Government Affairs Committee Report, May/June 2014
The Toxic Wounds Of War
BY PETE PETERSON, CHAIR, AND GOVERNMENT AFFAIRS STAFF
Legislation introduced by Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), S. 1602, the Toxic Exposure Research and Military Family Support Act of 2014, provides a solid basis to move ahead with Centers of Excellence in Toxic Wounds within the VA, help for the progeny of Vietnam veterans, as well as much-needed research in the area of birth defects and anomalies and in epigenetic research.
The proposed act would also direct the VA to take a veteran’s military history and encode it into his or her electronic health care records. The key elements are branch of service, MOS, where one served, and when. This effort will cost little and could be accomplished in less than six months.
VVA state council presidents, Board members, and congressional staff members joined together for the Faces of Agent Orange briefing on Capitol Hill in April. The House Veterans’ Affairs hearing room was packed for three hours as the daughters of three Vietnam veterans told their stories about health problems resulting from their fathers’ exposure to Agent Orange. Reps. Corinne Brown (D-Fla.) and Mike Michaud (D-Maine), who both serve on the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, welcomed attendees. VVA National President John Rowan, VVA Conference of State Council Presidents Chair Charlie Montgomery, and AVVA President Sharon Hobbs spoke.
Selections from the hearing can be viewed at http://youtu.be/5PVtsF4o-3Q
Sen. Blumenthal concluded the event by reiterating his commitment to the families who have suffered as a result of the toxic wounds of veterans. Write, email, call, or visit your senators to educate them on why this measure is so vitally needed. It is not only the humane and right thing to do, justice demands it.
The headline of the press release from the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee read, “HVAC Webpage To Track How VA Stonewalls the Press.” It announced: “Chair Jeff Miller launched VA Honesty Project, a new web component of veterans.house.gov designed to highlight the Department of Veterans Affairs’ lack of transparency with the press, and by extension the public.
“Because the VA is a taxpayer funded organization, it has a responsibility to fully explain itself to the press and the public. Unfortunately, in many cases, VA is failing in this responsibility, as department officialsincluding 54 full-time public affairs employeesroutinely ignore media inquiries.”
Chairman Miller said: “VA’s media avoidance strategy can’t be anything other than intentional. What’s worse, the tactic leaves the impression that department leaders think the same taxpayers who fund the department don’t deserve an explanation of VA’s conduct.”
We certainly agree with the chairman’s sense of frustration, but we don’t believe this is intentional. Rather, it is the result of a process put in place by people unfamiliar with the workings of the working press, people who do not know the meaning of the term “deadline.” When the VA does not respond in a timely manner, the impression is given of stonewalling.
Chairman Miller said VA public information staff ought to “put a renewed focus on being responsive and transparent with the media so America’s veterans and taxpayers can get the answers they deserve.” And he is right on the money when he states that the VA is “doing the public an extreme disservice while damaging VA’s reputation in the process.”
For more than a decade accountability has been one of VVA’s top priorities. Yet it seems that some rogue medical center senior staff don’t quite know what accountability means.
A March 11 article in The Augusta (Georgia) Chronicle reported that, although the former chief of staff at the Charlie Norwood VAMC voluntarily resigned in 2013 “under the threat of being disciplined over the deaths of three cancer patients in the hospital’s embattled gastrointestinal clinic,” the hematologist, Dr. Luke Stapleton, is still on the hospital’s payroll.
Gina Jackson, a spokeswoman for the VA’s central office in Washington, D.C., told reporter Wesley Brown that no senior executives have “faced administrative action for the three deaths or for 5,100 patients having endoscopy consultations delayed” in the hospital’s gastrointestinal clinic from 2011-12.
“VA is committed to providing the best quality, safe and effective health care our veterans have earned and deserve,” Jackson said in a statement. “The Veterans Health Administration is reviewing administrative actions for Augusta VA Medical Center.”
You would hope that administrative actions would be swift and sure rather than lame and halting. This would send two messages: one to senior staff that problems must be remedied promptly, and another to veterans that the VA provides safe, high-quality care.
Stapleton, who became chief of staff on July 5, 2010, and spent two years in the job before the VA’s Atlanta-based Southeast Network initiated a review of colonoscopy procedures in Augusta dating back to 2006, is under investigation by the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee “for his role in screening, surveillance and diagnostic endoscopies being delayed while he served as chief of staff,” Brown wrote.
HVAC Chair Miller complained that, although the trio of deaths “have been public since November of 2013, nearly four months later no Augusta employee has been held accountable in any way. We know VA leaders have become very fond of talking about how they hold employees and executives accountable. Now it’s time for them to prove they mean what they say.”
Miller concluded: “Let’s be clear: allowing an employee to voluntarily switch from one job to another does not qualify as accountability.” Miller told Brown that Stapleton’s resignation “raises questions about why it is taking so long for the VA to hold employees responsible for preventable deaths.”
Yet although health care administrators at Charlie Norwood said in January that the hospital “has resolved all delayed consultations,” well-paid senior staff, it seems, haven’t even gotten a slap on the wrist. What kind of message does this send to officials at the VA’s other VISNs and VAMCs?
You can read the full article at here.
“I have a hard time understanding how anyone could vote for tax breaks for billionaires, for millionaires, for large corporations and then say we don’t have the resources to protect our veterans,” said Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee chair, speaking after the defeat of his multi-issue bill, S.1982, Comprehensive Veterans Health and Benefits and Military Retirement Pay Restoration Act of 2014, in a procedural vote several weeks ago.
Among many other vitally needed provisions contained in this bill are extending the Caregivers Act to pre-9/11 veterans as well as continuing it for post-9/11 veterans. It also has much-needed reforms in military sexual trauma treatment. To move ahead to consideration on the floor of the Senate requires sixty votes. Democrats were united in support, and were joined by two Republicans, Sens. Dean Heller of Nevada and Jerry Moran of Kansas. Only four more votes are needed to get the measure on the Senate floor for debate.
For a summary of this bill, go to VVA Government Affairs Capwiz site, Then contact your senators and ask them to vote to move S.1982 to the Senate floor.
Although Iraq and Afghanistan were supposed to be relatively short-lived actions, as troops settled in for the long haul, waste needed to be eliminated. Hence the creation of so-called trash-fire trenches, or burn pits, which generated plumes of toxic smoke. Into these pits were tossed everything from damaged Humvees and unexploded ordnance to plastics and rocket pods to mattresses and amputated body parts. Jet fuel ignited the pits, and the acrid odor permeated camps for days. The largest burn pit, at Balad, Iraq, spanned the length of ten football fields.
Dozens of veterans began complaining of a variety of ills they attributed to breathing fumes from the burn pits. According to the veteran-run website www.burnpits360.org at least sixteen veterans who served near burn pits later died from cancers and lung ailments. As complaints mounted, Congress passed and President Obama signed into law the Open Air Burn Pit Registry Act on January 10, 2013.
The new law gave the VA one year to create and begin maintaining a registry to identify and monitor veterans who breathed toxic fumes from these burn pits. After a year, the VA was supposed to report to Congress.
Three months and one year later, two U.S. senators wanted to know: Where is the Registry?
“While the necessity for some delay is understandable, the VA has failed to adequately explain why the delay has occurred, which steps remain to be completed before the Registry is available for the use of our veterans, and provide specific information on when the Registry is expected to be completed,” wrote Sens. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) and Tom Udall (D-N.M.).
“This delay is deeply concerning. The lack of urgency and communication from the VA is even more troubling,” the senators wrote.
According to a www.va.gov web page, “VA’s Action Plan: Burn Pits and Airborne Hazards,” the Registry should begin sometime this spring. Some action plan.
Finally, something positive: With strong bipartisan support, the Washington state legislature passed Attorney General Bob Ferguson’s Pension Poacher Prevention Act in early March. There was little doubt that the governor would sign it into law.
In Washington, “pension poachers” are separating elderly veterans from their assets. Claiming to be veterans’ advocates, they convince veterans to reposition their assets, then sell them unneeded financial products or services to earn a commission or fee.
Veterans in Washington who have concerns about possible pension poaching scams should contact the Attorney General’s Office at 888-551-4636 or file a complaint here.
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