VA Releases National Suicide Data Report for 2005–2016

In September 2018, VA released findings from its most recent analysis of 2005–2016 suicide rates for both Veteran and non-Veteran populations. These findings underscore the fact that suicide is a national public health issue that affects communities everywhere. Data is Continue reading VA Releases National Suicide Data Report for 2005–2016

Marine writes song for those struggling with PTSD or survivor’s guilt

Having trouble viewing this email? View it as a Web page.[ABOVE] Enhanced-Use Lease authority develops underutilized land and buildings#OperationSong – “He Took My Place” by Gary LimaThis #OperationSong spotlight is on “He Took My Place” by Veteran Gary Lima who served in the Marine Corps as a staff Continue reading Marine writes song for those struggling with PTSD or survivor’s guilt

VA hospitals often the best option for medical care, study finds

A patient walks down a hallway at the Fayetteville Veterans Affairs Medical Center in North Carolina in March 2015. A national study found VA hospitals often meet or exceed the quality of other medical options in local regions. (Patrick Semansky/AP)

WASHINGTON — Veterans Affairs officials are touting a new study praising VA hospitalsfor outperforming most private-sector medical options, but rejecting the authors’ conclusions that the findings undermine the administration’s support for shifting more veterans care into the private sector.
The study, conducted by Dartmouth College researchers and published in the Annals of Internal Medicine this week, looked at 121 regional markets with at least one VA facility and found the department-run medical center provided better care than private optionsin most cases. In only a few cases, VA was the least desirable option for most patients.
VA hospitals were frequently the best option for patients in treating heart ailments and pneumonia. They study also rated more than half of the VA hospitals reviewed as the best local option for death rates among patients with surgery complications and treatment of bloodstream infections after surgery.

Vets groups and lawmakers say they’re against it — but what does ‘privatization’ of Veterans Affairs really mean?
The term will command much of the debate at the new VA secretary’s confirmation hearing, but different groups have different definitions.
By: Leo Shane III
In a statement, VA Secretary Robert Wilkie hailed the findings as proof the VA system is delivering “the very best quality of care that (veterans) have earned through their faithful service to our country.”
But in a press release lauding the study, VA officials also attacked authors’ analysis that questions whether expanding more access to private-sector physicians for veterans will produce better health care for the population.

President Donald Trump has repeatedly promised to make accessing outside medical care easier for veterans, a prospect that critics have called the gradual privatization of VA’s mission.
Last summer, lawmakers passed the VA Mission Act, which among other initiatives mandates an overhaul of the department’s community care programs. Department officials are in the process of rewriting rules for veterans to receive medical treatments outside the Veterans Health Administration while still using taxpayer funds.

Wilkie is expected to testify on that work so far at a joint House and Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committees hearing Wednesday. On Thursday, department officials argued that VA hospitals providing exemplary care does not mean that community care options are less important to the larger department health care plans.
“(The study) ignores the fact that for decades (community care) has served as a vital tool for ensuring VA has the ability to provide veterans the best, most timely health care possible, and that it enjoys strong bipartisan support,” the release stated.

Massive veterans policy bill heads to Trump’s desk, but results will take time
Provisions for new community care rules and caregiver stipend expansion won’t happen overnight.
By: Leo Shane III
A Wounded Warrior Project membership survey released earlier this month noted that more than two-thirds of responded preferred VA as their primary health care provider, citing in part more confidence in those physician’s expertise in handling military-specific wounds.

That group has also seen an increased reliance on the VA system for serious health needs. More than 70 percent of those polled used VA mental health services in the last year, up from 63 percent four years ago.
Democrats in the House have promised close scrutiny of the new community care rules — due this spring — to ensure that VA funding isn’t being shifted outside the department’s system to private-sector physicians who provide a lesser quality of care.
Reporter Natalie Gross contributed to this story.

About Leo Shane IIILeo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies.

As VA works to implement appeals reform, GI Bill problems cast doubts

From left to right, Elizabeth H. Curda, director of the GAO’s education, workforce and income security team; VA Acting Deputy Secretary James Byrne; Cheryl L. Mason, chairman of the VA’s Board of Veterans’ Appeals; David R. McLenachen, director of the Veterans Benefits Administration’s Appeals Management Office; and Lloyd Thrower, deputy chief information officer of the VA’s Office of Information and Technology listen during a House Veterans’ Affairs subcommittee hearing on appeals reform, Dec. 12, 2018 on Capitol Hill.

By NIKKI WENTLING | STARS AND STRIPESPublished: December 12, 2018
WASHINGTON – The Department of Veterans Affairs is expected to implement a new law in February that aims to shorten the time it takes veterans to appeal their claims for VA benefits – a process that can now last years.
While VA officials insist they’re on track to have the new system set up on time, some lawmakers are approaching the issue with a sense of unease brought on because of damaging problems when the VA tried to implement a new education benefit this year.
Issues with the new “Forever” GI Bill cast a pall over a House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs hearing Wednesday, where lawmakers met the VA’s confidence with skepticism.
“While we are all excited for appeals reform to rollout, it is also important for VA to understand this committee does not wish for VA to push out the new appeals system in February if it’s not truly ready,” said Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tenn., the committee chairman. “That’s one lesson we all have learned from the Forever GI Bill.”

The VA missed an Aug. 1 deadline to implement part of the Forever GI Bill – a major expansion of veterans’ education benefits Congress approved in 2017. When the agency went to make the necessary changes, they faced critical information technology errors that resulted in thousands of veterans receiving late payments. The cost of the failures to veterans and taxpayers is not yet known.
Congress approved the Veterans Appeals Improvement and Modernization Act last year and gave the agency an 18-month window to implement it. Like with the GI Bill, reforming the appeals process requires new IT capabilities.
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“Appeals modernization implementation is not facing the IT challenges we’ve seen with Forever GI Bill implementation,” said VA Acting Deputy Secretary Jim Byrne. “I understand we all may be a little gun-shy about the actual execution, but in this case there is a high degree of confidence.”
Lloyd Thrower, deputy chief information officer for the VA, said it’s a “very different scenario” than with the GI Bill.
“In this instance, we’re updating two critical VA systems, and we have actually had boots on the ground working very hard long before this bill passed,” Thrower said. “And the level of requirements we had to deal with was simpler.”
The new appeals process is supposed to launch Feb. 14. It will create multiple avenues for veterans to appeal their claims for disability compensation and health care, including an option to appeal their claims with a higher-level adjudicator or directly with the Board of Veterans’ Appeals.
Since November 2017, the VA has allowed veterans to opt into a new process called the Rapid Appeals Modernization Plan, or RAMP, which acted as a phased approach to implementing the law. The process promised quicker VA reviews.
The VA reviewed about 75,600 appeals through RAMP in the past year and paid out $137 million in retroactive benefits from those appeals, Byrne said.
“RAMP has given us a good picture of how this is going to be implemented,” he said.
Lawmakers and advocates see the new law as an improvement of a decades-old system – one that now takes an average of six years when a veteran is forced to appeal a claim with the Board of Veterans’ Appeals.
“The big picture is we’re offering veterans choice and control over the appeals process that’s sort of unprecedented,” Byrne said. “We’re making it easier and user-friendly.”
The Government Accountability Office, which has been monitoring the law’s implementation, still had warnings Wednesday.
Veterans will be presented with multiple options when appealing their rejected claims. One of the risks is that too many will choose a hearing with the Board of Veterans’ Appeals, said Elizabeth Curda, a director at GAO. She urged the VA to delay implementation of that option past February.
“That is the most resource-intensive option and could have implications for the ability of the board to process claims,” Curda said. “If they delay full implementation of the new process, they could allow more time to phase in the board options.”
Twitter: @nikkiwentling

Miss the deadline to sign up for Tricare, dental or vision coverage? Now there’s a little more time

Act now to enroll in new dental benefits for military retirees. (Seaman Apprentice Travis Baley/Navy)

Did you miss the Dec. 10 deadline to sign up for dental and vision benefits for 2019 under the Federal Employees Dental and Vision Insurance Program? Did you miss the deadline to switch Tricare plans for 2019?
You’ve been given a very short reprieve, as the deadlines have been extended. But sign up as soon as possible. The deadline to switch or enroll in Tricare plans has been extended to 11:59 p.m. Eastern Standard Time, Dec. 31.
The deadline for enrolling in FEDVIP dental and vision plans has been extended, but information was not available from the Office of Personnel Management about how long the extension will be.
As of the previous Dec. 10 deadline, 627,352 military retirees had enrolled in FEDVIP dental plans, according to the Defense Health Agency. That doesn’t include the number of family members they enrolled along with them.
Also as of Dec. 10, eligible Tricare beneficiaries enrolled in 292,215 FEDVIP vision plans — active-duty family members, reservists, retirees and their family members. Again, this is the number of plans, not the total number of beneficiaries who will be covered.

Want to switch your Tricare plan for 2019? If you’re satisfied with your current plan — Tricare Prime or Tricare Select — you don’t have to do anything. That coverage continues.
But if you want to switch, act now during this one-time grace period extension until Dec. 31. Beginning on Jan. 1, you’ll only be able to change plans or enroll in a plan during the annual open season, or following a qualifying life event, such as marriage, birth, adoption, divorce or retiring. This is a change from previous procedures. But this calendar year has also been a transition year, as Tricare beneficiaries have been able to switch back and forth between Tricare Prime and Tricare Select, through Dec. 31.
Want to enroll in a FEDVIP dental insurance plan for 2019? Act now, especially if you’re a military retiree who was covered under the Tricare Retiree Dental Program (TRDP). The TRDP ends on Dec. 31, and military retirees can get coverage under the FEDVIP if they want to continue dental insurance through the government as of Jan.1. Visit

There are at least 10 choices available to potential enrollees through FEDVIP, with options for self-only coverage, self plus one, and self plus family. Premium costs vary by geographic area, and among the different insurance carriers. But within each national plan available throughout the country and internationally, the other features and benefits of that national dental carrier will stay the same from one area to another. Thus, the percentage of co-pay stays the same across the board for that carrier, as well as the annual maximum benefit and other features.

Here’s everything you need to know about the new dental coverage for military retirees
Smile, military retirees! You have new choices in dental coverage.
By: Karen Jowers
Want to enroll in a FEDVIP vision insurance plan for 2019? Act now. Visit

Most active-duty family members, retirees and reservists and their family members are now eligible for this new vision benefit under FEDVIP that provides extra coverage beyond what they’re getting under Tricare plans. This FEDVIP vision coverage is effective Jan. 1.

About Karen JowersKaren covers military families, quality of life and consumer issues for Military Times.

Online VA medical appointments expanding to Walmart sites, VFW posts

Dr. Alan Shatzel, medical director of the Mercy Telehealth Network, is displayed on the monitor RP-VITA robot at Mercy San Juan Hospital in Carmichael, Calif., in November 2013. VA officials announced a series of new initiatives to expand telemedicine options for veterans this week. (Rich Pedroncelli/AP)
WASHINGTON — In coming months, when veterans are trying to decide whether to go to a Veterans Affairs hospital or a private doctor for their check-up, they may opt for a trip to Walmart instead.
Department officials on Thursday announced a series of new telehealth partnershipsdesigned to dramatically expand their current remote care offerings, to include online exam rooms in Walmarts, American Legion posts and Veterans of Foreign War hangouts centered in rural areas across the country.
At the same time, officials from T-Mobile announced they’ll make use of VA’s video health apps free of charge for mobile customers around the country, potentially eliminating a cost barrier to veterans who want to access the department’s telemedicine offerings.
“This totally changes the VA’s footprint for delivering care,” said Deborah Scher, executive adviser to the secretary for strategic partnerships at VA. “It changes (veterans’) ability to access care in a way that can better their lives.”
The announcements came at a telehealth conference here which brought together top veterans policy leaders, technology experts and medical officials to brainstorm ways for the VA to more aggressively pursue remote care initiatives in coming years.

More than 725,000 veterans took part in some type of remote care appointment in fiscal 2018, either in VA facilities or their own homes. Of that group, 45 percent were located in rural areas where travel to a VA hospital can total more than 100 miles round trip.
VA Secretary Robert Wilkie said while those figures point to success with the effort so far, his administration needs to push the idea even further.
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“Virtual care is the future of medicine,” he told the conference crowd. “It is our most powerful emerging tool. Ultimately it will improve and ease access for millions of Americans.”
The partnership with Walmart will be a pilot program to put telemedicine stations specifically for veteran customers at stores in rural areas (exact locations have yet to be announced.)
Patients will be able to check in to a private room and video conference with VA medical specials across the country, covering both basic checkups and specialty appointments like dermatology consults or mental health care support.

“Ninety percent of Americans live within 10 miles of a Walmart,” Scher said. “Ninety percent of veterans don’t live within 10 miles of a VA medical center.”

For today’s VA, it’s the best of times and the worst of times
In the last year, the Department of Veterans Affairs has seen big successes and even bigger controversies.
By: Leo Shane III
The American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars sites will be similar. Philips Healthcare has agreed to supply its telemedicine technology to at least 10 sites that are in similarly remote areas. The first one has already been set up Eureka, Montana, in a VFW post 100 miles from the closest VA hospital.
“We can get this set up within a couple of days,” said Joe Robinson, senior vice president for Philips’ North America Health Systems. “And they can do a heck of a lot with these set-ups. The connection is fast. The camera resolution is high enough to make some diagnoses.”
Robinson added that placing the mobile medicine sites within the veterans groups’ posts brings another level of familiarity and comfort to many veterans who may not understand all of the new technology.
VA officials have not laid out a timeline for when the pilot programs may expand to more locations. Mike Katz, executive vice president of T-Mobile for business, said the free access to VA telehealth will begin immediately, but officials will work in coming months to make veteran customers aware of the new benefit.

He’s hopeful that other wireless carriers will follow suit, to expand the availability of the services and to help broaden awareness of veterans’ health options.
“The need for this is extraordinarily high,” he said. “The demand is extraordinarily high. So hopefully these changes whittle away at the friction in the way of veterans using these services.”

With five USS Arizona crewmembers remaining, it’s ‘twilight’ for Pearl Harbor survivors

The battleship USS Arizona (BB 39) memorial, as seen from the air in July, 2018. ARTHURGWAIN L. MARQUEZ/U.S. NAVY HONOLULU (Tribune News Service) — It’s extra noteworthy that Everett Hyland, who was aboard the USS Pennsylvania during Japan’s Dec. 7, Continue reading With five USS Arizona crewmembers remaining, it’s ‘twilight’ for Pearl Harbor survivors