VET GUN CONTROL UPDATE: Should veterans deemed too mentally incompetent to handle their own financial affairs be prevented from buying a gun? The issue, for a time last week, threatened to become the biggest sticking point in a $631 billion defense bill for reshaping a military that is disengaging from a decade of warfare. Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) sought to amend the bill to stop the Veterans Affairs Department from putting the names of veterans deemed too mentally incompetent to handle their finances into the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, which prohibits them from buying or owning firearms. Sen. Charles Schumer, (D-NY) objected, saying the measure would make it easier for veterans with mental illness to own a gun, endangering themselves and others. “I love our veterans, I vote for them all the time. They defend us,” Schumer said. “If you are a veteran or not and you have been judged to be mentally infirm, you should not have a gun.”
Currently, the VA appoints fiduciaries, often family members, to manage the pensions and disability benefits of veterans who are declared incompetent. When that happens, the department automatically enters the veteran’s name in the Criminal Background Check System. A core group of lawmakers led by Sen. Richard Burr (R-NC) has for several years wanted to prohibit the VA from submitting those names to the gun-check registry unless a judge or magistrate deems the veteran to be a danger. This year’s version of the bill has 21 co-sponsors. It passed the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee by voice vote, a tactic generally reserved for noncontroversial legislation. Coburn’s amendment to the defense bill contained comparable language. “All I am saying is, let them at least have their day in court if you are going to take away a fundamental right given under the Constitution,” Coburn said in the Senate debate last Thursday night.
Congressional aides said Coburn will likely drop his effort to amend the defense bill with his proposal, but that he intends to try again on other bills coming to the Senate floor. The number of veterans directly affected by the VA’s policy doesn’t appear to very large. Only 185 out of some 127,000 veterans added to the gun-check registry since 1998 have sought to have their names taken off, according to data that the VA shared with lawmakers during a hearing last June. Still, the legislation over the years has attracted strong support and resistance:
• The National Rifle Association and various advocacy groups for veterans strongly support Coburn’s attempts. “We consider it an abject tragedy that so many of our veterans return home, after risking life and limb to defend our freedom, only to be stripped of their Second Amendment rights because they need help managing their compensation,” Chris Cox, the NRA’s chief lobbyist, wrote last year in an editorial. The NRA did not respond to queries from the AP about Coburn’s latest effort.
• Dan Gross, president of the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, said gun control advocates consider the VA’s current policy reasonable. “We’re talking about people who have some form of disability to the extent that they’re unable to manage their own affairs,” Gross said. “If you’re deemed unable to handle your own affairs, that’s likely to constitute a high percentage of people who are dangerously mentally ill.”
• Tom Tarantino, chief policy officer for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, said veterans with a traumatic brain injury or post-traumatic stress disorder but who pose no threat to others are possibly being barred from gun ownership. The current restrictions might even be a disincentive for veterans to seek needed treatment, he said. “We want to remove these stigmas for mental health treatment. It’s a combat injury,” Tarantino said. “They wouldn’t be doing this if you were missing your right hand, so they shouldn’t be doing it if you’re seeking treatment for post-traumatic-stress-disorder or traumatic brain injury.”
• VA officials have told lawmakers they believe veterans deemed incompetent already have adequate protections. For example, they said, veterans can appeal the finding of incompetency based on new evidence. And even if the VA maintains a veteran is incompetent, he can petition the agency to have his firearm rights restored on the basis of not posing a threat to public safety.
[Source: Associated Press | Kevin Freking
VA CLAIMS BACKLOG UPDATE: The time needed to process veterans’ disability claims shot up by nearly 40 percent last year despite years of effort by federal officials to streamline and shorten the process, records show. The times necessary to process education benefits and burial benefits, as well as the time needed to wind through the Department of Veterans Affairs appeals process, also increased in fiscal 2012. he disability-processing time is closely watched by Congress and veterans’ advocates as a measure of VA efficiency. In fiscal 2012, the average days to complete a VA disability compensation or pension claim rose to 262 days, up from 188 days in fiscal 2011, according to a recently completely VA performance report. The 262-day average is the highest that measure has been in at least the past 20 years for which numbers were available.
The VA’s long-term goal is to get the processing time to an average of 90 days. “The entire system is a mess,” said Paul Rieckhoff, founder and chief executive of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, a support and advocacy group. “They’ve been saying now for 10 years that it’ll get better, and it still doesn’t get better, and we’ve seen tremendous frustration from our members in the last few months. It’s reached a breaking point.” The VA said it is working to speed its decision-making process and is in the midst of an overhaul of its claims system. It eventually will end its reliance on paper-based processing and reconfigure the way claims move through 56 regional offices that handle them. “We recognize that from the standpoint of the veterans, they are waiting too long, and that’s unacceptable,” said Diana Rubens, who helps oversee the VA’s regional offices. “We’ve got to transform how we do things. We know that fixing decades-old problems is not going to be easy.” America’s veterans are eligible for a range of benefits, from access to the VA’s well-regarded medical system to lifetime payments for disabilities suffered during military service to access to education, life insurance and home loan programs. The disability benefits are awarded to veterans who suffer physical or mental injuries during their military service. Benefits vary based on the severity of a disability and beginning Saturday range from $129 a month to $2,816 a month for a single veteran.
The VA has struggled for years to reduce the waiting times, and each year it stresses to Congress that fixing the process is a top priority. In 2010, for example, VA Secretary Eric Shinseki told the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee that claim time had improved the previous year, dropping from 179 days to 161 days. “The progress made in 2009 is a step in the right direction, but it is not nearly enough,” he said. In 2011, he told the same committee that “one of VA’s highest priority goals” is to eliminate a backlog of disability cases by 2015 and to ensure all veterans receive a decision in “no more than 125 days.” In 2012, he told the committee that improvements were being made and that the department was aiming for significant improvements in 2013. “While too many veterans will still be waiting too long for the benefits they have earned, it does represent a significant improvement in performance over the 2012 estimate of 60 percent of claims more than 125 days old, demonstrating that we are on the right path,” Shinseki said. In fact, the recent performance report shows that 66 percent of claims in fiscal 2012 were more than 125 days old. That’s up from 36 percent in 2010 and 60 percent in 2011. And since Shinseki told Congress about the improvement he saw in 2009, average processing time has gone up — from 161 days, to 166 days, to 188 days, to the most recent 262 days.
Even so, Rubens of the VA said the department is on track to meet Shinseki’s goals by 2015, given the restructuring in place. The department has seen a massive increase in claims from veterans in recent years, both younger ones from Iraq and Afghanistan and older ones who have recently been able to file claims on new conditions. Claims the past four years have topped 1 million a year. While some decisions might be straightforward — a soldier loses a limb in battle — others are more complicated, requiring extensive medical reviews and research to tie a disability to the veteran’s time in the military. Sen. Patty Murray, a Democrat from Washington who chairs the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, said the VA’s tardiness and mistake-prone process is “totally unacceptable.” “We know that this is a complex problem and more troops returning home make this job even more difficult,” she said in a statement to McClatchy Newspapers. “But Congress has provided VA with the funding and resources it has requested to tackle this problem.” The new performance report shows that the VA has lost ground on many of its other benefits-related goals:
• The average time to complete an education claim jumped to 31 days from 24 days; the long-term goal is 10 days.
• The average time to complete a burial claim jumped to 178 days from 113 days; the long-term goal is 21 days.
• The average time in the appeals system for veterans who dispute their disability compensation decision jumped to 866 days from 747 days; the long-term goal is 400 days.
The annual performance report includes dozens of goals to spur improvement among the VA’s health care system, benefits division and cemetery administration. Of those, the VA highlighted 23 as “key performance measures.” The VA met its short-term goals for only 12 of those measures. [Source: McClatchy Newspapers | Chris Adams
DoD Exit Physical Enhancement
VA CLAIMS BACKLOG UPDATE: The Defense Department is developing more in-depth exit physicals for departing troops and lending staff to the Department of Veterans Affairs in an effort to help eliminate the massive backlog of disability claims. VA Secretary Eric Shinseki said those efforts, combined with earlier department initiatives to create express service for simple claims and highly trained processing teams for complex ones, will help ease the problem in 2013 and keep the agency on track to eliminate the backlog by the end of 2015. Progress on that promise has been slow. Since July, when the new processing protocols were implemented, the number of disability claims pending for more than 125 days has remained stagnant, at nearly 600,000 cases. In fiscal 2012, the average VA pension or compensation claim took more than 260 days to complete. In a news conference 6 DEC, Shinseki acknowledged that “veterans still wait too long for the benefits they deserve,” but he insisted that the department is on the right track to fix the problem.
The joint DOD-VA announcements came after Shinseki and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta held their latest meeting on improving collaboration between the two departments. Panetta listed the backlog as a key concern not just of the VA, but also of his department. “We owe it to them to give them the tools they need to succeed,” he said. “In many ways, this is a national security issue. It goes to the heart of taking care of the people who fought for us.” In recent years, the agencies have worked closely to develop plans for lifetime electronic health records for troops and veterans, shared medical facilities, and better mental health research and response. The VA and DOD in recent months have been developing a transition program for separating servicemembers, which should be fully implemented in early 2013. The two secretaries also said they’re working on new joint suicide prevention efforts and that they have ordered their staffs to find ways to accelerate the lifetime health records integration faster than the 2017 target.
Those plans should relieve some of the stress on VA systems as thousands of new veterans leave the military in coming years. Currently, the 1 million claims processed by the VA annually aren’t keeping up with the 1-million-plus new cases being filed. “We will get control of the numbers,” Shinseki said. “We have both short term and long term solutions.” Defense officials did not provide specifics on the number of military employees assisting with VA processing, or what the more thorough exit physicals will entail. Panetta and Shinseki said better medical information on veterans before they leave the military will simplify claims later on, hopefully speeding up the process. VA officials said the extra information will be especially helpful with severely wounded servicemembers, who often have multiple injuries and much more complicated paperwork. [Source: Star & Stripes | Leo Shane |
•The American Legion Post 70 has on hand American flags, all of the military service flags, POW/MIA flags, and S.C. State flags. Contact a member of Post 70 to purchase flags; the cost is $5
American Legion Post 70 - Meeting at 1800 on the 3rd Tuesday of the month. For more info please contact Thomas Crisp at 940-2793.
American Legion Post 24, of Newberry, meeting is on the 2nd Tuesday of the month at 1830. The AMERICAN LEGION AUXILIARY – UNIT 24 meet the same day at 3 p.m. at Post 24