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The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) implemented a new process Oct. 1 for responding to Privacy Actrequests from claimants received by the Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA) for access to their claims files. VA has amended its process for those requesting their own information while respecting the privacy rights of third-parties by redacting third-party personally identifiable information (PII) from the claims files. “VA is committed to providing Veterans prompt access to their claim records increasing transparency and improving customer service,” said VA Secretary Robert Wilkie. “It’s imperative that we protect files containing sensitive and personal information. VBA is required by the Privacy Act to allow Veterans -- or their representatives -- the opportunity to review or make copies of claims files.  Under this new process, VA does not anticipate delays in forwarding copies of claims files to Veterans or their designated representatives. ###
A Student Veterans of America chapter at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas hosted a rucksack march honoring all troops who died in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars For the second year, student veterans at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV) hosted a rucksack march to commemorate the almost 7,000 troops who died in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Student vets from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas pose for a photo during the 2019 Operation Battle Born rucksack march near Tonopah, Nev. Some 36 groups of four or more people, including student veterans from Nevada, hiked 10-mile stints from Carson City, Nev., to Boulder City, Nev. Photo courtesy of UNLV Rebel Vets. Operation Battle Born was started last year by UNLV Rebel Vets, a Student Veterans of America chapter. Thirty-six groups of four or more people each walked 10-mile segments.  The journey took marchers about 370 miles, from Carson City, Nev., near Reno, to Boulder City, Nev., about 25 miles southeast of Las Vegas.  The teams covered about 70 miles each day and carried four 30-pound rucksacks filled with nearly 7,000 dog tags, one for each U.S. servicemember killed in the post-9/11 wars. Participants also visited VFW Posts along the way, including Post 1103 in Tonopah, Nev., and Post 12101 in Henderson, Nev. VFW Administration and Economic Opportunity Director Tony Lowe participated in the march, starting at VFW Post 1103 and ending outside Tonopah. He said it is “beneficial” for VFW to help groups like SVA. “It’s important for student veterans’ organizations, such as UNLV Rebel Vets, to help student vets not only make the transition from service to universities but to help them get jobs afterward,” Lowe said. “It can be overwhelming for veterans during their transition.” As for the rucksack march, Lowe said he was “overwhelmed and humbled” to be a part of Operation Battle Born. “I am glad to be able to commemorate those who died in any way I can,” he said. Derek Butler, an Air Force veteran of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, also participated in the march.  Butler, who graduated from UNLV in 2019 with a degree in social work, said the network of support at UNLV Rebel Vets helped him get through college and his transition from the military. Butler said honoring those who died overseas should be more than just “lip service” and that more people should take the time to participate in events honoring fallen service members, such as Operation Battle Born. “People take for granted the sacrifice of those who paid the ultimate price for us,” Butler said. “I am grateful for the opportunity to honor them.”UNLV Outreach Coordinator Dwayne Gordon participated in the rucksack march, too.He is a retired Air Force senior master sergeant who served for 25 years and said his job is to help transitioning veterans find opportunities that their education at UNLV offered them. “Through this position, I found my mission,” Gordon said. “I enjoy helping veterans with their transition from the military to higher education and beyond.” As for participating in Operation Battle Born, Gordon said it means “the world” to him. “It’s just a way the UNLV Rebel Vets organization honors the fallen,” Gordon said. This article is featured in the October 2019 issue of VFW magazine, and was written by Dave Spiva, senior writer for VFW magazine.
Photo credit: Katrina Wittcamp Elizabeth A. Myers, BSN, RN and Wendy K. Benson, MBA, OTR/L of 2x2 Health and authors of The Confident Patient.   On average, a typical doctor’s appointment lasts less than 15 minutes. Making the most of that opportunity is critical. The Confident Patient, a new book written by Chicago-based authors Wendy K. Benson, MBA, OTR/L and Elizabeth A. Myers, BSN, RN, coaches patients and their families through the complex healthcare system by providing real life stories, sample questions and advice from medical professionals. After years of experiences and interviews with medical teams across the country, Benson and Myers recognized a recurring theme: medical teams intuitively want to support their patients, but they don’t always feel they’re on the same page with their patients. Ranging from managing costly medications to finding trustworthy online resources to securing second opinions, The Confident Patient shares strategies and insights on ways to improve healthcare decision-making and outcomes. “As a nurse, I saw patients who were extremely overwhelmed with managing their healthcare experience – knowing which medical personnel said what, remembering which medications to take and when, keeping up-to-date with doctor appointments, understanding what is going on and next steps, as well as communicating with loved ones…it all adds up. This is compounded by health complications, insurance coverage, confusing medical terms – it’s no wonder anxiety builds,” explains Myers. “Our goal is to share our experiences with patients and their families, so they find comfort in knowing they are not alone, and they are empowered to take control of their own healthcare journey.” Research indicates that the connection patients build with their medical team directly correlates with the confidence they have in them, as well as the confidence they have in their own decision-making abilities. The Confident Patient go-to guide includes concrete tips and take-aways such as: How to become a confident patient A list of questions to bring with you to your next appointment Definitions of common medical terms and procedures Managing your healthcare information Guide to being a confident patient advocate for your loved one Considerations during follow-up appointments Planning for the ‘After’: Preparing for your return home/recovery period 10 Things your Medical Team Wants you to Know “A few years ago, as I was working with a client and I asked him about the goal of his upcoming surgery that he and his surgeon had discussed.  Unfortunately, the goals were either not discussed or the patient could not recall what the goals were,” recalls Benson. “So while the patient may have expected to return to his golf game within a matter of months, the surgeon could be primarily focused on pain relief with limited mobility. We realized at that point that there can be significant communication gaps between medical teams and their patients. And that’s where The Confident Patient steps in,” explains Benson. The Confident Patient is an international best-seller and is available on Amazon and Barnes and Noble in paperback, as an audio book and on Kindle, and on www.2x2Health.com. Co-authors Wendy K. Benson (Chief Operating Officer) and Elizabeth A. Myers (Chief Executive Officer) are the leaders of 2x2 Health: Private Health Concierge in Chicago. 2x2 Health is a team of experienced healthcare professionals who fill the gaps by providing coordination of services, clinical companionship and recovery care for individuals and their families. With more than 40 years of combined clinical and leadership experience, they are dedicated to helping others improve their health and their quality of life. Together, they have built a comprehensive team that helps with everything from navigating a complex health issue to attending doctor appointments to assisting with a hospital discharge and transitioning home. For more information about setting-up an interview or speaking event with Chicago-based authors Wendy K. Benson, MBA, OTR/L and Elizabeth A. Myers, BSN, RN, please contact: Katie Heraty at kheaty@cs-effect.com.  
In Alton, Ill., members of Post 1308 present the Courage Inspiration Determination Medal to sick youngsters battling life-threatening diseases Since 2015, members of VFW Post 1308 in Alton, Ill., have uplifted sick and terminally ill children — more than 500 in the U.S. and even one in London, England.   VFW Post 1308 members Bill Perkins and Wayne Able present Cheyenne Shears with a Courage Inspiration Determination medal at Cardinal Glennon Hospital in May 2015. Since then, more than 500 sick and terminally ill children have received one of the Post’s medals. Photo Courtesy of Wayne Able. According to member Wayne Able, the Post presents the Courage Inspiration Determination (CID) Medal to children in hospitals in nearby states. On July 19, Able said “several” children at Norton Children’s Hospital in Louisville, Ky., received CID medals. (See November/December 2016 Checkpoint for more on the CID.) Able, co-creator of the CID program, said that wherever Post members travel to present a medal, he calls the local Post to participate in the ceremony as well. The thought behind this gesture, Able said, is to recognize the battle each ill child faces and reward their courage.  “While their brothers and sisters are getting trophies, they’ll have a medal that’s the same size and same dimensions as the men and women in uniform,” said member and co-creator Bill Perkins.  Able said after he read about a dying child named Cody Green and Marine Sgt. Mark Dolfini, the Post presented a CID to the child’s family in 2016. In 2012, Dolfini had heard that Green wanted to grow up to be a Marine. He went to Riley Hospital for Children in Indianapolis to visit Green, who was already unconscious. Dolfini made the decision to stand watch outside Green’s room until he passed, which turned out to be eight hours later.  After a nurse told Dolfini that Green’s end was near, Dolfini presented the 12-year-old with his navigator wings before leaving. Able and other VFW members were so moved by the story once they heard about it, they contacted Dolfini and the Green family. On the fourth anniversary of Green’s death, Dolfini and the CID team made the trek to Lafayette, Ind., to present the family with a CID medal encased in a shadow box. On another occasion, Able recalled getting a call asking if he and Perkins could present a medal to a little girl. The VFW members happily obliged. “We visited the little girl on a Sunday afternoon and she passed away the next day,” Able said. “Her parents and grandparents were overwhelmed. The dad later said he had the image of the medal tattooed on his body.” To make this program happen, Able said he “begs and pleads” for donations from Veterans Day to Easter. He asks other organizations and local merchants and finds that most are eager to give to the cause. Medals are only presented from Easter to Veterans Day because the Post members don’t want to get caught in a snowstorm, after making a promise to be at a hospital for a presentation.  “This is so therapeutic for me,” Able said. “They like getting a gift. The [children] may not grasp the meaning of the medal yet, but when you look at the parents’ faces, that’s really something.” Able said that he’d like to see this program spread to Posts across the U.S.  For more information on how your VFW Post can get involved with this program, email Able at wayneable@yahoo.com or call Post 1308 at 618.466.6883. This article is featured in the September 2019 issue of VFW magazine, and was written by Janie Dyhouse, senior editor for VFW magazine.
WASHINGTON — The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) recently completed an aggressive initiative to process home loan funding fee refunds to Veteran borrowers, issuing more than $400 million in refunds.  The refunds are the culmination of a multi-year internal review of millions of VA-backed home loans spanning almost two decades. “VA staff worked diligently throughout the summer reviewing 130,000 cases, which is an average of 16,000 loans reviewed per week,” said VA Secretary Robert Wilkie. “This effort included loans dating back nearly 20 years. Our administration prioritized fixing the problems and paid Veterans what they were owed.”  The VA’s Loan Guaranty Service (LGY) program identified more than 130,000 loans where a refund was potentially due. While some funding fees charged were found to be attributable to clerical errors, most fees were charged correctly. The exception was for those Veterans whose exemption status changed following the issuance of a disability rating after the closing of their loan. Letters were mailed notifying Veterans who were eligible for a refund. VA has made several program and systems changes to provide Veterans and lenders with the most up-to-date information possible on a Veteran’s funding fee exemption status. The changes include: Enhancements to Veteran-focused communications to better inform about the loan funding fee and when it may be waived as part of the loan transaction. Policy guidance directing lenders to inquire about a Veteran’s VA disability claim status during the loan underwriting process and obtain an updated Certificate of Eligibility no more than three days prior to loan closing if the Veteran had a disability claim pending.  System and procedural changes to ensure regular internal oversight activities swiftly identify Veterans eligible for fee waivers and potential refund cases.  Veterans who believe that they are entitled to a refund of the VA funding fee are strongly encouraged to call their VA Regional Loan Center at (877) 827-3702 to find out if they are eligible. Information about VA home loan funding fees can be found on the LGY program website.
Effective Oct. 1, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) will serve as the State Approving Agency (SAA) for California in fiscal year 2020. The department will determine which programs of education are eligible for GI Bill benefits in California.  “VA takes the roles and responsibilities of SAA very seriously,” said VA Secretary Robert Wilkie. “We want to ensure GI Bill beneficiaries are using their well-earned education benefits in programs that meet the quality standards they deserve.”  VA is authorized by law to enter into agreements with state agencies — referred to as State Approving Agencies — to approve the qualifications of educational institutions and approve qualifying programs for the purposes of GI Bill education benefits. VA also determines whether SAAs are complying with legal standards and requirements and may assume the role of SAA in that state if an agreement is not reached with the state. The department notified California State Approving Agency for Veterans Education (CSAAVE) school officials, GI Bill beneficiaries and many other stakeholders on Sept. 6, that it will not be entering into an agreement with California for FY2020. This decision was based on VA’s assessment of CSAAVE’s performance over the last three years. Although CSAAVE sent a letter to California schools Sept. 10 stating its intent to retain its authority to approve programs for GI Bill benefits, CSAAVE will no longer serve as the SAA. VA will be assuming those duties as of Oct. 1. VA will provide additional notifications to key stakeholders to ensure a seamless transition for GI Bill beneficiaries and student Veterans. It is not uncommon for VA to act as the SAA for states during any given year and VA has performed those functions in six states since FY2017.  For up to date information, visit https://benefits.va.gov/gibill/.
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) reminds Veterans nationwide that VA’s Supportive Services for Veteran Families (SSVF) and Grant and Per Diem (GPD) provide housing and other services for Veterans experiencing domestic violence and intimate partner violence. Additionally, in observance of National Domestic Violence Awareness Month, VA’s Intimate Partner Violence Assistance Program will gather with internal and external national partners this October to help promote the department’s mission to foster healthy relationships and safety.  “VA recognizes the impact domestic violence has on Veterans and their families and is committed to raising awareness about this serious problem,” said VA Secretary Robert Wilkie. “We want to remind Veterans in these tough situations they are not alone, and that VA is here to help them access safe, stable housing and supportive services.” Veterans losing their housing because they are fleeing domestic violence are eligible for SSVF rapid rehousing, which is an intervention designed to help homeless Veterans and their families quickly access permanent housing. The GPD program provides housing and supportive services to help homeless Veterans achieve residential stability, increase their skill levels and incomes and achieve greater self-determination. In 2017, Public Law 114-315 expanded eligibility for participation in the SSVF and GPD programs by broadening the definition of homeless to include any individual or family fleeing or attempting to flee domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault, stalking — or other situations making it dangerous to remain in the home — which include situations that jeopardize the health and safety of children. Eligible Veterans must have no other residence and lack both the resources and support networks to obtain other permanent housing. Click SSVF or GPD to learn more about VA’s domestic violence assistance programs.
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and the White House Domestic Policy Council hosted an innovation summit Sept. 23 as part of The President’s Roadmap to Empower Veterans and End the National Tragedy of Suicide (PREVENTS) task force. The summit brought together more than 100 leading researchers, clinicians, innovators and decision makers to discuss research on public health solutions to end Veteran suicide. The interagency group is charged with implementing a roadmap for Veteran suicide prevention at the national and community levels by March 2020. “Collaboration and research are integral parts of VA’s public health approach to suicide prevention,” said VA Secretary Robert Wilkie. “The work of the PREVENTS task force, like this summit, move us closer to solving the problems that lead to suicide and ultimately finding an end to Veteran suicide.” Held during Suicide Prevention Month, the summit provided a unique opportunity for public and private sector collaboration —  to research and explore innovative ways to reach Veterans in crisis — and provide them with support in their communities. A request for information that went out in August generated a wealth of ideas and elicited new insights for developing a national research strategy to end Veteran suicide. Those results will be compiled into action items as part of President Donald Trump’s March 5, Executive Order establishing the PREVENTS task force in June. Suicide is a complex national public health issue that affects communities nationwide, with more than 45,000 Americans — including more than 6,000 Veterans — dying by suicide every year.  The summit strengthened public-private partnerships that will identify gaps in the current suicide research environment and implement ideas to fill them. Veterans who are in crisis or having thoughts of suicide, and those who know a Veteran in crisis, can call the Veterans Crisis Line for confidential support available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. Call 800-273-8255 and Press 1, text to 838255 or chat online at VeteransCrisisLine.net/Chat. Reporters covering this issue can download VA’s Safe Messaging Best Practices fact sheet or visit www.ReportingOnSuicide.org for important guidance on how to communicate about suicide.
WASHINGTON – The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) announced actions to strengthen the Caregiver Support Program and establish a timeline for expanding the Program of Comprehensive Assistance for Family Caregivers (PCAFC) in accordance with section 161 of the VA MISSION Act of 2018 (MISSION Act).  Under the MISSION Act, VA will expand the PCAFC to eligible Veterans from all eras using a phased approach. Currently, the program is only available to eligible Veterans seriously injured in the line of duty on or after September 11, 2001. Prior to expanding, VA must upgrade its information technology (IT) system and implement other improvements to strengthen the program. “Caregivers play a critical role in the health and well-being of some of our most vulnerable Veterans,” said VA Secretary Robert Wilkie. “Under the MISSION Act, we are strengthening and expanding our program to positively impact the lives of Veterans and deliver the best customer experience to them and their caregivers.” In December 2018, VA suspended certain discharges from the program due to ongoing concerns about inconsistent application of eligibility requirements at VA medical centers. Since then, VA has held listening sessions with caregivers and other stakeholders, developed or amended 14 standard operating procedures to clarify program requirements for VA staff, increased oversight in each Veterans Integrated Service Network, provided training and education to staff and caregivers and is boosting operational capacity with the hiring of more than 680 staff.    To modernize its caregiver IT system, VA is adopting a three-phased approach and will deploy a new system based on a commercial off the shelf product called Caregiver Record Management Application (CARMA) beginning in October 2019. VA will deploy phase two in January 2020 to centralize and automate stipend payment calculations and expects to deploy phase three in the summer of 2020, which will enable caregivers to apply for benefits online. VA will then perform testing and verify that the system has full functionality before expanding the program as required under the MISSION Act.  The expansion will occur in two phases, beginning in the summer of 2020 or once the Secretary has certified that the new IT system is fully implemented. In the first phase, PCAFC will be expanded to eligible Veterans who incurred or aggravated a serious injury in the line of duty on or before May 7, 1975. The final phase of the expansion will begin two years later.  It will expand PCAFC to eligible Veterans who incurred or aggravated a serious injury in the line of duty after May 7, 1975 through September 10, 2001.  Additionally, VA has gathered input and is developing regulatory changes to streamline the program and provide more clarity for Veterans and their family caregivers. VA will publish a proposed rule for public comment prior to issuing final regulations.  VA is also working across the department to ensure caregivers have a positive experience through program improvements and initiatives to include: Providing home and community-based care alternatives through the Choose Home Initiative at 21 VA medical centers. Establishing the Center for Excellence for Veteran and Caregiver Research named after Senator Elizabeth Dole. Expanding telehealth services to enable Veterans and their caregivers to get care in the comfort of their homes. Delivering valuable programs for caregivers such as peer support mentoring, a Caregiver Support Line, self-care courses and educational programs to help caregivers succeed.  Caregivers play a critical role in enabling Veterans to maintain their highest level of independence and remain in their homes and communities for as long as possible. VA leads the nation in providing unprecedented benefits and services to caregivers. The MISSION Act strengthens VA’s ability to serve as a trusted partner in the care of our nation’s most vulnerable Veterans.  To learn more about the many support services available for caregivers of Veterans, visit www.caregiver.va.gov or call the Caregiver Support Line at 1-855-260-3274. 
WASHINGTON – The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) this week announced the appointment of Kshemendra Paul, executive director for Data Governance and Analytics and the department’s Chief Data Officer. VA designated a Chief Data Officer under Public Law 115-435, the Foundations for Evidence-Based Policymaking Act of 2018, which was signed by President Trump on January 14. The Act requires federal agencies to develop statistical evidence to support policymaking, maintain a comprehensive data inventory available to the public and implement protections to ensure security of confidential information “President Trump is delivering on his promises to improve care for our Veterans and make government work better for the American people,” said VA Secretary Robert Wilkie. “We will continue to build on this progress by leveraging data as an asset to better deliver the care and services Veterans expect and deserve.” The President’s Management Agenda calls for the development of a federal data strategy to improve government operations and evidence-based policymaking. VA’s Chief Data Officer will support this effort through improved data governance, transparency and innovation.  Paul brings extensive experience in enterprise data management including data architecture, data sharing, safeguarding and digital transformation to VA. His appointment will strengthen VA’s established Data Governance Council during this unprecedented period of transformation for the agency. VA maintains comprehensive data on America’s Veterans through the National Center for Veterans Analysis and Statistics including Veteran population projections and statistics on their utilization of VA benefits and health care services.