From his kitchen table in Italy via Skype, deported U.S. Army veteran Arnold Giammarco said the years apart from his family have been “devastating.”
“It’s tough,” said Giammarco, a legal non-citizen veteran of the Army and National Guard, during a Skype interview with C-HIT. He was deported in November 2012 for nonviolent drug and larceny convictions for which he had previously served jail time. “You can’t hold your wife,” he said, dabbing tears from his eyes. “You can’t hold your daughter.”
Giammarco, 60, had lived in the United States since he was 4, but never became a citizen. In 2011 federal immigration officers arrested him at his home in Groton and detained him for 11 months, then deported him. He has been fighting to return to Connecticut ever since, with the help of free legal representation from Yale Law School clinics.
Some newly enrolled veterans seeking a primary care appointment at the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) wait more than 90 days before they see a provider, and the agency’s way of calculating wait times understates them, according to a new report by a government watchdog office. “This most recent work on veterans’ access to primary care expands further the litany of VA health care deficiencies and weaknesses that we have identified over the years,” Debra Draper, director of the Government Accountability Office’s (GAO) health-care team, said in testimony to the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs. “As of April 1, 2016, there were about 90 GAO recommendations regarding veterans’ health care awaiting action by VHA … (including) more than a dozen recommendations to address weaknesses in the provision and oversight of veterans’ access to timely primary and specialty care, including mental health care. “Until VHA can make meaningful progress in addressing these and other recommendations,” she added, “the quality and safety of health care for our nation’s veterans is at risk.”
The new GAO report looked at wait times for newly enrolled veterans seeking primary care appointments at six VA medical centers around the country. Among a random sample of 180 of those veterans, 60 who requested care had not been seen at all by primary care providers, in some cases because the VA never contacted them or because they were left off an eligibility list in error.
In response to requests from a Connecticut veteran and the Veterans of Foreign Wars, U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal Thursday called on the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to extend Agent Orange benefits to veterans who served in Korea in 1967. “Eugene Clarke, of Redding, Connecticut has been instrumental in bringing a light to shine on these problems,” Blumenthal said, referring to the Army veteran who has spent years fighting to get benefits for veterans who served in Korea in 1967. C-HIT first reported on Clarke’s efforts Tuesday. The VFW presented testimony Wednesday to the House and Senate Veterans’ Affairs committees, asking that the VA grant benefits to veterans with illnesses that have been linked to Agent Orange exposure. Now, the VA provides the benefits to veterans who served in Korea from 1968 to 1971.
A Connecticut veteran who has spent years trying to gain Agent Orange benefits for veterans who served in Korea in 1967 has persuaded the Veterans of Foreign Wars and two other veterans’ organizations to take his case before Congress. On Wednesday, VFW National Commander John A. Biedrzycki Jr. will ask Congress to pass a law requiring the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to grant VA health care and compensation to veterans who served in Korea in 1967 if they have illnesses linked to Agent Orange. Biedrzycki’s prepared testimony states that current VA rules exclude many veterans “who now suffer from diseases and illnesses that have been directly linked to the chemical defoliant.”
Carlos Fuentes, VFW senior legislative associate, said documents provided by Army veteran Eugene Clarke of Redding swayed the national organization to seek the benefits change through Congress. The documents include proof of test spraying of defoliants in Korea in 1967 and of veterans’ exposure to Korean government spraying. Fuentes said VFW efforts to convince the VA to change its policy have been unsuccessful.
A study showing that women veterans commit suicide at six times the rate of civilian women has prompted U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal and colleagues to propose legislation requiring the VA to develop gender-specific suicide prevention programs.
The “Female Veterans Suicide Prevention Act” would expand the Department of Veterans Affairs’ annual evaluation of mental health and suicide-prevention programs to include data specific to female veterans. The act also would require the VA to determine which programs are the most effective for female veterans. “With suicide among women veterans happening at an alarming rate, (the proposed bill) will help save lives by ensuring VA is providing the care, counseling and outreach these veterans need,” Blumenthal said. Co-sponsors include Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-CA), Joni Ernst (R-IA), and Sherrod Brown (D-OH).
A U.S. Army veteran found dead in a public bathroom at the Veterans Affairs Hospital in West Haven died of accidental heroin intoxication, according to Dr. James R. Gill, the state medical examiner. Zachary Paul-Allen Greenough, 28, of Uncasville, was participating in a residential program where he was free to leave the hospital campus during the day, according to Pamela Redmond, spokesperson for the West Haven VA hospital. She said, as a result, Greenough could have obtained the drugs “anywhere.”
She said the VA would not comment on the cause of Greenough’s death, which occurred on Dec. 22, 2015. She said an investigation by the hospital’s Patient Safety Program has been completed, but the results are not yet available.
The Army is not properly monitoring the prescribing of medications to treat post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in active-duty soldiers to ensure that antipsychotics and sedatives are not being used, a new government report says. The report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) recommends that the Secretary of Defense direct the Army to monitor prescribing practices in order to detect medications that are discouraged under PTSD treatment guidelines. Those guidelines caution against the use of antipsychotics and benzodiazepines, a class of sedatives, because of their ineffectiveness and potential risk. “The Army does not monitor the prescribing of medications to treat PTSD on an ongoing basis,” says the report, led by the GAO’s director of health care, Debra Draper. “Without such monitoring, the Army may be unable to identify and address practices that are inconsistent with the guideline.”
The Department of Defense did not dispute the GAO recommendations, but argued that it has worked to reduce antipsychotic prescribing.
U.S. Army veteran Bob Swirsky’s face lights up when home health care nurse Jeanette Hutchinson enters his room to check his blood pressure and attend to his body to prevent bedsores. “It’s going to be 120 over 60,” Swirsky says, as Hutchinson inflates the cuff on the meter on his left arm. “Close,” she said, “124 over 60.”
In Connecticut, there are 209,882 veterans, according to the most-recent U.S. census data, and 29.4 percent are over the age of 75. This group forms the core of veterans with chronic medical issues who are targeted by a VA program to treat them in their own homes. Most of the patients in the VA’s Home Based Primary Care (HBPC) program are like Swirsky, who is bed-bound and not able to easily get to the West Haven VA Hospital.
The federal government will pay for disabled veterans now residing in assisted-living facilities, under a bill passed by Congress in December. But the measure doesn’t cover veterans who may move to such places in the future. Disabled veterans living at retirement homes, including those at Seacrest Retirement Center in West Haven, HighVue Manor in Hamden, and Mattatuck Health Care in Waterbury, were told in 2013 by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs that coverage of their housing was a mistake and would end. The coverage began in 2010. U.S. Rep. Rosa L. DeLauro obtained extensions for the Connecticut veterans who sought her help and she proposed the language in the bill approved that ensured their coverage would continue.
The Pentagon is not doing enough to make its sexual assault prevention strategy effective, according to a Congressional watchdog agency. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) says the Department of Defense (DOD) has failed to: identify risk factors that “promote sexual violence” in the military community and in military leadership; communicate the strategy to military bases to ensure consistency among Armed Services prevention programs; and undertake methods to measure if the strategy is working and whether changes are needed. The report to Congress notes that sexual assaults reported to the military increased from 2,800 in 2007 to 6,100 in 2014, but adds that they represent “a fraction” of actual incidents. The report cites a 2014 RAND survey, which estimated that 20,300 active-duty service members were sexually assaulted in the prior year. The report concludes that the DOD needs to take actions to better address the problem.