Thursday, March 26, 2015

Amendment on Veterans Choice rule passes Senate

Signalling the Senate's commitment to fixing a problem at the Veterans Affairs Department that has become known as the "40-mile rule," senators on Thursday unanimously approved an amendment to address a shortcoming in the Veterans Choice program.
As part of its budget resolution (S. Con. Res. 11), the Senate passed an amendment offered by Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., that would let veterans who live within 40 miles of a VA clinic with limited medical services to be eligible for Veterans Choice.
While the budget resolution is nonbinding, the vote of 100-0 strongly indicates the problem likely will be fixed in the coming months.
"Veterans who are entitled to care are not receiving it and, in a sense, false promises were made. If we get this issue correct, the VA then implements the Choice Act as intended," Moran said during comments on the Senate floor Thursday.
On Tuesday, VA Deputy Secretary Sloan Gibson said legislation would be needed to allow the department to pay for private health care for veterans who live near a clinic but have to travel farther to a larger VA facility for treatment.
Gibson told the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee that vets are "frustrated" with the Choice program, but the department's hands are tied because language in the Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act prohibits the VA from offering the program to a veteran who lives within 40 miles of a VA health facility.
"Many veterans are frustrated with the Choice program," Gibson said. "Such confusion leads to lower use of Choice."
But lawmakers have pledged to make the fix. Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., chairman of the Senate committee, said his staff would work with the staff of the committee's ranking Democrat, Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., to draft legislation in the next two weeks to address the issue.
"The faster we act on that, the better off we are. I don't think there's any disagreement on the committee," Isakson said.
VA officials say the department distributed nearly 8 million VA Choice Cards when the program was initiated in November. To date, it has approved about 46,000 requests for care and managed 44,461 appointments.
VA has a process to get patients to private care if they face undue burdens accessing VA care, but only 125 have asked for a waiver so far, Gibson said.
Moran said he believes VA has the leeway to "interpret the law differently" and does not need formal legislation to change the rule.
But he added he will work to ensure that legislation will follow that guarantees VA will make the change.
"The quality of life of our veterans is affected — not because we don't want to care for them, but because we lack common sense to implement a law," Moran said.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

50 years later, Vietnam veterans sees changes in public perceptions

  • Peter Ballard, 63, a veteran of the war in Vietnam, is photographed in his home in New Fairfield, Conn., Thursday, March 5, 2015. In his hands is the boonie hat that he war during the war. Photo: Carol Kaliff / The News-Times
    Peter Ballard, 63, a veteran of the war in Vietnam, is photographed in his home in New Fairfield, Conn., Thursday, March 5, 2015. In his hands is the boonie hat that he war during the war. Photo: Carol Kaliff 

If you didn't know his story, you might mistakePaul Bucha for a gracefully aging movie star, like Robert Redford or Clint Eastwood.
The West Point graduate, who also earned his MBA from Stanford, is 72, but remains barrel-chested and light on his feet. He and his wife live on Ridgefield's Main Street, in a spacious home with a guest house in back.
Bucha has worked overseas for Ross Perot's Electronic Data Systems technology company, served as a foreign policy adviser for then-Sen.Barack Obama during the 2008 presidential campaign and is Connecticut's lone living Medal of Honor recipient, for his valor in Vietnam.
Peter Ballard is 63, and his life, by his own admission, "is not quite a bowl of cherries."
He lives with his wife in a two-bedroom home off Route 37 in New Fairfield -- where he spends most of his time after years in construction left him with severe back problems that forced him to quit working.
Ballard is also a Vietnam veteran, but his service was shadowed by exposure to Agent Orange and a case of post-traumatic stress disorder.
Proud to serve
The lives of Bucha and Ballard might have taken divergent paths after their service, but today, 50 years after the first combat troops went ashore in Vietnam, both men are proud of doing their duty.
And despite his current predicament, Ballard believes enlisting was good for him
"My life definitely would've taken a different turn, and I don't think it would've been for the better," Ballard said. "Going into the military was one of the greatest things that happened in my life."
Bucha feels much the same. He was awarded the Medal of Honor for his heroism on March 16, 1968, when the reconnaissance mission he commanded clashed with a full battalion of North Vietnamese soldiers.
"I never was anything but proud," Bucha said.
"I was proud of the men I was privileged to lead. That's not my medal, that's their medal."
Though the men's views about their service haven't changed, the public's has. At first, returning vets were treated with suspicion, even hostility.
"The more people learned about the war, particularly the Johnson administration, they became more cynical about the government," said Marcy May, who teaches classes at Western Connecticut State University about Vietnam and grew up in a military family.
"People became most more distrustful, and that came to be a problem for veterans. They became symbols of the government."
Ballard was just 19 when he enlisted and, not having been to college, had a hard time finding work when he got back home.
Being a Vietnam vet didn't help. It took him many tries to get a job as a mechanic.
"Nobody wanted to hire you," he said. "If you had that year gap [on your resume], they knew where you were.
"When I came home, they told me not to wear my uniform traveling through airports and stuff. My superiors told me that."
Bucha, by contrast, as a West Point product with a Stanford MBA, was able to rely on his education to make it in the real world. Doors opened, and Vietnam wasn't held against him.
Vets are `cool'
Public sentiments about veterans have changed over the years, and for the better, both men say.
It might have happened when the Vietnam Veterans Memorial opened in 1982. It might have been at the dawn of the next conflict, in Iraq, in the early 1990s. It might still be happening, with movies like "American Sniper" that portray veterans as sympathetic figures.
"The fact that the veteran is now accepted or `cool' has led to wanna-be veterans," Ballard said.
"There are people out there who dress up as veterans and tell you war stories, and it wasn't true."
But if service in Vietnam no longer carries a stigma, both men say they still live with the burden of what they endured there, and they know their brethren do, too.
Bucha, who said he suffers from post-traumatic stress -- he refuses to call it a disorder -- still tries to speak to veterans at least one day a week in an effort to help them cope with their own problems. He tells them about his efforts to control a short temper, and listens intently to their stories.
"What we're trying to do is not celebrate, but remember," Bucha said.
"We're not going to have a party. We're trying to remember the men and women who fought that war, because when they came home, they were not remembered and they didn't want to be remembered."
`Kind of payback'
Ballard helped create the Vietnam Memorial in New Fairfield and speaks to veterans at the town's senior center every month, though he said he is "semi-retired" from that gig.
To him, the reason he helps is simple -- it's the nightmares he still endures.
"Ask me the last time I was in Vietnam: It was last night," Ballard said. "So [working with veterans] is kind of payback. Sometimes you feel like you owe a debt to society."
Dr. May believes that so many Vietnam vets had mental health issues after the war because of how young they were when they entered it.
"The average age of a soldier in World War II was 26; the average age of Vietnam soldiers was 19," she said. "They had less a sense of mortality and vulnerability, and less experience to draw on when they were in crisis. Plus, in World War II, we knew what we were doing there: We're saving the world. In Vietnam, it was about shooting a bunch of people."
Even Bucha, one of the nation's most heralded veterans, still isn't sure what America's goal was in Vietnam. But that doesn't mean he devalues what he and his men did for each other.
"I don't think I'm proud of accomplishing some macro objective, because I didn't see one, didn't know of one," he said.
"I'm proud that the men did not turn on themselves, but stayed together. To this day, they have relationships. To this day, they think of each other as brothers."