Nikki Wentling

Nikki Wentling covers veterans for Stars and Stripes and is based in Washington, D.C. She graduated from the University of Kansas with a bachelor of science in news and information.

Wentling previously covered local government for the Lawrence Journal-World in Lawrence, Kan. and military and veterans for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette in Little Rock, Ark.

Email: wentling.nikki@stripes.com | Phone: (202) 761-0865 | Twitter: @nikkiwentling

Advancing veterans’ access to medical marijuana hinges on Monday vote

A measure allowing veterans easier access to medical marijuana garnered bipartisan support in Congress last year and nearly became law. A vote Monday could be the end of the line this year in another attempt to pass it.

Senators call for quick confirmation of 6 VA appointees

“It’s very important we get these done now so they can get to work,” said Sen. Johnny Isakson, chairman of the Veterans' Affairs committee. “Every day they’re not working, our veterans are not being served, and that’s not good for our country.”

House lawmakers propose 6 months of funding for VA Choice

House lawmakers are looking to provide six months of emergency funding for a nearly bankrupt program that allows veterans to receive health care outside the Department of Veterans Affairs after negotiations stalled on a multibillion-dollar deal to fund the program for a full year and review VA buildings across the country.

Committee sends large GI Bill expansion to House floor for a vote

The House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs decided unanimously Wednesday to send a bill that expands GI Bill benefits to the House floor for a vote.

Large GI Bill expansion faces easy review in House hearing

Though the scope of the legislation is large, nothing in it prompted opposition or controversy Monday night, during a hearing that will be the House’s closest examination of the bill.

VA removes top officials from New Hampshire center after allegations of poor conditions, care

The director and chief of staff of the VA hospital in Manchester, N.H., have been removed from their posts following a news report of dirty conditions, long patient wait times and substandard care, Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin announced Sunday.

House plans to pass 'Forever' GI Bill by August

The House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs will hold a hearing Monday about a large expansion of veterans' education benefits with a plan to vote on the measure Wednesday and have the bill sail through the House in just two weeks, ahead of a monthlong summer recess.

Senators begin negotiations on new VA Choice Program

Members of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee gained feedback this week about three draft proposals to reform how and when veterans seek private-sector health care, setting the stage for negotiations between Democrats and Republicans on what might be the biggest task for the committee this year.

Expanded ‘forever’ GI Bill poised for quick action in Congress

House lawmakers will introduce legislation Thursday to secure college aid for reservists and reimburse veterans whose schools unexpectedly close, as well as do away with a 15-year time limit for veterans to use education benefits – changes that together create the largest expansion of veterans’ education benefits since the Post-9/11 GI Bill was created nearly a decade ago.

Former VA secretary urges Congress to close outdated buildings or ‘VA will fail’

Former Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Anthony Principi, who led an incomplete effort in the early 2000s to close old, underused VA facilities, told House lawmakers Wednesday that without another attempt, “the VA will fail.”

Lawmakers want Defense Department to declassify info about experiments on troops

The measure is an attempt to connect veterans affected by chemical and biological testing in the 1960s and 1970s with Department of Veterans Affairs benefits and health care.

Senator calls for emergency funding for VA Choice Program

The bill responds to VA Secretary David Shulkin’s announcement to lawmakers in June that the program was quickly and unexpectedly in need of funds. The program pays for veterans, in certain instances, to receive health care from private sector medical facilities.

Lawmakers: Veterans’ credit damaged by slow VA reimbursements

Forty House lawmakers signed onto a letter Monday criticizing the Department of Veterans Affairs for slow reimbursements to private-sector doctors that they say harm their veteran constituents’ credit reports.

Report: VA claims for Gulf War illness denied 80 percent of the time

Besides claims getting denied more often, veterans seeking benefits for Gulf War illness are having to wait four months longer on average to hear back from the VA, the GAO found.

Lawmakers to take on veterans issues after weeklong recess

As they return this week from a July Fourth break, lawmakers are set to discuss Department of Veterans Affairs health care, its 2018 budget, how veterans are affected by the opioid crisis and how the VA handles claims for Gulf War Illness – all while facing a short timeframe to do something about quickly diminishing funds in the VA Choice program.

VA employee disciplinary actions are now public information

Veterans Affairs made public a list of employee terminations, demotions and suspensions that it will update weekly, which agency officials said is an attempt at transparency following action by Congress to give the VA secretary unprecedented disciplinary power.

Million Veteran Program surpasses 580,000 enrollments; faces potential budget cut

A large-scale Department of Veterans Affairs project to research how veterans’ genes and military service affect their health surpassed 580,000 participants Friday during an enrollment event at American Legion headquarters in downtown Washington, D.C.

Staffing shortages in Arkansas a 'snapshot' of VA hiring problems

Two dozen members of the medical staff at John L. McClellan Memorial Veterans Hospital in Little Rock gathered along the road outside the facility on Monday morning, holding up signs and chanting at passersby in protest of staffing shortages that they believe are severe and put patients at risk.

Lawsuit: Mass. denies 'welcome home' bonuses to 'bad paper' veterans

Two Army veterans, with the help of Harvard Law School, filed a class-action lawsuit Thursday against the Massachusetts treasury, claiming it was unrightfully denying “welcome home” bonuses to them and other veterans with other-than-honorable discharges.

Senate bill aims to end 'unintended burden' on wounded vets accessing Tricare

A bill was introduced in the Senate on Wednesday to end a practice that inadvertently penalizes some medically retired servicemembers by forcing them to pay higher Medicare rates in order to maintain their Tricare health coverage.

Senate committee moves to speed up yearslong VA appeals process

The Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee on Wednesday unanimously passed on voice vote a bill that aims to speed up the process of getting veterans their earned benefits – a task that now takes between three and six years on average if a veteran is forced to appeal a benefits claim that is denied.

As the VA starts mental health care for ‘bad paper’ veterans, critics say it’s not enough

The Department of Veterans Affairs announced Thursday that it would begin offering emergency mental health services starting July 5 to veterans with other-than-honorable discharges – following through on a departmental change that VA Secretary David Shulkin promised in March.

Some veterans celebrate VA accountability bill as a promise kept

When President Donald Trump signs a bill into law creating more repercussions and a faster firing process for VA employees, Mike and Sarah Verardo said the moment will signal a promise kept.

Hispanic caucus looks to VA secretary to end veteran deportation

The Congressional Hispanic Caucus is reaching out to Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin for help to stop the deportation of veterans.

The VA plans to get rid of 430 buildings in the next two years

The facilities are either vacant or mostly vacant, according to a VA news release. Some of the buildings will be demolished, while others will be prepared for a different use. VA Secretary David Shulkin said the closures would come “as swiftly as possible.”

Advocates: ‘Unfair’ veteran caregiver program should be expanded to older vets

There is now a push in Congress, led by Disabled American Veterans and the Elizabeth Dole Foundation, to expand services like medical training, counseling, respite care and monthly stipends to all veterans.

IVF coverage for wounded vets preserved in House VA funding bill

A Department of Veterans Affairs funding bill sent to the House this week includes a measure extending coverage for fertilization treatments or adoption services for wounded veterans wanting to start families.

VA Secretary: Money for Choice program will 'dry up' by mid-August

Money is quickly and unexpectedly running out for a program that allows veterans to seek health care outside of the Department of Veterans Affairs, and VA Secretary David Shulkin is urging Congress to fix it.

VA to Congress: Go ahead and fix the GI Bill, if you can find the money

The Department of Veterans Affairs is agreeable to extending Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits to more servicemembers and their families, providing Congress can find the additional funding, a VA official testified Thursday.

VA backs off budget proposal to cut benefits for disabled, unemployable vets

The announcement came after the country’s six largest veterans service organizations condemned the proposal.

'Like being back in a combat zone': Congressman, combat doctor tended to shot Scalise

Rep. Brad Wenstrup, once a combat surgeon, compared the scene Wednesday morning at a Republican Party baseball practice in Alexandria, Va., to a battlefield.

Congress sends bill to speed up disciplinary action at the VA to Trump

Three years after scandal rocked the Department of Veterans Affairs, a bill creating more repercussions and a quicker firing process for poor-performing VA employees will go to the president’s desk.

Veterans issues spotlighted in Congress this week

Several key veterans issues will be the focus of congressional hearings this week, with lawmakers set to address the firing of bad employees at the Department of Veterans Affairs, the agency’s 2018 budget and benefits reform.

Police identify veteran found dead in VA parking lot

The man found dead last month in the parking lot of the Washington Veterans Affairs Medical Center was Navy veteran Woodrow C. Reed, according to police.

Democrats, vets hesitant about preliminary plans for Choice program extension

A new Department of Veterans Affairs community care program will do away with current eligibility restrictions but stop short of unfettered choice, VA Secretary David Shulkin said Wednesday.

VA chooses commercial overhaul of electronic health records system

The Department of Veterans Affairs will turn to the private sector to overhaul its electronic health records, and is side-stepping the federal contracting process to do so, VA Secretary David Shulkin announced Monday.

Veteran found dead in car at parking lot of DC VA hospital

A congressional committee and the Department of Veterans Affairs have opened an investigation into a veteran found dead in his vehicle parked at the VA medical center in Washington, D.C.

Air Force veteran went from flight chief to marijuana cultivation

Inside his large corner office at the marijuana cultivation facility, U.S. Air Force veteran Ryan Reese kept a model U-2 on his desk and a copy of Time magazine – a special edition about the booming business of pot. In the past two years, he's traded one world for the other.

How veterans are helping advance marijuana-PTSD research

A new study is launching at a time when veterans have been at the center of a national conversation on medical marijuana. The American Legion is attempting to apply political pressure to support marijuana research, and just yesterday, VA Secretary David Shulkin said he was open to looking at – and learning from – any evidence marijuana could be used to treat veterans.

American Legion calls VA budget proposal ‘stealth privatization’

The country’s largest veterans service organization said Friday that it was “extremely disappointed” with President Donald Trump’s budget proposal for the Department of Veterans Affairs, which includes cuts to benefits for some of the country’s most disabled veterans.

Senate committee advances bill to speed up VA firing process

The Department of Veterans Affairs secretary would be able to dismiss poor-performing employees more easily under legislation approved Wednesday by a Senate committee, which sent the bill to a full Senate vote despite concerns from Democrats.

Democrats, veterans groups criticize tradeoffs in Trump’s VA budget

President Donald Trump’s 2018 budget proposes to inject $2.9 billion of new funding into a program that allows veterans to receive care outside the Department of Veterans Affairs, but comes at a cost to VA benefits programs – a move Democrats and veterans organizations criticized Wednesday.

House passes VA appeals bill and 5 other veterans measures

The House unanimously passed legislation Tuesday aiming to shorten the amount of time veterans wait for earned benefits, a process that takes an average of six years when a veteran is forced to appeal a claim with the Board of Veterans' Appeals.

Feuding veterans groups find agreement on four proposed changes to the GI Bill

After their public disagreement stalled a congressional hearing last month, 35 veterans groups came together Thursday in Washington to reach some consensus on changes to the Post-9/11 GI Bill and restart their activity on Capitol Hill.

VA accountability bill faces constitutional issue and backlash from federal union

The Department of Justice raised concerns over the weekend that legislation designed to make it easier to dismiss poor-performing Department of Veterans Affairs employees could be unconstitutional, VA leadership testified Wednesday to Senate lawmakers.

House committee moves bill to prohibit smoking at VA facilities

The House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs voted unanimously by voice vote Wednesday to move forward with legislation that would immediately ban smoking inside Department of Veterans Affairs facilities and require the agency to eliminate outdoor smoking areas by 2022.

Bill limiting VA union activity draws protest from Democrats, unions at House committee hearing

Despite strong protest from Democrats, the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs pushed forward legislation Wednesday to limit the time that Department of Veterans Affairs employees spend working for their unions on the job.

Pentagon issued ‘bad paper’ discharges to tens of thousands of troops with mental health conditions

The GAO released a report Tuesday detailing the thousands of possibly improper discharges the Defense Department issued from 2011 through 2015.

‘Shark Tank’-style competition aims to help solve problems in the VA

The Department of Veterans Affairs is looking to its employees for new ideas to combat its oldest and biggest challenge, and it will screen potential solutions in a competition similar to the ABC reality show “Shark Tank.”

VA inspector general: Patients still at risk at DC medical center

A Department of Veterans Affairs watchdog warned VA leadership Wednesday about ongoing “troubling incidents” that pose a risk to patient safety at the Washington, D.C. VA Medical Center and urged the department to take action immediately.

Senators introduce VA accountability bill after 2-month stall

Nearly two months after the House passed legislation that would allow Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin to fire bad workers more quickly, the Senate on Thursday introduced its own version of the bill — one with bipartisan support.

VA hearing postponed amid fallout from FBI director firing

A Senate hearing regarding the future of the Veterans Choice Program was postponed Wednesday after Senate Democrats invoked a rule to prevent committees from meeting – a decision made in protest of the firing of FBI Director James Comey.

Federal court ruling prompts review into 2014 firing of Phoenix VA executive

Federal firing procedures established following the 2014 Department of Veterans Affairs wait-time scandal are unconstitutional, said a ruling Tuesday by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit.

Lawmakers continue debate on whether new health care bill will cost vets

Following the lead of House Democrats, four Democrats in the Senate on Tuesday decried a provision in the GOP’s health care bill that they said would make medical treatment more expensive for millions of veterans.

As Congress braces for 2018 budget fight, senators recommend increase for state veterans homes

As Congress prepares for budget negotiations for the 2018 fiscal year, a bipartisan group of 28 senators is urging appropriators to increase funding dramatically for veterans nursing homes.

Lawmakers again trying to reduce time that veterans wait for benefits

Congress is trying again to shorten the amount of time that veterans must wait to receive their government benefits, which has climbed to an average of three years if a veteran is forced to appeal a claim that is denied, a Department of Veterans Affairs official said Tuesday.

Army: Change to burial eligibility would expand life of Arlington National Cemetery

Extending the lifetime of Arlington National Cemetery will likely require further restrictions on which servicemembers and veterans are eligible for burial there, the Army wrote in a report released to Congress.

Veterans to disclose experiences at VA hospital in DC following scandal

The American Legion is attempting to expose veterans’ issues at the Department of Veterans Affairs’ flagship hospital in Washington, D.C., following a watchdog report earlier this month that found the facility could have endangered the well-being of patients.

Trump orders the VA to create new office to weed out bad workers

The office established Thursday will handle all VA employees and report directly to the VA secretary. In addition to employee discipline, the office will also work on recruiting and rewarding high-performing workers.

For now, House committee halts discussion on requiring servicemembers to pay into GI Bill

A House committee backed off of a proposal to require servicemembers to pay into the GI Bill after a written draft of the idea provoked a rift between various veterans organizations.

Former House VA committee chairman back in DC as lobbyist

A former congressman known for his criticism of the Department of Veterans Affairs during Barack Obama’s administration has returned to Washington, D.C., as a lobbyist, in part to advise on veterans’ health care.

VA launches ‘new, unique’ tool to help prevent veteran suicides

The Department of Veterans Affairs recently unveiled a new program that reviews veterans’ health records to identify which ones might attempt suicide. The VA has worked to develop the program for about six years.

Trump signs extension of VA Choice Program, calls it a ‘good start’

President Donald Trump on Wednesday signed a bill extending the often-criticized Veterans Choice Program beyond its August 2017 expiration date, a move that Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin said would buy him time to work with Congress on program improvements.

Proposal in Congress would require servicemembers to pay into GI Bill for benefits

Congress is in the early stages of considering a mandate for servicemembers to pay into the GI Bill – a proposal that has drawn sharp criticism from one veterans organization, while another argues it would improve and protect the education benefit for the long haul.

VA launches review of its caregiver program, stops medical centers from canceling family enrollments

The Department of Veterans Affairs initiated a review of its caregiver support program and halted medical centers from dropping families enrolled in the benefit, the VA announced Monday.

An ‘unexpected honor:’ 4 Vietnam veterans to receive Silver Stars for 1972 rescue

The four-man Army crew of a UH-1H “Huey” chased a burning C-130 transport plane as it crashed near Saigon in 1972, hovered over the wreckage and pulled five men onto their helicopter. They did this while taking – and returning — fire.

Shulkin defends VA’s response to disorder, danger at DC medical center

Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin promised Thursday quick fixes to the Washington, D.C. VA Medical Center after a government watchdog uncovered risks to patient safety as a result of nearly 200 cases of the hospital running out of medical supplies.

VA creates new website with wait times, performance data for all health care facilities

The Department of Veterans Affairs on Wednesday bolstered the information it shares publicly about the quality of its health care facilities and how long veterans are waiting for treatment.

DC VA medical director relieved from duty following scathing watchdog report

A government watchdog found the Department of Veterans Affairs medical center in the nation’s capital was putting veterans at “unnecessary risk” by failing to sterilize storage areas and running out of various medical equipment, according to a report released Wednesday.

After another college closure, American Legion implores Congress to protect student veterans

For-profit trade school Westech College abruptly closed its three southern California locations Sunday, leaving hundreds of students – including 31 veterans – scrambling to receive refunds or transfer their credits.

Lawmakers, advocates: Veterans Crisis Line is better, but not fixed

The Veterans Crisis Line is showing signs of improvement, but its leaders shouldn’t be so quick to say its longstanding problems are completely fixed, some lawmakers, internal watchdogs and veterans organizations said Tuesday.

VA secretary: Porn-viewing employee highlights need for more firing authority

Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin is using a recent attempt to fire a porn-watching employee to demonstrate why Congress should give him more disciplinary power.

Army: Arlington National Cemetery is at a 'critical point' for space

Arlington leaders indicated the cemetery would need large injections of funding in the future to expand its space and maintain its current footprint.

VA smoking ban gets first hearing in House

The Department of Veterans Affairs has attempted for years to rally congressional support against a 25-year-old mandate that there must be smoking areas at its health care facilities. At a Wednesday hearing, a bill finally introduced to repeal that law was discussed publicly for the first time.

Advocates say the time is right for a War on Terror memorial

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial has long been the inspiration for Andrew Brennan to establish a national memorial to honor the men and women who served in the ongoing Global War on Terror, which he envisions as a place for veterans to gather and remember their friends and for others to learn about the war’s costs.

Animal rights group calls for investigation of VA research facility

An animal rights group is using new reports of animal welfare violations at a Department of Veterans Affairs research facility to strengthen its case against animal testing in government research.