American Legion News Clips 5.4.20

Good morning, Legionnaires and veterans advocates, it’s Monday, May 4, 2020, which as all my fellow geeks know, is Star Wars Day. May the Fourth be with you.
So, might as well throw a few Star Wars facts at you:

  • Darth Vader appears for only 12 minutes in the first Star Wars movie: A New Hope.
  • Early in the process of making Star Wars, Yoda was nearly played by an actual monkey.
  • “I have a bad feeling about this” has been spoken in each Star Wars movie.


*Includes comment from The American Legion.

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Washington Post: What VA isn’t saying about hydroxychloroquine — and everything else related to coronavirus

By Alex Horton | May 1

The Department of Veterans Affairs has sidestepped questions about its response to the coronavirus, veteran service organizations and congressional committees have said, even as the number of deaths at VA hospitals attributed to covid-19 eclipsed 500 on Friday.

Veterans advocates say that in particular, VA has not provided a complete picture concerning the continued use of hydroxychloroquine, an antimalarial drug touted by President Trump that a study showed had no benefit in treating coronavirus patients and was linked to higher rates of death among veterans.

“Veterans need access to as much information as possible. And we need VA to provide that information,” said Chanin Nuntavong, the executive director for government and veteran affairs at The American Legion, a leading veteran service organization.

VA oversees the country’s largest integrated health system with more than 1,200 medical facilities, from sprawling hospitals to strip-mall clinics. Around 9.5 million veterans are enrolled in VA health care — about half of all U.S. veterans.

The agency has acknowledged shortages of personal protective equipment but said that has not impacted patient care. VA spokeswoman Christina Noel also said the agency, following FDA guidelines, permits the use of hydroxychloroquine only “after ensuring veterans and caretakers are aware of potential risks.”

Here are some key issues veterans advocates say VA officials have not addressed.

Use of hydroxychloroquine

Much of recent criticism launched at VA has centered on its use of hydroxychloroquine, a fixture in Trump’s briefings and on Fox News as a treatment until a study by VA and academic researchers said it was linked to a higher rate of deaths of veterans who received it.

The results of the study, which included physicians at VA’s Columbia, S.C., hospital, were not part of a randomized, placebo-controlled clinical trial and have not been peer-reviewed or published in academic journals. But they provided researchers with potential new insights into the drug.

Veterans of Foreign Wars said it is “very disturbed” VA is still administering the drug for covid-19 treatment.

“We request the immediate halt of this drug for our veterans until further information on its true impact is determined,” said William Schmitz, the national commander of the veteran service organization.

VA Secretary Robert Wilkie, in an appearance on MSNBC last week, said the study involved a small number of veterans, “sadly those of whom were in the last stages of life.” VA questioned the drug’s efficacy in combating coronavirus infection, but Noel said the agency routinely dispenses it to treat lupus and rheumatoid arthritis.

Wilkie said there were signs the drug “has been working on middle-aged and younger veterans,” an assertion Noel conceded was based on anecdotal accounts.

Jeremy Butler, the chief executive of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, described the tests as experiments on veterans, a description Noel has rejected.

“The question is how long they continue the experiment and what results they’re using to drive the decision to continue or not,” Butler said.

Wilkie led a call Wednesday with veterans groups, Butler said, adding that the chief health executive at VA, Richard A. Stone, was also on the call but did not address the issue.

Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), the ranking Democrat on the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, sent the agency 11 questions “regarding the efficacy of hydroxychloroquine for covid-19 treatment” but has not received a response, the committee said Thursday.

Reaching high-risk veterans

VA’s efforts to reach veterans with preexisting medical conditions to tell them about increased risk of infection have been inconsistent, advocates said. That is a particular concern, they said, for a group that is older than the general population and including service members who were exposed to toxins in war and at home.

Black Americans, a group with higher rates of diabetes, heart disease and lung disease, appear to be dying of covid-19 infections at disproportional rates. More than 2 million black Americans are veterans, according to 2016 VA data, more than half of whom are older than 65.

But in their daily information release, VA has not provided race breakdowns of infections or deaths among its patients, and in recent weeks stopped publishing age demographics of deceased veterans.

VA officials also have not warned Vietnam veterans of additional risks they may face after exposure to defoliants such Agent Orange, said Rick Weidman, executive director for policy and government affairs at Vietnam Veterans of America.

“We’re the ones with targets on our backs,” Weidman said, listing common ailments among Vietnam veterans, including diabetes, hypertension, ischemic heart disease and lung problems, that have been linked to Agent Orange exposure. “All of those things make us a high risk group.”

In a similar vein, Butler said VA has not explicitly warned veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan who may have inhaled toxic fumes from burn pits — in which plastic, body parts, bloody uniforms and other items were soaked in jet fuel and set ablaze — about how the virus may affect them.

VA maintains a voluntary registry of veterans who may have been exposed to burn pits, and sent an email to registry members after a Daily Beast story noted the agency had not told them to take any extra precautions. The message had general information and did not link toxic exposure to elevated covid-19 infection risk.

It is unclear how widespread the emails were. Three veterans in Butler’s office are on the registry, but only one received it, he said.

The agency did not return a request for comment regarding racial demographics of deceased veterans or wartime toxic exposure and coronavirus risk. Its hazard information page has said concerned veterans can consider joining the registry and advises them to wash their hands and socially distance.

Mental health and other issues

VA has made strides in providing mental health care during the pandemic, advocates said, such as the distribution of thousands of Facebook Portal devices to help connect veterans with telehealth services and reduce isolation.

And VA’s focus on telehealth has positioned the agency well as its physicians cope with remote appointments, Butler said. Wilkie reported on last week’s call that VA handled 154,000 remote mental health appointments in March, Butler said, three times the usual amount.

On other issues, VA has been less clear.

Another VA capability, its obligation to back up civilian and military hospitals in times of crisis, dubbed the “fourth mission,” treated 135 non-veteran patients, Bloomberg reported April 16.

VA did not provide updated statistics, and it is unclear to veterans groups, Butler said, if that number met the need requested by health officials at other agencies.

If it didn’t, he said, “it’s a good thing to know, because much of this is planning for the next big thing.”

Weidman was more blunt in his assessment.

“VA was totally unprepared for the fourth mission,” he said.

Military Times: Veterans Affairs adds 2,000 new coronavirus cases in five days, deaths top 500

Leo Shane III | 2 days ago

Veterans Affairs patient deaths from coronavirus topped 500 overnight and cases rose to nearly 9,000 as the illness continues to spread within the department’s health system.

As of Friday morning, 8,798 patients had contracted the fast-spreading virus, an increase of more than 2,000 cases within VA in the last five days. On April 2, the system had fewer than 2,000 total cases.

Dozens of sites have recorded more than 100 coronavirus cases among patients. The hardest-hit sites are all in the New York City area, while department hospitals in New Orleans, Philadelphia, Boston, Chicago, and Washington, D.C. have all recorded more than 200 cases.

As of Friday morning, VA has seen 512 deaths from the illness. That’s up 88 cases in the last five days. On April 1, the system had reported only 53 deaths.

Seventy-six separate VA medical centers have seen at least one patient die from coronavirus-related complications.

The sharp rises mirror the rest of the United States. Earlier this week, Centers for Disease Control officials announced that the number of cases across the country had topped 1 million, and the number of deaths had topped 60,000.

On Thursday, for the first time in two weeks, the death rate among VA patients who have contracted the illness fell below 6 percent and has stayed there. That figure has been as high as 6.5 percent in recent days, and now sits close to the national rate of about 5.7 percent.

Worldwide, more than 235,000 individuals have died from the fast-spreading virus.

About one in every 14 people who test positive for coronavirus has eventually died from complications. In the United States alone, that figure is closer to one in 17 individuals.

In recent days, VA leaders have scrambled to defend the department’s use of hydroxychloroquine as treatment for some coronavirus patients, following claims by President Donald Trump that the medicine showed potential as a cure. Subsequent medical tests have indicated the drug could actually worsen patients’ health.

The Associated Press reported this week that VA Secretary Robert Wilkie, in a conference call with veterans advocates, said the treatment was only being used for patients in high-risk groups, although he declined to give specific figures.

VA has tested more than 130,000 patients for coronavirus in the last two months. That amounts to about one in every 12 veterans tested being confirmed to have been infected.

Department officials have warned that veterans with symptoms such as fever, cough, or shortness of breath should immediately contact their local VA facility for assistance, but must contact the facilities before visiting to help limit spread of the illness.

Associated Press: Americans without bank accounts must wait for federal checks

By AARON MORRISON | Associated Press | Published: May 3, 2020

NEW YORK — As the coronavirus crisis took hold, Akeil Smith’s employer slashed her work as a home health aide to 25 hours per week. Her $15-per-hour salary no longer provided enough to pay her $700 monthly rent, and she had to visit food pantries for groceries.

While millions of U.S. workers already have received quick relief payments from the federal Treasury through direct deposit, Smith is among millions of others without traditional bank accounts who must wait weeks for paper checks. When the checks finally arrive, this disproportionately black and Hispanic population often has little choice but to use expensive check-cashing services to access the money.

“I live check to check, and right now, I need more groceries,” Smith, 35, told The Associated Press as she stood inside Payomatic, a small, check-cashing store in a predominantly black Brooklyn neighborhood.

In the six weeks since the pandemic shut down much of the U.S. economy, more than 30 million American workers have filed for unemployment insurance. Congress passed a $2.2 trillion economic rescue package.

The government in April began sending $1,200 for each individual, $2,400 for each married couple and another $500 for each dependent child to poor and middle-class families across the U.S. Wealthier families get either reduced payouts or nothing, depending on their income.

To help smooth the delivery of the payments, the government launched an online portal for people to provide their banking information for direct deposit. But that system offered nothing to people without savings or checking accounts.

A House Ways and Means Committee memo obtained by the AP estimated about 5 million paper checks will be issued each week, meaning those most in need could wait many weeks for their payments.

In Houston, Ta’Mar Bethune, 41, a mother of four grown children who is raising a grandchild, is likely to wait a while. As a younger woman, she struggled for years with affording bank account fees until her account was closed. In the 1990s, she also was a victim of identity theft and never fully recovered.

More than 20 years later, Bethune still cannot pass a standard background check to open a checking account because the banking system views her as too risky, she said. To get by, she transfers the money she makes as a professional hairdresser and babysitter onto a non-bank debit card.

“They charge you an arm and a leg,” she said, citing a monthly fee and a charge for every swipe or withdrawal. “You never get your full money. It’s bad, but I have no other choice.”

Bethune receives financial coaching from the Houston Area Urban League, a nonprofit organization helping low- to moderate-income families examine their behaviors around spending and saving. The organization says many families are reluctant to open bank accounts, especially if they have been burned by the system.

“Nobody wants to be exploited,” said Carmela Walker, a financial coach for the group.

Approximately 8.4 million U.S. households were considered “unbanked” in 2017, meaning that no one in the household had an account, according to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. Another 24.2 million households were “underbanked,” meaning they might have bank accounts but members of the household also used alternative financial services for money orders, check cashing, international remittances, payday loans and pawn shop loans, often at high costs.

Some of those services have been criticized for being predatory and marketing to black and Hispanic communities, which are disproportionately unbanked. Roughly 17% of black households and 14% of Hispanic households were without bank accounts in 2017, compared with just 3% of white households and 2.5% of Asian American households, the FDIC said.

Banking is a social justice issue with the potential to widen America’s racial wealth gap, said Cy Richardson, vice president of the National Urban League.

“Black America’s economic destiny exists on a razor’s edge right now,” Richardson said.

Advocates say the federal government should use the pandemic payments as an opportunity to bring more people into the banking system via Bank On accounts, which are FDIC insured, cost $5 or less per month and do not allow overdrafts nor charge insufficient-fund fees. The accounts can be used for direct deposit, purchases and paying bills.

Otherwise, long lines at check-cashing stores could stretch into the fall and could pose dangers to public health.

“There’s now a health component to being unbanked — people are going to have to take literal risks with their health, in order to receive and then spend these dollars,” said Jonathan Mintz, CEO of the Cities for Financial Empowerment Fund, which aims to get underserved Americans set up with affordable bank accounts.

The opportunity to attract customers with relief payments is not lost on check-cashing and payday-loan businesses, an $11.2 billion network of storefront locations in cities big and small.

In Brooklyn, B&H Check Cashing, in the predominantly Hispanic neighborhood of Bushwick, posts its rates for cashing checks on a wall. A $1,200 check, for example, would cost $26.76 to cash.

Essence Gandy, 26, stood in a line of two dozen people that snaked outside a PLS Check Cashers in Brooklyn to cash in loose change at a Coinstar kiosk. Her checking account was closed months ago because she had insufficient funds and was unable to get back in good standing.

“I’ve got bills on top of bills,” said Gandy, who also has credit card debts and is behind on payments to a mattress store. She said she hopes to use the federal relief payment to catch up on bills and likely will cash the paper check at PLS.

A representative of PLS, which has 300 locations in 12 states, said it has been informing regular customers that stimulus checks can be cashed at their lowest rates.

Stars & Stripes: US, Taliban spokesmen clash on Twitter over terms of deal

By J.P. LAWRENCE | STARS AND STRIPES | Published: May 3, 2020

KABUL, Afghanistan — The top U.S. military spokesman in Afghanistan and his counterpart in the Taliban traded words on Twitter in Saturday statements that appeared to reveal unwritten secret agreements between America and the militant group.

The U.S. military warned the Taliban it must reduce attacks in line with an informal agreement to lower violence by 80%, in a letter posted online by Col. Sonny Leggett.

“If the violence cannot be reduced — then yes, there will be responses,” Leggett said in the letter, addressed to Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid.

Mujahid called the U.S. statement “pointless and provocative” in a response later in the day.

U.S. officials have consistently said continued violence against Afghan troops by the Taliban violates an agreement signed two months ago, despite such attacks not being expressly prohibited in the released text of the deal.

The deal says that if the Taliban keep terrorists from operating in Afghanistan, stop attacking the U.S. and its allies, and hold intra-Afghan peace talks with the Kabul government, foreign forces will begin a phased withdrawal to leave the country in 14 months.

The deal also contains unwritten agreements, Leggett said on Twitter.

“During those long negotiations there were written and spoken commitments,” Leggett wrote. “We spoke of ALL sides reducing violence by as much as 80% to pave the way for peace talks.”

U.S. forces have begun drawing down from about 13,000 troops to 8,600 as part of the deal. But key parts of the agreement — prisoner exchanges and peace talks between the Taliban and Afghan government — are long behind schedule.

Demands for lower violence in the country come after attacks on Afghan forces surged above “seasonal norms” after the deal was signed, according to a report by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction released Friday.

The Taliban meanwhile accused the U.S. of violating the deal by continuing to bomb its fighters.

In response, the letter by Leggett said U.S. forces have not conducted any offensive strikes since the deal’s signing, adding operations to protect Afghan troops are allowed.

Saturday’s exchange was a rare revelation of details in U.S. and Taliban deal, said Andrew Watkins, a senior Afghanistan analyst at International Crisis Group, a nonprofit think tank based in Brussels.

“The fact the U.S. is bringing this out into the public now, two months later, suggests the U.S. may feel things aren’t working,” Watkins told Stars and Stripes on Sunday.