A World War II veteran had been denied VA benefits for hearing loss after he left the service in 1947. Last summer, at age 92, he decided to try again, seeking out help from a unique program run by The American Legion Department of Michigan. “He came back and wanted to file a claim for a hearing loss again,” said Gary Easterling, director of the department’s Veterans Affairs and Rehabilitation Division. “We started digging in to it where we saw that he filed that initial claim, we had to try to go back and find his paperwork from 1947. But we found it and my office personnel did a great job in tracking this down and doing all this and then they found out that there was a clear and unmistakable error in the initial claim when they did it.” The end result: the veteran received $725,000. “It was amazing,” Easterling said. “It was only 10 percent, but then you add that up with the cost of living increase and with 10 percent, over 80 years, it’s been amazing.” While that is an extreme case, it’s an example of how Easterling and his 18-member staff assist veterans, thanks to a fund created by the state legislature in 1921. Originally, the state legislature’s Michigan Patriot Fund was to help families of soldiers that were overseas but after the war that was no longer necessary, explained public relations director Mark Sutton. “Legionnaires went and persuaded the legislature to give them roughly $220,000 a year, in 1921 money, to help the veterans coming back receive benefits and to also help them get jobs and help them with any of their needs that they needed,” he said, noting that VA had not been created yet. That funding continues today, with the state allocating grants worth $3.7 million, including $800,000 for the Department of Michigan. “I believe we’re the only state that the state gives a grant to for specific veterans service organizations for veteran service work,” Sutton said. Easterling oversees four service officers in the Detroit regional office, eight field service officers, four claim consultants and two support staff. “We’re kind of unique because with those 18 employees, I can reach out to every county in the state, which is 83 counties. So we have offices set up where veterans can come to us, we rotate. I have a lot of ‘windshield time’ for my field guys, but they go to different locations everyday throughout the state.” And for veterans who cannot make it to one of the field offices, the Michigan team will make a house call. Since last Oct. 1, Easterling’s team has recorded 4,183 claims that have been awarded by the VA, bringing back $75 million into the state in VA benefits. “That money is coming right back into the state,” Easterling says. “Tax free going right back into the communities.” Larry Money, the department commander, is a proponent of the program. “It’s a great program that we have in Michigan,” Money said. “Our veterans service organization has been getting a few accolades for what we do, what has transpired, the benefits we’ve tracked down for our veterans in the state of Michigan.” The department also runs a service officers school at an annual three-day retreat at Higgins Lake. “We invite basically anybody from the state or outside the state that wants to come and learn about veterans benefits,” Easterling said, noting that nearly 150 people have signed up for this year’s school, which is this coming weekend. Post and county service officers are split into two groups where they receive specific training. “We teach them the rules and coded procedures,” Easterling said. “We teach them how to do their jobs and how to be effective in their communities. How to reach out to their different organizations in the community to get their veterans help. We get more in-depth with the claims process and the appeals process. We really teach them on how to do things. It’s a dynamic school.” By Henry Howard
WASHINGTON (AP) -- Demanding explanations for a $1 billion cost overrun, a House panel Wednesday issued a subpoena to the Department of Veterans Affairs for documents on how the cost of a Denver-area VA hospital ballooned to almost $1.7 billion. That figure was nearly triple earlier estimates. The subpoena by the House Veterans Affairs Committee also seeks documents related to millions of dollars spent on artwork and ornamental furnishings at VA offices nationwide, including more than $6.4 million spent on the Palo Alto, California, health care system. The chairman of the veterans panel, Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., said it was "unfortunate that VA's continued lack of transparency has led us to this decision" to issue the subpoena, but contended that lawmakers had little choice. "We will not accept VA trying to pull the wool over the eyes of this committee and the American people for poor decision-making and waste of funds," Miller said. The subpoena was served Wednesday and gives the VA until Sept. 28 to respond. The subpoena is at least the fourth the House panel has issued since 2014 amid continuing frustration over the VA's performance following the wait-time scandal that led to the ouster of the VA secretary and a $16 billion overhaul approved by Congress. Veterans on secret waiting lists faced scheduling delays of up to a year, and as many as 40 veterans died while awaiting care at the Phoenix hospital, according to an investigation by the VA's inspector general. Miller and other Republicans say the VA has been slow to fix problems and should have fired some employees for wrongdoing. The GOP-led panel approved Wednesday's subpoena by voice vote. Democrats objected, saying they worried that documents related to the Aurora, Colorado, hospital could jeopardize agency whistleblowers who have helped officials learn the true scope of the cost overruns at the facility, considered one of the biggest boondoggles in the agency's history. Miller and other Republicans said the committee has a track record of protecting whistleblowers and the subpoena will not lead to the release of personally identifiable information. The committee has been seeking documents related to the Denver hospital for months. The VA gave Congress a summary of an internal inquiry, but not the supporting documents, despite repeated requests from lawmakers. The summary hasn't been made public, and the VA has not complied with an open records request from The Associated Press to release it. Deputy VA Secretary Sloan Gibson has said making the documents public could have a chilling effect on future internal investigations. The summary, in conjunction with the other information provided to lawmakers should "provide sufficient information to inform the committee about how the (investigation) was conducted, the reasons for its conclusions and rationale for corrective actions that the department has taken to ensure that there is no repeat of the missteps made on this project," Gibson said in an Aug. 19 letter to Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Colo. Coffman, whose suburban Denver district includes Aurora, is in a tough re-election race. "Veterans and the American people deserve answers on what drove over $1 billion in cost overruns and years of delay" in completing the hospital, he said. Panel chairman Miller said he has been seeking documents related to art contracts for more than year, following reports that the VA's Palo Alto Health Care System spent more than $6.4 million on artwork and other furnishings, including two sculptures that cost nearly $500,000. The subpoena seeks information on purchases of artwork and ornamental furnishings nationwide since 2010. VA spokeswoman Walinda West said in a statement that while department officials "must be stewards of taxpayer dollars, we also know that providing comprehensive health care for patients goes beyond just offering the most advanced medical treatments. Artwork is one of the many facets that create a healing environment for our nation's veterans." BY MATTHEW DALYASSOCIATED PRESS
RENO, Nevada (AP) -- It was more than a routine get-out-the-vote knock on the door when Iraq War veteran and Nevada Republican Party staffer Jon Staab asked Kenneth Olofson, a Vietnam veteran, if he'll be voting for Donald Trump. An instant bond was formed as the two swapped stories of service and those of relatives who fought in World War II. "I don't miss an election," Olofson, 74 and a lifelong Republican, said. "Whenever I vote, I think of Normandy." A few blocks away, Daniel Mendoza, also an Iraq war veteran canvassing for the GOP, was promptly kicked off another elderly veteran's property at the mere mention of Trump's name. Two years ago, the Republican National Committee hatched a plan to bolster turnout for veterans, who traditionally lean Republican. The party calculated that 6.5 million veterans either didn't register to vote or didn't cast a ballot in the 2012 presidential election. In the shadow of the Obama administration's controversial management of the Veteran's Administration, the RNC compiled lists of veteran voters and hired veterans for an unprecedented get-out-the-vote effort. Then Trump won the party's presidential nomination, and his controversial rhetoric has rubbed some veterans the wrong way. The billionaire businessman has mocked Sen. John McCain for being captured during the Vietnam War, threatened to withdraw from NATO and feuded with a slain soldier's family that criticized him during the Democratic National Convention. On Tuesday Trump released a list of former military leaders who support him. Clinton countered with a television ad featuring veterans silently watching some of Trump's more controversial statements. "Our veterans deserve better," the ad states. There's limited polling on where veterans stand in the current presidential election. They supported Mitt Romney by 20 points in 2012 and John McCain by 10 points in 2008. But Trump has had trouble winning the support of some of his party's base, and veterans are no exception. "The nail in the coffin for him was his NATO stuff," said Colton Jordan, a 28-year-old former Navy SEAL and lifelong Republican, as he waited in a Las Vegas nightclub for a rally with his preferred candidate, Libertarian party nominee Gary Johnson. Still, Republican operatives are confident that if they turn out veterans, they'll turn out more votes for Trump. "Being a veteran, your skin's a lot thicker," said Mendoza, 24, who noted that he's both Hispanic and a veteran - two groups Trump has disparaged - but he still supports Republican nominee. "It conditions you to seeing that bigger world and seeing past what someone says off the cuff." The instant bond that veterans form with each other often defuses tension inherent in political canvassing and opens doors that would otherwise be closed, said Bob Carey, a former Navy captain and the RNC's veterans outreach director. But their political utility goes beyond that. "Veterans have a disproportionate ability to gain the trust of any voter," Carey said. "The military is the last institution that has the trust and respect of the general public." Veterans vote at a higher rate than civilians, but younger veterans are less likely to vote than their peers. That's no surprise to Staab. He was deployed to southern Iraq in 2008 where his unit received mail once a month and had to create a base virtually from scratch at an abandoned air field. He didn't even remember to vote in the presidential election back home. Many veterans feel out of place after returning from war, and Staab and Mendoza, who returned from Iraq more recently are no exception. Mendoza is still dizzied by the carefree way some of his fellow students act. "People take being a citizen for granted," he said. Staab now runs the GOP's Reno office and has recruited Mendoza and a cadre of veteran volunteers to call other veterans and knock on their doors. In Nevada, the veterans outreach has a dual purpose - helping Trump and also the GOP's senate candidate, Rep. Joe Heck, a brigadier general in the army reserves. Vicky Maltman, an veterans' activist whose husband received a Purple Heart in Vietnam, at first refused to help Staab because she didn't want to be associated with partisan politics. Now she happily volunteers because she believes the program is trying to mobilize a group she fears is growing politically alienated. "A lot of our veterans feel like they're forgotten about," she said. On a recent afternoon, Staab knocked on doors of veterans in a comfortable subdivision dotted with signs warning of wild horses that roam through the streets. Staab routinely introduced himself as a veteran and touted Trump's 10-point plan for improving veterans' issues, highlighting item six, a promise to create a special White House phone line for veterans having problems getting medical care. He also noted that Heck ran a hospital in Baghdad during the surge - and Staab added that he himself served during that operation. Even those who turned Staab away received a quick "thank you for your service" before the door clicked closed. "Part of the outreach is just thanking them for their service on behalf of the Republican party," Staab said. BY NICHOLAS RICCARDIASSOCIATED PRESS
WASHINGTON – Secretary of Veterans Affairs Robert A. McDonald today announced the awarding of up to $7.8 million in grants for adaptive sports programs for disabled Veterans and disabled Servicemembers of the Armed Forces. The grant recipients may use these funds for planning, developing, managing and implementing these adaptive sports programs. The Department of Veterans Affairs is awarding the grants to national governing bodies, which prepare high-level athletes for Paralympic competition; Veterans service organizations; city and regional municipalities; and other community groups to provide a wide range of adaptive sports opportunities for eligible Veterans and Servicemembers. The grants will support activities ranging from rowing, cycling, skiing, equestrian sports and Tai Chi. “We are honored to partner with so many organizations across the country to provide adaptive sports programs where our Veterans live,” said Secretary McDonald. “Adaptive sports gives freedom to those who have fought for our freedom, and empowers Veterans to believe in themselves and to let go of what others may see as limitations.” VA will distribute the grants to 90 national, regional and community programs serving all 50 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico. Approximately 10,000 Veterans and Servicemembers are expected to benefit. Authorities for certain adaptive sports programs and grant programs expire on September 30, 2016 without reauthorization action by Congress. Information about the awardees and details of the program may be found at www.va.gov/adaptivesports. # # #
The American Legion’s Consolidated Post Report is an opportunity for posts to document every activity they fulfilled in a 12-month (June 1-May 31) reporting period – whether it’s providing funeral honors, sponsoring youth to attend a Legion program, conducting fundraising efforts or more. The recently compiled 2015 CPR reveals that reporting posts provided more than 4 million community-service volunteer hours, conducted more than 7,000 Memorial Day and Veterans Day services, participated in 1,065 veteran job fairs, provided 123,014 funeral honors, awarded 10,308 scholarships to youth, performed 30,023 U.S. flag presentations, presented 8,426 ROTC medals, and much more. View the 2015 CPR results here. These, however, are not the final numbers for the entire American Legion. Only 8,900 posts submitted a CPR – a 67 percent response rate from the 13,290 total posts worldwide, leaving a third of posts’ activities unaccounted for. It's important for the CPR response rate to increase so that the great work Legion posts and members are doing in their communities is reflected. Especially since newly elected American Legion National Commander Charlie Schmidt will deliver the report to Congress during his testimony in February, but will only be able to share part of the figures. “Good things are happening in our posts (and) in every department every day. Document those good things in your Consolidated Post Report. Every post deserves the credit for their programs and accomplishments," said Schmidt during his election address to Legionnaires at the 98th National Convention in Cincinnati Sept. 1. Posts are strongly encouraged to fill out and submit CPRs, whether in paper-based form – located at www.legion.org/publications – or online through www.mylegion.org. Only 22 percent of post officers filled out the 2015 CPR form online, which required American Legion national staff to manually type in the more than 6,000 reports submitted by paper – a time-consuming endeavor. Submitting CPRs through MyLegion is not only faster, but posts can continually update the form throughout the reporting year. And once finalized and submitted electronically, a PDF of the CPR is automatically generated and sent to the post's department and National Headquarters. The 2016-2017 CPR will be available Nov. 1 on www.mylegion.org, located on the left-hand side under “Member/Post Processing.”
Bill Welyczko of Middletown, N.Y., was a U.S. Army squad leader when he went to fight in the Vietnam War in May 1966. There, he was wounded on three separate occasions and received the Purple Heart for each. But it wasn’t until much later in life that he faced death again due to wartime military service. In 2014, he was diagnosed with lung cancer linked to exposure to Agent Orange, the toxic defoliant used to kill jungle cover and expose enemy positions during the war. Part of Welyczko’s right lung had to be removed. Thirty days after VA performed the surgery, he was back on the table, and a kidney was removed. “VA would not provide me with any home health care when I left the hospital nor was there any follow-up chemotherapy,” Welyczko said. “I went to a private doctor for a second opinion, and he advised me I should have been receiving chemo post-surgery.” Welyczko, a member of The American Legion, paid for his own chemotherapy after being told that VA would not cover it. Even with insurance, it cost thousands of dollars. But the cancer went into remission. Totally disabled, the decorated Vietnam War combat veteran needed help, and because his disability claim was not properly filed, months went by without income as the costs kept mounting. On Thursday at the 98th National Convention of The American Legion, Welyczko received $5,000 worth of help from Soldier’s Wish, thanks to funds raised by The American Legion Auxiliary of New York. Help for veterans suffering from the effects of Agent Orange exposure was the main project of Department of New York Auxiliary President Jan Mahoney in 2015-16, who joined Soldier’s Wish Executive Director Mark Ochsenbein onstage to grant the wish. “You don’t know how much this means to me and my family,” Welyczko said after receiving the check. “I am proud to be a member of The American Legion.” Ochsenbein told the crowd that Welyczko’s troubles are far from over. “Three weeks ago, more nodules appeared, and it appears they are cancerous,” he explained, his voice cracking with emotion. Soldier’s Wish is an American Legion-supported nonprofit organization that raises funds to honor and support members of the U.S. Armed Forces and military veterans by granting wishes to improve their lives. “We make wishes come true by meeting unmet needs,” Ochsenbein said. Mahoney extended her thanks to the entire New York American Legion Family for raising funds this year to help veterans exposed to Agent Orange. “As a representative of the Department of New York American Legion Family, I thank them for their support in this project,” she told thousands assembled for the final day of the convention in Cincinnati. “Because of their donations, we are able to be here today, and for many days hopefully to come, to help our veterans suffering from Agent Orange.” Learn more about Soldier’s Wish at www.soldierswish.org. To give to Soldier’s Wish or any American Legion fund, visit www.legion.org/donate on the National Headquarters website. by Jeff Stoffer
WASHINGTON – September marks the start of Suicide Prevention Month and the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) is asking for the entire nation’s help in reducing Veteran suicide. VA is calling on community leaders, supervisors, colleagues, friends, and family members to BeThere for veterans and service members starting with a simple act, which can play a pivotal role in preventing suicide. “You don’t have to be a trained professional to support someone who may be going through a difficult time,” said Dr. Caitlin Thompson, Director of the VA Office of Suicide Prevention. “We want to let people know that things they do every day, like calling an old friend or checking in with a neighbor, are strong preventive factors for suicide because they help people feel less alone. That’s what this campaign is about - encouraging people to be there for each other.” The campaign also highlights VA resources that are available to support veterans and service members who are coping with mental health challenges or are at risk for suicide, and it encourages everyone to share these resources with someone in their life. “We hope our Suicide Prevention Month efforts help educate people about the VA and community resources available nationwide,” said VA Under Secretary for Health David J. Shulkin, M.D. “We’re committed to working with experts and organizations across the country to identify ways we can help veterans and service members get the care they deserve and to expand the network of mental health support.” Veteran suicide data released by the VA Office of Suicide Prevention in early August 2016 serves as a foundation for informing and evaluating suicide prevention efforts inside the VA health care system and for developing lifesaving collaborations with community-based health care partners. VA plans to host a series of roundtable discussions with key stakeholder groups in the coming months as part of its plan to develop a public health strategy for preventing veteran suicide. In August, VA hosted its first roundtable discussion, “Suicide Prevention is Everyone’s Business,” with corporate sector partners. In September, VA will host the Veterans Affairs Suicide Prevention Innovations event, which will bring together a community of experts from business, industry, academia, and government agencies to collaboratively identify solutions for reducing suicide rates among veterans and service members. In addition, new programs such as REACH VET are being launched nationwide in September to identify veterans in VHA care who may be vulnerable, in order to provide the care they need before a crisis occurs. For more information about VA’s suicide prevention efforts: Suicide Prevention Month website: VeteransCrisisLine.net/BeThere Suicide Prevention Month toolkit: VeteransCrisisLine.net/SpreadTheWord Suicide Prevention Fact Sheet VA’s Veterans Crisis Line: Call 1-800-273-8255 and Press 1; chat online at VeteransCrisisLine.net/Chator text to 838255 — even if a veteran is not registered with VA or enrolled in VA health care. Make the Connection website: maketheconnection.net VA Mental Health website: mentalhealth.va.gov.
WASHINGTON (AP) -- President Barack Obama says he supports a congressional panel's recommendation to create a veterans' health care system that coordinates government and private care. The recommendation is among a total of 18 issued in July by the Commission on Care. Congress created the panel following a scandal over long wait times for veterans who sought care through the Department of Veterans Affairs. Obama told Congress in a letter sent Thursday that he strongly supports 15 of the panel's 18 recommendations. He says the VA is already adopting many of the proposals as part of a continuing overhaul of the department. In its July report, the panel said the VA needs "fundamental, dramatic change" to improve the health care it provides to more than 9 million veterans a year.
WASHINGTON – The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) today awarded approximately $300 million more in grants under the Supportive Services for Veteran Families (SSVF) program to help thousands of very low-income Veteran families around the nation who are permanently housed or transitioning to permanent housing. The SSVF grant program provides access to crucial services to prevent homelessness for Veterans and their families. SSVF funding, which supports outreach, case management and other flexible assistance to prevent Veteran homelessness or rapidly re-house Veterans who become homeless, has been awarded to 275 non-profit organizations in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, Guam, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. These grants, key elements of VA’s implementation of the Housing First Strategy, enable vulnerable Veterans to secure or remain in permanent housing. A list of SSVF grantees is located at www.va.gov/homeless/ssvf.asp. “Since 2010, the Housing First Strategy has helped cut Veteran Homelessness nearly in half,” said VA Secretary Robert A. McDonald. “Housing First is why 360,000 Veterans and family members have been housed, rehoused or prevented from falling into homelessness over the last five years. SSVF helps homeless Veterans quickly find stable housing and access the supportive services they – and their families – need.” Grantees will continue to provide eligible Veteran families with outreach, case management, and assistance obtaining VA and other benefits, which may include health care, income support services, financial planning, child care, legal services, transportation, housing counseling, among other services. Grantees are expected to leverage supportive services grant funds to enhance the housing stability of very low-income Veteran families who are occupying permanent housing. In doing so, grantees are required to establish relationships with local community resources. In fiscal year (FY) 2015, SSVF served more than 157,000 participants and is on track to exceed that number in FY 2016. As a result of these and other efforts, Veteran homelessness is down 47 percent since the launch of the Federal Strategic Plan to Prevent and End Homelessness in 2010. Also since 2010, more than 360,000 Veterans and their family members have been permanently housed, rapidly re-housed, or prevented from falling into homelessness by VA’s homelessness programs and targeted housing vouchers provided by the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Today’s grant recipients successfully competed for grants under a January 15, 2016, Notice of Fund Availability. Applications were due February 5, 2016. The funding will support SSVF services in FY 2017, which starts October 1, 2016, and ends September 30, 2017. For more information about the SSVF program, visit www.va.gov/homeless/ssvf.asp. ###
MADISON, Wis. (AP) -- The family of a Marine veteran who died from a toxic mix of more than a dozen drugs at a U.S. Veterans Affairs facility in Tomah, Wisconsin, filed a wrongful death and medical malpractice lawsuit against the U.S. government Monday. The federal lawsuit filed in Madison, Wisconsin, alleges VA caregivers improperly prescribed and administered drugs to Jason Simcakoski, who was 35 when he died in 2014. It also alleges the VA failed to provide adequate emergency care for Simcakoski when he was found unresponsive and did not properly diagnose his mental health and substance abuse problems. Last year, the VA's inspector general ruled that deficiencies in care led to Simcakoski's death. One physician who attended to him was fired. The lawsuit filed Monday by Simcakoski's wife seeks unspecified compensation. It lists the couple's daughter as a plaintiff. Neither a Justice Department attorney listed in court documents nor a VA representative could be immediately reached by The Associated Press for comment. According to the lawsuit, a doctor prescribed Simcakoski Suboxone - a drug often used to treat addicts of heroin and other opiates - to alleviate chronic pain and potentially decrease anxiety. The lawsuit alleges Simcakoski was not warned that was an off-label use of the drug or that Suboxone would interact with other medicines he was already taking. It also alleges he was given too high a dosage. The lawsuit says Simcakoski's family visited him at the Tomah facility hours before his death on August 30, 2014, and his father was concerned because he was "so sedated he could barely speak." A nursing staff member found him unresponsive at 2:45 p.m., but CPR was not started until 10 minutes later and emergency responders didn't arrive for 20 minutes, according to the lawsuit. The Tomah facility was dubbed "Candy Land" by some veterans for its prescribing practices. A 2015 VA report concluded that patients at there were more likely than patients at other VA hospitals to receive high doses of pain killers. The center has said it is committed to improving the care it provides to veterans. Its acting director said after the release of the report on Simcakoski's death that changes were being made to address the problems identified, including improving life-saving emergency procedures and reviewing medications available on emergency crash carts.