Retiree & Veteran Affairs News 29 July 2015
Message from the AUSA President
Gen. Mark A. Milley told Congress this week that if confirmed as the next Army Chief of Staff, he’d take a “hard look” at the balancing act of three priorities -- readiness, troop strength and modernization -- but that readiness was his top priority so no soldier is sent into harm’s way who is not fully prepared and equipped. He shouldn’t have to choose where to cut. The Army needs to be ready to fight anywhere at any time. It also needs to have enough soldiers to meet national security commitments and cannot keep delaying overdue modernization, because embracing emerging technology is an investment in the future. The cure to what ails the Army is steady, reliable and sensible levels of funding.In some cases, it seems like time in Washington, DC is measured in “dog years”: If something should take one day to accomplish, instead multiply by seven. Congress is made up of members and staff who put in long hours and hard work to craft our laws, but despite their best efforts, in recent years they have found it very difficult to authorize and appropriate funding for our defense and our government by the end of the fiscal year on September 30th.
This year is no different. The House has passed their version of both the Defense Authorization bill and the Defense Appropriations bill. The Senate has only passed their Defense Authorization bill, and the conference between the House and Senate is now in progress. With luck and hard work, the authorization conference will conclude before the August recess, but it is unlikely that a conferenced Authorization bill will hit the House or Senate floor before September.
In the past few months, this Legislative Update has highlighted where AUSA stands regarding specific policy items in the bill, and progress is being made between the conferees to modify some of the more egregious issues. However, the process is ongoing, and specific details are closely held.
The Senate is currently planning to start their month–long Congressional Recess on August 7. Thus, the next two weeks will be important to our Army, because in addition to the authorization for the Army’s $126.5 billion budget request, the confirmation vote for the new Army Chief of Staff is pending in the Senate.
Let’s hope the conferees succeed in finishing their work before we hit the dog-days of August.
SAME OLD SAME OLD: INFORMAL - A PHRASE USED WHEN A SITUATION OR SOMEONE'S BEHAVIOR REMAINS THE SAME.
It’s only July but Washington is already buzzing with talk of another government shutdown. Could it really happen again? Yes, if you listen to the leaders of both parties.
In about two weeks, Congress will head out of town for the August recess. No bills have been passed to fund the government past the 1 Oct. deadline. By blocking the defense spending bill on June 18, Senate Democrats fulfilled their promise to bottle up the appropriations process until the Republicans start budget negotiations to end sequestration once and for all.
Democrats are opposed to the GOP maneuver that added $38 billion to the military’s Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) fund because it only adds money for defense and not for domestic programs. Since the OCO fund is not subjected to budget caps, this would allow the Pentagon to work around sequestration spending caps enacted by the 2011 Budget Control Act.
Republicans contend that national security is so important that it cannot wait for Congress to hash out a budget deal. They intend to use the Democrat’s strategy against them by painting them as anti-military and holding the military hostage in order to get more money for non-defense programs.
Added to the mix is the government’s announcement that the United States must increase the debt ceiling by November or December or the government will risk defaulting on payments that it is legally obligated to make.
The time for political brinkmanship has ended.
Milley: Army Forced to Cut Size to Cut Risk
The Army is forced to cut its size because limited funds make it impossible to balance force size with modernization needs and combat readiness, Gen. Mark A. Milley said Tuesday as the Senate considered his nomination to be the next Army chief of staff.
Milley, nominated to succeed Gen. Raymond T. Odierno as the Army’s top uniformed officer, said he didn’t favor cutting troop strength and fears deeper reductions may lie ahead. Sequestration, the automatic budget cuts that will happen if Congress and the White House cannot agree on defense and domestic spending caps, would require the Army to keep shrinking while “the demand for ground forces will continue to increase,” he told the Senate Armed Services Committee.
His appearance before the committee came as details have been announced about how the Army will cut from 490,000 active-duty soldiers to 450,000 over the next three years. If sequestration happens, the Army could drop as low as 420,000 active-duty soldiers.
Currently the Army Forces Command commanding general and a four-star general officer for only a year, Milley said there are national security risks from cutting the Army below 490,000 active-duty soldiers but the long-term risks are even greater if the Army continues to delay weapons research and modernization or if it makes cuts in readiness-related funds.
“Readiness is our number one priority,” Milley said. “No one should ever go into harm’s way who is not ready.” He described the risk of a smaller force as taking more time to mobilize and in possibly higher rates of casualties but not of the U.S. losing a war.
In written answers to questions, Milley said his vision for the Army was that it “is and must remain the world’s premier ground combat force capable of conducting sustained campaigns” and that it “must be lethal, agile, adaptive, innovative, and expeditionary; armed with leader, technological and training overmatch.”
On key issues, Milley said:
The National Guard makes some good points in opposition to the Army’s aviation restructuring initiative. He still favors the shift but pledged to listen to recommendations from the ongoing Commission on the Future of the Army. That panel, headed by retired Army Gen. Carter F. Ham, will complete its work early next year.
Milley said he has worked closely with the National Guard and Army Reserve, and he doesn’t see a degeneration of working relationships between active and reserve component soldiers but he understands there has been tension in Washington, D.C. “From a personal perspective, there is one Army. That is what is says on our chest,” he said.
The issue about women serving in combat has been decided, he said. “There is no doubt in my mind women can engage in ground combat with the enemy,” he said, but he wants to make certain Army standards are not lowered to allow women into ground combat jobs.
Russia is the greatest threat to the U.S., not because of its intentions but because of its capabilities, he said. “Russia right now is the number one threat,” he said.
Milley’s concerns about the size of the Army didn’t surprise the Senate committee. Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, the committee chairman, shared the concern. “We are not cutting the Army because the world has become safer or threats to our security have been reduced. In fact, the opposite is true,” McCain said. “I believe there is no strategic rationale for the Army’s strength to fall below its pre-9/11 level of 490,000 troops.”
House Passes Veterans' Health Care Bill
On Tuesday, the House passed a bill to expand homeless benefits to veterans fleeing domestic abuse, evaluate the efficacy of VA mental health care, and require VA to properly track and document biological implants. This bill also includes a provision that would require the VA to round down any cost-of-living increases to the Montgomery GI Bill and the Survivors’ and Dependents’ Educational Assistance program, a provision the VFW opposes. Stay tuned to the Action Corps Weekly for updates on this bill.
House Hearing on VA Budget Shortfalls
On Wednesday, Secretary Robert McDonald testified before the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs on the nearly $3 billion shortfall the VA faces in its fiscal year (FY) 2015 budget, which may force the Department to reduce operations at its medical facilities by mid-September. Secretary McDonald testified that the shortfalls were due to higher than expected demand for health care at VA medical facilities and through non-VA community providers. Committee members expressed intent to pass a bill by next week to authorize the VA to use Choice Program funding to address FY 2015 budget shortfalls. The VFW will work to ensure this bill does not hinder veterans’ access to non-VA care and the Veterans Choice Program. View a video of the hearing. Read the Secretary’s testimony.
Senate Markup on Pending Legislation
On Wednesday, the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs held a markup to report on a number of important bills which should receive consideration by the full Senate in the near future. Among others, the Committee voted to advance S. 1082, a bill to authorize the Secretary of Veterans Affairs to hold underperforming employees accountable for wrongdoing; S. 1203, to improve the appeals process for VA compensation benefits; and S. 1493, to provide a cost-of-living increase for VA benefits equal to Social Security benefits. During the markup, Chairman Isakson committed to holding another markup in the fall to consider other bills that are important to VFW members, such as expansion of caregiver benefits, toxic exposure research, and legislation to address overmedication and use of high-dose opioids. View the markup.
World War II MIA Identified
The Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency announced the identification of remains of Army Pvt. Arthur H. Kelder, 26, of McHenry, Ill., who was buried July 18 in Chicago. On Dec. 8, 1941, Kelder was assigned to the Philippine Department, U.S. Army Forces in the Far East, when Japanese forces invaded the Philippine Islands. Thousands of U.S. and Filipino service members were taken prisoner and forced to endure the Bataan Death March en route to Japanese POW camps. Kelder was among those reported captured after the surrender of Corregidor. On Nov. 19, 1942, 14 Americans, including Kelder, were reported to have died. They were buried by their fellow prisoners in a common grave in a local camp cemetery in Cabanatuan. Read more.
The Army must trim its ranks in order to meet mission requirements amid the current climate of sharp budget cuts, the nominee to serve as the service's top-ranking officer told a Senate panel during his confirmation hearing. Despite funding shortfalls, "The demand for ground forces will continue to increase," Gen. Mark A. Milley told the Senate Armed Services Committee July 21. Milley said the plan to reduce strength to 420,000 active-duty members from the present 490,000 during the next three years is regrettable but necessary if the service expects to continue weapons-research and modernization programs. The Association of the U.S. Army Web site reported that Milley told the panel during the hearing that Russia remains the nation's top threat to national security. He also expressed support for expanding the combat role for female soldiers. Milley's opposition to strength cuts drew support from Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., the committee chairman. "I believe there is no strategic rationale for the Army's strength to fall below its pre-9/11 level," McCain said, according to AUSA.
Federal employees who were affected by the breach of security clearance files still have not been sent notices of specific information that has been compromised, although almost all of the 4.2 million current and former employees affected by a separate breach of personnel files data have now been notified. The remainder of those impacted by the personnel files breach--involving personal identification and career records, mainly--consists of those for whom the government did not have a current home or e-mail address. On the clearance files breach, officials earlier warned that anyone who applied for a clearance or reinvestigated since 2000, and in some cases earlier, should assume that their files were compromised. In some cases that will go beyond the highly personal information the applicant discloses on forms SF 86, SF 85 or SF 85P to include findings of background investigators and even fingerprints. OPM has not yet issued a contract to provide the promised identity theft-related services to some 3.6 million current and former federal employees affected by that breach (virtually all of whom also were affected by the personnel file breach) or to the roughly 17 million contractor and military personnel also affected; also, a call center OPM has promised to establish still is not available.
The White House and Pentagon unveiled July 21 a plan that would close loopholes predatory lenders use to lure service members into unmanageable debt. President Obama announced the new policy in a speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars National Convention in Pittsburgh. "There's already a lot to protect our troops and families against unscrupulous predatory lenders, but some of the worst abusers -- like payday lenders -- are exploiting loopholes to trap our troops in a vicious cycle of crushing debt," Obama told the convention. Changes include:
* An annual percentage rate limit of 36 percent.
* Tighter rules regarding mandatory arbitration and coercion of service members to waive their rights under the service members' Civil Relief Act.
* Changes to the definition of credit to make any closed or open-ended loan subject to the regulation changes, except in cases where loans are secured by real estate or purchase-money loans.
The Army will conduct a complete review of its breast-feeding policies, to ensure they are in accord with practices for nursing mothers in other armed services. The review comes at the request Rep. Niki Tsongas, D-Mass., submitted to Army Chief of Staff Gen. Raymond Odierno. The Army has no set policy on breast-feeding. Tsongas is sponsoring legislation that would require the service to establish private and clean areas where nursing mothers can express milk, and time for breaks to do so.
In the aftermath of the July 16 murder of four Marines and one sailor at a Chattanooga, Tenn., operations support center, the chairmen of the House and Senate Armed Services committees announced plans to take legislative steps to prevent recurrences. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, intend to work with Pentagon officials to craft a law that would allow otherwise unprotected service members to carry personal firearms. Lance Cpl. Squire K. Wells, Staff Sgt. David Wyatt, Sgt. Carson Holmquist, Gunnery Sgt. Thomas Sullivan, and Logistics Specialist 2nd Class Randall Smith died when a gunman identified as Mohammad Abdulazeez fired into the center. Abdulazeez later either died by his own hand or was killed by police. While the attack is being categorized by politicians and pundits alike as a terrorist act, the shooter's family has contended he had been suffering from bipolar disorder and abusing drugs. The matter is under investigation. President Obama ordered flags flown at half-staff July 21, six days after the event.
Even though potable water and medical equipment optimally should be kept at cool temperatures, such capability is not yet available on the battlefield. Researchers at the Natick (Mass.) Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center are working to change that. Their project, called the Heat Ailment Recover Pack (HARP), someday will help keep equipment cool until it is ready for use in helping soldiers. While the need for improved ability to keep supplies cool is not new, the need for something like HARP became acute during recent operations conducted by U.S. Africa Command. Medical teams were faced with treating persons suffering from heat-related ailments. Soldiers there already were using insulated water bottles and beverage-cooling units developed at Natick. The HARP plan combines both, enabling users to maintain cool temperatures, as well as chill items quickly. The battery-powered HARP unit itself is 23 inches wide, 20 inches long and 20 inches high. When deployed, it can bring contents from 120 degrees to 90 degrees Fahrenheit within 15 minutes.
Standing before some of the men who were their victims during World War II, officials from Japan's Mitsubishi corporation formally apologized for using U.S. prisoners of war to perform slave labor while they were held in captivity. Mitsubishi issued the apology during a July 19 ceremony in Los Angeles, marking the first such action issued by a company. The Japanese government had apologized for maltreatment of POWs in 2010. The company's mining entity used some 500 U.S. POWs, along with Korean and Chinese prisoners, in its mines. The material they produced, under the harshest of conditions, was used to produce the legendary A6M1 and A6M2 Zero fighter plane, among other equipment and materiel.
Lockheed Martin Corp. announced plans July 20 to acquire the Sikorsky Aircraft division of United Technologies Corp for roughly $7.1 billion. Sikorsky, long a pioneer in rotor flight, produces the H-60 helicopter. Variants include the Army's Blackhawk, Air Force's Pave Hawk, and Navy's Seahawk helicopters. Sikorsky also builds the VH-92 Presidential helicopter and combat rescue helicopter. Lockheed has come under criticism recently for cost overruns in its F-35 Lightning II fighter aircraft program.
Ten Things to Know About the Choice Program Call 1-866-606-8198 to make sure you qualify. We will work with you to ensure you are approved for care in your community.
By Hans Petersen
Wednesday, July 22, 2015
The Veterans Choice Program is a new, temporary benefit that allows eligible Veterans to receive health care in their communities rather than waiting for a VA appointment or traveling to a VA facility.
1: Am I eligible for the Choice Program?
You must have been enrolled in VA health care on or before August 1, 2014, or be eligible to enroll as a recently discharged combat Veteran. You must also meet at least one of the following criteria:
· You are told by your local VA medical facility that you will need to wait more than 30 days for an appointment from the date clinically determined by your physician, or, if not such date is provided, our preferred date.
· Your residence is more than 40 miles driving distance from the closest VA medical facility.
· You need to travel by plane or boat to the VA medical facility closest to your home.
· You face an unusual or excessive burden in traveling to the closest VA medical facility based on geographic challenges, environmental factors, or a medical condition. Staff at your local VA medical facility will work with you to determine if you are eligible for any of these reasons.
· You reside in a State or a United States Territory without a full-service VA medical facility that provides hospital care, emergency services and surgical care, and reside more than 20 miles from such a VA medical facility. Note: This criterion applies to Veterans residing in Alaska, Hawaii, New Hampshire, Guam, American Samoa, Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Also note that some Veterans in New Hampshire reside within 20 miles of White River Junction VAMC.
2: What do I do if I think I am eligible?
Call the Choice Program Call Center at 866-606-8198 to verify your eligibility and set up an appointment.
3: Can I call my non-VA doctor to make an appointment?
No, please call the Choice Program call center at 866-606-8198 to verify eligibility and set up an appointment.
4: How is the 40 mile calculation made?
This calculation is based on the driving distance from your permanent residence (or an active temporary address) to the closest VA facility, including Community-Based Outpatient Clinics and VA Medical Centers.
5: If I am eligible for the Choice Program, can I receive Beneficiary Travel for travel to appointments with a Choice provider?
Yes, the Choice Act does provide the ability to pay for travel to the Choice preferred provider for Veterans who are eligible for Beneficiary Travel. However, the Choice Act did not provide any new Beneficiary Travel eligibility.
6: I didn‘t get my Choice Card, what do I do?
You do not need your Choice Card to access the Choice Program. If you didn‘t receive a Choice Card, simply call 866-606-8198 to find out if you are eligible and to make an appointment.
7: How do I get my prescription filled if I use the Choice Program?
The Choice Program non-VA Provider will issue a prescription with up to a 14 day supply of a National Formulary drug. You may have the 14 day supply prescription filled at any non-VA pharmacy of your choosing and may submit a request for reimbursement to VA. For prescriptions needed past 14 days, please follow standard procedures to fill a prescription at the VA pharmacy.
8: If I use the Choice Program, does that affect my VA health care?
No, not at all. You do not have to choose between the two—the Choice Program is here to make it easier to access the care you need, close to home. 9: Am I responsible for Medicare, Medicaid or TRICARE cost-shares? No, these plans are not considered Other Health Insurance for purposes of the Choice Program. You will not be billed for any of the cost-shares associated with these plans.
10: What about VA copayments? Will they be collected by the community provider?
VA copays will be billed by VA after the appointment. If you currently pay VA copayments you will be subject to the same copayment requirements under the Choice Program. Your VA copay will be determined by VA after the care is provided.
Video Discussion of the Choice Program
On June 25, 2015 VA hosted a Google+ Hangout to provide Veterans with information about the Veterans Choice Program which allows eligible Veterans to get health care in the community from non-VA doctors. You can watch a 20-minute recording of the event here:
At the eight-minute mark, hear an explanation of the “40-mile rule.”
· What if I live in Alaska or Hawaii or New Hampshire?
· If I don‘t qualify for the Choice Program, are there other options?
· My non-VA doctor is not part of the Choice Program, can he/she join?
· Am I responsible for my private insurance deductible if I get care through the Choice Program? Since the Choice Program went into effect in November of 2014, more than 45,000 medical appointments have been scheduled.
HVAC Passes Bill to Allow Firings of Rank and File VA Employees,
Leadership Promises Quick Floor Vote
H.R. 1994, the VA Accountability Act of 2015, passed the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee last week and House Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) promised that the legislation would receive a vote on the House floor this month.
The bill would give VA secretary authority to fire any employee for performance or misconduct, instead of only Senior Executives. SES officials were the only VA employees covered by the expedited firing process contained in last year’s Choice Act.
Employees would be permitted to file a claim with the Merit Systems Protection Board within seven days, which then would need to provide a decision in 45 days.
HVAC’s Health Subcommittee marks up several bills
On July 14th the HVAC’s Health Subcommittee marked up several pieces of veterans legislation and sent them on to the full committee. Many of them are of great interest and are being supported by TREA. The bills were:
H.R.272, the "Medal of Honor Priority Care Act";
H.R.353, the "Veterans' Access to Hearing Health Act of 2015";
H.R.359, the "Veterans Dog Training Therapy Act";
H.R.421, the "Classified Veterans Access to Care Act";
H.R.423, the "Newborn Care Improvement Act";
H.R.1356, the "Women Veterans Access to Quality Care Act of 2015";
H.R.1688, to amend the Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act of 2014 to designate 20 graduate medical education residency positions specifically for the study of optometry;
H.R.1862, the "Veterans' Credit Protection Act";
H.R.2464, the "Demanding Accountability for Veterans Act of 2015";
H.R.2914, the "Build a Better VA Act";
H.R.2915, the "Female Veteran Suicide Prevention Act";
H.R.3016, to clarify the role of podiatrists in VA; and draft legislation to authorize VA major medical facility construction projects for FY2015 and to make certain improvements in the administration of VA medical facility construction projects.
Hearing on Pending Health Legislation
On Tuesday, the House Subcommittee on Health held a hearing to consider a number of important bills pending before the Subcommittee. Subcommittee members discussed the importance of improving VA construction and leasing processes and ensuring VA employees are held accountable for poor performance and wrongdoing. It was urged that the Subcommittee to consider improving the VA’s hiring authorities to ensure the VA is able to quickly fill vacancies when it fires bad employees. View a video of the hearing.
Vietnam 50th Anniversary Commemoration Begins
This month marks 50 years since the first combat troops deployed to Vietnam. The DOD’s Vietnam War Commemoration partnership program, is working in local communities to recognize the sacrifice, service and tremendous contribution our Vietnam War veterans have made to the security of our nation. The Commemoration will have ongoing events at more than 2,100 locations in local communities around the country. To learn more about where events are taking place or how to become a partner,click here.
Korean War MIA Identified
The Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency has announced the identification of remains of Army Sgt. 1st Class John C. Keller, 26, of the Bronx, N.Y., who had been missing in action since the Korean War. He will be buried with full military honors on a date and at a location yet to be determined. In November 1950, Keller was assigned to Company K, 3rd Battalion, 8th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Cavalry Division, when his unit was forced into a fighting withdrawal from their position northwest of Unsan, North Korea. He was reported missing on Nov. 2, 1950. It would be later learned he had been captured by the Chinese, but died in 1951 as a result of malnutrition and medical neglect. Read more.
Helping Your Provider Understand Military Culture
A new online course helps private clinicians understand Veteran terminology and issues.
By Hans Petersen
Tuesday, July 14, 2015
The Veterans Choice Program is making it easier for thousands of Veterans to receive their health care from providers outside of the VA system. Many community providers are not trained or experienced in treating this unique Veteran patient community.
To make it easier for health care professionals to understand Veterans and their military experience, VA and the Department of Defense have developed a free online continuing education course, Military Culture: Core Competencies for Health Care Professionals. The course is aimed at helping providers to better serve Veterans and Servicemembers by increasing their knowledge and awareness of military culture and experiences.
Erica Berger, an award winning clinical social worker in the District of Columbia, has taken the course and thinks it is a valuable resource. “We should all be aware of how our military is structured and what they experience as they serve.”
The eight-hour online course covers a variety of topics through interactive features, video vignettes, case examples and treatment planning scenarios. There are four modules and each offers two hours of free continuing education credits. The modules include topics such as military organization and roles, stressors and resources, and treatment resources and tools. Each of the modules within the course was developed using research, surveys and extensive interviews with Servicemembers and Veterans.
Berger adds that, “It was good training, especially for me, as my knowledge base about the military was limited. I learned a lot about the structure of our military and the range of difficulties confronting those enlisted, including the challenges associated with frequent moves and deployment, and the frequency of divorce among some parts of the military.”
Berger notes that the online course helped her understand some military terminology that was less familiar and she would recommend this training to other private sector clinicians. “It is a relatively quick and user-friendly way to sensitize ourselves to the experience of Veterans. The range of learning tools was helpful such as quizzes and verbal explanations to accompany the visual on the screen.”
VA former Interim Under Secretary for Health, Dr. Carolyn M. Clancy points out that, “the Military Culture Competency Training will help ensure Veterans receive high quality health care whether it is from VA or a provider in the community.”
This free course is being offered to community health care providers nationwide through the Veterans Health Administration‘s TRAIN website.
For more information about the course, visit http://www.DeploymentPsych.org/Military-Culture.
VA demonstrates its new health record program
Last week the VA started its roll-out of its new health data program before several VSO representatives At the meeting, attended by the newly sworn in VA Assistant Secretary and Technology LaVerne Council members of the VA’s IT office demonstrated the new platform. While this is still not a single electronic medical healthcare it is a huge improvement of the present system.
Now all the VA medical centers have different programs and cannot share medical records easily. This system will allow all medical providers in the VA to immediately call up a patient’s records from throughout the VA system. It will also make it easier for healthcare providers to get DoD and third party providers’ medical records. The platform is being rolled out slowly and is expected to be throughout the entire VA by next February.
CFPB Report Finds Servicemembers Continue To Face Roadblocks From Student Loan Servicers
Last week the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau released a report outlining the continued challenges faced by servicemembers when they contact student loan servicers to invoke the military rights and protections earned through their service. The report, “Overseas & Underserved: Student Loan Servicing and the Cost to Our Men and Women in Uniform,” highlights servicers’ continued mistakes handling servicemembers’ student loan repayments, resulting in improper denials of legal benefits, negative credit reporting, and shoddy follow-through on legal protections for military families. Complaints also include frustrations from grieving parents seeking to discharge a co-signed loan following the death of their child.
VA Funds New Studies Using Million Veteran Program Data
Database Links Genetic, Clinical, Lifestyle and Military Exposure Information
The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) is announcing four new studies that will use genetic and other data from VA’s Million Veteran Program (MVP) to answer key questions on heart disease, kidney disease, and substance use—high-priority conditions affecting Veterans.
MVP, which has enrolled more than 390,000 Veterans so far, has already become the nation’s largest database linking genetic, clinical, lifestyle and military exposure information. Part of a beta test for data access, the newly funded studies are among the first to use MVP data to delve into pressing questions on Veterans’ health. MVP-based studies on PTSD, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder are already underway.
“MVP is making important discoveries that will impact healthcare for Veterans and all Americans,” said VA Secretary Bob McDonald. “We’re grateful to our Veteran partners, whose altruism has made this possible.”
The new research, which will specifically include the understudied African American and Hispanic Veteran populations, ties into the broader national Precision Medicine Initiative announced by President Obama earlier this year.
“There’s already been an impressive amount of data collected through MVP, and we’re continuing to engage more Veterans in the program and building its research infrastructure through studies like these,” said Dr. Timothy O’ Leary, VA’s chief research and development officer.
The new studies, involving a consortium of VA researchers and university colleagues, will explore specific questions related to chronic illnesses common among Veterans. They will also help establish new methods for securely linking MVP data with other sources of health information, including non-VA sources such as the Centers for Medicaid and Medicare Services (CMS).
The new studies include the following:
Cardiovascular risk factors—
Drs. Farooq Amin and Peter Wilson at the Atlanta VA Medical Center, and Dr. Kelly Cho at the Boston VA Health Care System, will lead an effort probing the genes that influence how obesity and lipid levels affect heart risk. Using MVP data, their team will also look at whether these genetic factors differ among African Americans and Hispanics. “These populations are extremely important in VA,” said Amin.
Drs. Daniel Federman and Amy Justice at the VA Connecticut Healthcare System, and Dr. Henry Kranzler at the Philadelphia VA Medical Center, will examine the genetic risk factors for chronic use of alcohol, tobacco, and opioids—and the dangerous use of all three together. “MVP offers an unprecedented opportunity to advance this field,” said Federman.
Pharmacogenomics of kidney disease—
Dr. Adriana Hung at the VA Tennessee Valley Healthcare System will focus on how genes affect the risk and progression of kidney disease. One goal is to examine how patients with diabetes—who often develop kidney problems—respond differently to the drug metformin, the standard first-line treatment for diabetes, based on their genetic profile. The project will also look at the genetics of hypertension, a major risk factor for kidney disease. “Kidney disease is a major cause of morbidity and mortality in Veterans and we’re hoping to gain insights that will drive personalized medicine for this population,” said Hung.
Dr. Philip Tsao at the VA Palo Alto Health Care System and Dr. Kyong-Mi Chang at the Philadelphia VA Medical Center, leading a team of researchers from five VA regions and two universities, will explore the role of genetics in obesity, diabetes, and abnormal lipid levels (namely, cholesterol and triglycerides), as drivers of heart disease. “This project will help us more thoroughly understand the underlying causes of cardiometabolic disease and develop new therapies that are safe, effective, and personalized,” said Tsao. “This is also a great opportunity to partner with our colleagues at Stanford and the University of Pennsylvania,” added Chang.
For more information about MVP and VA research in general, visit www.research.va.gov
VA-led Consortium Launches Brain Bank for Research on PTSD
WASHINGTON - A consortium led by the Department of Veterans Affairs’ (VA) National Center for Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) has launched the first brain tissue biorepository (also known as a “brain bank”) – to support research on the causes, progression and treatment of PTSD affecting Veterans.
The national brain bank will follow the health of enrolled participants during their lifetime. Participants in the brain bank will donate their brain and other body tissue after their death. The donated tissue, along with each Veteran’s health information, will provide crucial information for use in research on PTSD and related disorders.
“Although we have learned a great deal about abnormalities in brain structure and function from brain imaging research, there is no substitute for looking at the neurons themselves,” said consortium director Dr. Matthew Friedman. “Understanding the cellular and circuit contributions to abnormal brain activity in PTSD is critical in the search for potential biomarkers of susceptibility, illness and treatment response and for developing new treatments targeting the conditions at the cellular level.”
Dr. Friedman also is the founder of the national brain bank, and former Executive Director and current Senior Advisor to the National Center for PTSD. The national brain bank will investigate the impact of stress, trauma and PTSD on brain tissue in order to advance the scientific knowledge of PTSD, particularly the identification of PTSD biomarkers. Participating sites are located at VA medical centers in Boston, Massachusetts, San Antonio, Texas, West Haven, Connecticut, and White River Junction, Vermont, along with the Uniformed Services University of Health Sciences at Bethesda, Maryland (USUHS).
PTSD is a significant mental health concern among Veterans. In 2013, 533,720 Veterans with primary or secondary diagnosis of PTSD received treatment at VA medical centers and clinics. PTSD is a serious mental disorder resulting from exposure to direct or indirect threat of death, serious injury or physical violence, including sexual violence.
The national brain bank is seeking Veterans with PTSD to participate in research about PTSD that affects Veterans. Veterans without PTSD are also eligible to participate in the brain bank because it is important to study Veterans without PTSD to compare the impact of stress, trauma and PTSD on brain tissue. Veterans interested in learning more about enrolling in the brain bank are encouraged to call its toll-free number 1-800-762-6609 or visit its websitehttp://www.research.va.gov/programs/tissue_banking/PTSD/default.cfm
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE July 13, 2015 VA Urges Congress to Act And Transfer Funds for Veterans’ Care
The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) today urged Congress to act expeditiously and approve its pending request for fiscal year 2015 budget flexibility. The request, formally transmitted on June 23, seeks the transfer of funds from the Choice Program to continue VA's efforts to increase Veterans' access to care and life-saving pharmaceuticals. “It is essential that Congress pass legislation to provide the requested budget flexibility by the end of July 2015,” Deputy Secretary Sloan Gibson wrote. “This is necessary to replenish critical operations funding that VA had to reallocate from other medical services programs to sustain Care in the Community, after those funds were depleted. If these program funds are not restored, VA will face shutting down hospital operations during August 2015. The letter and full text of the documents submitted to Congress today are available for download here: Signed letter to Congress Putting Veterans First: Legislative Request Draft Legislation Choice Act Obligations Care in Community Overview Hepatitis C Treatment Summary Nationally, VA completed more than 56.2 million appointments between June 1, 2014, and May 31, 2015 – 2.6 million more appointments than were completed during the same time period in 2013-2014. VA also made more than three million authorizations for outside care. * Updated 7/20/15. Information inadvertently included in an earlier version has been updated.
Army to Shrink by 40,000 Soldiers
The Army announced a two-year plan on Thursday to further shrink the size of the active force from its current 490,000 soldiers to 450,000. Its wartime high had been 570,000. The Army will also reduce its civilian workforce by 17,000. The news came as no surprise to the VFW since the Budget Control Act of 2011 had dictated the reduction. Still to come is the return of mandatory sequestration in fiscal year 2016, which would further shrink the active Army to 420,000 soldiers and slash all military operating budgets. VFW National Commander John Stroud called sequestration the most significant military readiness and national security threat of the 21st century, and said “our military can beat any military in the world, but they can’t fight a Congress that is essentially forcing them to operate for a decade on only eight years' worth of funding.” He is now demanding an end to sequestration. “We need both political parties to finally say ‘enough,’ not because a continued sequester will hurt civilian economies in certain congressional districts, but because a continued sequester weakens America, worries our allies and emboldens our enemies,” he said. “Our brave men and women in uniform will continue to perform and excel at every mission, but overtasking with inadequate resourcing will cost lives—American lives—which is an impending disaster the VFW will not allow.”
Veterans ID Card Bill
On Tuesday, the House unanimously passed a bill which would require the VA to issue an ID card proving veteran status to any veteran who presents a DD–214 that verifies that veteran’s service. The bill cleared the Senate last week and now awaits the President’s signature. Stay tuned to the Action Corps Weekly for updates on how VA plans to issue the new ID cards.
OPM Data Breech Update
Personal information on more than 21 million Americans is now in the hands of cyber criminals who broke into the Office of Personnel Management database. The information obtained includes Social Security numbers and security background applications of federal government employees, applicants and contractors. What next? OPM and the Defense Department are working with a private-sector firm to provide fraud monitoring and other services for three years for free. To determine if you are at possible risk and what steps you should take, log on here.