Update on funding for Veterans Affairs

Thomas Crisp Contributing Columnist

December 9, 2013

The Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee moved Nov. 19 to protect all veterans programs from a future government shutdown. But the measure, S.932, won’t help immediately.

Because the shutdown protection involves providing funds one year in advance for all veterans programs, the best-case scenario would have its provisions first apply in fiscal 2015, which begins on Oct. 1, 2014. That means if there is another government shutdown on Jan. 15, when temporary appropriations expire, only veterans medical programs that already receive advanced funding would be protected.

The Putting Veterans Funding First Act of 2013 enjoys wide support from veterans’ groups and bipartisan support from lawmakers. But the Obama administration, Veterans Affairs Department and a few members of Congress are not on board.

The legislation comes in the wake of the 17-day shutdown in October that led to furloughs of about 10,000 VA workers, slowed processing of benefits claims and for a few days closed VA regional offices to the public. The Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee approved the bill on a 13-1 vote.

Sen. Richard Burr (R-NC), ranking Republican on the committee, was the lone opponent. He said he has concerns that providing funding one year in advance would limit the ability of Congress to shape veterans’ programs. Current law already provides advance funding for VA medical programs and services.

The bill would bring into the fold VA’s Veterans Benefits Administration, information technology program, national cemeteries, construction and the Office of Inspector General. The bill also would allow advance funding for actual benefits payments.

The House Veterans’ Affairs Committee has passed similar legislation that does not include advance funding of benefits, although there appears to be widespread agreement to also prevent disability and survivors benefits and GI Bill education benefits from lapsing if Congress fails to pass a budget by the Oct. 1 start of the fiscal year. [Source: MilitaryTimes | Rick Maze | 19 Nov 2013]

VAMC Columbia update

After a CNN investigation into patients who were left waiting too long for care and a WIS-TV investigation into a lack of surgeons at the hospital, officials at the Dorn VA Hospital claim many of the issues they were having have been fixed.

Nine families in South Carolina have filed suit against Dorn VA over delay of care issues. Another 30 tried, but their cases didn’t meet the criteria — cases where patients were left waiting too long, and in some cases died.

A statement from the VA says the Veterans Health Administration reviewed cases nationwide and created “processes and oversight mechanisms” to prevent issues from happening at Dorn and other VA centers.

VA officials also say 55 cases at the hospital were reviewed and they found 20 veterans were “adversely affected by delays in care. As a part of this review, it was determined that there have been a total of 6 deaths associated with the patients’ underlying malignancy”

On a separate issue officials say the operating rooms should reopen next week, nearly two months after dust particles were found on supplies. Authorities said a disintegrating filter caused the dust. The operating rooms at the Dorn VA Center were shut down on Oct. 18 and surgeries were moved to other offices outside the hospital.

The maker of the filter told the VA it has never seen anything like that happen. Workers thoroughly cleaned the operating rooms, while doctors reviewed more than 1,000 operations going back to the summer. They found six infections, but determined none of them were caused by the dust. The operating rooms are set to reopen Dec. 2. [Source: WISTV.Com | Jennifer Emert | & Seattle PI | 22 & 25 Nov 2013]

Vet service dogs update

The Department of Veterans Affairs plans to restart a study evaluating the use of service dogs to assist veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The study was suspended in August 2012, for the second time, when VA alleged that a vendor violated its contract and endangered the health of its dogs.

At the time VA had paired 17 veterans with service dogs. The goal of the study, which was mandated by Congress in 2009, was to serve as many as 200 veterans. VA expected to resume the study in less than a year, following an investigation and changes to the study design.

In early Nov. 2013 the agency indicated it was ready to revive the study when it published a request for market research from service dog organizations. Gina Jackson, a national VA spokeswoman, confirmed that the study will be restarted, with the first new dog pairings scheduled to take place as soon as May 2014.

The appeal, otherwise known as a “request for information,” indicates that VA is prepared to make significant changes to the study.

The contract for service dog providers this time will be five years instead of three. One of the new stipulations requires dogs to meet standards set by Assistance Dogs International or the American Kennel Club. There are now strict rules prohibiting the non-profit provider from requesting financial support or donations from a veteran, a concern that had been raised in the study’s previous iteration.

The study will also include emotional support dogs in addition to service dogs. The former may have a therapeutic effect, but is not covered by the American Disabilities Act, which guarantees the right of a service dog owner to bring his or her animal into private or public facilities.

Veterans who use PTSD-trained service dogs say the animals help them manage the condition by performing tasks like waking a veteran from a nightmare or creating a buffer in large crowds or public places. [Source: Forbes | Rebecca Ruiz | 22 Nov 2013]