February 1999/March 1999
VVA's Agenda For 1999
By Rick Weidman, Government Relations Director
VVA President George C. Duggins and the organization's national officers
and Board of Directors have clearly delineated our direction for 1999.
The themes of our advocacy reinforce what we have always stood for as an
organization: that we tell the truth and act honestly; and that we demand
that our government always tell us the truth and that veterans be treated
justly and with respect. VVA also demands accountability for the effectiveness
and the efficiency of each government program charged with helping veterans
and their families.
VVA has a set of guidelines we believe every government veterans program
should abide by. Each program
should have as its goal helping veterans return to the greatest degree
possible of self sufficiency or wellness of the whole person. Each program
should be making progress toward that goal and should be doing so in the
most cost-efficient and cost-effective manner possible.
Dole Commission Study
The report of the Congressional Commission on Service Members
and Veterans Transition Assistance, popularly known as the "Dole
Commission'' Study, was released in January. The report has caused many
in the veterans' community, in Congress, and the federal government to
re-think how we are doing the job of assisting veterans. The release of
the report provides an opportunity and presents a challenge for all
of us in the veterans community to take a second look at how we are pursuing
VVA suggests that it may be time to think anew about the range of veterans
programs. We must take care to keep what is working well and not change
things simply for the sake of change. However, it may well be time to restructure
some services that clearly are not performing well. The call for doing
so is reflected in many of the resolutions passed by the 1997 VVA National
Convention. That includes resolutions dealing with small-business development
assistance for veterans, particularly disabled veterans; the need to inject
accountability and private-sector principles of rewarding good performance
into employment and training programs for veterans; and changes other vital
veterans programs. If we do a good enough job of seeking enactment
the 1999 VVA legislative agenda, we will have done a great job of helping
focus the nation on the legitimate unmet needs of veterans of every generation.
The President's Budget
The request for veterans' health care in President Clinton's proposed
Fiscal Year 2000 budget is, we believe, drastically inadequate. One problem
with this budget stems from the "flat-lining'' of the veterans' budget
as part of the so-called "Balanced Budget Agreement.'' What this
means is that funds for veterans' health care are not scheduled to be increased
from Fiscal Year 1997 through Fiscal Year 2002. Health care for veterans
is virtually the only item that is flat-lined in the budget over that period
This sounds very discriminatory to us. No other group of Americans
has been singled out in this manner. What's particularly disappointing
is that health care for veterans is being flat- lined during a period of
a well-publicized federal government "budget surplus.''
It is true that the VA health-care system needs to reinvent itself,
but the hospitals also need a reasonable amount of money with which to
operate. VVA agrees with the assessment of the "Independent Budget of the
Veterans' Service Organizations'' put together by the large veterans service
organizations, which noted that the President's VHA (Veterans Health Care
Administration) request of just over $17-billion is at least $3-billion
shy of the money t the system needs in order to function.
VVA believes that the VA should better use the funds it receives and
more explicitly focus on "he [and she] who hath borne the battle,'' beginning
with requiring VA to take a full military history on each veteran. However,
this budget request is so inadequate that, if it goes into effect, the
VA medical system will implode from lack of resources. Many medical services
that should be available to veterans today at the VA simply do not effectively
exist in actual practice. Veterans are not refused services, but the resources
are not there to help them achieve wellness.
Some in the veterans community believe that the Clinton administration
took a long look at what happened last year when the VSOs lost the battle
in Congress over tobacco compensation and decided that cutting VA funds
would not be politically risky. That is simply wrong and is unfair to veterans
of every generation. The bottom line is VVA believes at least an additional
$3-to-$4-billion is needed to sustain this VA health care-system, particularly
such vital programs as PTSD treatment, diagnosis and treatment of Hepatitis
C, and the diagnosis, treatment, and compensation for the adverse health
effects of Agent Orange and other toxic substances we were exposed to in
VVA often has differed with Under Secretary for Veterans Health Dr.
Kenneth Kizer on issues. But we certainly agree with his recently
stated concerns about the proposed VA budget. Kizer said that if Congress
does not drastically increase the budget, there will be extensive layoffs
and facility closings, and even more curtailment of the so-called "Special
Emphasis'' programs, such as those dealing with spinal-cord injury, PTSD,
and neuro- psychiatry in general. He described the state of VHA as being
"in a serious and precarious situation.'' This is simply unacceptable.
Because of the way the budget process is designed, it is extremely difficult
to make up a shortfall of this magnitude. In most cases, it would be next
to impossible to add more than a few hundred million dollars to the President's
requested budget. VVA believes this is unacceptable and urges the
leadership of both parties in Congress take extraordinary measures to insure
the viable future of the entire VA system.
On Feb. 11, the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) released its latest
review of the scientific evidence regarding adverse health effects from
exposure to Agent Orange and other toxins in Southeast Asia during the
Vietnam War. We have known for a long time that the NAS reports are
only as good as the reports they review. VVA believes that many more
cost- effective, quick turn around studies should be funded by this session
of Congress. However, the fact remains that the practical results for veterans
of this review by NAS was virtually the same as its 1996 report.
VVA has joined with the NAS in calling for more and larger studies and
for efforts that can be accomplished quickly. The need for oversight
hearings on the Ranch Hand Study is even more pressing now. While
VVA president George Duggins has expressed our continued faith in NAS,
he noted that simple justice demands answers to Agent Orange/dioxin questions
before most of us are dead.
The day after the release of the NAS report, Duggins wrote to Secretary
of Veterans Affairs Togo West asking the Secretary to join us in pushing
for more quality studies, particularly ones that focus on the impact on
the health of Vietnam veterans of one or more of the chemicals in Agent
Orange, as well as the many other toxins present in our "work environment''
during the Vietnam War. The NAS report should give us renewed vigor to
pursue the introduction and enactment of comprehensive legislation on Agent
Orange and the toxic battlefield during the 106th Congress.
Next year marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of the end of the Vietnam
War. It is high time that the problems of the men and women who fought
the war be properly addressed before that landmark anniversary. It
is our hope that all VVA members will read the following agenda and decide
to become even more actively involved by contacting the government relations
staff and lending us your skills and passion as part of VVA's legislative-coordinator
network, now nicknamed VVA's "The A Team.''
VVA's Board of Directors approved an ambitious, far-ranging legislative
agenda for 1999 at its January meeting in Washington, D.C. Number
one on the agenda in the health area is VVA's commitment to work for introduction
of and enactment of the Service Members and Veterans' Self Sufficiency
Act. That proposed legislation calls, among other things, for making mental-health
and PTSD services available in all areas of the country and expanding existing
DeTox programs to every VAMC. The bill also calls for substantive changes
in the areas of transitional housing and subsidized apartments and a ten-year
extension of the Homeless Veteran Reintegration Program.
VVA's agenda also includes lobbying for the enactment of the Comprehensive
Agent Orange and Toxic Chemicals Act of 1999. That legislation provides
for multifaceted, indepth research in Vietnam and in this country. Along
those lines, VVA also will work to strengthen the Scientific Advisory Group
in order to ascertain civilian control of the ongoing Operation Ranch Hand
VVA, too, will continue to press for additional birth defects studies
and presumptive connections where indicated, including among Vietnam veterans'
children and grandchildren, and for greater responsiveness of programs
administered by Health and Human Services. Of particular note is the effort
to foster studies that examine the combined effects of two or more of the
toxic agents that affected military personnel in Southeast Asia.
VVA will work for enactment of the Veterans Comprehensive Health Care
Act of 1999. That proposed bill includes language that will allow
veterans' military histories to be used as a diagnostic tool. It also calls
for testing, treatment, and compensation for veterans with Hepatitis C
and for implementing a holistic approach in the VA system for the
care of PTSD, mental health, and sexual-trauma patients. The act also would
set up a former-POW health registry that includes POW health studies and
the designation of an ombudsman at each VAMC for former POWs.
In the labor and business arenas, VVA will work to strengthen the Veterans
Employment Opportunities Act of 1998. Among other things, there is a need
to eliminate the targeting of veteran-held jobs during federal workforce
reductions and to bolster veterans preference in hiring and retention.
The 1999 legislative agenda includes support of the Veteran Family Preservation
Act of 1999, sometimes known as veterans' "one stop'' legislation. That
proposed law calls for, among other things, the re-education and training
of veterans; an expansion of the Work Therapy Program; and a mandatory
DVOP outstation at each Vet Center, VA VocRehab, and other sites. VVA also
will work with Rep. Jim Talent (R-MO) and others for the creation of the
proposed National Veterans Business Development Corporation.
As far as veterans benefits are concerned, VVA will work for congressional
oversight hearings to address a variety of issues. That includes the future
schedule for Agent Orange and Depleted Uranium studies and the disparity
between Agent Orange claims versus awards.
VVA will work to secure the enactment of legislation that would extend
IRS eligibility dates from the mid-1950s to May 31, 1975, to qualify as
an in-country Vietnam veteran and also would modify the inclusive dates
for Vietnam-era veterans. VVA will work to increase the Montgomery GI Bill
to a reasonable rate.
On the POW/MIA front, VVA will work for enactment of legislation
that would create a permanent Select Committee on Prisoners of War and
Missing In Action in the U.S. House of Representatives.
In the state legislatures, VVA will cooperate with its State Councils
to push for state legislation that would create Veterans' Preference laws
modeled on Florida's recently enacted law, veterans' set asides in state
procurement based on a California law, and a POW/MIA Recognition Day that
would conform with the federal date of the third Friday of each September.
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