1. Medal Of Honor Recipient Dies. NBC Nightly News (12/17, story 9, 0:40, Williams, 8.37M) reported, “This nation has lost another Medal of Honor recipient. Melvin Biddle was awarded the medal for his actions in Belgium in 1944. Acting as an Army infantry scout in the Battle of the Bulge, he took out three snipers, took out three machine gun nests and killed 13 Germans in a single volley. All single handedly which then allowed the Allies to advance into the town. When President Truman placed the medal around Biddle’s neck at the White House, he famously said on that day, people don’t believe me when I tell them that I would rather have one of these than be president. Melvin Biddle of Indiana was 87. His death now leaves 86 living recipients of the Medal of Honor.”
HAVE YOU HEARD?
Veterans served by the Cleveland VA Medical Center can now have educational as well as health needs met during hospital stays and visits. This month, the Cleveland VA Medical Center opened a “branch” of Cuyahoga Community College (Tri-C) on VA property. The Tri-C Veterans Connection Center is a new distance learning lab that meets the needs of Veteran students with access to high-quality, distance learning degree program opportunities. The Center includes five Tri-C eLearning workstations, and two high-resolution ONYX visual acuity monitors. The Center will be staffed with an on-site Tri-C Veterans’ Coordinator to assist with Tri-C eLearning registration and enrollment support; benefits acquisition, as well as with access to both college and community resources.
2. Veterans Affairs Faces Daunting Job Of Reducing Medical Claims Backlog. CNN (12/17, Rizzo) reports, “Veteran claims for medical benefits are still piled high at the Veterans Affairs Department, despite a major push from the secretary of the department for quicker claims processing. There are a quarter of a million claims in the system that have not been assessed within 125 days of being filed, according to Mike Walcoff, acting under secretary for benefits. Backlogged claims amount to more than one-third of the cases in the system, a similar ratio to last year.” The account notes Secretary Shinseki’s statements earlier this year calling for the backlog to be eliminated by 2015, and setting a 125-day deadline for claims processing by the end of this year. It also notes that the agency “been hit with more claims this year after it increased the number of Agent Orange- and Gulf War-related illnesses that qualify for benefits, and put new rules in place that simplify the process for post-traumatic stress disorder claims.” To meet Shinseki’s goal, the article further notes, “Veterans Affairs has implemented 45 pilot programs, commissioned an innovation contest and started new procedures like Fast Track, a web portal aimed at speeding up the claims processing system to under 30 days.”
WPSD-TV Paducah, KY (12/17, 1:03 p.m. EDT) reports that Veterans Affairs chief of staff John Gingrich is joining hospital officials to discuss progress on claims backlogs. The VA has developed several claims transformation initiatives over the past two years in an attempt to better serve veterans.”
An American Forces Press Service release (12/17, Daniel) also covers VA efforts to eliminate its claims backlog.
VA aims to eliminate claims backlog by 2015. Nextgov (12/17, Brewin) reports that VA Chief of Staff John Gingrich on Friday told a media roundtable that the VA “plans to completely eliminate its disability claims backlog by 2015, despite a sharp increase in claims filed during the past several years. The agency “expects to receive about 1.2 million claims for 2010, acting Undersecretary for Benefits Mike Walcoff told attendees at the briefing. The department currently faces a backlog of 274,142 cases awaiting a ratings review by claims examiners, according to a Dec. 13 weekly report.” Gingrich added that the VA plans to use the same type of technology as it began using in November for handling Agent Orange claims. The Friday roundtable marked the start of monthly sessions top VA officials plan to hold, according to Gingrich. Utah VA Meets Physician Access Deadline In Over 80% Of Cases. The Salt Lake Tribune (12/17, LaPlante, 114K) adds VA’s chief technology officer said Friday that the agency has “a transcendent moral mission” to provide prompt service to millions of former service members. The vice commander of Utah’s American Legion “applauded the VA’s intentions and commended the enormous bureaucracy for the tremendous strides it’s already made in reducing the time that veterans wait for compensation.” But he also noted that he had “been waiting five months to see my primary care doctor” at the VA. A spokeswoman for the VA Salt Lake City Health Care System said that it more than 80% of the time, it meets the 30-day deadline for fulfilling requests to see a doctor.
3. Forum Addresses Homelessness Of Vets. The lead item for the “Veterans’ Journal” column in the Providence (RI) Journal (12/20, Reilly) reports, “More than 400 participants from across the country,” including healthcare providers, “outreach coordinators, homeless specialists and service providers from various federal agencies,” took “part in a national forum in Arlington, Va., on Dec. 7-8, on ending homelessness among veterans by strengthening preventive measures and by encouraging greater collaboration among government and private-sector organizations.” During the event, VA Secretary Eric Shinseki said, “We are intervening earlier in the problems that can lead to homelessness, such as mental illness, substance abuse, unemployment and financial problems.”
4. Shining Stars. The Richmond (KY) Register (12/19) noted that on Saturday, VA Secretary Eric Shinseki “and Hall of Fame football coach Roy Kidd addressed more than 1,200 degree candidates at Eastern Kentucky University’s annual fall commencement.” Shinseki “told the graduates” that they should let not their graduation represent the end of their “quest for knowledge.” Shinseki, who “received an honorary Doctor of Laws degree from the university, also reminded the graduates to credit all those who have helped them realize their educational dreams.”
5. VA Processes First Claims for New Agent Orange Presumptives. Investor’s Business Daily (12/17, 132K) reports that the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) “has decided more than 28,000 claims in the first six weeks of processing disability compensation applications from Vietnam Veterans with diseases related to exposure to the herbicide Agent Orange. ‘With new technology and ongoing improvements, we are quickly removing roadblocks to processing benefits,’ said Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric K. Shinseki. ‘We are also conducting significant outreach to Vietnam Veterans to encourage them to submit their completed application for this long-awaited benefit.'” VA issued final regulations at the end of August making veterans who served in Vietnam presumptively eligible for disability benefits and healthcare if they have been diagnosed for Parkinson’s disease, ischemic heart disease, or a B-cell (or hairy-cell) leukemia.
6. Conference Helps Military Members, Veterans With Disabilities. The Capital Flyer (12/16, 15K) reports that over 120 wounded service members, disable veterans and their families “traveled to Walt Disney World in Orlando, Fla., for the 6th annual Road to Recovery Conference. The conference took place from Dec. 7-11. The weeklong event was presented by The Coalition to Salute America’s Heroes and the American Legion. Representatives from the Department of Veterans Affairs provided on-site counseling and information about VA programs.” VA Secretary Shinseki said that the agency “is honored to work with our partners in the private sector and veterans service organizations to help America’s heroes and their families, particularly veterans who are facing unique challenges.” The conference offered over 40 hours of seminars, workshops and panel sessions on benefits, services, insurance, healthcare, employment opportunities and other topics, including “the new joint VA-Paralympics program for disabled service men and women who might be interested in representing their country as a U.S. Paralympian.”
7. South Dakota Governor Says Military Tasks Were “Toughest Emotional” Duties. KOTA-TV Rapid City, SD (12/17, 2:03 p.m. EST), in a retrospective of the two terms of Gov. Mike Rounds (R), touches on his military duties, saying that he soon learned after taking office that “his toughest emotional battle would be holding the title of commander in chief of the South Dakota National Guard. Rounds appears on camera, referring to the demands of “deployment ceremonies, coming-home ceremonies, the funerals, the day-to-day that we get, in that our veterans are concerned about their benefits.”
8. Quinn To Highlight Programs That Benefit Veterans. The Chicago Tribune /AP (12/19) reports that outgoing Gov. Pat Quinn (D) “is planning to highlight programs that benefit the state’s veterans. Quinn has a news conference scheduled for Sunday afternoon in downtown Chicago. He’s set to talk about programs including Operation Hero Miles, the Illinois Military Family Relief Fund and the Vets Cash lottery ticket.” The Heroes Miles program “collects frequent flyer miles from business travelers and tourists and converts them into free airline tickets for the families of wounded servicemembers.” The military relief funds provides grants to families of deployed National Guard members and reservists, while the Vets Cash lottery ticket is a scratch-off ticket benefiting veterans’ services.
9. Texas Veterans Commission Helps Soldiers Transition From Service. The El Paso (TX) Times (12/17, Hall) says the Texas Veterans Commission’s Transition Assistance Program, which “works alongside the Army Career and Alumni Program to help soldiers preparing to leave” the service, “consists of a three-day course that covers topics such as job hunting and applying for veterans benefits. It builds on the information and counseling provided by Army Career and Alumni Program.”
10. Senate Democrats Unveil CR To Fund Government Through March 4. CQ (12/20, Krawzak, Young) reports, “Senate Democrats on Sunday unveiled a stopgap funding measure that would increase government spending by $1.16 billion through March of next year, including additional money for veterans’ programs.” After noting that the Democrats’ continuing resolution calls for a “$460 million increase to the Veterans Benefits Administration to prevent layoffs of claims processors and to help reduce processing times for disability claims,” CQ adds, “The House is expected to return Tuesday to take up whatever spending legislation the Senate produces.”
Politico (12/20, Rogers, 25K) says Democrats have “predicted final approval this week of a year-end budget compromise ceding major leverage to Republicans in future battles but also giving the White House added protection for Pell Grants for low-income college students.” An “estimated $459 million has also been added” to the compromise measure to “prevent…layoffs of claims processors at the Veterans Benefits Administration.” The “Washington Insider” blog for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution (12/20, Dupree, 227K) makes the same point.