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The Scout Report 323rd Edition

I wanted to bring you something better than this on another Monday morning, but all I have for you is that today is National Chocolate Pudding Day. Try to have it stuffed in a donut or something. Or spiked with booze. Or both? Do both.

In this week’s Scout Report, somehow we find another way to talk about the future of VA Choice (which, by the way, is running out of money.) We also talk about burn pits, the VA Caregiver Program, and the Veterans Crisis Line, among other VA topics. But we also go a little outside the expected with discussions about the future of the Army’s respite program and how VA home loans (stick with me) are impacting local economies around military bases. –LJ 
Tradeshows & Conferences:

None this week.

Congressional Hearings:
House:
Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense: FY2018 Markup
When: Monday, 7:00 PM, June 26, 2017
Where: H-140, The Capitol

Armed Services: FY2018 National Defense Authorization Act Markup
When: Wednesday, 10:00 AM, June 28, 2017
Where: 2118 Rayburn

Other Events:

None this week. 

Military and Veteran Issues:

Army scaling back respite care program
Amanda Dolasinski (@AmandaDFO), The Fayetteville Observer
On July 1, the Army begin cutting back services for families in need of respite care due to a lack of funding. These services are offered to families with a child or family member with a developmental disability that requires round-the-clock care, and are intended to give the main caretaker a break. The Army will still fund some respite care for families deemed most in need, but the limited amount of funding means evaluations will be required to make that determination. –KB
Bottom line: In recent years, we’ve seen the scaling back of benefit programs due to a constrained budget environment and a “slowed” operational tempo. $8.2 million in supplemental funds went to the Army’s MWR command in 2007 to fund the program, but by 2009 the program funding had shifted to base operating funds and no longer had support from any supplemental dollars. Since then, many families have depended on respite to give them peace of mind in their caregiving roles. For families in the Exceptional Family Member Program (EFMP), regardless of this “slowed” operational tempo, the military lifestyle presents challenges that respite helps to remedy. Families can receive up to 40 hours of respite a week, but with this change, many will be forced to seek respite from other providers. Reductions will begin on July 1 and the Army has notified impacted families of options through which they may be able to seek respite services. Unfortunately, families like the Weber’s at Ft. Bragg profiled in this article, have not been able to use these recommended services as they are either not geographically feasible or require Medicare. U.S. Rep. Richard Hudson, who represents the 8th district of North Carolina, including Ft. Bragg, has taken an interest in this issue and is currently working with the House Armed Services Committee to determine whether to seek a legislative fix. Lorraine Weber said that before respite, “[e]very day it was like I was drowning. I didn’t know if I could hang on anymore. We have been through hell.” There is no doubt that in the world of budgeting, hard choices must be made and that defense funding must be spent wisely, but respiteis clearly an invaluable resource to many families enrolled in the EFMP. We must ensure that every step is taken so that feasible options exist for families outside of DoD programming if indeed these reductions are necessary. –RB  

‘There Was No Escaping It’: Iraq Vets Are Becoming Terminally Ill And Burn Pits May Be To Blame
Patricia Kime (@PatriciaKime), Task & Purpose
Even years after hanging up their uniform, military personnel who were exposed to burn pits while in service are too often facing terminal effects. Last February, a mother of three died from pancreatic cancer, which her family and friends believe was directly caused by exposure to a waste disposal burn pit at Joint Base Balad in Iraq. The VA’s Airborne Hazards and Open Burn Pit Registry started in 2013 to track these reports, but has drawn much criticism for its questionnaire and self-reporting restrictions. While the government claims it is difficult to pinpoint whether an individual’s health defects are a direct result of a burn pit, many veterans feel ignored by the lack of responsibility taken. –DD
Bottom line: Patricia Kime has been dedicated to reporting on the burn pit issues for many years and if you want a true education inall sides of the issue this is the place to start. She lays it all out in detail and in depth. There are simply no easy answers on this topic. The complaints about how VA and DoD are handling this issue are reasonable after past battles fought over Agent Orange and Gulf War Syndrome. One of the dirty secrets of modern warfare is that hazardous materials are the backbone of the war machine. Just read the list of things that went into the massive burn pits to be drenched in jet fuel and burned that includes lithium ion batteries, plastics, medical waste, and a host of other items that taken on their own are treacherous and when mixed into a cloud of ash become something out of a nightmare. Finding the science to back it up is a staggering task and developing systems to ask even the right questions seems to be vexing the VA based on the criticisms leveled in the article about the questions veterans must answer for the burn pit registry. The facts we know are that veterans are dying of diseases they are statistically almost impossible to normally face and many of them were regularly exposed to the smoke and ash clouds of the pits in combat. Let’s start there and take care of them first and let science catch up. –FPW

Vision for VA: Fewer maternity services and cancer docs, more private care options
Leo Shane (@LeoShane), Military Times
Secretary Shulkin intends to downsize certain specialty care programs to shift more resources to general day to day healthcare operations within the VA. While Shulkin and Republicans in Congress emphasize that this is not an attempt to privatize the VA, many veteran groups, including Vietnam Veterans of America and VFW, argue that this move leaves the VA less prepared to meet the healthcare needs of all veterans who rely on the VA. Critics fear that more emphasis on private care providers does nothing to solve the long-term problems of access. –JG
Bottom line: Veteran advocates are not yet sure how to judge Secretary Shulkin’s reform efforts. He came into the position hailed as a smart, relatively safe choice, and has successfully walked the thin line between pleasing the Administration and placating the community. But the push to expand Choice and to step back recent commitments to make VA healthcare services more women-friendly is creating concern and potential backlash. The biggest question about VA Choice, in its current and future iterations, is how effectively the VA will be able to control costs as it expands opportunities and eligibility for veterans to see outside providers. Thus far, the experiment is going poorly, as the program is running out of money ahead of schedule due to increased demand. On the issue of women’s healthcare, we’ve heard from one advocate that most obstetric care is already contracted out, and that continues to make sense. But she said, “the VA really should keep other female-specific care at their medical centers including mammograms and breast cancer treatment; it would be like washing their hands of women vets if VA shipped them to the civilian sector for all female-specific care.” That is a serious issue and one that could set back full gender integration of the military and veteran communities over time. As the advocate concluded, “We should not allow VA medical care to turn back into a boys’ club.” –BW

Q&A: Veteran suicide hotline now answers 9 of 10 calls in 8 seconds
Meghan M. McDermott (@meagmc), USA Today
Earlier this week, acting Director of the Veterans Crisis Line (VCL) Susan Strickland spoke about the reforms undertaken to resolve issues that have plagued the national hotline. The most prominent, brought up by a GAO report in March, was that a high volume of calls were going unanswered and therefore being pushed to backup call centers. Answering more calls has been a high priority for the VCL, and it is now reported that just under one percent of calls go to backup centers. In addition to this progress, the VA has put into place systems that automatically record all calls as well as a random monitoring system to review advice given by counselors. –KB
Bottom line: The thing you have to understand about the Department of Veterans Affairs is that it is the second largest government agency and like any massive bureaucracy it’s got its good and its bad. The veteran’s community spends a lot of time beating the agency for the bad and painting a broad brush about the organization and its employees. We aren’t big believers in broad generalizations at ScoutComms about anything. This story is a good example of a bad situation that appears to have been rectified relatively quickly under former Secretary Bob McDonald’s leadership and is continuing under Secretary Shulkin. The Veterans Crisis Line has quietly been working as promised while no one was paying attention. Just today The Duffel Blog had a satire story about a VA operator complaining about having to wait on a cable company phone call. We think this is good news and we also encourage our readers to check out and spread the word on ScoutComms client Vets4Warriors that operates a 24/7 contact center to help service members, veterans and their families with challenges before they become a crisis. Learn more about them athttp://www.vets4warriors.com/ or call 855-838-8255 any time. –FPW

Over half of 2016 Bell County new foreclosures tied to VA loans
Kyle Blankenship (@KBlankendip) Killeen Daily Herald
Foreclosure rates in Killeen, TX are twice the national average, with 67 percent of all new foreclosures in Bell County in 2016 stemming from properties financed by VA home loans. Due to the closing costs connected with buying a new home, many service members and veterans with VA home loans owe more than what the house is worth on their first day of home ownership. Since service members and veterans are often relocating, many of them do not live in their homes long enough to build equity needed to get a return on their investment, leaving them at risk to lose thousands of dollars if they sell. –JG
Bottom line: Given that the insights revealed are constrained to the area surrounding one military base, it is difficult to assess whether this trend of an above-average rate of foreclosures is common to many military communities or is specific to the Fort Hood area. It certainly makes sense that this could be a common issue: the 2016 Veterans & Active Military Home Buyers and Sellers Profile from the National Association of Realtors found that service members and veterans under the age of 35 are more likely than all other Americans to purchase a home. “Of all homebuyers,” NAR found, “18 percent identified as veterans and three percent asactive-military.” That’s significantly disproportionate to their representation in the U.S. population. But at the same time, the 2016 survey found that “Current data shows that VA loans perform remarkably well and are a safe and affordable choice. Their current seriously delinquent and homes in foreclosure rate is 2.78 percent versus 3.44 percent for non-VA loans.” So outside of Fort Hood, the VA loan foreclosure issue may not be an issue at all. The VA loan is a great opportunity, but the fact that it does not require a down payment means that it can allow young service members who are not yet settled in their careers or lives to make a major financial commitment that they cannot sustain, resulting in foreclosure. The excellent reporting from the Killeen Daily Herald should be a prompt to look at this issue around other major U.S. military installations and ascertain if this is a common issue that needs to be addressed through more effective education and counseling of young service members and veterans before they purchase a home. –BW

VA standardizing caregiver plan before opening to older vets
Tom Philpott (@tomphilpott), Stars and Stripes
VA Secretary Dr. David Shulkin has publicly supported the idea to expand the VA’s Caregiver Program beyond post-9/11 caregivers to ensure it benefits caregivers for veterans of earlier generations. The proposed change would allow all veteran caregivers to have access to its cash stipend and a host of other services. While that will require legislation, Shulkin has taken steps to better define the eligibility rules for the current program. This comes after the VA dismissed several caregivers from the benefits program without explanation and after veteran service organizations began raising questions about the process and rules. –DD
Bottom line: As a faithful and dutiful Scout Report reader, you know we have been following the issue of military and veteran caregivers for some time now. What we’re hearing is that it’s wonderful Secretary Shulkin is clarifying the process that veteran caregivers must go through and the rubric by which their eligibility will be judged, this was something that should have been done years ago at the outset of the program. Nonetheless, we see this as a positive step that VA is taking to get the program in order ahead of legislation expanding the program to cover caregivers of veterans of all generations. Shulkin himself supports that goal and ensuring the current program meets certain standards is a criterion for some veteran organizations to fully embrace the same. With advocates like Senator Elizabeth Dole leading the charge for an expanded caregiver program, congressional agreement can’t be too far in the future.  –LJ

Client News:

Military and Veterans Groups Advocate Benefit Parity Between Active Duty, Reserve Soldiers
Erich Wagner, Government Executive
As a part of the Veterans Education Improvement Act of 2017, Reservists and National Guardsmen would no longer fall under a loophole while deployed that would preclude them from accruing certain benefits, including the GI Bill. Student Veterans of America VP of Government Affairs Will Hubbard emphasized that there should be no controversy around making sure that all those whoserve receive the same benefits, regardless of their active duty or reserve status. Nearly 40 other military, veteran and higher education organizations have signed on to urge Congress to pass this legislation. –JG 

Unemployment Among Military Spouses Is A Problem That’s Not Going Away
Sarah Sicard (@smsicard), Task and Purpose
According to a major study released by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, 38 percent of military spouses are out of a job. The military lifestyle brings about frequent moves for families, which plays a large role in the current spouse unemployment rate. While a steady push towards hiring veterans has lowered the overall veteran unemployment rate, there also needs to be a focus on their spouses. The report found that military spouses have higher levels of education and said spouses deserve jobs that align with their educational attainment. –DD

Survey: Veteran caregivers feel isolated, need more support.
Leo Shane III (@LeoShane), Military Times
A survey released by Disabled American Veterans this past week revealed that those who provide 24-hour care to injured veterans often feel that they lack support from the federal government and are isolated from their friends. This report’s release follows on a Senate hearing the previous week featuring Senator Elizabeth Dole and her foundation’s Dole Caregiver Fellows testifying alongside actor Ryan Phillippe. These findings will support the organization’s efforts advocating for increased levels of assistance for these hidden heroes, who are often ignored by the public and the media. –KB

Quick Hits:

Moulton, frustrated with party leaders, endorses 8 veterans in House races
Edward-Isaac Dovere (@IsaacDovere), Politico
Rep. Seth Moulton (D-Mass.) on Tuesday expressed frustration with the leadership of the Democratic Party through a series of tweets, calling for a new generation of progressive leaders to take charge. He followed up his Tweets by releasing a list on Wednesday of eight veterans who he is endorsing in 2018 House races all around the country. Moulton, a Marine who completed four tours in Iraq, has worked with the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in recent months to recruit fellow veterans to run for office. –JDG

7 Sailors Emerged from Diverse Backgrounds to Pursue a Common Cause
Dave Philipps (@David_Philipps), New York Times
Last weekend, the destroyer USS Fitzgerald collided with a container ship, and seven sailors were killed. These men were the epitome of the diverse nation they served. Family members reflected on the lives of their loved ones and said they had found their purpose serving the nation that offered them the opportunity of a promising future for themselves and their families. The U.S. Navy is still investigating what caused this tragic accident. –CB

Miles Teller has PTSD in exclusive ‘Thank You for Your Service’ trailer
Patrick Ryan (@PatRyanWrites), USA Today
“American Sniper” screenwriter Jason Hall both wrote and directed “Thank You for Your Service,” a film adapted from journalist and author David Finkel’s 2013 non-fiction book of the same title. In theaters Oct. 27, “Thank You” depicts the challenges faced by soldiers coming home from Iraq as they work to re-enter civilian life and rejoin their families. –NJ

The Tenuous Future of Transgender Troops
Susannah Rodrigue, New America Weekly
It is unclear whether the Trump Administration will maintain the 2016 repeal of a rule that prevented transgender military personnel from serving openly. Transgender troops have been able to serve openly since the repeal, issued by then-Secretary of Defense Ash Carter, but transgender recruits are still unable to enter the services. Several studies have shown that overall readiness and health care costs, the two top concerns of military officials, would not be significantly impacted by the inclusion of transgender service members. –JDG

How the Liberal Arts Help Veterans Thrive
Kara Voght (@karavoght), The Atlantic
Eleven veterans were part of a pilot program conducted at Vassar College along with other small, selective liberal arts colleges. As five of those student veterans recently graduated in May after completing the traditional four-year degree, the results of the pilot show that veterans are more than capable of succeeding at elite liberal-arts institutions. –CB

Trump nominates VA insider as next department deputy secretary
Leo Shane III (@LeoShane), Military Times
On Wednesday, President Trump tapped Thomas Bowman, the current majority staff director of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, to serve as the Department of Veterans Affairs’ Deputy Secretary. Bowman has an extensive and distinguished career, having served 30 years in the U.S. Marine Corps and worked as both the state court administrator for the Rhode Island Judiciary and the chief of staff to the chief justice of the Rhode Island Supreme Court. Current Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) praised President Trump’s decision to nominate Bowman and feels that his leadership will bring valuable insight and knowledge to the Department. –NJ

Hispanic caucus looks to VA Secretary to end veteran deportation
Nikki Wentling (@nikkiwentling), Stars and Stripes
The Congressional Hispanic Caucus on Monday requested a meeting with Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Dr. David Shulkin to discuss ending the deportation of veterans. The caucus recently met with 12 veterans at the Deported Veterans Support House in Tijuana, Mexico. Some noncitizen service members are automatically eligible to become citizens, but many do not know that they must officially apply in order to attain citizenship. The caucus would like to work with Secretary Shulkin on better informing eligible veterans about the citizenship application process, with the goal of preventing future deportations. –JDG 

Moves in the Sector:

James Byrne nominated to be General Counsel of the Department of Veterans Affairs
Byrne most recently served as Associate General Counsel and Chief Privacy Officer at Lockheed Martin Corporation where he was also the company’s lead cyber and counterintelligence attorney. Prior to joining Lockheed Martin, Byrne served as the career Senior Executive Service Deputy Special Counsel with the Office of the United States Special Counsel, and both General Counsel and Assistant Inspector General for Investigations with the Office of the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction. Byrne has over 20 years of experience in the public sector, including service as a deployed Marine Infantry Officer and a U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) international narcotics prosecutor. He volunteered for the past ten years on the Executive Board of Give an Hour, a non-profit organization that has developed national networks of volunteer professionals capable of providing complimentary and confidential mental health services in response to both acute and chronic conditions that arise within our society, beginning with the mental health needs of post-9/11 veterans, service members and their families. Byrne is a Distinguished Graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, where he received an engineering degree and ultimately held the top leadership position of Brigade Commander.

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