By Debbie Gregory.
Last week, President Obama proposed his fiscal year 2015 budget for the VA. The president’s proposal included a 6.5% increase over the FY 2014 budget, allotting $163.9 billion for the VA. Included in the budget are $68.4 billion for discretionary spending and $95.6 billion for mandatory programs.
The discretionary spending will mostly be used to help cover the costs of health care for Veterans. Included in Veteran healthcare costs is: $7.2 billion for mental health; $7 billion for long term care; $2.6 billion for prosthetics; $561 million for spinal cord injuries; $238 million for readjustment counseling; and $229 million for Traumatic Brain Injuries (TBI).
The budget proposal also allows room for the much needed expansion of critical benefits for Veterans. The programs that will see an increase in funding are: Telehealth, receiving $567 million; $534 million for new and enhanced healthcare facilities; $403 million for women’s healthcare; $86.6 million for improved VA customer service, including providing self-service web portals and improving VA call centers; and $3.6 million to open two new national cemeteries in Florida, as well as preparations to open two other national cemeteries in rural areas.
“This budget will allow us to continue the progress we have made in helping veterans secure their place in the middle class,” said Eric K. Shinseki, Secretary of the VA. “It is a tangible demonstration of the president’s commitment to ensuring veterans and their families have the care and benefits they’ve earned and deserve.”
Also included in the president’s proposed VA budget are the means to fully implement the Veterans Benefits Management System (VBMS), which will be the VA’s next generation electronic claims processing system, designed to systematically reduce the VA’s claims backlog. The budget allots $312 million towards reducing the backlog. The president’s goal for VBMS is to eliminate all backlog and have all claims processed within 125 days, with 98% accuracy.
Along with ending the VA’s backlog, the new budget makes funds available for the VA to meet their goal of ending homelessness among Veterans by the end of 2015. The budget earmarks approximately $1.6 billion to the VA’s effort.
By Debbie Gregory.
Since 2004, The Soldiers Project has been helping Veterans cope with mental wounds. The idea for the organization originated after founder Judith Broder M.D., attended a live theater production about the war in Iraq that was written and performed by Veterans. The performance left Dr. Broder thinking that something must be done to help the thousands of service members, Veterans, and their family members who have mental health concerns due to their participation in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The Soldiers Project began when Dr. Broder paid for a telephone line and started a website in order to reach out to mentally wounded Veterans. She also began lobbying her friends and colleagues, also in the mental healthcare profession, to get involved.
The organization’s mental healthcare professionals offer free psychotherapy to any military Veteran or active duty service member who has served in Iraq or Afghanistan. They also provide free therapy to their loved ones, including boyfriends, girlfriends, spouses, children, parents and grandparents of combat Veterans. There is no limit to the number of sessions that the Soldiers Project provides.
What began as a single person volunteering her own time has grown into a national movement. Today, the Soldiers Project has well over 400 volunteer therapists across the country in its network. Since its beginning in Los Angeles, the Soldiers Project has expanded, with affiliated locations in Washington, Sacramento, New York, Chicago, Pennsylvania and Wyoming.
MilitaryConnection.com is a proud supporter of the Soldiers Project. Our leadership has collaborated with the organization to provide Military Connection’s offices to be used by the Soldiers Project, and even facilitated a space for the organization to train new therapists. For more information please call (877) 576-5343 or visit their website www.thesoldiersproject.org
By Debbie Gregory.
On March 7, 2014, the VA announced the launch of a new tool designed to help Veterans identify Traumatic Brain Injuries (TBI). The tool comes in the form of a mobile phone application (APP) that has been dubbed the “Concussion Coach”. The Concussion Coach is the result of a collaborative effort by the VA’s Rehabilitation and Prosthetic Services, the National Center for Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, and the Department of Defense National Center for Telehealth and Technology.
TBI can occur whenever a person’s head is hit or shaken to the point that it causes concussion or a closed head injury. Over the past thirteen years, TBI has become one the signature wounds related to the Global War on Terrorism. But TBI is not exclusive to members of the military. TBI, when untreated, is a major cause of death and disability worldwide, especially in children and young adults.
The App provides its users with the means to assess concussion and other TBI symptoms while in the field. Concussion Coach also provides its users with coping strategies to be used on someone with a suspected TBI, before proper medical treatment can be reached.
The VA’s Concussion Coach APP is free for anyone to download. Currently, it is only available on Apple devices, including the iPhone, iPad and the iPod touch. It is expected to be available on Google Play later this year.
Recently, Military Connection posted an article about the DOD’s mobile phone application for Veterans who suffer from depression or PTSD, called the Virtual Hope Box. It is great to see the VA and the DOD putting the time, energy and funding into making these resources available to service members, Veterans, and anyone else who could benefit from them.
Please remember that these tools are not intended to replace diagnosis or treatment for TBI, depression, or PTSD. These Apps are strictly to spread awareness, encourage afflicted people to seek treatment, and work in conjunction with any treatments prescribed by a doctor or therapist.
By Debbie Gregory.
Sleep apnea has become a major health concern in the Veteran community. The VA’s Veterans Health Library claims that as many as 30 million Americans may suffer from varying types of sleep apnea. The VA says that as many as 24% of men and 9% of women between the ages of 30 and 60 may be affected by the disorder.
The most common type is Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA). The Mayo Clinic describes OSA as: “a potentially serious sleep disorder in which breathing repeatedly stops and starts during sleep.” The clinic calls OSA a serious medical condition that can lead to cardiovascular problems, daytime fatigue and sudden death.
Back in 2001, the number of Veterans who received compensation from the VA for sleep apnea claims was 983. By the end of 2013 more than 143,000 Veterans were rated disabled by sleep apnea. Almost 90% of OSA claims are approved for a 50% disability rating or higher. Any Veteran who is prescribed a Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP) machine receives a mandatory 50% VA disability rating. And any Veteran who was diagnosed with OSA while on active duty, or who can link their condition back to their service is prescribed a CPAP machine. It is estimated that the VA paid out over $1.5 billion last year.
The increase in claims and the seemingly high disability ratings and subsequent payouts have caused some people to question the legitimacy of the claims. Civilians and Veterans have made accusations of Veterans abusing the system. Some even claim that service members are encouraged, even coached, on how to get sleep apnea claims approved before they separate in order to guarantee their 50% or more disability rating. The VA said that they take these accusations seriously, and would look into their claims process.
The current process requires a diagnosis from a doctor. According to VA form -0960L-2, the Sleep Apnea Disability Benefits Questionnaire, the diagnosis of sleep apnea must be confirmed by a sleep study, conducted by a licensed physician. The VA will then review the doctor’s findings, and either approve or disapprove the claim according to VA guidelines, governed by Congress.
Last summer, the VA’s Advisory Committee on Disability Compensation made a recommendation to the department’s Under Secretary for Benefits, retired Brigadier General Allison Hickey. The committee recommended that the VA change their policy regarding sleep apnea claims by requiring compensation exams for sleep apnea be conducted exclusively by VA doctors, researching a possible connection between military service and sleep apnea, establishing an average earning loss for Veterans who are diagnosed with sleep apnea, and commissioning the Institute of Medicine to conduct research regarding the debilitating effects of sleep apnea to ensure that the current disability rating is not too high
So far, the VA has not directly acted on the committee’s advice. The VA has acknowledged accusations made about “fraudulent sleep apnea claims,” and the VA denies that there are Veterans abusing the system. In direct response to the accusations made regarding abuse of the system by Veterans and the mishandling of claims by the VA’s claims representatives, the VA issued the following statement:
“It is the position of the Veterans Benefits Administration that it is never a waste of tax dollars to pay Veterans the benefits to which they are legally entitled. Our primary concern is to ensure that Veterans, their families and their survivors receive disability compensation to which they are entitled.”
By Debbie Gregory.
Practically since their completion of boot camp, service members are told to prepare for their transition back into civilian life. Veteran advocacy groups and civilian business strategists recommend that Veterans should start preparing for their transition one year to eighteen months before separation. They recommend having a job lined up before separating from active duty. Service members would be wise to follow this advice. But anyone who ever served in uniform realizes how unrealistic that advice is.
The reality is that most Veterans are deployed or stationed far from their homes during their last year of service. Some Veteran advocates and civilian employers have petitioned the military and its leadership to better prepare service members for their eventual return to plain clothes employment. But again, anyone who ever served in uniform realizes how unrealistic that advice is.
Let’s assign the primary responsibility of transitioning where it should be– on the service members. It is the service members who know that they will soon be separating from the military, who need to take appropriate measures to ensure that their transition is smooth and fruitful, for them and their families.
But newly minted Veterans can’t succeed by themselves. They need help in the form of guidance, employment consideration and training. In support of our military, Americans put magnets and decals on our cars, wear T-shirts, hats and accessories that have “Support the Troops” inscribed on them. No other country in the world shows as much widespread sponsorship for their men and women in uniform. But Veterans aren’t getting hired for jobs. They remain out of work or underemployed.
Economists focus on the statistics that determine whether or not Veterans have employment. But little acknowledgement is given to the types of employment that Veterans are able to get. Many GWOT Veterans have little to no college credit, and only their 4+ years of military service as work experience. They are left with little choice but to take jobs in retail, food service, customer service and private security.
The Post-9/11 GI Bill is doing its part, providing Veterans with the means of obtaining an education and sustaining themselves and their families while they go back to school. But even Veterans who earn degrees courtesy of the GI Bill still have trouble gaining employment because their work experience gained from their military service isn’t recognized by employers.
Many programs and initiatives have tried to remedy this. The 100,000 Jobs Mission, the first lady’s Joining Forces initiative, and various other private and state and federal employment campaigns for Veterans have made remarkable progress. But Veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan remain the most unemployed and underemployed demographic in the country.
What it all comes down to is that Veterans need to take the initiative for their own success, and employers need to give them a fair shot by finding ways to utilize a military background as viable work experience. It may cost these employers some time, effort and money. But it would be the best way to “Support the Troops.”