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July/August Issue

red star bulletThe Veteran Departments : Featured Stories / President's Message / Letters / VVAF Report / Government Relations / Ask The Parliamentarian / Public Affairs Committee Report / Region 9 Report / From The National Secretary / PTSD/Substance Abbuse Report / Disaster Relief Committee Report / SHAD/Project 112 Task Force Report / AVVA Report / TAPS / Veterans Initiative Task Force Report / Arts of War / Book Review / Membership Notes / Locator / Reunions /

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July/August 2006
GOVERNMENT RELATIONS

A GOVERNMENT RELATIONS DEPARTMENT STAFF REPORT

As this issue of The VVA Veteran goes to press, veterans are still expressing their concern, fear, and anger over the theft of an external hard drive reportedly containing unencrypted, personal information for as many as 26.5 million veterans and others (presumably widows). In addition, data on 1.1 million military members on active duty, 430,000 members of the National Guard, and 645,000 members of the Reserves may have been included in the data stolen from the Maryland home of a VA analyst on May 3. Perhaps most distressing is that apparently the home addresses of the active duty and mobilized reservists and National Guard members were also reportedly in this database that disappeared.

The analyst has since been placed on administrative leave. Astonishingly, no laws, regulations, or controlling directives were broken because of this unencrypted data being on his personal computer in his home. His boss, Assistant Deputy Secretary Mike McLendon, has resigned under a cloud. McLendon’s supervisor, Dennis Duffy, has been put on administrative leave, and VA Secretary Nicholson has been making more trips to Capitol Hill to explain what happened than he doubtless would care to.

This incident set off a firestorm. And each new revelation underscores what VVA has been pointing out for years: The VA needs to get serious and subscribe to the basic tenets of cyber-security and safeguard the records veterans from unauthorized eyes within as well as outside the agency.

This incident, too, raises more questions than answers: What is the VA doing with this type of personal information on 26.5 million veterans? (Surely this represents just about every living veteran, not simply those discharged since 1975, as the VA first claimed. Surely it can’t be to check their eligibility for VA services, as veterans requesting VA health care need to show a copy of their DD-214.) What kind of “work” were they doing using this individual personal data? Toward what end?

Furthermore, what is the VA doing with data on active-duty troops? Why is this information being collected? What similar databases exist? Have they been shared with other branches of the federal government, with state government, with corporate entities?

Finally, what measures will the VA take to tighten up on its information security system?

By the time you read this, additional information will be known, more questions will be raised, and a federal judge may have provided preliminary rulings in the lawsuit against the VA filed by VVA and four other veterans’ service organizations.

VVA became the lead plaintiff in the lawsuit, National President John Rowan said, because “it is appalling to all veterans that their personal information—that is supposed to be held in confidence—is potentially in the hands of individuals who can wreak identity-theft havoc.” VVA has made it clear that we are “attacking the problem, not the Secretary.

“Unfortunately, saying ‘We’re sorry’ is hardly comforting to veterans and their families,” Rowan said. “The VA has been criticized for years about lax information security, and that includes criticism from the VA’s own Inspector General. Every Administrator and Secretary of Veterans Affairs since we returned from Vietnam. The VA still hasn’t properly secured all the personal information under its control. We’ve just seen the largest known unauthorized disclosure of Social Security numbers in history. We hope this lawsuit will help Secretary Nicholson correct the known vulnerabilities in how the VA protects private information. Without the full weight of the federal judiciary behind this effort, there is no reason to believe that this Secretary will succeed where every Secretary before him has failed to change the corporate culture to safeguard privacy and insure IT security. This lawsuit seeks to insure that no harm come to veterans as a result of this theft and that such an incident can never occur again.”


VVA initially has been joined by four national organizations as well as individual veterans in the lawsuit, which was filed in federal district court in the District of Columbia by attorney Douglas Rosinski of the law firm Ogletree, Deakins, Nash, Smoak & Stewart, P.C. We will not be taking additional individuals as added plaintiffs, although there may be other veterans’ organizations who will join with us in this effort. Stay tuned.

VDBC & SSDI

One year ago, the Veterans’ Disability Benefits Commission, the VDBC, which was created by Congress as part of a compromise over the VA budget, held its inaugural meeting. The May meeting of the commission addressed an issue of contention among the 13 commissioners and within the veterans’ community: whether or not to study, or rather compare, Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) with veterans disability and compensation payments.

The commissioners were very much aware that veterans and VSOs were watching this issue with intense interest, and that their position on it would be taken as an indication as to what the intentions or, as some would have it, ulterior motives, of the commission were. At various times over the two-day meeting, which was held in the auditorium of the new Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation at Virginia Square, commissioners repeated that they were engaging in a “thorough, objective, impartial assessment of benefits earned by our disabled veterans” and taking an “honest, objective look” at SSDI, and that they had “no intent to cut veterans benefits.”

Commissioner Dennis McGinn was particularly adamant about this. Out in cyberspace, he said, there is “the misperception that the commission was established to balance the national budget on the backs of disabled veterans. It is patently wrong,” he said, “if anyone believes we are out to cut benefits. There has been no discussion on cutting benefits. We are discussing the need to address a whole variety of issues” including SSDI and to learn their impact on disabled veterans.

In the end, the commission adopted a motion made by Commissioner Ken Jordan and seconded by Commissioner Jim Livingston, the highlights of which are:

•  The commission will “move forward with studying the SSDI benefits for only the purpose of improving the access and timeliness of these benefits to veterans.”


•  The Center for Naval Analysis, one of two entities engaged to research several of the 31 questions identified by the commission as essential to their understanding of the various facets of compensation to disabled veterans, will move forward with collecting aggregate data only.

•  The goals of the commission once the CNA has conducted its analysis “should be to improve outreach, expedite the SSDI application and examination process, and explore federal certification, which could lead to single disability exams for all veterans.”

•  There should be no mention of or questions related to an offset by SSDI of VA disability compensation and there should be no mention or question of an offset of SSDI by the VA. Part of the motion explained the rationale to study SSDI:

•  For consideration of waivers if a veteran has less than the six quarters, or credits, needed to qualify for SSDI.

•  To understand Quality of Life implications for disabled veterans.

•  For the potential to create expedited reviews for veterans medically retired from the military and already service-connected by the VA so they should not have to wait four or more years to receive SSDI.

•  To understand the (possible) underutilization rates of SSDI by veterans.

The motion passed by a vote of 11-2. The two dissenting votes came, arguably, from opposite poles: Commissioner Joe Wynn, who endorsed the argument made by the VSOs that the commission is sending the wrong message by unnecessarily “studying” SSDI; and Commissioner John Grady, the only non-veteran on the commission, who seemed to argue that all government income received by disabled veterans should be considered as part of the equation.

It should be noted that five commissioners Nick Bacon, Larry Brown, Jennifer Carroll, Butch Joeckel, and Rick Surratt disseminated a position paper opposing any expansion of the commission’s mandate “to include considering a recommendation for an offset between veterans’ disability compensation and SSDI.” Other highlights of the two-day meeting:

•  Richard Erdmann of the Institute of Medicine (IOM) announced the names of those who had agreed to serve on different IOM panels, including one to study the schedule of rating disabilities, another to study presumptive disability decision-making, a third to study compensation for Post-traumatic Stress Disorder and a fourth to study the diagnosis and treatment of PTSD. A listing of the panels and their members, including biographical sketches, can be found at www.nationalacademies.org/cp VVA intends to have a Government Affairs staffer attend all public meetings of the IOM that discuss and debate these issues.

•  Commissioners Don Cassiday and Rick Surratt reported on commission town hall meetings in Chicago and St. Louis. There were 65 attendees in the Windy City, with 34 presenters, and 74 attendees in St. Louis with 27 presenters. Several commissioners expressed disappointment at the turnout. Commissioner Butch Joeckel called attendance “mediocre.” Commissioner John Grady wondered “how do we get input on public attitudes about veterans benefits from the tax-paying public?”


•  Commission Chair General James Terry Scott announced the dates and locations of the next four field hearings: June 5-7, San Diego; July 19-21, Seattle; August 2-4, Boston; and September 5-7, Atlanta

. • General Scott also expressed surprise at the seeming lack of interest from elected and public officials. Commissioner Nick Bacon opined, “A lot of people have got it confused what we’re trying to do.” Commissioner Joe Wynn stressed that the commission needs feedback from survivors, dependents, and spouses, as well as from disabled veterans. Commission Executive Director Ray Wilburn noted that staff would be preparing written reports on the findings from each of the eight field visits.

•  Throughout the discussion, two commissioners consistently reinforced the obligation of our nation to care for those our leaders send into battle: Nick Bacon noted that the United States is the wealthiest nation, and that we police the world for others; Butch Joeckel said, “If we can afford [to send young men and women to] war, we can afford to take care of them.” Joeckel also said, “we need to dispel the notion that some veterans are being enriched by SSDI.”


•  The four VSO representatives Jerry Manar of VFW (speaking also for The American Legion, Blinded Veterans of America, Disabled American Veterans, and Military Order of the Purple Heart), Jim Doran of AMVETS, Carl Blake from Paralyzed Veterans of America, and Rick Weidman praised the honesty and integrity of the commissioners while at the same time making impassioned arguments about the perception in the veterans’ community about the role and purpose of the commission in seeking to look into SSDI. In his remarks, Weidman asked the commission to consider what he called the “null hypotheses,” that there is essentially nothing wrong with veterans’ benefits laws as written into public law; rather, the problems lie in the implementation of the law by VA personnel, many of whom are not properly trained or supervised.

Finally, Commissioner Joeckel expressed hope that the VSOs “report what we did here today accurately.”


National Vietnam Veterans Longitudinal Study

Government Affairs staff have been making the rounds of congressional offices, meeting with key senators and representatives in the hope of convincing them of the need to conduct the National Vietnam Veterans Longitudinal Study. The NVVLS would follow up on the National Vietnam Veterans Readjustment Study done almost twenty years ago, going back to exactly the same people. There are three groupings included in the sample group of 2,500 selected by the George Gallup organization at a cost of more than $1 million in 1984 dollars: those who served in Vietnam, those who served in the American military but who did not serve in Southeast Asia, and a comparable group of non veterans our age.

“This is the last, best chance we have to get a handle on the health status of Vietnam veterans,” VVA National President John Rowan has said. “Line-item funding for this study and strong, explicit report language are needed to compel the VA to fulfill its responsibility to comply with the mandate set by Congress in Public Law 106-419, The Veterans’ Benefits and Health Care Improvement Act of 2000.”


VVA testified again on the need for this study on June 8 before the House Veterans Affairs Committee. The VA said at that hearing that they could not proceed with the study “because the Inspector General of the VA stopped it.” This is an inaccurate statement, as the IG does not have the authority to do any such thing.

The Secretary and the current Undersecretary for Health canceled the study using rather flimsy reasons that do not hold up under scrutiny as justification. In fact, the main criticism of the IG was of the previous Undersecretary for Health and the Veterans Health Administration (VHA) for extremely poor contract management. It was VHA that violated the VA’s own procurement and contract management guidelines. Incidentally, the previous Undersecretary for Health who initially cancelled the study, and turned the matter over to the IG in the autumn of 2003 (VVA thinks this was possibly at least partially so he would not discuss this matter with us) also claimed that the total cost of $17 to $20 million to complete the NVVLS was far too expensive. This is the same individual who was fired six months later for having wasted more than $670 million on a computer system that did not work in Bay Pines, Florida, VA Medical Center.

VVA suspects that the VA stopped the study on the direct orders of the Domestic Policy Council at The White House, or of the Office of Management & Budget (OMB) because they did not want the information they feared would result from such an independently conducted and rigorous scientific study.

Congress is our last, best hope to get this study funded and completed in time to help Vietnam veterans. If you haven’t already done so, please contact your Senators or Representatives, tell them about the study, why it’s needed, and seek a commitment from them that they will push leadership and the Appropriations Committees to insure steps are taken to make the NVVLS a reality by refusing to vote for the Military Construction/Veterans Affairs Appropriations bill, unless it contains a provision forcing VA to meet the requirement of the law, of common sense, and of their duty to Vietnam veterans and the OIF/OEF troops.

If you have already contacted your Senators and Members of the House of Representatives do so again. Go to www.vva.gov and go to the Government Relations section to use Cap Wiz to send a letter or e-mail.

VVA suspects that the VA really stopped the study on the direct orders of the Domestic Policy Council at The White House, or of the Office of Management & Budget (OMB) because they did not want the information that they feared would result from such an independently conducted and rigorous scientific study.

Congress is our last, best hope to get this study properly funded and completed in time to help Vietnam veterans. If you haven’t already done so, please contact your Senators or Representatives, tell them about the study, why it’s needed, and seek a commitment from them that they will push leadership and the Appropriations Committees to insure that steps are taken to make the NVVLS a reality by refusing to vote for the Military Construction/
Veterans Affairs Appropriations bill unless it contains a provision that forces VA to meet the requirement of the law, of common sense, and of their duty to both Vietnam veterans and the OIF/OEF troops.

If you have already contacted your Senators and Members of the House of Representatives do so again. You may also go to www.vva.gov and go to the Government Relations section to use Cap Wiz to send a letter or e-mail.

Medical Center.

VVA suspects that the VA really stopped the study on the direct orders of the Domestic Policy Council at The White House, or of the Office of Management & Budget (OMB) because they did not want the information that they feared would result from such an independently conducted and rigorous scientific study.

Congress is our last, best hope to get this study properly funded and completed in time to help Vietnam veterans. If you haven’t already done so, please contact your Senators or Representatives, tell them about the study, why it’s needed, and seek a commitment from them that they will push leadership and the Appropriations Committees to insure that steps are taken to make the NVVLS a reality by refusing to vote for the Military Construction/Veterans Affairs Appropriations bill unless it contains a provision that forces VA to meet the requirement of the law, of common sense, and of their duty to both Vietnam veterans and the OIF/OEF troops.

If you have already contacted your Senators and Members of the House of Representatives, do so again. You may also go to www.vva.gov and go to the Government Relations section to use Cap Wiz to send a letter or e-mail.

Jobs

It should now be made official: the “Jobs for Veterans Act of 2002 (VJA)” is a failure. This act gave the state entities known as the work force development agencies (they used to be called the Job Service) more “latitude” to get the job done in placing veterans in meaningful jobs at a living wage. The “latitude” in how to get the job done was supposed to be balanced by holding them much more accountable for the actual outcomes and performance. There were supposed to be new and much more accurate measurement systems installed.

What has happened, as partially documented by the General Accountability Office in a report issued the end of February and further documented in a hearing before the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee in March is that the Department of Labor has implemented all of the “attitude” portions of the new law, and virtually none of the measurement and accountability portions of the law.

VJA reduced the total number of Disabled Veteran Outreach Program specialists and Local Veteran Employment Representatives as well, because the law required that veterans have “priority” in all programs funded by or through the Department of Labor. Despite repeated complaints from VVA, the Department of Labor has yet to publish regulations implementing “veterans’ priority of service.” It is the contention of VVA and others that without regulations there is absolutely no chance of insuring the law is followed.

So, what is the “sit rep” now? We have troops returning from war and far fewer people to help them find jobs. We have almost 20 percent unemployment among our youngest veterans. We have returning National Guard and Reservists who are unemployed and underemployed and scant help for them. We have a situation where the Department of Labor has eliminated all of the old systems for monitoring whether the states were doing their job to help veterans well, but there is no new system in place. DOL cites as evidence that the states are doing a better job of helping veterans a poll of the heads of those state agencies. Did DOL seriously think the states were going to say that they were taking the money and using it for other things or doing a bad job?

Just before Memorial Day VVA, along with several other major veterans’ organizations, met with Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao. We believe that she really does care about veterans, particularly disabled veterans, and that she wants to do a better job of assisting these men and women to secure the best job possible. However, she can only go on what she is hearing from her staff, especially the Assistant Secretary for Employment & Training and the Assistant Secretary for Veterans Employment & Training. And they are telling her that all is good with the state of the services to assist veterans obtain and sustain meaningful employment at a living wage. VVA will continue to try to work with the Department of Labor officials, particularly the Secretary, to help foment some bold leadership here, because we never give up.

However, the bottom line is we are a nation at war. VVA has always held that a decent job at a living wage is the very best readjustment program for any veteran. We already have many and soon will have many more new veterans needing effective help in getting a decent job. There is no effective national strategy to help them, nor any plans to make such a plan.

VVA will spend much effort to work with Congress to provide the leadership needed on this issue. It appears that both Sens. Larry E. Craig (R-Idaho) and Daniel K. Akaka (D-Hawaii) are committed in the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs, and that Chairman Steve Buyer (R-Ind.) and Acting Ranking Democrat Bob Filner (D-Calif.) are similarly committed to taking action in Congress. We must also press on the committees that authorize and appropriate funds to all programs at the Department of Labor, if we are to secure any real change in the intractable culture of that agency.

Agent Orange

VVA will offer testimony to the National Academies of Sciences, Institute of Medicine panel conducting the biennial review of Agent Orange and possible connections with conditions and maladies in addition to those already recognized as being associated with herbicides. This review is conducted every two years pursuant to the Agent Orange Act of 1991. We will post that testimony on the VVA web site after delivery to the Institute of Medicine panel later in June.

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