Veteran suicides twice as high as civilian rates

The toll of  battle-induced trauma and struggles to adjust to civilian life can be enormous on veterans – and many have chosen to end their lives in order to end the heartache. According to data collected over eight months by News21, veterans are killing themselves at more than double the rate of the civilian population. Between 2005 and 2011, about 49,000 took their own lives. [Interactive: Tracking verteran suicides]

More funding for veterans’ mental health services and more efforts by the VA to step up those services, however, are helping to alleviate the situation. Records from 48 states show the annual suicide rate among veterans is about 30 for every 100,000 of the population, compared to a civilian rate of about 14 per 100,000.

Lifetime costs of healthcare for 9/11 vets could be staggering

Jerral Hancock wakes up every night in Lancaster, Calif.  around 1 a.m., dreaming he is trapped in a burning tank. He opens his eyes, but he can’t move, he can’t get out of bed and he can’t get a drink of water. Hancock, 27, joined the Army in 2004 and went to Iraq, where he drove a tank. On Memorial Day 2007 — one month after the birth of his second child — Hancock drove over an IED.

Disability claims mount despite billions spent

The Department of Veterans Affairs and the Department of Defense spent at least $1.3 billion during the last four years trying unsuccessfully to develop a single electronic health-records system between the two departments — leaving veterans’ disability claims to continue piling up in paper files across the country, a News21 investigation shows. This does not include billions of other dollars wasted during the last three decades, including $2 billion spent on a failed upgrade to the DOD’s existing electronic health-records system. For a veteran in the disability claims process, these records are critical: They include DOD service and health records needed by the VA to decide veterans’ disability ratings and the compensation they will receive for their injuries. Stacks of paper files — including veterans’ evidence from DOD of their military service and injuries — sit at VA regional offices waiting to be processed instead of being readily accessible in electronic files. Although Congress repeatedly has demanded an “integrated” and “interoperable” electronic health-records system, neither the DOD nor the VA is able to completely access the other’s electronic records.

VA workers rewarded for avoiding difficult disability claims

While veterans waited longer than ever in recent years for their wartime disability compensation, the Department of Veterans Affairs gave its workers millions of dollars in bonuses for “excellent” performances that effectively encouraged them to avoid claims that needed extra work to document veterans’ injuries, a News21 investigation has found. In 2011, a year in which the claims backlog ballooned by 155 percent, more than two-thirds of claims processors shared $5.5 million in bonuses, according to salary data from the Office of Personnel Management. [Interactive: Tracking Disability Claims]

The more complex claims were often set aside by workers so they could keep their jobs, meet performance standards, or, in some cases, collect extra pay, said VA claims processors and union representatives. Those claims now make up much of VA’s widely scrutinized disability claims backlog, defined by the agency as claims pending more than 125 days. “At the beginning of the month … I’d try to work my really easy stuff so I could get my numbers up,” said Renee Cotter, a union steward for the local Reno, Nev.

After flicking away lawsuits, lead industry goes for a final knockout

In April, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention raised to 535,000 its estimate of the number of American children with potentially dangerous levels of lead in their blood. But for U.S. communities combating the lead hazards, there might never be any money from the group some say is most responsible for creating the problem:  the companies that made lead pigment used in the old, flaking paint still coating millions of dwellings. The industry could be on the verge of defeating the last major legal assault by municipalities and states seeking damages to fund lead removal. Apart from one settlement, the industry has successfully defended roughly 50 lawsuits by states, cities, counties and school districts over the last 24 years. Now, in a bench trial under way in San Jose, Calif., the industry is seeking a final victory in a case brought by 10 public agencies, including the cities of San Francisco, Oakland and San Diego, as well as Los Angeles and Santa Clara counties.