By: Leo Shane III - Military Times
President Donald Trump holds the Veteran's Affairs Choice and Quality Employment Act of 2017 after signing it Aug. 12, 2017, at Trump National Golf Club in Bedminister, N.J. VA officials announced this week the Choice program is again running low on funding, threatening to disrupt care for thousands of veterans in January. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)
WASHINGTON — For the second time in less than a year, a controversial Veterans Affairs health program is just weeks away from running out of money and disrupting care for thousands of patients.
And, for the second time over that span, lawmakers hoping for sweeping changes to VA health operations are scrambling to balance their long-term solutions with a short-term funding headache.
At issue is the Veterans Choice Program, which allows some veterans to receive private-sector care paid for with taxpayer dollars. The program is restricted to veterans who live 40 miles from the nearest VA facility or face a 30-day wait for care there, and has been at the center of debates over how to best deliver medical care to ailing veterans.
Twice this year Congress has intervened to prolong the program, first in April to remove a later-summer expiration date for the funds, then in August to add $2.1 billion to keep the program solvent through the fall and winter.
On Tuesday, VA Secretary David Shulkin officially informed lawmakers that he expects the program to run out of money sometime in the next month. He is requesting yet more intervention from Congress.
“Nearly 1.9 million veterans have sought care through the VCP since its implementation (in 2014),” he wrote in a letter to congressional leaders. “Unless additional funds are provided, veterans using the current VCP will be less able to access timely health care as close to their homes as possible.”
Shulkin had warned as far back as August that VA would face a new funding shortfall at the start of 2018, and lawmakers used that warning as an impetus for a series of sweeping new VA health care reform proposals currently pending on Capitol Hill.
The furthest along is a measure sponsored by Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., which would add $3 billion in bridge funding to the Choice program but eventually replace it with a new community care initiative that would provide easier access to non-VA medical appointments for veterans.
This week, Isakson urged his congressional colleagues to quickly advance the measure, either as a stand-alone bill or as part of ongoing appropriations discussions on Capitol Hill.
“It is critical that we pass this bipartisan legislation before the end of the year to ensure veterans continue to have access to efficient, timely and quality health care,” he said in a statement “(The bill) makes much-needed improvements to the community care programs offered by the VA and helps ensure that our veterans continue to get the very best care when and where it makes the most sense for them.”
He has the support of Shulkin (who has generally backed a series of reform proposals pending in Congress), Democrats from his committee (he co-wrote the measure with committee ranking member Jon Tester, D-Mont.), and a host of veterans groups.
But the measure’s price tag, which the Congressional Budget Office says tops $54 billion over five years, has raised concerns among House members.
And two other prominent Republican senators — Jerry Moran of Kansas and John McCain of Arizona — have offered their own legislation as both and alternative and a roadblock, arguing the Isakson bill doesn’t go far enough to overhaul VA systems.
“Spending must be accompanied by real reforms that result in better care for veterans,” Moran said Wednesday. “The status quo is not sufficient. The challenges faced by veterans are not the result of a lack of resources, but a problem of management and unnecessary bureaucracy at the VA.”
At the same time, Senate and House negotiators are also working on a broad budget deal to finalize appropriations for all of federal operations for fiscal 2017, in hopes of avoiding a government shutdown later this month.
If the sweeping health care changes aren’t finalized before Congress’ holiday break next week — a potentially difficult legislative path, given major tax reform measures also under consideration in the next few days — appropriators could include more short-term funding for the Choice program in their budget bills.
Last week, Shulkin said he would be open to “a short-term, very limited extension of funding for the existing (Choice) program to allow sufficient time for a final agreement to come together” on the larger reforms.
But it’s unclear if Democrats will go along with that plan. Tester told reporters on Wednesday that he wants a full-year budget for VA and the Isakson bill passed before the end of the year.
“If the goal here is just to keep kicking the can down the road, we’re not in favor of that,” he said. “We need to fix VA.”
Shulkin warned in his letter Tuesday — and similarly in a letter over the summer — that allowing the Choice funding to lapse without a fix would result in “decreased access to care, damaged community partnerships and interrupted care continuity for veterans.” Those patients could not all be covered by other VA care options, he insisted.
House lawmakers have been unable to move their less expensive, less expansive community care bill out of committee in recent weeks. They’re expected to recess for the year by Dec. 22.
That leaves congressional leaders about a week to figure out how to deal with the latest VA care crisis, or to decide to delay a decision to January and face a potentially even larger problem then.
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Tim Sproles - American Legion Dept. of Indiana
Senior Airman and Hoosier Legionnaire Tony Hollandsworth has made friends, family and fellow Legionnaires extremely proud back home in Indianapolis.
Tony is currently stationed in our Nation’s Capital, where he works under the Secretary of Defense at the Pentagon.
Looking back, Tony says that he would have never pictured himself working at the Pentagon when he was in high school.
He just always knew that he wanted to do something that helps people.
Tony says that he understood the importance of service to your community and country at a young age.
Tony’s father was an Army Combat Medic during Vietnam. Unfortunately, Tony would lose his father at a young aged when his father passed from service-related complications.
Tony’s mother also served 24 years with the Marion County Sheriff’s Office.
Tony said that he had always felt like he had a family legacy to live up to.
He had actually taken early steps to become an emergency medical technician.
After the completion of multiple training classes, while he was in high school, Tony was on his way to becoming an EMT, but his plans changed once he turned 18.
He said, “I just wanted to do more. So, I dropped into the Air Force recruiter in January of 2014, signed my contract and I was shipped out by June”.
It didn’t take long for Tony’s Air Force career to take off.
The United States Air Force Honor Guard actually recruited Tony right out of boot camp.
“They always look to recruit new people for the honor guard for service in special ceremonies, support missions at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and support for the President and the Joint Chiefs. They put me through an interview process where I was tested in physical fitness and took part in personality evaluations”.
The USAF Honor Guard interviewed over 700 applicants. Only 9 of those applicants were selected and Tony was one of them.
However, it turns out that the USAF Honor Guard wasn’t the only group that had their eyes on Tony for recruitment.
Two members of the Indiana American Legion Family were hot on his trail.
Tony said happily, “I am in the American Legion because of Paul and Jennifer Norton”.
Tony met Paul and Jennifer while they were conducting Flag Education program at his school in Indianapolis.
By NIKKI WENTLING - STARS AND STRIPES
WASHINGTON — Pressurized oxygen chambers, light-emitting helmets and neck injections are all treatments the Department of Veterans Affairs is using to help veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury.
Following an announcement last week that the VA would offer hyperbaric oxygen therapy to some veterans with PTSD, the agency said Thursday that the move is part of an effort to explore alternatives to the traditional therapies for PTSD and TBI, VA Secretary David Shulkin said in a statement.
“We know that for a small group of veterans, a traditional approach to health care may not be the most effective,” Shulkin said. “With veterans who don’t improve, we have to look for innovative, evidence-based approaches that may help them restore and maintain their health and wellbeing.”
Shulkin has repeatedly cited suicide prevention as his No. 1 clinical priority and promised lawmakers “big, bold steps” toward that end.
The VA said light-emitting diode (LED) therapy is now being offered to veterans with mild or moderate TBI to use in their homes, or at the VA Boston Healthcare System in Jamaica Plain. It involves a light-emitting frame being placed on a patient’s head and a clip in their nose. The VA studied the treatment in 2015 and found it increases blood flow in the brain and affects damaged cells to possibly improve brain function.
At the Long Beach VA Medical Center in California, doctors have started using a method called stellate ganglion block for veterans with PTSD. The treatment consists of a shot of medication into a patient’s neck.
VA researchers published a report on the treatment in February stating they found improvements in PTSD symptoms after the first test, but progress dropped in subsequent trials. The study was inconclusive, and researchers called for more testing.
The VA said Thursday the treatment might ease anxiety.
A third alternative treatment, hyperbaric oxygen therapy, uses pressurized chambers to send higher oxygen levels to patients. For now, the VA is making the therapy available to a small number of veterans in the eastern Oklahoma and northern California VA health care systems.
The treatment has been federally approved for illnesses such as decompression sickness and carbon monoxide poisoning and to treat wounds that won’t heal. It hasn’t been proven to work for traumatic brain injury or PTSD, and the VA acknowledged it was an “off-label” use of the treatment.
The American Legion applauded the VA’s decision to use hyperbaric oxygen therapy, stating that they’ve been asking the VA to offer it – and other alternative methods to treat PTSD -- for more than four years.
Though studies by the VA and Department of Defense have been mostly inconclusive, the American Legion said the therapy was successful for many veterans and servicemembers and will be an “important new tool” for VA patients.
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By: Jeff Schogol - Marine Corps Times
The Marine Corps recently recognized three heroes whose valor awards were upgraded to the Navy Cross and Silver Star.
On Nov. 14, former Marine Lance Cpl. Benjamin Gonzalez received the Navy Cross for jumping on a fellow Marine to protect him from a grenade. Gonzalez had initially received the Silver Star.
Former Marine Sgt. Eubaldo Lovato, who braved intense enemy fire to retrieve the body of a fallen Marine, received the Silver Star on Nov. 18 after initially receiving a Bronze Star with “V” device for valor.
And, on Nov. 1, Lance Cpl. Donald J. Cline Jr. was posthumously awarded the Silver Star for moving wounded Marines out of a kill zone to safety before he was fatally wounded. Cline had also initially received a Bronze Star with “V” device.
‘I thought that was going to be it’
Gonzalez joined the Marine Corps in June 2003, two days after graduating from high school. As a student, he had been impressed with the Marine recruiters and thought about joining the Corps. When the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks happened, they “lit a fire under me” to become a Marine, he said.
On June 18, 2004, Gonzalez was serving with 2nd Battalion, 1st Marines. He and his fellow Marines were manning an observation point at the Saqlawiyah Bridge on the northern edge of Fallujah. While driving across the bridge, an insurgent on a motorcycle tossed a hand grenade into the Marines’ fighting hole.
Gonzalez didn’t have much time to think about what to do next. He knew the grenade would explode before he could kick it out of the way so he threw himself on top of a Marine next to him.
He remembers the explosion, the ringing in his ears, and feeling shaken up and woozy afterward. Not knowing what happened, the Marine next to Gonzalez looked at him “like I was crazy,” he said.
Gonzalez immediately looked for his rifle so he could repel any assault on the Marines’ position. But when he saw his broken legs, the pain hit all at once. The other Marines immediately began trying to save his life.
“I remember them tearing apart my pants — remember them tearing more and more up into my upper thighs and then telling me it was pretty bad,” he said.
Soon Gonzalez started spitting up blood. His buddies told him that some of the shrapnel was in his lower abdomen. The possibility that he could die was very real.
“I honestly started praying after that,” Gonzalez said. “I thought that was going to be it. I thought all I could do was pray and hope that I had done well enough to make it to the gates.”
But Gonzalez did survive and was eventually medically retired. When he was awarded the Silver Star, he felt he did not deserve a medal for the one time he “blinked and turned back to the enemy for a bit,” he said.
The military has identified 100 sailors and Marines killed when the U.S. battleship Oklahoma capsized during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor 76 years ago.
The milestone, announced Friday, comes two years after the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency dug up nearly 400 sets of remains from a Hawaii cemetery.
Officials had the bodies exhumed after determining that advances in forensic science and genealogical help from families could make identifications possible.
The buried troops have been classified as missing since World War II.
The agency has said it expects to identify about 80% of them by 2020.
The most recent identification came in late November, the agency said in a news release. The family hasn't been notified yet, however, so his name hasn't been released.
Many of those identified have been reburied in their hometowns. Others were reinterred at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, located in an extinct volcanic crater in Honolulu.
One reburial is planned for Dec. 6: Navy Radioman 3rd Class Howard W. Bean of Everett, Mass., will be buried at Arlington National Cemetery. Bean was 27 when he was killed.
Altogether, 429 people on the battleship were killed in the Dec. 7, 1941, bombing that plunged the United States into World War II. Only 35 were identified in the years immediately after.
Many remains buried in Hawaii were co-mingled with those of other sailors and Marines. The 388 sets of remains disinterred in 2015 were buried in 46 plots.
The agency has been studying dental records and DNA to make identifications. It sent exhumed remains to a lab at Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska for analysis. The lab sent about 5,000 samples to a military DNA lab.
The agency has family DNA reference samples for 85% of the unaccounted-for Marines and sailors.
More than 2,300 sailors, Marines and soldiers were killed in the attack on Pearl Harbor.
The Oklahoma's casualties were second only to the those of the battleship Arizona, which lost 1,177 men. The Arizona is still resting at the bottom of the harbor with most of its crew entombed on board.
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