we’re already seeing results,” he said.

The MyVA reform effort is designed to overhaul the VA’s administrative practices and improve services, including disability claims processing, health care and outreach to homeless veterans.

McDonald talked at length about improvements to the veteran experience, including changes to the VA’s website and phone number, making it a “one-stop shop for information rather than asking veterans to navigate a complicated system.”

A new mobile app, which McDonald said would be launched by the end of the year, will allow veterans to make, reschedule and cancel appointments without having to call someone or leave the house.

McDonald said the department has added to its staff in the last several years, and the claims backlog, which had about 600,000 more than 125 days old, has been reduced by about 90 percent. He said the department has more people, more space, more productivity and more choice for veterans.

He also said that under the guidance of Undersecretary of Health Dr. David Shulkin, the VA is changing its approach to treating patients.

“VA health care is ‘whole-veteran’ health care — body, mind and soul, customized to meet veterans needs. Yoga? Acupuncture? Sports therapy, music therapy, writing and art therapy? We validate and embrace what works to heal veterans,” McDonald said.

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.

Investigation Questions Work Ethic of VA Suicide Counselors

suicide prevention

By Debbie Gregory.

When it comes to suicide prevention, many of our nation’s veterans are being underserved.

A recent investigative report by USA Today reveled that while the Veterans Crisis Line is receiving calls at record levels, many hotline staffers were only handling one to five calls each day, and leaving work early.

The overflow calls that can’t be taken by the hotline forward to backup centers and are handled by counselors who don’t have access to veterans’ electronic medical records. These counselors are also less experienced in dealing with former service members.

This network of 164 private, nonprofit phone banks also provides 24/7 services for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. A 2015 Inspector General investigation found that some incoming calls from veterans went to voicemail after rolling over to the backup centers.

The poor work habits of the Crisis Line staffers have resulted in 35 percent to 50 percent of calls rolling.

The number of calls received by the VA suicide hotline increased almost 700 percent from 2008 to 2015, according to a recent government audit.

A recent congressional investigative report questioned the call center’s responsiveness to contacts made via mobile text, which found that four out of 14 test text messages did not receive a response from VA staffers. Of the 10 test text messages that received a response, eight were received within two minutes, and two were received within five minutes.

“VA officials stated that text messages are expected to be answered immediately, but, as with online chats, the VA has not yet developed formal performance standards for how quickly responders should answer text messages,” auditors wrote.

VA deputy director Sloan Gibson and other officials said they are currently adding counselors and taking steps to improve quality of care.

“I step back from this, and I look at it and I see a function, an activity, that has been chronically undermanaged for years,” Gibson told USA Today.

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.

VA Home Loans Can Go as High as $625,000 in Some Counties

vahousing

By Debbie Gregory.

The Veterans Administration (VA) helps Servicemembers, Veterans, and eligible surviving spouses become homeowners. As part of their mission, the VA provides a home loan guaranty benefit and other housing-related programs to help you buy, build, repair, retain, or adapt a home for your own personal occupancy.

VA Home Loans are provided by private lenders, such as banks and mortgage companies. The VA guarantees a portion of the loan, enabling the lender to provide you with more favorable terms.

The 2016 VA loan limits remained static at $417,000, except in 235 high cost counties where they are as high as $625,000. This applies to all loans closed January 1, 2016 and afterwards.

To find out what the maximum VA housing benefit in your county is, visit https://militaryconnection.com/va-loan-guaranty. The link also displays the Regional Loan Center that services each county, which are:

Cleveland
Department of Veterans Affairs
VA Regional Loan Center
1240 East Ninth Street
Cleveland, OH 44199
http://benefits.va.gov/cleveland/regional-loan-center.asp

Denver
Department of Veterans Affairs
VA Regional Loan Center
155 Van Gordon Street
Lakewood, CO 80228
(Mail: Box 25126, Denver, CO 80225)
http://www.benefits.va.gov/denver/regional-loan-center.asp

Honolulu
Department of Veterans Affairs
VA Regional Office
Loan Guaranty Division (26)
459 Patterson Rd.
Honolulu, HI 96819
*Although not an RLC, this office is a fully functioning Loan Guaranty operation for Hawaii.
http://www.benefits.va.gov/honolulu/regional-loan-center.asp

Phoenix
Department of Veterans Affairs
VA Regional Loan Center
3333 N. Central Avenue
Phoenix, AZ 85012-2402
http://www.benefits.va.gov/phoenix/regional-loan-center.asp

Roanoke
Department of Veterans Affairs
VA Regional Loan Center
210 First Street
Roanoke, VA 24011

Mailing Address:
116 N. Jefferson Street
Roanoke, VA 24016
http://www.benefits.va.gov/roanoke/regional-loan-center.asp

St. Petersburg
Department of Veterans Affairs
VA Regional Loan Center
9500 Bay Pines Blvd.
St. Petersburg, FL 33708
(Mail: P.O. Box 1437, St. Petersburg, FL 33731)
http://www.benefits.va.gov/stpetersburg/regional-loan-center.asp

Serving in the U.S. military offers some great benefits, including VA home loans. You’ve earned them, you should use them.

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.

Veteran Suicide Prevention Act H.R. 4640 Introduced

suicide prevention

By Debbie Gregory.

Congressman David Jolly (FL-13) and Congresswoman Dina Titus of Nevada’s First Congressional District have co-sponsored legislation mandating the Department of Veterans Affairs to review veteran suicide deaths during the past five years and study any correlation between those deaths and psychiatric drug prescriptions.

The bipartisan legislation, called the Veteran Suicide Prevention Act (H.R. 4640), would study the medications that veterans were taking at the time of their death by suicide.

The FDA’s MedWatch adverse drug event reporting system reveals that between 2004 and 2012, the federal agency received more than 14,000 reports on psychiatric drugs causing violent side effects. There are 22 international drug regulatory warnings on psychiatric drugs, citing mania, hostility, violence, abnormal behavior and suicidal behavior.

The legislation would require the VA to record the total number of veterans who have died by suicide during the past five years, compile a comprehensive list of the medications prescribed to and found in the systems of such veterans at the time of their deaths, and report which Veterans Health Administration facilities have disproportionately high rates of psychiatric drug prescription and suicide among veterans treated at those facilities.  The VA would then compile the results of the report and come up with a plan of action for improving the safety and well-being of veterans.

“It is critical that we understand whether there is any impact of certain psychiatric drugs prescribed for issues like P.T.S.D., depression or traumatic brain injuries, on the decision of a veteran to take their own life,” Jolly said. “With veterans dying by suicide at a heartbreaking rate, we need to take a hard look at all possible factors in order to help prevent these tragedies.”

“Data suggest that every 65 minutes a veteran takes his or her own life,” Rep. Titus said.  “This is unacceptable. One way to address the problem is to determine if any associations exist between suicide and medical treatments our veterans may be receiving for service-related conditions. Accordingly, this bill is a prudent first step in ending this crisis and letting our troops know that when they come home they are not alone.”

 

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: How the VA Safeguards Veteran Data

VA cyber securityBy Debbie Gregory.

As it becomes easier and easier to access and utilize sensitive information online, it is critical that individuals protect their identity and sensitive information from cyber threats. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs is doing its part to protect the Veterans it serves.

The VA has made a commitment to safeguard the data of Veterans, and is making information security a top priority. The VA has implemented progressive security measures to protect data and secure its network and information technology (IT) systems through a “defense in depth” approach. The VA’s strategy provides layers of technical, physical, and administrative security controls that make sure that even if one layer of security fails, or becomes otherwise vulnerable, there are additional measures in place to keep the data secure for our nation’s Veterans and their families.

With over 750,000 devices connected to the VA’s network, which runs 45,000 different applications, it is vital that the VA maintains the ability to manage and secure all of its IT assets. The VA’s Enterprise Visibility initiative, implemented in 2012, provides real-time visibility to ensure that all of the devices connected to the department’s network meet the VA’s high security standards. Every application is tested for vulnerabilities before they are cleared for operation on the VA’s network. If vulnerabilities are found, the VA and the application developers work together to resolve any the issues before the application is cleared to operate on the VA’s network.

Veterans should feel secure in knowing that the VA was one of the first federal agencies to employ continuous automated monitoring capability across its network of systems. With this measure in place, the VA is able detect any weakness early, and respond to threats immediately. The VA utilizes Einstein 3, an automated intrusion detection system that is operated by the Department of Homeland Security. Since its implementation, Einstein 3 has blocked hundreds of intrusion attempts. The VA was also one of the first federal agencies to implement Trusted Internal Connections, a program that improves the VA’s ability to monitor external connections, and identify potentially malicious traffic by reducing and consolidating external connections.

Furthermore, the VA has established a permanent team devoted to the department’s Continuous Readiness in Information Security Program (CRISP). The CRISP team is working to create a culture of security that extends to every VA employee. Through training and awareness campaigns, VA employees learn about the latest in cybersecurity and are trained to follow the department’s thorough incident response plan, ensuring that risks are always minimized.

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Military Connection: How the VA Safeguards Veteran Data: By Debbie Gregory