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may/june 2009

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BY JOHN MITERKO, CHAIR, GOVERNMENT AFFAIRS COMMITTEE, WITH GOVERNMENT AFFAIRS STAFF

President Obama has lived up to a campaign promise, asking Congress to provide funding for VA health care two years ahead. He also announced that he will push for a system that streamlines the transfer of medical records between the Department of Defense and the veterans’ health system.

“The care our veterans receive should never be hindered by budget delays,” the President said in a press conference in April. “I was pleased to see that the budget resolution passed by the Senate supports this concept in a bipartisan manner.”

The House joined the Senate, adopting a nonbinding Fiscal Year 2010 budget resolution on April 29 that “would allow advance appropriations to be provided for Department of Veterans Affairs medical accounts.”

VVA, along with other veterans service organizations that comprise the Partnership for Veterans Health Care Budget Reform, has advocated advance appropriations because we believe it will allow VA Medical Center and VISN directors to better plan for their facilities and not have to be concerned about whether the annual appropriation is completed on time. Even though the VA budget was completed early this year, it has come in late 19 of the past 23 years.

If passed by Congress, as is now expected, Congress would fund VA health care for Fiscal Years 2010 and 2011. Next year, appropriators would write a bill for fiscal 2012, staying two years ahead. This should be a boon to the VA, providing sufficient, predictable, and—perhaps most importantly—timely funding.

The chairs of the House and Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committees, Bob Filner (D-Calif.) and Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii), have sponsored bills (H.R. 1016 and S. 423) that would enable Congress to write VA appropriations two years ahead for health accounts only. As of May 1, H.R. 1016 had garnered 101 co-sponsors, and S. 423 had 43.

President Obama also announced that DoD and the VA will build a joint network that will contain administrative and medical information for active-duty personnel and veterans from “the day they first enlist to the day they are laid to rest.”

“Currently, there is no comprehensive system in place that allows for a streamlined transition of health records between DoD and the VA,” Obama said. “That results in extraordinary hardship for an awful lot of veterans who end up finding their records lost, [and they are] unable to get their benefits processed in a timely fashion. When a member of the armed forces separates from the military, he or she will no longer have to walk paperwork from a DoD duty station to a local VA health center; their electronic records will transition with them and remain with them forever.”

VVA has long advocated mandating that the VA include a complete military history in the VA computerized medical record. This action by the President will accomplish that.

Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), one of the strongest advocates for veterans in the Senate, called the electronic record program “a major step forward in the effort to provide a seamless transition from the battlefield to the VA. It will reduce mistakes, clear up red tape, and close gaps in care between VA and DoD.”

The President also called for multibillion-dollar increases in the VA’s budget, including the expansion of education benefits and programs for homeless veterans.

In a letter to Chairman John Spratt (D-S.C.) and Ranking Member Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.) of the House Committee on the Budget, Rep. Harry Teague (D-N.M.) wrote:

“The ‘top-line’ funding request for the VA was listed as $52.5 million—an increase of approximately 10 percent over FY 2009 funding levels. The administration maintains that this request will result in increased funding for the VA by $25 billion above baseline over the next five years. The budget request will also expand eligibility for veterans’ health care to over 500,000 veterans by 2013.

“However, a much-needed reform in the funding process for the VA [is] advanced appropriations, [which] would provide VA with an assured source of funding to meet the growing demand for services and adequately maintain operational facilities. We urge you to support advance appropriations for veterans’ medical care in the FY 2010 Budget Resolution.

“Last year, our government was able to enact an on-time budget for VA for the first time in over ten years. Unfortunately, this ‘timely’ budget was approved on September 30, 2008, just one day prior to the start of the next fiscal year. As a direct provider of services, VA operations benefit greatly from advance notice regarding resource allocation. Last-minute funding threatens the quality of care, even when budgets are approved on time. Late budgets further hinder the ability to recruit well-trained medical professionals, maintain operational facilities, and acquire new equipment.

“Providing VA with advanced appropriations will alleviate many budgeting burdens, ultimately resulting in improved quality of care for veterans and better use of taxpayer dollars. Many have compared this measure to a family budget—a household needs to know its income in advance in order to adequately plan its expenses.”

The letter was co-signed by 50 Representatives.

To find out if your own Senator or Representative is a co-sponsor of this very important legislation, go to thomas.loc.gov, type in the bill number in the appropriate box, click, and then click on the box that says “co-sponsors.” If your Senator or Representative is not listed as a co-sponsor, call his or her office and ask why.

A VETERANS’ CORPS

The House of Representatives passed Rep. Phil Hare’s (D-Ill.) legislation to create a Veterans’ Corps. It was included as part of the Generations Invigorating Volunteerism and Education (GIVE) Act. “I am extremely proud that a Veterans’ Corps is one step closer to becoming reality,” Hare said. “Creating a Vet Corps will answer President Obama’s call to service while honoring our commitment to America’s veterans.”

The Veterans Engaged for Tomorrow (VET) Corps Act was coauthored by Hare and Rep. John Sarbanes (D-Md.), his former colleague on the Education and Labor Committee. It will establish a service corps, similar to AmeriCorps and Senior Corps, for veterans by veterans. The primary mission of the Veterans’ Corps will be to recruit and mobilize veterans to serve the needs of their fellow veterans. It will collaborate with VSOs, the VA, and other groups to provide education, job training, and mentoring to veterans.

“Our nation’s veterans have already demonstrated a profound commitment to service,” Hare said. “Vet Corps aims to harness that spirit and in the process give back to those who have sacrificed so much by providing them with critical support and services.” ?IThe Veterans’ Corps will be overseen by the Corporation of National and Community Service. It would be the first of its kind. President Obama has announced his strong support for the GIVE Act.

FOR WOMEN VETERANS

Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) joined Sens. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) in announcing bipartisan legislation to prepare the VA for what is expected to be an influx of women veterans who will receive care there in coming years. The Women Veterans Health Improvement Act of 2009 will address many of the unique needs of female veterans, particularly those returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.

“It is essential for the nation to be there for [women veterans] when they return,” Sen. Snowe said.

“Women have stepped up to serve at unprecedented levels,” Sen. Murray said, “which means the VA is now faced with unprecedented challenges in caring for them as they return home. This bill addresses the unique challenges women face by providing specialized care for the visible and invisible wounds of war. As more women begin to transition home and step back into lives as mothers, wives, and citizens, the VA must be there for them.”

“Women serving in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan and performing dangerous missions throughout the world make up an important and growing segment of our veteran population. The number of women veterans receiving care through the VA is expected to double in less than five years,” Sen. Hutchison said. “Our bill will help improve access to quality health care services for women who have bravely served in our armed forces.”

Among other things, the legislation will:

• Require the VA to implement a program to train, educate, and certify mental health professionals to care for women with sexual trauma

• Require the VA Secretary to conduct a comprehensive assessment of the barriers women are facing in getting care at the VA

• Authorize a report to Congress on the effects the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have had on the physical, mental, and reproductive health of women who have served there

• Require the VA to begin a pilot program that provides child care to women veterans who seek mental health care services at the VA \

• Require the VA to begin a pilot program that provides readjustment counseling to women veterans in group retreat settings.

In addition to Sens. Murray, Hutchison, and Snowe, the legislation was co-sponsored by Sens. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), Tim Johnson (D-S.D.), Susan Collins (R-Maine), Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.), Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), Lisa Murkowski (D-Alaska), Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), and Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio).

INCREASED PAYMENTS FOR SURVIVORS

VVA applauds the introduction of legislation introduced by Rep. Steve Buyer of Indiana and Rep. Tim Walz of Minnesota to significantly increase the Dependency and Indemnity Compensation (DIC) payments to the survivors of veterans. Last year VVA issued a challenge to members of Congress amid a battle over unrelated legislation to introduce such long-overdue and much-needed legislation to significantly increase payments to widows and orphans. This bipartisan legislation is strongly supported by VVA, and we will press for early enactment.

Once this is achieved, we will continue to press hard for elimination of the “widow’s tax,” in which payments from the Survivors Benefits Program (SBP), essentially an insurance program that active-duty and retired service members pay for on a monthly basis, are offset by reductions in DIC payments. This is just simply wrong, and needs to end.

FROM SECRETARY OF VETERANS AFFAIRS ERIC K. SHINSEKIi, MARCH 13, 2009

My name is Ric Shinseki, and I am a veteran. For me, serving as Secretary of Veterans Affairs is a noble calling. It provides me the opportunity to give back to those who served with and for me during my 38 years in uniform and those on whose shoulders we all stood as we grew up in the profession of arms.

The Department of Veterans Affairs has a solemn responsibility to all of you, today and in the future, as more veterans join our ranks and enroll to secure the benefits and services they have earned. I am fully committed to fulfilling President Obama’s vision for transforming our department so that it will be well-positioned to perform this duty even better during the 21st century. We welcome the assistance and advice of our Veterans Service Organizations, other government departments and agencies, Congress, and all VA stakeholders as we move forward, ethically and transparently, so that veterans and citizens can understand our efforts.

Creating that vision for transforming the VA into a 21st century organization requires a comprehensive review of our department. We approach that review understanding that veterans are central to everything VA does. We know that results count, that the department will be measured by what we do, not what we promise, and that our best days as an organization supporting veterans are ahead of us. We will fulfill President Lincoln’s charge to care for “him, who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan” by redesigning and reengineering ourselves for the future.

Transforming any institution is supremely challenging; I know this from my own experience in leading large, proud, complex, and high-performing organizations through change. But the best organizations must be prepared to meet the challenging times, evolving technology and, most importantly, evolving needs of clients. Historically, organizations that are unwilling or unable to change soon find themselves irrelevant. You and your needs are not irrelevant.

Veterans are our clients, and delivering the highest quality care and services in a timely, consistent and fair manner is a VA responsibility. I take that responsibility seriously and have charged all of the department’s employees for their best efforts and support every day to meet our obligations to you. Our path forward is challenging, but the President and Congress support us. They have asked us to do this well—for you. Veterans are our sole reason for existence and our number one priority—bar none. I look forward to working together with all VA employees to transform our department into an organization that reflects the change and commitment our country expects and our veterans deserve.

Thank you, and God bless our military, our veterans, and our nation.

 

 

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