Thursday, May 19, 2011








Starting in DC where Senator Patty Murray declared this morning, "I was shocked to hear of a veteran who, after receiving advanced prosthetics, from the military went to the VA to have them adjusted and maintained; however, when the veteran got to the prosethic clinic, the VA employees were fascinated by his device, having never seen that model before. More interested, he said, in examining it than him. With the rates of injuries requiring amputation rising, we need to have the best possible care. As of early March 2011, 409 Operation Enduring Freedom service members have needed limbs amputated." Operation Enduring Freedom is the Afghanistan War. The situation is serious and has been for years now. In 2004, Raja Mishra (Boston Globe) was reporting, "US troops injured in Iraq have required limb amputations at twice the rate of past wars". In it's Fall 2006 issue, Clamor magazine noted "that since the onset of the Iraq invasion and occupation upwards of 400 U.S. soldiers have come back needing amputations and prosthetics (30 percent have multiple amputations)."
Senator Murray was addressing the issue this morning as Chair of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee and tying it into other issues arising as service members become veterans and move from DoD to the VA. "It is imperative," Murray stated in her opening remarks," that those individuals receive a truly seamless handoff to VA medical care so a provider there can manage those medications after the individual has left the service. If that link is not made, those new veterans become far more likely to abuse drugs, become homeless or commit suicide." This morning's hearing was the first of a two-part hearing. Next week, the scheduled hearing's focus will be on veterans shairng their experiences in the care system. Today's hearing focused on the care giving and heared from VA's Deputy Secretary W. Scott Gould and DoD's Deputy Secretary William Lynn.
Chair Murray outlined the conflicts and the Ranking Member noted the time since a scandal lit a fire -- at least temporarily -- and put a strong focus on meeting the needs of veterans and those serving.
Ranking Member Richard Burr: It has now been four years since the issues at Walter Reed [Army Medical Center] came to light and I cannot help but wonder if what we have done is to just create more bureacracy? One are that was implemented at the suggestion of the Dole - Shalala Commission is the Federal Recovery Coordination Program. As this program was visualized, the government would hire Federal Recovery Coordinators to help veterans and their families navigate all of the benefits the service members were entitled to throughout the entire federal governement. Unfortunately, this is a perfect example of an idea that look great on paper but has not yet lived up to expectations. A recent GAO report on the program shows that there are still problems with the two agencies working together.
"Whether you're talking about employment or medical records or mental health counseling -- the list goes on and on -- we have an obligation," Senator Jon Tester added.
The opening statements (written) by the two witnesses contained some information worth noting. Before we get to that, at the request of a veteran present, we're noting that the VA's Gould felt the need to note how many veterans were enrolled in the GI Bill program. The problem was not enrolling, the problem was getting them their checks. And if VA is doing that currently (they apparently are), they should have noted it. But that defect is minor compared to William Lynn's problem.
We've already noted her but let's do it one more time: Senator Patty Murray.
She is the Chair of the Veterans Affairs Committee. I would have thought the name "Patty" -- as opposed to "Paddy" -- would have clued people in as to the senator's gender. Not only does Lynn's written statement end, "Mr. Chairman, thank you again for your support . . .," but he also read that statement out loud -- without glasses so he can see what's immediately in front of him but he appears to have long range vision issues since he was addressing Patty Murray and didn't grasp the "she." If you're going to use the term "chairman" (we don't, we use the gender neutral "chair"), it is either "Mister Chairman" or "Madam Chairman." It is the latter when the chair is a woman. I cannot believe no one at the Defense Dept read over a DoD Deputy Secretary's prepared remarks before they were sent to the Committee.
From Gould's opening (prepared) remarks, we're going to note some date regarding the VA's efforts with preventing suicides. 1-800-273-8255 is the number for the suicide prevention hotline and veterans then press 1. Gould noted the call center started July 2007 and has:
* Received over 400,000 calls;
* Initiated over 14,000 rescues;
* Referred over 53,000 veterans to local Suicide Prevention Coordinators for the same day or next day services
* Answered calls from over 5,000 Active Duty service members
* The call center is responsible for an average of 300 admissions a month to VA health care facilities and 150 new enrollments a month for VA health care.
The Veterans Service Chat started in July 2009 and it has "responded to over 15,000 chats."
In his opening remarks, Lynn stated, "Today's average IDES processing time is approximately 400 days from referral to post-separation, down from 540 days. The goal of IDES is to bring processing time down under 300 days and a tiger team is currently devising means to reduce this further" Murray refers to that statement at the start of the following hearing excerpt:
Chair Patty Murray: Secretary Lynn, you said that you want to go beyond the 300 days. We're not there yet. When do we expect to reach the goal of 300 days?
Deputy Secretary William Lynn: The hope is to have the system which is now implemented in about half -- or for half the service members, half the 26,000. We hope to have that system fully implemented by the end of this-this year. So that's this fiscal year, so this fall.
Chair Patty Murray: And the 13,000 that Secretary Gould talked about that are in the new system?
Deputy Secretary William Lynn: The 13 and then there's another 14,000 or so that are in the old system. We want to transition those over the next six or so months into the new system. What we found though, as we transitioned them in, what happens is that initially we actually get quite a lowering of the number of days frankly as we work through the more routine cases on-on the faster system. But then what we tend is that the time tends to come back up as we hit the harder backlog of cases. We need to work our way through that backlog which is what we're doing now with the existing cases so that data's actually gone up from where it was last fall. But we're working our way through that backlog. We're going to get our way through that backlog. We'll then have a system where we're taking members who enter -- who start in the new system and finish in the new system. At that point, we should hit that 295 days. I can't give you a date but I would say --
Chair Patty Murray: Are we talking months, years?
Deputy Secretary William Lynn: I would say one-to-two years.
Chair Patty Murray: It will still take that long just to get people --
Deputy Secretary William Lynn: I would hope to do it in less -- do it in a shorter period of time, but I don't want to overpromise.
Chair Patty Murray: Is there anything this Committee can do to help expadite that because these are individuals who are living in limbo?
Deputy Secretary William Lynn: Well I think both departments are committed to putting the resources to working through the backlogs and also, when you go to a new system, you create transition difficulties, you end up -- you need to surge resources to uh-uh-uh bases and facilities that are having problems. So we've -- we've committed with our VA partners to do that, it's going to take over $700 million over several years, so we're certainly looking -- We'll -- We'll present that in our budget. We'll certainly look for Congressional support to spend those resources.
Chair Patty Murray: Well this Committee needs to know honestly what the budget needs are because this is an obligation. We throw around 13,300 names, these are individuals who are living through this. And I'm very conscious of that. So I want to work with you but we need honest budgets from both of you about what that will take.
Deputy Secretary William Lynn: Absolutely.
Chair Patty Murray: I referenced something in my opening remarks I want to ask about. The Department of Defense provided this Committee with information on those service members who have died while they were enrolled in the Joint Disability Program. Of the 34 deaths, 13 were suicides or drug overdoses. That is very troubling information. That means that the rate of suicide for those that are going through this program is more than double the rate of the Army or of the Marine Corps. So I wanted to ask both of you what your respective departments are doing to address this troubling trend of suicides within the Joint Disability Program?
Deputy Secretary William Lynn: Well should start agreeing with you, Chairman. The level of suicides is-is too high frankly. It's-it's too high Department wide. It's -- It is, as you note, higher, uh, with the people facing the challenges with disabilities -- It is -- Certainly they have a more challenging life, uh, uh and we need to do everything that we can to ease those challenges. Part of it is what we've just discussed to make that -- the disability transition -- that transition from DoD to VA as, uh, as expeditious and as congenial as poss -- as possible. It's what we're about. We also need to support family members of service members with disabilities, uh, strongly in terms of the care coordinators, in terms of wounded warrior transition units. We need to inform families what are the warning signs for suicide --
Chair Patty Murray: You're saying that we need to do that. Are we doing that?
Deputy Secretary William Lynn: Yes, we are.
Chair Patty Murray: And how is that being done?
Deputy Secretary William Lynn: Well -- uh -- The system -- the system's in place -- right now we work with care coordinators to-to alert them to the signs --
Chair Patty Murray: Actively? So everybody's invovled in this?
Deputy Secretary William Lynn: Actively. Everybody's involved in this. The warrior transition units are-are particularly trained to look for signs and they're trained in how to deal with those. We have a broader suicide prevention system. We pay particular attention to the families of service members because they are the most likely to, uh, be in a position to, uh, observe the early warning signs.
Chair Patty Murray: Something isn't working when we have this high number. So, you know, is it -- Can you give me ideas or even a commitment to go back and take a look at these numbers and really look at our outreach? What are we doing to help support our families? Is it over use of drugs? And come back to us because this is just unacceptable.
Deputy Secretary William Lynn: The numbers are too high and I'm happy to come back to you.
Chair Patty Murray: Secretary Gould, how about in the VA?
Deputy Secretary W. Scott Gould: . . . [inaudible, microphone wasn't on] that list of individuals from DoD who had committed suicide, it's heart rending. As Secretary Lynne just said, we are very focused on making sure this transition goes well. The individuals who -- thank you [to the man who adjusted his microphone -- the individuals who obviously are in that data are all on active duty and under the care of the DoD during that time. What we're trying to do is back stop in that process. VA is moving in parallel while those individuals are getting direct care and Bill has mentioned all of the various attritubes in that. When transition time does come, VA is very focused on making sure that we are working to prevent suicides, are conducting outreach and public education, we're amping up the resources that we bring to the fight on these issues, we're working to destigmatize it, we have a national crisis line that has served over 400,000 people, 14,000 saves since 2007. We're working very, very hard in a --
Chair Patty Murray: Now that's a result of the Joshua Omvib bill that we all worked to pass and support, I know that. But I just want to say, Secretary Gould, I'm -- I'm very concerned about the high number of suicides as I just said. But knowing that, we need to double our efforts with soldiers who are coming out of that program and are leaving.
Again, next Wednesday the Committee is scheduled to hear veterans share the reality of what is taking place from their experiences. Trina's senator on the Committee is Senator Scott Brown and Ava will cover Brown's contributions from today's hearing at Trina's site tonight.
In related news, Senator Murray's office notes:
(Washington, D.C.) -- Today, U.S. Senator Patty Murray (D-WA), Chairman of the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee, applauded the announcement by the Department of Veterans of Affairs (VA) that they have started accepting and processing applications for the critical caregiver benefits program. After only a week and a half, the VA has assisted over 625 veterans, servicemembers, and caregivers apply to receive the new benefits provided under the Caregivers and Veterans Omnibus Health Services Act of 2010. This program will provide much-needed and long-awaited financial and health care support to family members caring for severely wounded Iraq and Afghanistan veterans.
"I'm very pleased that in the first week and a half of accepting applications
for this critical program, the VA has helped more than 625 veterans, servicemembers, and family caregivers start the process to receive new
benefits," said Chairman Murray. "Family members who have left behind
careers, lives, and responsibilites to care for their loved ones while they
recover from wounds they suffered defending our country can finally start
receiving the financial support and care they need and deserve."
Applications can be processed by telephone through Caregiver Support Line
at (855) 260-3274, in person at a VA medical Center with a Caregiver Support Coordinator by mail or online at with the new Caregiver Application (VA Form 1010-CG). The website application also features a chat option that provides the Family Caregiver with a live representative to assist in completeing the application form.
As Chairman of the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee, Murray has led congressional efforts to push the VA to stop delaying the implementation of the caregivers' benefits programs and restore the eligibility criteria to the intend of Congress when the Caregivers program was passed last year. In fact, since the criteria limiting elegibility criteria to the intent of Congress when the Caregivers program was passed last year. In fact, since the criteria limiting eligibility for certain caregivers was announced by the VA in early February of this year Senator Murray has taken numerous steps to fight the decision including:
* Personally discussing the issue with President Obama in the Oval Office.
* Questioning VA Secretary Eric Shinseki on the program changes and delays in front of her Committee.
* Sending a bi-partisan letter, cosigned by 17 other Senators, calling on the Administration to end delays in moving forward with the law, and
* Joining with leaders of the Senate and House Veterans' Affairs Committees to call on President Obama to stop the VA from severely limiting the benefit.

Evan Miller

Specialty Media Director

U.S. Senator Patty Murray


RECOMMENDED: "Iraq snapshot"
"Withdrawal and the taste police"
"100 days ticks down"
"Flooding, Cornel, Arundhati"
"5 guests -- all men"
"The economy"
"maria and ahnuld"
"Barack pledges loyalty to . . . Israel"
"Still Stevie"
"The Event"
"Melrose Place"
"The lies"
"He offers one lie after another and that's all"