31 March 2015

Board of Veteran Appeals Uses Boilerplate Denial Language for C-123 Claims, IGNORING VA's own Institute of Medicine Report

The Board of Veterans Appeals regularly posts its most recent decisions on claims veterans appealed to that body. We note that as in months and years past, BVA continues to use its error-laden boilerplate language to deny veterans' claims. Cited below is a paragraph from an unfortunate veteran's decision.

Furthermore, the Department of Veterans Affairs did address residual Agent Orange exposure concerns by post-Vietnam crews that later flew C-123 aircraft that had previously sprayed Agent Orange. VA's Office of Public Health is noted to have reviewed all available scientific information regarding the exposure potential to residual amounts of herbicides on the C-123 aircraft surfaces. It was concluded that the potential exposure for the post-Vietnam crews that flew or maintained the aircraft was extremely low and therefore it was concluded that the risk of long-term health effects was minimal. See: http://www.publichealth.va.gov/exposures/agentorange
This citation references the Office of Public Health having "reviewed all available scientific information regarding the exposure potential to residual amounts of herbicides on the C-123 aircraft surfaces." What the citation avoids mentioning is the highly selective approach used by Public Health when they first listed their carefully selected references in 2011. Only references arguing against veterans' claims were permitted, and all references supporting C-123 exposures were ignored.

The March JSRRC report and the January 2015 Institute of Medicine report completely put to rest the above error-laden assertions...C-123 aircraft were indeed contaminated and the veterans were indeed exposed. Although VA has yet to react to this report done at their own expense, BVA and other VA bodies continue denying C-123 veterans' claims by repeating the same paragraph.

What was ignored by VA in its review of "all available scientific information?"
• CDC/Agency for Toxic Substances & Disease Registry report to VA
• Concerned Scientists & Physicians Group Report to VA
• Oregon Health Sciences Perspective on C-123 Aircraft Exposures
• NIH/National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences report to VA "concluding exposures were plausible"
• All works of Dr. Jeanne Stellman

VA Web Sites Reference C-123 Vets, But Still ORDERS ALL Our Claims Denied

VA has over the years begun mentioning C-123 veterans on their web pages. Initially, the single page with C-123 information was a solitary note dedicated to explaining VA's opposition, As time passed VA then added information from the flawed USAF 2012 C-123 Consultative Letter.

Although the authoritative Institute of Medicine C-123 report on 9 January 2015 identified fatal scientific flaws and erroneous conclusions in the USAF C-123 Consultative Letter, it remains on-line, unamended, without note as to any corrections, and cited by VA in its "Scientific Review of Agent Orange in C-123 Aircraft."

That was the sole Internet VA document for quite some time, but as more and more proofs of C-123 veterans' Agent Orange exposure evolved, VA used more Internet pages to dismiss the proofs

Today, VBA Compensation and Pension Agent Orange Desk continues to order claims denied, although the current VBA approach is often to order claims "postponed" indefinitely without decision. That step even blocks the veteran's appeal of a denied claim because the Board of Veterans Appeals only accepts denials: preventing denials by stamping "postponed" on them sends claims into a wilderness of wasted years.

• Scientific Review of Agent Orange in C-123 Aircraft 

• Agent Orange Residue on Post-Vietnam War Airplanes

• Institute of Medicine Reports on Agent Orange (VA summation page)

• Exposure to Agent Orange by Location  – Public Health

The other official document addressing C-123 exposures is Fact Sheet for the Honorable Richard M. Burr Regarding Processing of Disability Claims Based on Agent Orange (AO) Exposure Aboard C-123 Aircraft Outside the Republic of Vietnam, authored by the VBA Compensation and Pension Agent Orange Desk for Secretary Shinseki's signature. The Fact Sheet is now two years old with more current VA and IOM investigations clarifying its numerous fatal flaws, but has not been updated.

While error-laden and carefully deceptive of the senators to whom it was addressed, it remains VA's position and vehicle by which all claims continue to be denied...or "postponed." The C-123 veterans authored a response to the Fact Sheet which was submitted, with source documents but without VA response, to the Secretary of Veterans Affairs.

While cited in its own VAM21-1M1 manual for claims adjudication, the March 2014 Joint Services Records Research Center affirmation of C-123 veterans' Agent Orange exposure and harm has been ignored by VA. In the manual, and in previous denials of C-123 claims, a negative JSRRC response to a VA inquiry is cited as authority to deny a claim. Currently, all positive JSRRC responses are ignored by VA to avoid any impact on these claims and to better reflect the preferences of Compensation and Pension Service that the claims be obstructed.

30 March 2015

April begins, and still no action by VA on C-123 Agent Orange Exposures

Don't they know what's happening? Don't they know our men and women are refused proper care and benefits for want of reasonable, proper, lawful, necessary decisions?

Don't they care, or know there is a price paid by us for their inaction and attitudes? That price is in denied medical care somehow sought elsewhere, in denied state benefits for us and our families, and in denied financial compensation for our line-of-duty illnesses.

Reasons? Maybe they don't care. Maybe they're too busy. Maybe hardliners in Post Deployment Health and in the Compensation and Pension Agent Orange Dsek are pushing back, still determined to deny 100% of all claims "on a case by case basis." Maybe because every month, every day VA postpones action on these claims is money saved, appointment lists kept shorter, and claims denied and off the backlog lists.

Seems like the VA decision is already in place.
Of course, some do, but the powers that be...just don't!

28 March 2015

C-123 Agent Orange Exposure Benefits: NO WORD YET

VA Hospitals & C-123 Veterans
One month ago, Secretary McDonald responded to Senator Brown's question with assurances that VA was to announce its program for treating C-123 veterans' Agent Orange-related illnesses within a week

Since then, from the Secretary down to his public affairs staff, different reasons have been floated to explain why VA still hasn't announced its program. And the most recent input from VA to the media is that the C-123 program's announcement has been postponed with no date suggested.

This is a bad, bad deal for us.

Colorado C-123 vets lose this year's Colorado disabled veteran property tax exemption, paying about $1,000 on taxes because VA hasn't finished their claims. Other states' veterans are in much the same situation...state benefits withheld until the VA decides what to do about Agent Orange illnesses.

All states' C-123 veterans are still locked out of VA hospitals, unless they're otherwise eligible for care. We're all senior citizens now, a time in life when diseases ravage us so unrelentingly. Rather than treat our Agent Orange illnesses, VA has us standing outside their hospitals with our fingers stuck to the door bell...not allowed in until their C-123 program is announced and our disability claims can be processed.

27 March 2015

Vietnam Vets of America demands Agent Orange benefits NOW for exposed C-123 Westover vets

The national president of the Vietnam Veterans of America is calling for bureaucrats from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to be "relieved of their duties" for their continuing failure to grant benefits to veterans from Westover Air Reserve Base and three other military installations who were exposed to Agent Orange while flying planes previously used in the Vietnam War.

The Vietnam Veterans of America has been a strong supporter of the C-123 Veterans.

The two page letter expressed frustration over the fact that the veterans, who flew C-123 Provider planes after they had been used to spray Agent Orange to defoliate the Vietnamese countryside, have been fighting a four-year battle to receive medical benefits and disability payments for those who have fallen ill or become ill later.

"These VA bureaucrats attempting to delay justice ought to be relieved of their duties so they can no longer abuse veterans with their tactic of 'delay, deny until they die.' There is no excuse for why these worthy veterans are still not being treated with the appreciation and the respect their service warrants," John Warren, national president of the Vietnam Veterans of America, wrote.

He said the delay is especially vexing after an Institute of Medicine study commissioned by the Department of Veterans' Affairs determined that the about 2,100 military reservists who flew in or worked on the planes at Westover, Pittsburgh Air National Guard, Rickenbacker Air National Guard Base in Ohio and Hanscom Air Force Base in eastern Massachusetts, had been exposed to Agent Orange and are vulnerable to contracting the more than 20 diseases tied to the chemical.

The Department of Veterans Affairs is continuing to study the Institute of Medicine report, said Meagan Lutz, public affairs specialist for the Department of Veterans Affairs.
"In order to better inform and serve our veterans, the Department is examining policy and legislative issues in order to proceed with its final proposal," she said in an email. (note: different VA executives and public affairs spokespersons have offered a wide range of reasons for VA's delay; Ms. Lutz is the first to suggest the delay is to "better serve" veterans by continuing to refuse them medical care!)

Led by Retired Maj. Wesley T. Carter, now of Colorado, who served as an air medical technician and flight instructor and examiner with Westover's 74th Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron for 20 years, the C-123 group is made up mainly of Westover veterans and has been fighting for the same benefits as those who served in Vietnam. They only discovered four years ago.the planes, which they spent 10 years flying in and working on, had been contaminated with Agent Orange since Vietnam.

The federal government automatically grants anyone who served in Vietnam, even for an hour, health benefits which includes free medications, dental care and other services, and disability payments if they fall ill from any of the diseases known to be caused by Agent Orange.

Also included in the list of supporters is the National Veterans of Foreign Wars. In February six senators, Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley and North Carolina Sen. Richard Burr, a Democrat and Republican respectively, who have been advocating for the veterans for several years, as well as Sens. Elizabeth Warren, D-Massachusetts; Ron Wyden, D-Oregon; Richard Blumenthal, D-Connecticut, and Michael Bennet, D-Colorado, also signed a strongly-worded to the Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert McDonald to show their support.

"I think it is high time this battle, which has gone on for four years, is over," said Archer Battista, of Belchertown, who retired from Westover as a colonel in 2001 and is a semi-retired lawyer.

Battista, who flew planes at Westover starting in 1974, said he has been trying to help some veterans and their families who are completely overwhelmed by trying to fight the battle for medical care. As a Vietnam veteran, he is already eligible for the benefits.

"All this time the clock is ticking on some very sick people and their survivors," he said. "We know they have a decision and the decision is favorable so what is holding this up?"

It is even more frustrating since there is a second part to the battle. The C-123 Veterans are still trying to acquire squadron rosters with the names of veterans who flew on or worked on the planes at the four bases so they can contact as many veterans as possible to warn them they had been exposed to Agent Orange.

So far all requests to the Air Force have been denied.
reporter: Jeanette DeForge

25 March 2015

Senators Call on VA Secretary to Ensure Post Vietnam USAF C-123 Veterans Receive Benefits and Compensation

Bipartisan Group of Senators Call on VA Secretary to Ensure Post Vietnam USAF C-123 Veterans Receive Proper Benefits and Compensation

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- A bipartisan group of senators led by Senators Richard Burr (R-NC) and Jeff Merkley (D-OR) today called on VA Secretary Robert McDonald to ensure that veterans long denied care for exposure to Agent Orange receive timely and proper benefits and compensation. The letter follows a recent Institute of Medicine (IOM) study that provides new and compelling evidence on exposure to Agent Orange of veterans who flew contaminated aircraft after the Vietnam war.

Burr and Merkley were joined in a letter by Sens. Ron Wyden (D-OR), Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), and Michael Bennet (D-CO).

The IOM study, which was published in January, found “with confidence” that post-Vietnam veterans serving on C-123 aircrafts were exposed to potentially dangerous levels of dioxin from aircrafts that were used to carry and spray Agent Orange during the Vietnam War and that were never properly decontaminated.

According to the study, an estimated 1500-2100 personnel served on the affected planes, and numerous veterans among that group have developed symptoms, including cancer, consistent with Agent Orange exposure.

The senators pushed the VA to reverse previous decisions that have denied veterans benefits and compensation, writing:

“Despite (1) multiple Air Force reports going back to 1979 showing that the C-123s were contaminated, (2) numerous expert opinions from inside and outside the government suggesting these veterans were  exposed to Agent Orange and other toxins, and (3) a judge’s order stopping the resale of these C-123s because the planes were a ‘danger to public health,’ the VA to-date has doggedly insisted  there is no possibility that post-Vietnam era C-123 veterans might have been exposed to dangerous levels of Agent Orange.  It also has denied all but one of the C-123 veterans’ claims for benefits.”

They continued, “It is our desire to see that C-123 veterans who suffer today because of service-related exposure to Agent Orange receive the help they need. To speed the award of benefits, we ask that you provide a presumption of service connection for these veterans.”

The senators also called on the VA to immediately review all C-123 Agent Orange exposure claims, including those that have been denied and are under appeal, and to work with the Department of Defense to proactively contact all veterans who served on any C-123s previously used in Vietnam to spray Agent Orange defoliant that were subsequently assigned to Air Force Reserve units based in the United States from 1972-1982 in order to notify these veterans that they may be eligible for benefits.

24 March 2015

Ohio Public Radio: Vietnam Veterans: VA Is In “Delay, Deny Until They Die” Mode With Agent Orange Vets"

The group Vietnam Veterans of America is criticizing the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs over its painfully slow response to concerns from Air Force reservists exposed to Agent Orange in the 1970s and 1980s.

The organization has joined the chorus of veterans organizations demanding answers for about 2,000 people who crewed C-123s, the clunky cargo planes that were used to spray Agent Orange, after those planes came back from the war.
A study released by the VA in January confirmed previous findings that these vets could have been exposed to Agent Orange at dangerous levels while they were flying and maintaining the planes on bases in Ohio, Massachusetts and Pennsylvania from 1971-1982. The Air Force knew as early as the 1990s that the planes still had some Agent Orange residues on them. Agent Orange, a defoliant, contains dioxin, which can be very toxic if humans are exposed in high enough amounts or over sustained periods.
But today, almost all of the C-123 vets who are sick with diseases that can be related to Agent Orange have had their VA claims denied.
A group led by Major Wes Carter, a C-123 vet who is himself quite sick with potentially related conditions, has been calling for the VA to include these reserve veterans in what’s called presumptive benefits. Vietnam vets who had boots on the ground are presumed to have been exposed to Agent Orange, removing the burden of proof from the vets if they apply for benefits.
More than three weeks ago now, VA Secretary Robert McDonald told senators an announcement would be coming within the week on the issue, responding in part to WYSO’s NPR report about C-123 veterans. Now that announcement has been pushed back to an unknown date—which Barbara Carson says is disappointing. She’s appealed her claim for benefits after her husband, a former reservist, died of non-Hodgkin lymphoma.
“They’ve denied this for years, and they can’t deny it anymore,” Carson says. “They’ve got to admit to it.”
The Vietnam Veterans of America have now joined with the reservists and families calling for a more aggressive response from the VA, issuing a press release on Sunday that accused the VA of taking a “delay, deny, until they die” approach to these vets.
In an email, a VA spokesperson said “in order to better inform and serve our Veterans, the Department is examining policy and legislative issues in order to proceed with its final proposal.” In other statements to the press, VA officials have offered wildly differing reasons for their delay, including conflicting meetings, and senior leaders travel schedules. The Secretary of Veterans Affairs even offered his own perspective on the justification for continuing to refuse medical care to these veterans.
“The issue frankly is how to execute once the announcement is made,” Secretary McDonald told the Dayton Daily News on March 21. “For whatever reasons, it’s very hard to find the people who worked on or flew those C-123s and we want to make sure when we announce we can have perfect clarity on the next steps for those veterans who served with C-123s that sprayed Agent Orange.”
Whatever reason VA cites to justify its continuing delays, the result is indeed...delay. For years, delay after delay, until the most positive spin that can be put on this miserable mess is that VA simply can't get its act together. Any less positive spin as to wny VA is treating these veterans as it does would suggest paranoia.
Lewis Wallace is WYSO's managing editor, substitute host and economics reporter. Follow him @lewispants.

20 March 2015

VA C-123 Agent Orange Claims: Not "Case by Case" – Instead, All Are Ordered Denied

C-123 veterans have long maintained, and the VA disagreed, that all C-123 Agent Orange exposure claims are treated with a blanket denial. 

Indeed, the C-123 disability claims are all denied, and have been since the first was submitted over a decade ago.

Perhaps we and VA differ in our choice of words for describing this situation, but the fact of the matter is that every single C-123 exposure claim is directly or indirectly ordered denied. Veterans call it a blanket denial. VA calls the blanket denial a "case by case consideration." After which, VA orders all claims denied.
VA opposes our assertions of their blanket (or just insert a term such as universal, uniform, categorical, absolute, complete, total)  C-123 claims denial program because they want an image of more thoughtful, legal consideration of veterans' claims. VA is also somewhat mindful of the United States Constitution and its Fifth Amendment. Included in that amendment is the concept of Due Process. 

VA seeks to deny due process of C-123 veterans' claims but avoid characterization of such an action as a denial of Due Process...VA instead terms their total denial program "case by case consideration." 

That phrase implies VA's determination to carefully examine the merits under law and regulation of each claim, but in fact, it means VA denies 100% of the claims...one by one, each and every one of them, and carefully trains its claims adjudicators in the convoluted process, necessarily bizantine to prevent claim approvals without actually stating it directly.

Friday, commenting on its VA "case by case" process, spokesperson Bessie Griseto told the Dayton Daily News that "No case is the same." 

We beg to differ: C-123 cases are all the same because they are all denied. Every single one of them. Identical. All refused, despite complete satisfaction with VA's own VAM21-1MR regulation, denied with the pretense of just and fair consideration.

Here's how.

VA trains its service officers carefully, including with training lessons on Agent Orange exposures. Some rating officials even go so far as to state that "regulations prohibit" such awards. When Senate staffers pointed out to VA no such regulations exist, VA simply told the raters to continue denying claims but use different language. Say something else, but make sure you deny the claims, seems their approach.

In fact, any veteran establishing fact-proven Agent Orange exposure is to be treated with the same presumption of service connection as Vietnam veterans. Here's how VA instructs claims service officers, incorrectly. VA writes that exposure claims can only be approved under either presumption of exposure, or concession by VA to an exposure event claim. VA then states that because neither of these apply to C-123 and other claims, there is no legal basis for an award. 

Dayton, Ohio: Reservists Push VA For Agent Orange Benefits (Dayton Daily News)

Reservists push VA for benefits

C-123 ‘spray planes’ linked to Agent Orange-related illnesses

By Barrie Barber - Staff Writer, MORAINE OHIO —
Robert A. Potts most remembers the smell on many of the C-123 cargo planes that had sprayed the defoliant Agent Orange over Vietnam.
The 73-year-old Moraine man never rode the planes over southeast Asia. The former Air Force reservist who was stationed at Rickenbacker Air National Guard Base near Columbus still has hand-written meticulous flight logs he said show he spent hundreds of hours flying in the former “spray birds” for eight years over the United States.
Years later, working as a Russian translator at the Foreign Technology Division at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, he said he was diagnosed with Type II diabetes, a condition he suspects was caused from his exposure to the Agent Orange residue on the planes.
“You could smell the chemical when we first got them,” he said. “That stuff, I guess, had seeped into the floor of the airplane. I had a friend of mine, he would come home (and) his flight suit smelled so bad his wife would put it in the garage,” said Potts, who flew on the planes as a loadmaster between 1972 to 1980.
“We knew when we got those airplanes, because they stank so bad, we knew they were former spray birds. But of course, we never thought of it being dangerous at the time. They were just airplanes that we flew on.”
Potts’ Agent Orange disability claim was rejected by the Department of Veterans Affairs in 2002 on grounds that he didn’t serve in Vietnam. But a report issued earlier this year gave new life to a cause championed by him and others.
The January report by the Institute of Medicine concludes that some reservists who never went to Vietnam still encountered exposures to Agent Orange-related dioxins at levels in excess of international guidelines.
Report: Health ‘adversely affected’
An estimated 1,500 to 2,100 reservists may have flown on the C-123 spray planes in the United States, according to the report by the institute, a branch of the National Academy of Sciences that was commissioned by the VA to report on the reservists’ Agent Orange exposure.
After they were returned from Vietnam, the C-123 “Providers,” as they were nicknamed, were assigned to cargo and aeromedical evacuation units in the Air Force Reserve at Rickenbacker, Westover Air Reserve Base in Massachusetts and the Pittsburgh IAP Reserve Station in Pennsylvania.
“The available information supports the expectation that the health of some of the personnel was adversely affected by their service in the C-123s that had earlier been used to spray herbicides in Vietnam,” the institute’s report concludes.
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has considered former C-123 reservists’ Agent Orange residue claims on a case-by-case basis. Claimants point out that the health risks are well documented yet airmen who flew in the United States were not given the same “presumptive” exposure eligibility for VA benefits that Vietnam veterans have for serving on the ground or inland waterways during the war.
VA announcements on the issue were scheduled most recently this month, but then postponed without explanation from the VA.
But at a press conference Friday at the Dayton VA Medical Center, VA Secretary Robert McDonald said an announcement was “imminent” and “very soon” in response to a question from this newspaper.
“The issue frankly is how to execute once the announcement is made,” he said. “For whatever reasons, it’s very hard to find the people who worked on or flew those C-123s and we want to make sure when we announce we can have perfect clarity on the next steps for those veterans who served with C-123s that sprayed Agent Orange.”
The Institute of Medicine report backed up others that found long-term concerns about the approximately 30 spray planes brought back to the United States after they were flown in the defoliant program Operation Ranch Hand in Vietnam. In 2012, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry concluded swab samples taken on some C-123s in 1994 were 182 times higher for dioxin than guidelines set by the Army Center for Health Promotion and Preventive Medicine, according to the publication Military Times.
One clue to the level of contamination aboard the planes was culled from inside a C-123K, nicknamed Patches, on display at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, records show. The plane was decontaminated before it was displayed inside the museum beginning in 2003.
A push for benefits
Wesley T. Carter, president of the C-123 Veterans Association, has led the push for four years to get the VA to provide benefits to C-123 reservists. The retired Air Force major and former C-123 medical services officer viewed the Institute of Medicine report as a victory for the former airmen in their battle with the VA.
“The (VA) secretary is called on by the Agent Orange Act to recognize and care for veterans exposed to
“The issue is how to execute..."”
this deadly toxin,” he said in an interview. “The VA has known of this situation for many years, has had all of the scientific and medical information necessary to reach the decision they’re obliged to reach by the Agent Orange Act, but for some reason has failed us yet again.
“How many years must men and women who are already ill wait?”
Under the Agent Orange Act of 1991, veterans who served anywhere in Vietnam were presumed to have exposure to herbicides. Under VA guidelines, they may qualify for disability compensation for diseases related to Agent Orange, such as diabetes, heart disease, Parkinson’s disease and prostate and respiratory cancers, among other ailments.
Carter, 68, was initially encouraged by the announcement the VA would address the issue, but has been disappointed with the federal agency’s repeated postponements.
“It’s a very confusing situation with mixed signals,” he said. “As it stands right now, those veterans are still outside the VA hospital with their fingers on the doorbell and the door’s still locked. A delay of weeks and months is still unacceptable and painful.”
The former reservist who flew aboard the planes at Westover Air Reserve Base said he filed an Agent Orange-related claim with the VA in 2011, and was denied. He has appealed.
Carter receives full VA disability benefits because he suffered spinal injuries in the first Gulf War when he fell off a truck on a flight line. He said he filed the Agent Orange claim to determine what was happening to his fellow airmen.
“We’ve identified a number of deaths from folks who put in claims and were denied,” said Carter, who lives in Fort Collins, Colo.
Carter, who has cancer and heart disease, can’t say for sure his exposure to Agent Orange residue on the planes caused his medical problems, but he noted the increased risk of health ailments caused from exposure.
The VA has not tracked how many former C-123 reservists have applied for disability benefits, VA spokeswoman Meagan Lutz said in an email, “but we are aware of a few claims that have been decided on a case-by-case basis.”
One former reservist, Lt. Col. Paul A. Bailey, a close friend to Carter’s, was granted VA benefits for exposure to Agent Orange residue aboard the planes in August 2013, The Washington Post has reported. Bailey died of cancer in October 2013.
Lawmakers want changes

VA Choice Program – My First Experience

(note: Update 23 Mar: VA phoned this AM, and my eye appointment via Choice is okayed but the cancer operation will not be. Further, VA has issued new guidelines regarding its 40 mile rule.) Good move, VA.
(note: Update 25 Mar: VA Under Secretary Gibson will seek legislation to address 40 mile rule re: local clinics not offering required service) Good move, VA.

This week I got bad news on a biopsy which I'd arranged through civilian practitioners because it seemed hard with the VA. I need to have surgery so I can live, and have come to learn a bit more about the new VA Choice Program – and what I learned is disheartening.

I am apparently enrolled in the program, and was sent the Choice identification card to accompany my regular VA service-connected ID.

First, I contacted the local VA clinic and also the nearest VA medical center and left messages for the Choice coordinator but after a couple days contacted the 800-number instead. Surprise – I am not qualified.

I'm 100% VA disabled from Gulf War service, and in their "catastrophically disabled" classification, whatever that means. But as for the VA Choice program I'm not qualified because there is a VA clinic here in our town of Fort Collins.

The clinic doesn't do any surgery and only provides walk-in care, but that still "disqualifies" me because the Choice program is only for vets with VA medical facilities more than 40 miles away. This is regardless of whether or not required care can be provided locally, and regardless of the degree of urgency.

That was a disappointment. I also hoped to qualify on their Choice program provision for care if appointments cannot be made within 30 days, but there too, no luck.

"You're not qualified," gently explained the Choice telephone consultant. This is because nobody at the clinic noted that my scheduled appointment is far beyond the 30 day period addressed by the Choice program. Thus, for follow-up care for my ER visit about a possible detached retina I will be seen by the VA 90 days after my request. I didn't know I could have asked the local clinic for Choice coverage and they didn't offer even though I explained the issues facing me.

Everyone I spoke with was courteous and eager to help. I know the Choice folks and everyone in the local clinic sincerely cared about me. But they were also quite clear that either I'll have to wait months for the care at VA or seek help elsewhere. VA does have programs for contracting for local care, but that requires the veteran's primary care provider to provide a consult to the VA medical center specialist, who will then provide a consult to an outside contractor, who will then consider the case.

For me, with heart disease and other medical complications, and a bad cancer biopsy report calling for prompt surgery, I'm on my own and cannot wait the months for the VA system to respond.

Lessons learned:
• the Choice program is probably a good idea for more routine issues, but fails to meet veterans' needs in situations where local VA clinics trigger the 40-mile from any VA facility clause.
• the veteran must ask for coverage under Choice as the clinic will not offer it
• the need for multiple referrals from the primary care provider on to other layers in VA can make the months of delay in getting care unacceptable...or life-threatening to the point that the veteran is forced to seek care through private means.

A veteran might need a heart transplant or other major surgery, but the presence of any VA clinic within 40 miles even if it only provides routine primary care, disqualifies the vet from any help for any reason through the Choice program.

19 March 2015

Air Force Sergeants Association Calls on Congress to Support C-123 Agent Orange Exposure Claims

As a former Air Force sergeant myself, I'm grateful and proud that the Air Force Sergeants Association has joined with so many other service organizations to support C-123 veterans. The Department of Veterans Affairs has for too long blocked our legitimate claims for Agent Orange medical care and benefits.

Yesterday,  Chief Robert Frank testified at the Joint Senate-House Joint Committees on Veterans Affairs, calling on the VA to recognize C-123 veterans' exposure claims.

"C-123 Agent Orange Exposure for Air Force Reservists. 
Reserve Airmen who flew the C-123 Provider military cargo aircraft after the Vietnam War that were used during the War to drop the defoliant Agent Orange were exposed to that defoliant through residue left in those aircraft. 
It is estimated that over 2,000 Reserve crew members, flight nurses, and maintenance workers were exposed between 1972 and 1982 in missions using these former “spray birds.” 
During a Veterans Affairs hearing on the Senate side in late January, VA Secretary McDonald indicated that the VA, which had previously denied such claims, appears ready to change its mind in the wake of a January report from the Institute of Medicine concluding that C-123 Reservists were likely exposed to dangerous levels of dioxin, the toxic chemical in Agent Orange. 
We urge these Committees to ensure that the VA recognize their obligation and be given the wherewithal to provide care and compensation for these C-123 Reserve crews. "
The Air Force Officers Corps is very good for just two basic reasons:
1. Many of us are "mustangs," former non-commissioned officers
2. The rest of us are supported by outstanding professional non-commissioned officers

18 March 2015

VA Cares – for C-123 Veterans

US sets new record for denying, censoring government files

I am a veteran serving other veterans, and both the Department of Defense and the Department of Veterans Affairs have abused my rights, and the rights of the veterans I serve.

Both VA and USAF have routinely ignored our Freedom of Information Act requests for unclassified materials, much of it dealing with our own health and the government's treatment of our exposure claims.

Unsuccessfully, we have sought materials as individual citizens, as a veterans association, and as journalists (per the blog, web site and C-123 Agent Orange book.)

Not addressed in the article below from today's Associated Press is the tremendous cost citizens must bear for legal expenses to assert our rights under the FOIA. Not addressed is the solution, which is to permit citizens to recover expenses and damages if they are forced to seek relief through litigation. Right now, the government can ignore or abuse FOIA requests with abandon (which AP's article suggests is the case) without consequences.

The C-123 Veterans Association has requests for information going back to 2012 which the USAF ignored. After ignoring, USAF said it had no materials. Then it said the materials would cost over $4,000 to provide. Then it stopped dealing with the request altogether, until we filed suit in the US District Court.

Even that did little to help – both the VA and the USAF are still only slowly releasing bits and pieces, each month telling our attorneys they need more time, with much of what they do release heavily redacted.

Can you just imagine how the IRS or DOJ would tolerate us as individual citizens ignoring their demands for our records? They have tools to compel our response...but we have none to compel any department's respect for our rights under the FOIA.
US sets new record for denying, censoring government filesBy TED BRIDIS
Mar. 18, 2015 3:27 AM EDT 
WASHINGTON (AP) — For the second consecutive year, the Obama administration more often than ever censored government files or outright denied access to them under the U.S. Freedom of Information Act, according to a new analysis of federal data by The Associated Press. 
The government took longer to turn over files when it provided any, said more regularly that it couldn't find documents, and refused a record number of times to turn over files quickly that might be especially newsworthy. 
It also acknowledged in nearly 1 in 3 cases that its initial decisions to withhold or censor records were improper under the law — but only when it was challenged.
Its backlog of unanswered requests at year's end grew remarkably by 55 percent to more than 200,000.

16 March 2015

VA & C-123 Veterans' Agent Orange Claims

VA CARES...Agent Orange poster mentions Vietnam veterans AND others exposed to Agent Orange

It is very telling in VA's poster that it mentions not only Vietnam veterans, but all others exposed to Agent Orange.

Last week. Dr. Ralph Erickson in VA's Pre-9/11 Post Deployment Health authored a blog page in which he specified C-123 veterans as among the potentially exposed population.

14 March 2015

National Academy of Sciences on Financial Disclosure

In 2014, the Institute of Medicine C-123 Agent Orange committee had a presentation by a scientist who did not offer information about his $600,000 consulting contract with the Department of Veterans Affairs. Both he, and the Department, opposed C-123 veterans' arguments as to Agent Orange exposure aboard the former Agent Orange transports.

Because the VA proposed the question to the Institute of Medicine, it was improper for it to advocate a particular finding by the IOM. The consultant explained, in his preface to comments to the committee, that he was not there to represent the VA but to explain the science behind the VA's perspective on C-123 Agent Orange exposures. However, never did he discuss his unusual historical involvement with the VA and the US Air Force, and the C-123 veterans, including his personal role in 2009 recommending destruction of those aircraft.

At the time of the IOM meeting, it seems only VA was aware of the consultant's unusual no-bid, sole-source contract addressing post-Vietnam herbicide concerns. Later, the committee was informed that the scientist had a consulting relationship with the VA, and at some point after that, the amount of the contract was also made known to the committee by IOM staff.

Veterans and others presented IOM their financial statements; even the authors of papers sponsored by Dow and Monsanto met this fundamental ethical obligation. But not the VA consultant. The VA took no action, even though it had several representatives at the IOM hearing well-aware of the issue.

This writer is no scientist, and the nuances of this profession's ethical considerations are unfamiliar. Perhaps the consultant and VA were perfectly proper in the IOM presentation. It is hard, however, to find any positive spin to put on this: VA paid a lot of money to oppose veterans' Agent Orange exposure claims, and failed to reveal anything about this. Most of the work product of the consultant's contract was submitted in opposition to the veteran's claims, and nothing that was helpful...his view was quite clear and only information supporting that view was offered, a view he has espoused for decades.

This would be acceptable in a high school debate, but not as the National Academy of Sciences tried to address the health concerns of thousands of veterans.

In addition to tremendous amounts of its staff resources, VA spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to oppose the veterans. Not a penny was permitted to support the veterans' presentation to the IOM in which we argued that we'd been exposed Thus, VA presented its policy to the IOM, not an even-handed scientific analysis.

The VA was hardly neutral and should not have posed this question to the IOM with their ill-disguised objective of using IOM to obstruct veterans' exposure claims. VA selected only materials, reports, opinions and other materials for the IOM which argued against the veterans, withholding everything helpful to the veterans' cause. The only materials supporting the veterans' perspective were submitted by the veterans, by unpaid concerned scientists and physicians, or obtained by the IOM itself.

VA showed it was not seeking an objective examination of the C-123 Agent Orange exposure claims. Veterans were entitled to advocate the basis of their situation, but VA was supposed to be not only objective, but pro-veteran, and seek a clean scientific analysis through IOM of the issue. VA failed.

On March 8, 2015, the president of the National Academy of Sciences addressed the issue of financial disclosure and the importance in science that that ethical requirement plays. Although the particulars of his address dealt with climate change, the fundamental ethical problem is identical to the C-123 Agent Orange meeting:

By National Academy of Sciences President Ralph J. Cicerone
     March 6, 2015
The methods, motives, and results of scientists come under special scrutiny when
societal or economic matters are involved, for example, in cases involving medicine and health, governmental policies and regulations, and commercial applications.  Recently, two new examples have arisen, both involving the science of climate change and societal responses to it.  
One case involves allegations of failure to disclose financial interests and research support from corporate interests on the part of a researcher at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics who testifies on behalf of organizations that discount the role of human activity in global climate change.  The other consists of requests to seven universities by Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva (D-Ariz.) for the names of funding sources for a group of scientists and policy analysts who have publicly disputed widely accepted scientific findings about the causes of climate change and the value of public responses to it.  An earlier Congressman’s request for professional and personal materials should also be remembered. 
These incidents and prior ones show that scientists must disclose their sources of financial support to continue to enjoy societal trust and the respect of fellow scientists, while also maintaining high standards in the enterprise of science.