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Veterans Benefits Information

Miami VAMC criticized by House committee

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Citing continued "failures in leadership", the chairman of the House Veterans' Affairs Committee and his colleagues have unleashed a new series of criticisms - aimed at the Department of Veterans Affairs in general and its Miami VA Medical Center in particular.

In an Oct. 12 committee hearing, "Failures at Miami VAMC: Window to a National Problem", Rep. Jeff Miller of Florida and fellow representatives blamed VA leadership for past and present problems uncovered at the VA facility.

"Some of the issues ... are not new to this committee," said Miller in his opening statement. "The facility came into the spotlight in 2009 when it was discovered and reported that endoscopes were not reprocessed correctly, placing over 2,000 veterans at risk of exposure to disease. Nearly two years later, after the initial round of notifications, 12 additional veterans were identified as being at risk of exposure."

In citing this and a host of other errors at the Miami VAMC, Miller identified what he believes to be the root cause of the problems. "At the heart of this issue is leadership at VA at all levels and in all parts of the country," he said. "It is my belief that the failures in leadership and patient safety that were brought to light in 2009 are still occurring to this day. Multiple investigations have taken place, disciplinary recommendations put forth, new processes and procedures developed, new policies established, yet the problems are not fixed."

Miller opened the hearing to questions from other committee members. Appearing on behalf of the VA were William Schoenhard, deputy under secretary of the Veterans Health Administration (VHA), who was accompanied by Mary Berrocal, director of the Miami facility, and her supervisor, Nevin Weaver.

Shaun Rieley, who serves as assistant director of the Legion's Legislative Division and attended the hearing, said committee members peppered the witness panel with three hours of tough questions covering the sanitation problems, a lack of proper record-keeping that led to delays in notifying patients who had been placed at risk by contaminated medical equipment, budget issues - relating to a nearly $30-million deficit identified by the committee's ranking member, Rep. Bob Filner of California - a general lack of accountability and oversight, and statistical evidence contradicting the claims of improvement at the facility.

Other more specific incidents brought to light in the hearing included the case of Catawba Howard, an Air Force and Army veteran who was released from the Miami VAMC within hours of being admitted with mental-health problems, for which she had been committed to another area facility. Howard had reportedly told family members that she sought to commit "suicide by cop." After her release from the VA hospital, she was shot to death after killing a police officer.

Another accusation of administrative laxity concerned the case of a Miami VAMC employee arrested recently and charged with selling the names and personal information of 18 patients at the center, while possibly compromising the confidential records of as many as 3,000 veterans. Yet, according to committee members, none of the possibly affected veterans have been notified of the incident.

Throughout the session, Schoenhard defended the facility, contending that the Miami VAMC has made steady improvement in its operations and administration. "VA has ... a culture of continuous improvement," he said, "which is manifested in every one of the more than 1,400 sites of care in the VA health-care system. This is especially true of the Miami VAMC."

Miller concluded the hearing with a promise that the committee will continue its scrutiny of the Miami VAMC and conduct follow-up research on its operations.

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Many ‘Hiring Our Heroes’ fairs remain

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In March, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce launched its "Hiring Our Heroes" initiative with the initial goal of hosting 100 hiring fairs for veterans across the country. At the first event in Chicago, nearly 200 veterans gained employment. Larger events have taken place in New York City and Los Angeles since then.

During the 2011 National Convention in Minneapolis, the Chamber conducted a hiring fair that included more than 60 employers and 350 job seekers. Kevin Schmiegel, a Marine veteran and the Chamber's vice president of veterans' employment programs, also spoke on the convention floor, briefing delegates on the Chambers's initiative.

Dozens more similar hiring fairs are scheduled for the remainder of 2011 and into April of 2012. For a complete schedule, click here. On Oct. 22, The American Legion and the Chamber will be joining together - along with the Department of Labor and Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve - to conduct a hiring fair in Toms River, N.J. George P. Vanderveer Post 129 will host the event, which will take place from 9 a.m. to noon.

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VA releases women veterans PSA

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The Department of Veterans Affairs is making available to the public a new video about the vital role women play in the military and the importance of providing women veterans with high quality health care.

VA's Women Veterans Health Strategic Health Care Group recently completed a 60-second public service announcement that challenges viewers to rethink pre-conceived notions about women veterans. The video features images of women driving supply trucks, participating in reconnaissance missions, walking safety patrols, and operating helicopter machine guns, all in military service.

The PSA is available for viewing on YouTube and on VA's website. Broadcast organizations interested in obtaining a broadcast-quality version of the PSA should contact VA's Office of Public Affairs at (202) 461-7600.

The number of women using VA has doubled in the past decade, and that increase is expected to continue into the next decade. More than half of the women using VA health care have a service-connected disability. These range from combat PTSD to missing limbs. The PSA gives a sampling of the service-connected disabilities women Veterans must cope with on a daily basis.

The PSA was developed for nationwide release from a new employee orientation video created as part of VA's ongoing efforts to change its culture to be more understanding and accommodating of women veterans and honor the important service they have given their country.

In addition to new employee orientation, VA is spreading its culture-of-change message to current employees through posters, conferences and email messaging. VA health-care providers are all given the opportunity to participate in a ground-breaking mini-residency program in Women's Health for Veterans. This program has already educated more than 1,100 VA providers on the latest knowledge in gender-specific health care.

For more information about VA programs and services for women veterans, go online here or here.


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VA Urges Breast Cancer Awareness

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The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) is recognizing Breast Cancer Awareness Month this October by asking all female Veterans to talk with their health care providers about appropriate breast cancer screenings, such as regular mammograms.

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The Other Anniversary

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We all know that the first counterstrike against al-Qaida came on 9/11 itself, when an ad hoc militia of citizen-soldiers stormed the cockpit of Flight 93. What many Americans seem to forget is that what began on Flight 93 continued in earnest on Oct. 7, 2001 - the day U.S. forces invaded Afghanistan. This is the other anniversary, the one that most Americans overlook.

It's difficult to understand why. After all, Oct. 7 marks the beginning of the longest shooting war in American history. It has claimed some 1,800 American lives. But the sacrifice has not been in vain - Oct. 7 also marks the beginning of the end of an untenable status quo in the Middle East.

Think about it: ten Octobers ago, dictatorships - too many of them backed by the United States - dominated the greater Middle East. From North Africa to Afghanistan, a toxic mix of monarchs and madmen, tyrants and terrorists, held the reins of power. No one in the region looked to the democratic examples offered by Turkey or Israel. And the region's reformers, if there were any, kept quiet.

Ten years later, the reformers are shouting. And they aren't chanting "Death to America!" or "Long live bin Laden!" Most are demanding freedom, opportunity, justice and an end to corruption. In Libya, they are even demanding American flags, American fast food and American cars.

Contrast that with ten Octobers ago, when Libyans were not permitted to express anything at odds with Qaddafi's diktats and fiats, and certainly were not permitted to wave Old Glory. In fact, ten Octobers ago, Qaddafi was stockpiling WMDs, providing refuge to terrorists and erasing political opponents. Today, Qaddafi's regime of fear is toppled and the Libyan people are trying to build a free society.

Ten Octobers ago, the Egyptian government had the veneer of stability, and even tried to foist itself off as a democracy. In truth, Egypt was neither stable nor democratic. Today's Egypt may not be stable, but it is on the path toward democracy. If the Egyptian people make it, they will be a beacon within the Arab world.

Ten Octobers ago, the Afghan government was run by terrorists and allowed its territory to be used as a training ground for 9/11's mass murderers; today, the Afghan government is fighting terrorists and offers its territory as a base for counterterrorism operations across south Asia.

Ten Octobers ago, Saddam Hussein menaced the region, brutalized his people, made common cause with terrorists and plotted revenge on America; today, Iraq is free, fights terrorism and stands with America. Best of all, Iraq's Purple Thumb Revolution showed Iraq's Arab and Persian neighbors that self-government is possible. The lesson came at a high cost: 4,800 coalition troops (mostly Americans), tens of thousands of Iraqis, and hundreds of billions in treasure. Whether Iraq's freedom was worth that sacrifice will be debated for decades, but whether that sacrifice had an impact on the region's political landscape is beyond debate. Long before there was an Arab Spring, Middle East scholar Fouad Ajami gazed at post-authoritarian Iraq and announced "the autumn of autocrats." America, he concluded, had "helped usher in this unprecedented moment."

As Lebanon's Walid Jumblatt adds, "This process of change has started because of the American invasion of Iraq. I was cynical about Iraq, but when I saw the Iraqi people voting ... it was the start of a new Arab world."
Indeed, ten Octobers ago, the fall of dictators in Tunis and Tripoli, Cairo and Kabul, seemed unlikely; today, dictators remaining in power seems unlikely.

The campaign of campaigns that began on Oct. 7 was a key factor in this transformation. After all, when U.S. forces swept into Afghanistan and then Iraq, they not only toppled two horrific regimes, but they pulled the plug on the old order that relied on strongmen to deliver stability. Among the lessons of 9/11 was that the stability those strongmen offered was nothing more than a mirage.

To be sure, upending the status quo has brought uncertainty and setbacks:

• In Lebanon and proto-Palestine, for instance, the ballot box has paradoxically empowered enemies of freedom.
• Saudi Arabia reminds us that when our vital interests are at stake, there are limits to how hard we will push for reform. Iran's failed Twitter Revolution - especially when contrasted with Libya's NATO-aided revolution - reminds us that freedom sometimes needs a helping hand.
• Pakistan is schizophrenic at best and duplicitous at worst. Afghanistan's ability to stand on its own is an open question. In Libya, Egypt and Iraq, the world is anxiously monitoring the struggle between liberals and Islamists. And freedom's hold is fragile all across the liberated lands. But there is a sense, finally, that freedom has a fighting chance in the Middle East.

It all began 10 Octobers ago.

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