- The Washington Times - Monday, June 27, 2005

Dear Sgt. Shaft:

My name is Raymond J., retired U.S. Coast Guard. I retired Feb. 1, 1985, with more than 27 years’ active duty. The first six were in the U.S. Navy and the final 21 were USCG. Among my medals and awards is the Vietnam Service Medal with four stars. I waited until I had been out for more than 15 years to file a claim with the VA for spinal stenosis.

The long wait was out of stupidity on my part about the VA. I first filed in 2002. Since then I have had five back surgeries, all brought on by the stenosis. I have appealed their denial twice. The last one was with a medical opinion enclosed by my doctor. That was in June 2004. Since then I have heard nothing. Can you tell me how I can get some information on my claim? Thank you for any information.

Ray J.

Montgomery, Ala.

Dear Ray:

I contacted the powers that be at VA, and they tell me that you soon will be informed that your claim for spinal stenosis has been granted. A special thanks to the VA for its quick review of your inquiry.

Shaft notes

Aloha and special thanks to Sen. Daniel K. Akaka, Hawaii Democrat and ranking member of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee for introducing a mental-health initiative for veterans.

In a recent floor statement introducing the bill, the senator stated: “Mr. President, I rise proudly today to introduce legislation that would enhance the Department of Veterans Affairs’ ability to provide mental-health and other specialized services to its patients. At a time when our nation is at war, it is imperative that we ensure that all veterans have access to top-quality mental-health care, whether they visit a VA hospital or clinic.

“At the time of its creation, the VA health care system was tasked with meeting the special needs of its veteran patients. Those veterans who suffered from spinal-cord injuries, amputations, blindness, post-traumatic stress disorder, substance abuse and homelessness required unique forms of treatment and rehabilitation. During the past few decades, VA has emerged as the industry leader in providing specialized services to these types of patients. Much of VA’s expertise in these areas remains unparalleled in the larger health care community — particularly with regard to mental-health care.

“However, it is with great dismay that I rise today, as VA’s specialized programs are in jeopardy due to budget constraints. Increased demand and flat-line budget increases over the past few years have literally starved the system. Sadly, this problem is not a new one. Back in 1996, Congress recognized the merits of these specialized programs and that they could be vulnerable to cuts because of their smaller scale. As such, we enacted legislation that required VA to retain its capacity to provide specialized services at the levels in place at the time of the bill’s passage in 1996, and to annually report as to the status of its compliance with this requirement.

“Despite this effort by Congress and the actions of my predecessors on this committee to subsequently strengthen the original legislation to protect VA’s specialized services, VA continues to underfund and cut back resources for these vital programs. Additionally, VA has employed measures such as counting dollars according to 1996 levels to appear as if they are in compliance. In the area of mental health care, this has been especially true.

“My proposed legislation amends the statute to ensure that capacity funding levels are adjusted for inflation. We need to be talking about real dollars — not 1996 dollars — to get a true sense of VA’s capacity to care for veterans with mental-health needs.

“This legislation would also mandate that VA carry out a number of measures designed to improve mental-health and substance-abuse treatment capacity at community-based outpatient clinics and throughout the VA system.

“Currently, many clinics do not even provide mental-health services at all. My bill would ensure that at least 90 percent of all clinics can provide mental-health services, either on site or through referrals. Furthermore, it would establish more comprehensive performance measures to provide incentives for clinics to maintain mental-health capacity, for primary care doctors to screen patients for mental illness, and require that every primary health care facility be able to provide at least five days of inpatient detoxification services.

“Finally, the bill seeks to foster greater cooperation between VA and the Department of Defense in treating service members and subsequently veterans who suffer from some form of mental health or readjustment disorder. It has been estimated that anywhere from 20 [percent] to 30 percent of the men and women who are currently serving in Iraq and Afghanistan will require treatment for a mental- health issue. The bill would direct the two departments to agree upon standardized separation screening procedures for sexual-trauma and mental-health disorders, as well as establish a joint VA-DoD workgroup to examine potential ways of combating stigma associated with mental illness, educate service members’ families, and make VA’s expertise in the field of mental health more readily available to DoD providers.

“We still have much work to do in the area of mental illness associated with service in the armed forces. But this bill is a step in the right direction. I ask my colleagues for their support of this bill, for it not only seeks to combat disorders that can be very debilitating, but it also would protect specialized services that are at the heart of VA’s mission.”

Send letters to Sgt. Shaft, c/o John Fales, PO Box 65900, Washington, D.C. 20035-5900; fax 301/622-3330; call 202/257-5446; or e-mail [email protected]

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