ScoutReport – May 29, 2020
It was a crazy week in the world as Washington, D.C. started coming back to life a bit, and yet more issues impacting the veteran community came to light from the COVID-19 pandemic. Not only has unemployment increased, but now the VA claims backlog is once again skyrocketing in light of canceled examinations and baffling rules changes from VBA. Bruce Kennedy does a comprehensive deep dive into the challenges many veterans face as some states lessen regulations on marijuana while the federal government steadfastly refuse to changes its archaic rules. There are a bunch of other great stories this week, including Dan Lamothe’s great piece on the challenges at the Holyoke veterans home in his home state of Massachusetts. I hope you are staying safe. Please just wear a mask. It’s not a political statement, it’s for your health. – Fred
Lawmakers seek solutions for vets denied benefits after VA canceled exams amid COVID-19
The pandemic has impacted nearly every facet of our lives and the veteran community hasn’t been immune to any of it. Last week we talked about how unemployment rates are once again climbing to levels not seen since the recession in 2008; and this week brings us a sharp rise in the number of backlogged claims for veterans benefits. The Department of Veterans Affairs has struggled for years to lower the backlog of claims that were piling up in the Veterans Benefits Administration. Real progress was being made and then everything was upended by the pandemic, as compensation and pension (C&P) exams were canceled or moved to telehealth where possible, but that’s not the full story. There have been some absolutely disastrous decisions made that are baffling veterans advocates, including how the VA is now denying claims for veterans whose exams were canceled. VA is saying they failed to show up for appointments and are also modifying a rule that allowed veterans service organizations to review claims for 48 hours before they are finalized. Both of these decisions mean that now a veteran must wait to find out his claim was denied and then file an appeal, which is an entirely separate and already deeply backlogged system before this mess started. Instead of making their lives easier, the VA has somehow managed to find a way to walk out and step on even more rakes and smack themselves in the face. Throw in their insistence on not talking to VSOs or the media about the situation, including not sending anyone to the Congressional forum Abbie covered in the story, and you’ve got more confusion and uncertainty for veterans at the absolute worst time possible for that to occur. Make no mistake, these are silly self inflicted wounds by the VA that could easily be resolved with greater transparency and engagement with the professionals that are advocating for veterans. I always ask the same question with every issue regarding VA…what about the veteran? The people that pay the price for these political and nonsensical games are always just average Joe veterans trying to get the benefits and healthcare they need. While someone inside the big building quietly changes a rule to make their lives easier, they make it exponentially harder for the very people they are supposed to be serving. Miraculously, Secretary Wilkie announced just today in a Congressional testimony that the department would begin conducting C&P exams again shortly and address the backlog that Congresswoman Elaine Luria estimates may break through one million claims by December of this year. A staggering number of veterans are in need of care and financial support at a critical time in our nation. We must do better than this. – Fred Wellman, Founder and CEO of ScoutComms
How Federal Marijuana Policy Is Pushing Veterans into the Black Market
Veterans continue to face a sticky situation with accessing and using medical cannabis even though marijuana legalization continues to expand across the country and federal legalization is supported by the majority of Americans. Currently, thirty-three states have legalized some form of medical marijuana and 11 have legalized recreational use. On the surface, one might think that if vets live in states where it’s legal, then they can just go get their card. Well, it sounds simple, but like most things, this issue is multi-faceted and really complex. Among the veteran population, support for cannabis legalization is widespread and you don’t have to look very far to find many high-quality documentaries, books, mounds of articles and nonprofits dedicated to medical cannabis use, access and the veteran population. Alongside calls to get rid of marijuana as a schedule 1 drug, veteran advocates have been calling for changes in policy that would allow the Department of Veterans Affairs to open up clinical research into cannabis use. Opening up research means that legislative action would likely follow at a national level. Yet, as of now, veterans are still on the losing end even though so many want to be able to be transparent about their use with their VA medical providers and engage with medical cannabis as part of their medical treatment plan. The problem impacting military veterans specifically is that they are stuck between “rapidly liberalizing cultural attitudes,” and federal standards that haven’t changed since the 1970s. The article sums up nicely the barriers to access by stating that, “veterans looking for alternatives to addictive and dangerous opioids and other pharmaceuticals are effectively prevented from using marijuana, by price, policy and quite often the ongoing stigma that marijuana still carries.” To add insult to injury, veterans who openly use cannabis may face losing their VA medical benefits and, even in cannabis-legal states, will likely have challenges if they want to continue with federal employment opportunities. This is a big issue because the federal government is the largest employer of veterans in the United States. Having to choose between employment and therapeutic pain treatment that has far less side effects than pharmaceutical drugs and alcohol which are legal, is an unnecessary and really crappy predicament to be in. I personally support legalization at the federal level but recognize wholeheartedly that even this needs to be kept in check. Federal legalization certainly doesn’t mean increased access. What we are currently experiencing is that legalization has led to corporatization. Corporatization means monopolization and an uptake in boutique retailers. The end result is fancy products with very expensive price tags. Instead of increased access for all Americans, working class, low income and impoverished people are squeezed out. This is why other non-legal markets will persist. We have seen this scenario play out time and time again. The only people who can afford legal weed are those with extensive, expendable income. ScoutInsight wrote a piece on veterans and medical cannabis. If interested, you can access it here. – Kiersten Downs, PhD, Research Director at ScoutComms
In a veterans’ home hit by the coronavirus, chronic problems aided a disaster
The coronavirus outbreak at the Soldiers’ Home in Holyoke, Massachusetts reportedly reflects “gaps in the patchwork oversight of state-run veterans’ homes.” Interviews with family members, state officials and current and former employees reveal that, even before the outbreak occurred, the facility was “operating with unaddressed problems,” including “chronic staff shortages” and “a dysfunctional relationship between” Holyoke management and state officials, which prevented the facility from properly handling the outbreak. After residents became infected with the virus in mid-March, a nursing assistant at the facility was “disciplined” for wearing protective equipment after spending time in the infected unit; and the Holyoke staff reportedly allowed infected residents to “continue roaming the facility” while overcrowding parts of the home. Holyoke’s superintendent, Bennett Walsh, was removed by state officials in late March after “they became aware of the extent of the outbreak,” but Walsh alleged that the state’s narrative of his negligence is a “lie.” Brian Corridan, a member of the Holyoke board of trustees, said that the facility’s inability to properly handle the outbreak stems from a funding gap, pointing out that in 2011 the state cited a lack of funding when asked to contribute to the construction of a new Holyoke wing. While Holyoke officials and state officials point fingers at each other, four investigations–including a federal probe–have been launched to investigate conditions at the facility and determine culpability for the outbreak.
Pentagon plans for expected Trump order to pull thousands more troops from Afghanistan
While plans to withdraw American troops from Afghanistan have been in the works for quite some time, the spread of the coronavirus in Afghanistan has hastened efforts to bring troops home, and Trump is expected to meet with U.S. defense officials this week to “discuss options.” A senior US military official noted that, even if Trump decided to immediately withdraw all troops, it would take several months to do so as “the effort would include shipping […] sensitive equipment out on aircraft” and aiding NATO forces in removing their equipment, as well. However, a longer-than-expected ceasefire between the Taliban and Afghan forces indicates that an agreement between the two groups may be on the horizon, which US officials have long considered a prerequisite for troop withdrawal.
Suicide risk for veterans could grow as coronavirus crisis winds down
Although veterans’ isolation and stress due to the coronavirus pandemic could increase their chances of suicidal thoughts, long-term problems with other obstacles, such as personal finance, previous health concerns and misplaced expectations, could have the greatest impact. Prior to the pandemic, about 15 percent of all VA mental health appointments were conducted over the phone or with video conferencing. That number is now closer to 80 percent, suggesting a rise in this resource and increased accessibility for those who want and/or need it.
Pentagon Officials Tight-Lipped About Where Stop-Movement Orders Will Be Lifted
On Tuesday, Pentagon officials said at a briefing that a classified list of locations could ‘go green’ in regard to locations where COVID-19 stop-movement restrictions will be lifted and travel can resume. However, the initial expected date passed without a word. The stop-movement restrictions on government-funded travel for all DoD personnel remain in place, unless waivers or exemptions are granted, according to a memorandum Tuesday from Defense Secretary Mark Esper. Factors including 14-day downward trends in new virus cases or positive tests will continue affecting these restrictions.
VA trials of hydroxychloroquine will continue despite troubling studies
The Department of Veterans Affairs will continue to use hydroxychloroquine to treat some coronavirus patients, despite warnings from experts and a decision by the World Health Organization to halt its clinical trials due to safety concerns. The drug is typically used to treat rheumatoid arthritis and lupus, and remains an unproven treatment for COVID-19. The WHO referred to a study of 96,000 coronavirus patients and found those who received hydroxychloroquine were at higher risk for death and irregular heart rhythms. VA Secretary Robert Wilkie responded saying, “we used this in the last hours of a veteran’s life in the hopes it could prolong this life … we’re doing everything we can to try to preserve life, and we follow guidelines.” As of Wednesday, 1,191 VA patients and 31 employees had died of coronavirus. The department reported more than 13,500 positive cases among its patients, about 11,000 of whom have recovered.
Nat Geo premieres 75th anniversary of Victory in Europe Day specials
On May 21, ScoutComms client National Geographic aired a full day of programming paying tribute to the 75th anniversary of Victory in Europe Day. Included in the programming were two new specials, “WWII in Europe: Voices from the Front” and “Heroes of the Sky: The Mighty Eight Air Force,” both of which featured narratives from World War II veterans as well as “rarely seen archival footage.” Geoff Daniels, National Geographic’s executive president of global unscripted entertainment, said, “We look at history in order to understand our past and inform our future. [….] As we approach the 75th anniversary of V-E Day, it’s more important than ever to revisit and remember this crucial time in world history and to ensure that these stories live on for generations to come.”
The Lives We Remember on Memorial Day
In this RallyPoint post, Vets4Warriors’ Director Maj. Gen. (Ret.) Mark Graham reflected on the lives that are remembered on Memorial Day. He discusses the full range of emotions felt during this time, sharing his reflections and personal experiences with loss. He shares, “No matter how much time has passed, remembering can feel like waves in the ocean. Sometimes the waves of emotion are light and wash up against our ankles, however, there are times when those emotional waves crash into us hard and take our breath away.” You can connect with a Vets4Warriors peer 24/7 by calling 855-838-8255 or by visiting Vets4Warriors.com.
The Veterans Research Network
ScoutInsight, the market research division of ScoutComms, is building a unique online research community of veterans, service members, military family members and caregivers. Through the Veterans Research Network, you will be able to share your opinions and knowledge with decision-makers running the organizations that impact your lives. We would be honored if you would register to be part of this standing panel for future surveys, polls and focus groups on issues that matter and help shape impactful programs for our community. It’s secure and we will never share your personal data with anyone. Learn more here at VeteransResearchNetwork.com and share it with your eligible friends and family!
Military Times and ScoutComms Partner on Annual ‘Best for Vets’ Ranking Surveys
We are thrilled to partner with Military Times on the annual ‘Best for Vets’ Employers and Colleges rankings. ScoutInsight, our data analytics and market research team, will provide the research and survey analysis behind the annual surveys in a multi-year effort. The Best for Vets: Employers 2020 Survey has been extended to July 1! We’re urging every company, nonprofit and government agency to take the survey, learn from it and find out where they stand as a supporter of this important community. Learn more here.
The material in this issue of the ScoutReport may contain difficult discussions about mental health and suicide. If you or someone you know is in immediate danger of harming themselves or someone else, please contact:
Veterans Crisis Line: 1‑800‑273‑8255 x1
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255
National Sexual Assault Hotline: 1-800-656-4673
National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1-800-799-7233
If you or someone you know is struggling with challenges in life and need a fellow veteran and military community member to talk to, we recommend our client Vets4Warriors – a free, 24/7 peer-to-peer support network: