Top 10 Veterans News from Around the Country 3-20-09


What’s Inside Today’s Local News for Veterans

1. Changing Course On Insurance Plan Seen As Potentially Benefiting Obama.  
2. VA Soon To Begin Constructing Hospital In Colorado.  
3. Subcommittee Approves Expansion Of Vets’ Health Reimbursement Eligibility.  
4. Shinseki Says That As VA Secretary, He Can Give Back To Fellow Vets.  
5. Advocate Pleased To See "Stop-Loss" Ending, Calls For Advance VA Funding.  
6. Phoenix VA Set Up To Assist Vets.  
7. Vet Center Reaching Out To Younger Vets.  
8. VA Mental Health Workers Focused On PTSD.  
9. VA Hospital Using New MRI Machine.  
10. War Protester Arrested After Scaling VA Building.

     1.      Changing Course On Insurance Plan Seen As Potentially Benefiting Obama.   In continuing coverage, the Navy Times (3/20, Maze) reports, "A political blunder that made the Obama administration seem like a penny-pincher on veterans health care could end up solidifying support for the new president and his staff from some military and veterans groups. Although the groups are not at all pleased that the administration toyed with the idea of billing veterans’ private insurance companies for treatment of service-connected conditions, the fact that" President Obama "and his chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, met with the groups, listened to their concerns and ultimately dropped the idea appears to have won them some respect."
      In his syndicated "Military Update" column, appearing in Stars And Stripes (3/20), Tom Philpott says Obama "won style points" from veterans’ service organizations (VSOs) "this week even as he was forced… to withdraw" his private insurance plan. On Wednesday, Disabled American Veterans Executive Director David W. Gorman said, "The issue should never have come up [and] he got a black eye out of it," but "we came out…very, very pleased that he had" taken "heed of our advice." Philpott notes that the dispute between Obama and the VSOs heated up on the same day the President and VA Secretary Eric Shinseki visited with employees at VA headquarters.
      The Shakopee (MN) Valley News (3/20, Minelli) reports US Rep. John Kline (R-MN), "who is…a co-sponsor of legislation expressing the sense of the House of Representatives that the VA should take full responsibility for financing the health care benefits earned by veterans with service-connected disabilities, welcomed the announcement that the administration dropped" the private insurance plan. Kline stated, "I am relieved to learn President Obama has reversed course," and "I look forward to working with my colleagues and the administration to keep our promises to the men and women who have fought for – and continue to defend – our nation
      In a related op-ed appearing in Maine’s Magic City Morning Star (3/20), US Rep. Mike Michaud (D-ME) writes, "I told VA Secretary Eric Shinseki that I opposed the proposal to charge third party insurance companies for service-connected medical treatment at a hearing on March 10th. I also sent a letter to the VA expressing my concern that the implementation of such a policy has extensive consequences for veterans." The majority of VSOs "joined me to express their shared outrage for any proposed change that would release the government’s responsibility to care for veterans facing disabilities as a result of honorable service." And the "administration ended up hearing us loud and clear," announcing this week that it had dropped the insurance proposal. This" was a victory for all veterans and I appreciate President Obama’s willingness to listen to everyone on this issue, especially the groups who so admirably represent out nation’s veterans."
      North Calls Proposal Shameful.   Taking a very different approach in an op-ed for the FOX News (3/19) website, Oliver North harshly criticized the administration, saying that from the beginning, the private insurance "scheme was dead on arrival. VA Secretary Eric Shinseki – who should have known better than to defend it – was raked over the coals" in a House Veterans Affairs Committee "hearing on March 10." Later, however, the "’O-Team’ rescinded their shameful plot."
      Columnist Wonders What Obama Was Thinking.   In his syndicated GateHouse News Service (3/20) column, Bruce Coulter says Obama "smartly reversed course" on the private insurance plan "after veteran’s organizations and Capitol Hill lawmakers loudly complained. The idea was initially floated as a way to save $540 million, but apparently little or no thought was given to the backlash it would cause." So "one

question remains: What was Obama thinking? Anyone, anyone?"
      In an editorial, the Kansas City (MO) Star (3/20) says the "Obama administration wants to make VA care more available for veterans of modest means," and that is "a laudable goal. However, forcing vets to use private insurance for service-connected injuries was a back-handed and maladroit way to go about it."
      Paper Claims There Are Ways For VA To Generate Savings.   In a similar editorial, the Chattanooga (TN) Times Free Press (3/20) notes that while the plan "never moved beyond the ‘consideration’ stage, according" to VA Secretary Eric Shinseki, "it was widely reported that it would save his department about $540 million a year." But even without the plan, there "is general agreement, even among veterans groups, that savings are to be had if the VA pursues them. A spokesman for the American Legion, for example, suggests that Congress and the administration allow the VA to begin billing Medicare for treatment of Medicare-eligible non-service connected ailments." That "makes sense. So does a suggestion that the VA step up efforts to collect payments from private insurers responsible for non-service related care."
      Obama Says VA Employees Can Transform The Department.   In continuing coverage, the American Forces Press Service (3/20, Garamone) reports, "Caring for veterans is a responsibility and duty for all Americans, and the employees" at the VA "are those who are charged with repaying ‘that debt of honor,’" Obama "said during a ceremony March 16…marking the department’s 20th anniversary." Transforming the VA, which "became a cabinet-level department in 1989," is "a tall order, Obama said, but he added that he has the fullest confidence that the men and women of the department can do it."

2.      VA Soon To Begin Constructing Hospital In Colorado.   In continuing coverage, the Denver (CO) Daily News (3/20, Davis) reports, "The Department of Veterans Affairs announced" Wednesday "that they will begin construction within the next three months on a stand-alone replacement hospital for Denver-area veterans, a decision that comes after years of false starts and increasing anger from community groups, lawmakers and veterans over an apparent lack of progress on the project." Veterans "and lawmakers applauded the decision as welcome news. ‘This is great news not just for the more than 400,000 military veterans who live in Colorado, but for the entire state,’ said a statement from Gov. Bill Ritter. ‘I applaud (Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric K. Shinseki’s) decision to move ahead with a stand-alone hospital."
      Colorado’s Valley Courier (3/19, Heide) said US Rep. John Salazar (D-CO) "joined…Shinseki and other members of the Colorado delegation on Wednesday to announce that construction will begin on a new, stand-alone VA hospital at the University of Colorado medical campus in Aurora. ‘As a veteran, I am excited that the hospital is going to finally, after many years of back and forth, get under way,’ Salazar said." He "added that this project had been in the works for 10 years, and he was gratified to see it come to fruition as a stand-alone facility." Salazar "said his next project will be a national veterans cemetery in Colorado."
      The Denver (CO) Post (3/19, Brown, Riley) said "dozens of veterans who griped about conditions" at "Denver’s run-down, cramped" VA hospital "celebrated word that a new, state-of-the-art hospital is coming." The "new hospital…will be finished by 2013, Shinseki said. Major construction should start next year." Shinseki "also announced two new health care centers – one in Colorado Springs and one in Billings, Mont. – as well as eight new rural health care sites throughout the region. The new initiatives will mean 92 percent of Colorado veterans will live within one hour of VA primary care and 81 percent

will live within two hours of a medical center, Shinseki said."
      Modern Healthcare (3/20, Zigmond) says the "new hospital will offer medical, laboratory, research and counseling services, as well as a 30-bed spinal-cord injury center to serve veterans in the VA’s Rocky Mountain network of Colorado, Montana, Utah and Wyoming. The VA will also create new healthcare centers to provide ambulatory care and same-day surgical services in Colorado Springs" and Billings, Montana.
      Lawmaker To Host Veterans Ceremony In Colorado.   The Greeley (CO) Tribune (3/20) reports US Rep. Betsy Markey (D-CO) "will host a ceremony on Saturday honoring veterans in Greeley and commemorating this week’s decision to build a new" VA hospital in Denver. At the ceremony, Markey "will present an Iraq War veteran with a pen used by Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki that he used to sign a document confirming details of the hospital construction."

3.      Subcommittee Approves Expansion Of Vets’ Health Reimbursement Eligibility.   In continuing coverage, CQ (3/20, Johnson) reports, "The House Veterans Affairs Health Subcommittee on Thursday approved…a measure that would expand veterans’ eligibility to be reimbursed for care they receive in non-Veterans Affairs Department emergency rooms." An amendment, "adopted by voice vote," would allow the VA secretary "to provide reimbursement for emergency treatment provided at a non-department facility at any time before the date of enactment." The Veterans Affairs Economic Opportunity Subcommittee "approved five other" veterans-related measures, "at a separate session Thursday afternoon." One of those bills would "establish a scholarship for students pursuing degrees or certificates in medical studies to help the visually impaired. The measure aims to increase the number of blind rehabilitation specialists who serve at VA hospitals."

4.      Shinseki Says That As VA Secretary, He Can Give Back To Fellow Vets.   In continuing coverage, the second item in Bill Harding’s "Veterans Hotline" column in the Craig (CO) Daily Press (3/20) is an open letter to veterans from Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki, who says his position provides him with "the opportunity to give back to those who served with and for me during" his "38 years in uniform and those on whose shoulders we all stood as we grew up in the profession of arms."

5.      Advocate Pleased To See "Stop-Loss" Ending, Calls For Advance VA Funding.   In an opinion piece appearing on the Huffington Post (3/20), Paul Rieckhoff of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA), says that on the "6th anniversary of the war in Iraq," politicians in Washington, "at least this week," were listening. Over the "past few days," the IAVA "has met with President Obama in the White House, Speaker Pelosi in the Capitol, and VA Secretary Shinseki at the VA headquarters." And the "folks in Washington aren’t just listening — in one area of government at least – they’re acting. We saw real progress this week when the Pentagon announced it would phase out the use of ‘stop-loss.’" But "as the war enters its seventh year, there’s still a ton left to do. As we draw down our forces in Iraq, we must also prepare for the surge of veterans returning home." And there is "one simple fix that Congress and the President need to agree on this year: advance" VA funding.

6.      Phoenix VA Set Up To Assist Vets.   The Arizona Republic (3/20, Náñez) reports, "The Phoenix VA Health Administration has helped thousands of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans rebuild their lives after war. Among those served" is Afghanistan veteran Travis Shrum and Iraq veteran Kathleen Freitas. Both veterans suffered from PTSD, "which experts say affects 12 to 20 percent of Iraq vets and 6 to 11 percent of Afghanistan vets." Now, however, Freitas and Shrum "count themselves as Phoenix Veterans Health Administration’s success stories. A team of Phoenix VA medical professionals and social workers dedicated to Iraq and Afghanistan veterans helped the soldiers find peace." And, now, Freitas and Shrum "are outspoken about the need to reach more veterans who are eligible for VA’s medical and mental-health support."

7.      Vet Center Reaching Out To Younger Vets.   The Erie (PA) Times-News (3/19, Switzer) reported, "Robert Martin, team leader at the Veterans Readjustment Counseling Center/Vet Center, helps those" who have "seen war, but not many young veterans seem interested in his services. ‘They are coming back in a time of economic distress,’ Martin said. ‘When the vets prioritize, their own mental health isn’t at the top of their priority list." The center, however, "is trying to reach out more, Martin said. He and his staff of three counselors have a new recreational vehicle to serve veterans in rural areas. They are" also "expanding to a larger office and creating two new positions. They hire young veterans" like 28-year-old Jeff Starr "in hopes of pulling in more of their kind." Starr "served two tours in Iraq — one during the invasion."
    8.      VA Mental Health Workers Focused On PTSD.   The Durham (NC) Herald-Sun (3/20, Childress) reports, "Howard J. Kudler, a psychiatrist at the Durham VA Medical Center, spent a little time on the set of Sesame Street this week. As associate director of Mental Illness Research, Education and Clinical Center on Deployment Mental Health" at the hospital, Kudler "was particularly interested in the taping of a segment titled ‘Coming Home.’ The 30-minute program, which is scheduled to air April 1 on PBS, tells stories about service members who return home with injuries, both visible and invisible, and explores families’ struggle to find a ‘new normal.’ Kudler specializes in those invisible injuries that cause" PTSD. Kudler "said the problems experienced by Iraq veterans and those from Vietnam are virtually the same," but today, "VA and military efforts today are more focused on preventing PTSD and other mental disorders from occurring in soldiers."
      After relating the story of two troubled Iraq vets, the Tooele (UT) Transcript-Bulletin (3/20, Belnap) reports, "Tom Mullin, a psychologist with the VA Medical Center in Salt Lake City, said despite increased media reporting on PTSD, the disorder is not increasing." However, Mullin also "said a stigma attached to PTSD often stops soldiers from seeking treatment."

9.      VA Hospital Using New MRI Machine.   The Memphis Commercial Appeal (3/20, Connolly) reports, "Doctors at the Memphis Veterans Medical Center say a new magnetic resonance imaging device should help them diagnose a wide range of illnesses, including those of patients who suffered brain injuries in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. ‘Traumatic brain injury is a big thing on the horizon for us,’ said Dr. John R. Ware," chief of the facility’s "radiology section. ‘This is very sensitive imaging for that type of injury.’ Head injuries from blasts are causing lingering problems for many veterans returning from the wars," and the "new MRI machine…can help doctors spot small areas of brain damage, Ware said. The VA held a ribbon-cutting ceremony Wednesday to celebrate the new device."

10.    War Protester Arrested After Scaling VA Building.   USA Today /AP (3/20) reports US Army veteran Forrest Schmidt "has been arrested after climbing up the Veterans Affairs Department building in downtown Washington to hang a sign protesting the Iraq war." Schmidt "was arrested Thursday outside the building." Before then, however, he "had time to hang a large banner over the building entrance that read ‘Veterans say NO to War and Occupation.’" The AP adds that a "group of veterans and anti-war activists is planning to march on the Pentagon on Saturday to mark the sixth anniversary of the Iraq war."



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