Senator Cris Dush E-Newsletter

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If you know a Veteran, please forward this issue to them.  There are some important updates, resources and information they can use.

In this Update:

  • VA Claims Backlog Persists, Though There Has Been Some Improvement
  • Prolonged Exposure and Treatments for PTSD
  • Pittsburgh VA is Treating Veterans with Lingering “Long COVID”
  • Offering Mental Health Support to Rural Veterans Through Rural Community Clergy Training Program
  • VA to Award Grants to Improve Transitional Housing Facilities
  • Pennsylvania Air National Guard Opens New Training Facility at Fort Indiantown Gap
  • Veteran Town Hall on April 6
  • State Veteran’s Commission Meeting on April 8
  • New Sign-In Process for My HealtheVet Starts April 11
  • A Reminder That Eligible Veterans Can Shop at Defense Commissaries
  • Elk County Purple Heart Commemoration Ceremony Applications Being Accepted
  • Vet Centers

VA Claims Backlog Persists, Though There Has Been Some Improvement

As of late March, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs officials said there remains a sizable backlog of pending first-time claims, though the number has decreased since the fall.

According to those officials, the number of first-time claims considered backlogged – pending for more than four months – was approximately 244,000 as of the week ending March 23. Compared to October 2021, that’s a decline of roughly 8%, down from 264,000.

While veterans who file a disability claim can receive payouts backdated to their date of initial filing, the backlog means more veterans are delayed in getting those payouts to start, in some cases leaving veterans’ finances in disarray for months longer than they anticipated.

Last fall, the VA announced plans to hire about 2,000 more processors to help with the backlog problem; as of March 22, about three-quarters of that total have been hired. The new hires require training which means it could take several months before they can handle a full workload.

The VA estimates it could take until 2024 before the backlog drops below 100,000 – where it was prior to COVID – though that assume there will be no additional spikes in filed claims, which could still occur now that legislation has been enacted to expand the presumptive conditions related to particulate matter exposure for veteran exposed to burn pits while on active service, implement mandatory training for all medical providers working for the department to catch early signs of toxic exposure, and expand the Department of Defense’s burn pit registry to include military members who were stationed in Egypt and Syria (all mentioned in prior Veterans Mission Reports to which the two prior links are directed).

If you need help navigating the benefits process, the American Legion offers Accredited American Legion service officers who are specially trained to provide expert assistance, free of charge, to veterans and their families. While most of a service officer’s work involves application for VA disability benefits, these compassionate professionals also provide information, referrals and resources on education, employment and business, death benefits and other important topics. CLICK HERE for more information about finding a service officer.

Prolonged Exposure and Treatments for PTSD

In this new episode of PTSD Bytes, a U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) podcast hosted by clinical psychologist Pearl McGee-Vincent of the VA National Center, the focus is on “prolonged exposure,” which is a trauma-focused psychotherapy that teaches individuals to gradually approach their memories and situations associated with the trauma.

To listen to the conversation with Dr. Carmen McLean about prolonged exposure, which is considered one of the most effective evidence-based treatments for PTSD that can help people lead fuller lives, as well as learn more about this PTSD treatment, CLICK HERE.

Pittsburgh VA is Treating Veterans with Lingering “Long COVID”

Though COVID-19 appears to be declining throughout Pennsylvania and the nation, health care clinicians continue to treat some people who, though they have recovered from the acute stage of COVID, continue to have symptoms of the disease, commonly referred to as “long COVID.”

According to the Pittsburgh VA Medical Center, which in January opened a clinic for veterans experiencing “long COVID,” 10% to 30% of patients who have recovered from COVID-19 report new, returning or worsened symptoms, known as post-COVID conditions, that can include a broad range of things, such as sleep loss, heart and lung issues and trouble with mental processes such as thinking, learning, problem-solving and memory. Some veterans have had rare “long COVID” symptoms, such as hair loss and profound fatigue after minimal mental or physical effort, says the Pittsburgh VA.

Because no two patients present the same symptoms, the Pittsburgh VA’s team of clinicians – which include physicians, psychologists, nurses, physical therapists, social workers, researchers, and hearing and speech specialist – provides each veteran with a personalized treatment program and three-month follow-up.

For more about this effort, CLICK HERE.

Offering Mental Health Support to Rural Veterans Through Rural Community Clergy Training Program

For veterans living in rural areas, access to mental health providers can be difficult.

To help address some of the access problem, the VA’s Office of Rural Health and the VA’s Chaplain Center in 2010 developed the Rural Community Clergy Training Program (RCCTP), a unique multi-faith virtual clergy training model seeking to improve the ability of rural clergy to identify and support veterans with mental health issues.

Clergy participating in the program gain access to two-hour virtual workshops designed to educate clergy on various topics, including moral injury, suicide prevention in local communities, mental health services and referrals and building community partnerships. To date, more than 8,200 clergy, chaplains, behavioral health professionals and others who support rural veterans have completed the training program.

While clergy cannot replace mental health professionals, the goal of the program is to provide clergy with the tools they need to help a veteran in crisis and refer veterans to the proper VA mental health resources.

CLICK HERE for a video to learn more about the RCCTP, and for more information, contact Chaplain Matt Cassady at VANationalChaplainStaff@va.gov.

VA to Award Grants to Improve Transitional Housing Facilities

Late last month, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) announced that it will be awarding 36 capital grants totaling approximately $64.7 million to community organizations under the VA’s Grant and Per Diem program to improve the quality of housing options for veterans experiencing homelessness.

For a list of all the award winners – which includes a Pittsburgh organization (Veterans Leadership Program of Western Pennsylvania, Inc.) – CLICK HERE.

The new awards will allow grantee organizations to construct new buildings and renovate existing transitional housing facilities that provide more than 900 beds nationwide for homeless veterans. The funds will also decrease mass housing and create more individualized unit-style living, thereby improving personal safety and reducing risks associated with close-quarters living.  

The GPD program has provided community-based transitional housing with supportive services for veterans since 1994 as they transition back to permanent housing.

Pennsylvania Air National Guard Opens New Training Facility at Fort Indiantown Gap

A new 17,000-square-foot multi-purpose training facility for the Pennsylvania Air National Guard was dedicated last month at Fort Indiantown Gap.

The $7.6 million facility is designed to be a combined dining facility with seating area able to be split into different size classrooms. It will also serve as the headquarters building for the 193rd Regional Support Group as well as the PA Chemical Biological Radiological Nuclear Task Force’s specialized training area with hands-on lab environments. Additionally, there will be space to conduct clinical work, such as immunizations, lab draws, hearing tests, etc. to provide for the medical requirements of those in the 193rd Regional Support Group.

This new facility comes on the heels of last year’s opening of a 63,000-square-foot training support center for the Pennsylvania National Guard. The two buildings add to Fort Indiantown Gap’s training offerings that have made it the nation’s largest National Guard training facility. The Gap was the busiest National Guard training facility in the nation during Fiscal Years 2021 and 2020, and has been the busiest training center for five out of the last seven years.

The Gap, which covers 17,000 acres in Lebanon and Dauphin counties, is the only Level II National Guard training center in the northeast United States, which the Guard defines as having billeting for a brigade, maneuver acreage for a company-plus, individual and crew-served weapons ranges, and squad and team collective ranges. It’s also home to several major schools, including the Eastern Army National Guard Aviation Training Site, the 166th Regiment Regional Training Institute, the Regional Equipment Operators Training Site, the Lightning Force Academy and the Northeast Counter Drug Training Center.

Veteran Town Hall on April 6

Veterans, caregivers, and family members are invited to attend a Virtual Veteran Town Hall on Wednesday, April 6, 2022 from 1 p.m. to 2 p.m.

You will be able to meet with John A. Gennaro, the executive director for the Erie VA Medical Center, as well as the executive leadership team to learn about VA programs, services, and ongoing projects.

In addition, the leadership team will be joined by Jennifer Vandermolen, director of the Pittsburgh Regional Office of the Veterans Benefits Administration.

Veterans will have an opportunity for Q&A immediately following the updates.

To join the virtual event via Microsoft Team Link, use https://bit.ly/3pddivl

To join via phone (which is audio only), call +1 872-701-0185. The phone conference ID is 148 808 66#

State Veteran’s Commission Meeting on April 8

The Pennsylvania Department of Military and Veterans Affairs will host a Pennsylvania State Veteran’s Commission (SVC) meeting at 10 a.m. on Friday, April 8, 2022, at Arrowheads Community Club, Fort Indiantown Gap, Lebanon County.

The SVC is established in accordance with Title 51 of the Pennsylvania Consolidated Statutes. It is comprised of representatives of all major veterans organizations throughout the commonwealth, as well as a representative of the Association of County Directors for Veterans Affairs.

Anyone wishing to attend this meeting who needs special accommodations due to a disability, please contact 717-861-6510.

All presentation materials are posted on the PA State Veterans Commission webpage prior to the official meeting and are available to the public for review.

The meeting will be accessible telephonically by calling 1-877-985-7017 and when prompted enter access code: 77087117.

All persons entering the Arrowheads Community Club must be wearing a mask; once you arrive at your destination within the club you are allowed to unmask yourself. You must again re-mask when exiting.

New Sign-In Process for My HealtheVet Starts April 11

To comply with President Joe Biden’s executive order about improving the nations cybersecurity, the process for signing into My HealtheVet is changing to strengthen the online security of all Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) information.

This new process – which will employ Login.gov, a trusted, government-issued sign in service – will be implemented on April 11 and creates a unified VA sign in with VA.gov and My VA Health websites. Additionally, the improvements will enable the VA to reach you to confirm your contact information, allow you to verify your identity online from the convenience of your home, and give you the opportunity to set up multifactor authentication to better protect your information.   

CLICK HERE to learn more about the sign-in changes.

A Reminder That Eligible Veterans Can Shop at Defense Commissaries

Starting on Jan. 1, 2020, the Purple Heart and Disabled Veterans Equal Access Act of 2018 (part of the John S. McCain National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2019) authorized the Department of Defense to expand access to commissary shopping privileges to additional valued members of the military community.

Commissary shopping privileges were extended to veterans with any VA-documented service-connected disabilities; Purple Heart recipients; former prisoners of war; and individuals assessed, approved and designated as primary family caregivers to eligible Veterans under VA’s Program of Comprehensive Assistance for Family Caregivers.

Veterans and designated caregivers are encouraged to check their commissary privilege qualifications. To find out about obtaining proper identification, CLICK HERE, and for more information about the expansion of access to commissary shopping privileges, CLICK HERE.

Elk County Purple Heart Commemoration Ceremony Applications Being Accepted

To recognize, thank, and honor our United States military veterans who were awarded the Purple Heart Medal, the Elk County Commissioners will be holding a ceremony on Saturday, Oct. 8.

Living United States veterans who served on active duty in the U.S. Armed Forces and were awarded the Purple Heart Medal are eligible to participate in the ceremony. Lapel pins being presented in a dignified manner to each Purple Heart recipient during the public ceremony to be held at 1 p.m. at the Fox Township Community Building, 370 Main Street, Kersey, PA 15846.

RSVP’s for the ceremony are due by Sept. 30 and can be submitted by telephone (814-776-5370) or by filling out an application and mailing it to Elk County Veterans Affairs, PO Box 448, 300 Center Street, Ridgway, PA 15853.

What are Vet Centers?

I’ve been asked this question by a number of my fellow vets that question and feel it’s important to provide an answer that those who haven’t reached out yet might have. 

VA Vet Centers provide free and confidential readjustment counseling for War-Zone Veterans and their families, World War II to the current Global War on Terror.

Vet Centers are small, non-medical, counseling centers conveniently located in our region. They’re staffed by highly trained counselors and team members dedicated to seeing you through the challenges that come with managing life during and after the military.

Our region is served by the DuBois Vet Center, which is one of 12 Vet Centers in Pennsylvania and over 300 across the country. Whether you come in for one-on-one counseling or to participate in a group session, at Vet Centers you can form social connections, try new things, and build a support system with people who understand you and want to help you succeed. The Dubois Vet Center’ website  is designed to provide veterans, family members, and community partners the ability to see what services the center offers, as well as the center’s Community Access Points with a picture of the entrance so first time visitors have a frame of reference to help guide them in.

From my time in the State House through my current position, I’ve had a strong relationship with the Dubois Vet Center.  They have helped me help many of my fellow vets.

Who is eligible to receive services at Vet Centers?

Vet Center services are available to Veterans at no cost, regardless of discharge character, and without the need to be enrolled in VA health care or having a service-connected disability. If you are a Veteran or service member, including members of the National Guard and Reserve, you can access Vet Center services if you:

  • Served on active military duty in any combat theater or area of hostility.
  • Experienced military sexual trauma (regardless of gender or service era.)
  • Provided mortuary services or direct emergent medical care to treat the casualties of war while serving on active military duty.
  • Performed as a member of an unmanned aerial vehicle crew that provided direct support to operations in a combat theater or area of hostility.
  • Accessed care at a Vet Center prior to January 2, 2013 as a Vietnam-Era Veteran.
  • Served on active military duty in response to a national emergency or major disaster declared by the president, or under orders of the governor or chief executive of a state in response to a disaster or civil disorder in that state.
  • Are a current or former member of the Coast Guard who participated in a drug interdiction operation, regardless of the location.

Contacting your local Vet Center

Even if you are unsure if you meet the criteria to receive services from a Vet Center, please contact a center. From personal experience I can tell you that, if the center can’t help you, they’ll find someone who will.

Center services are also available to family members when their participation would support the growth and goals of the Veteran or active-duty service member. If you consider them family, so does your local center. Bereavement services are also available to family members of Veterans who were receiving Vet Center services at the time of the Veteran’s death, and to the families of service members who died while serving on active duty.

The DuBois Vet Center, located at 100 Meadow Lane, Suite 8, DuBois, PA 15801, can be contacted at 814-372-2095 or toll free 24/7 at 1-877-WAR-VETS(927-8387).

The other Vet Center locations in Pennsylvania are:

  • Bucks County Vet Center, 2 Canals End Road, Suite 201B, Bristol, PA 19007, 215-823-4590
  • Erie Vet Center, 240 West 11th Street, Suite 105, Erie, PA 16501, 814-453-7955
  • Harrisburg Vet Center, 1500 N. Second Street, Harrisburg, PA 17102, 717-782-3954
  • Lancaster Vet Center, 1817 Olde Homestead Lane, Suite 207, Lancaster, PA 17601, 717-283-0735
  • Norristown Vet Center, 320 East Johnson Highway, Suite 201, Norristown, PA 19401, 215-823-5245
  • City Center Philadelphia Vet Center, 801 Arch Street, Suite 502, Philadelphia, PA 19107, 215-627-0238
  • Northeast Philadelphia Vet Center, 101 East Olney Avenue, Philadelphia, PA 19120, 215-924-4670
  • Pittsburgh Vet Center, 2500 Baldwick Road, Suite 15, Pittsburgh, PA 15205, 412-920-1765
  • Scranton Vet Center, 1002 Pittston Avenue, Scranton, PA 18505, 570-344-2676
  • White Oak Vet Center, 2001 Lincoln Way, Suite 280, White Oak, PA 15131, 412-678-7704
  • Williamsport Vet Center, 49 East Fourth Street, Suite 104, Williamsport, PA 17701, 570-327-5281

For more information, please visit www.vetcenter.va.gov

 

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