A publication of Vietnam Veterans of America, Inc. ®
An organization chartered by the U.S. Congress

June 2000/July 2000

Government Relations

VA Secretary Togo West Resigns

By Philip A. Litteer, Chair, VVA National Government Affairs Committee and Rick Weidman, Director of Government Relations


Rep. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), left, confers with chairman Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.) at the March 15 oversight hearing of the House Government Reform Committee.

On July 10, Secretary of Veterans Affairs Togo D. West, Jr., announced that he would be leaving

his VA post to return to private law practice. In a press release responding to the news of West's

departure, VVA National President George C. Duggins said: "We urge the President and VicePresident Gore to work with Acting Secretary Hershel Gober to clear the log jams on many issues of vital concern to veterans and their families, and to take bold and swift action on keyfronts.''

Duggins went on to note that it is time to move quickly on the petition on what is known as the "in-country effect''--the overall negative health effects on those who served in Vietnam--and to ensure that this request receives an immediate and thorough consideration at the VA. Duggins also noted that VVA's petition on Hepatitis C has been languishing in the Secretary's office for some fifteen months, and that it is time to publish regulations immediately that would declare hepatitis C a presumptively service-connected, compensable condition.

Duggins also called on the President to expedite movement toward cooperative scientific studies between the United States and Vietnam, conducted in Vietnam, on the health and the environmental effects of dioxin and other potential hazards that were used during the VietnamWar.

Lastly, Duggins called on the President and the Acting Secretary to initiate research projects in the United States on American veterans of the Vietnam War and their families, as required by the Agent Orange Act of 1991. "It is vital that the President and Vice President actively support and encourage Acting Secretary Gober to move quickly and boldly to re-establish a positive momentum at the VA, '' Duggins said. "Only effective leadership will result in obtaining more adequate funding for veterans health care, benefits, and services. Without that assertive leadership, VA will be condemned to the same unfortunate pattern of decline veterans have seen in recent years.''

Get Out And Register

Vietnam Veterans of America has launched a significant VETS VOTE! campaign for 2000. Materials--including bumper stickers and lapel pins--have been sent to each chapter and state council. In addition, the printed materials are available at Vet Vote 2000. It's vitally important that each chapter set up voter-registration booths at fairs, shopping centers, and other public places--in addition to insuring that our own members are registered and ready to vote for office-seekers at every level in the November elections.

A successful voter-registration drive and public-awareness campaign by every chapter, no matter how small, will help secure the attention of those seeking to represent us in the Congress and at the state and local level, when we seek additional authority for vitally needed veterans services and more adequate funding for health care and other pressing veterans' needs.

Please check the VVA web site for more details about the VETS VOTE! campaign or e-mail Sharon Hodge at shodge@vva.org for further information or assistance.

Funding for Veterans Health Care

The House of Representatives has passed the VA, HUD, and related agencies appropriations bill for Fiscal Year 2001 and sent it to the Senate for action. Rep. Lane Evans (D-Ill.) and others were able to secure an additional $184 million over the President's request for state veterans homes and other purposes, along with an increase of $ 32.5 million in prosthetics. The House also, with the able leadership of Reps. Bob Stump (R-Ariz.), James T. Walsh (R-N.Y.), Bob Filner (D-Calif.), and others blocked the administration's plan to send $350 million collected for health care co-payments back to the Treasury. However, the FY 2001 budget for the Veterans Health Administration health-care system for veterans, even with these increases, is still about $500 million short of what is needed to prevent further cuts in staff and services to veterans. Without these additional funds. VA will have to eliminate about 2,200 doctors, nurses, and other care givers. That is in addition to the more than 25,000 positions eliminated in the last five years. 

Be a Lobbyist

Sens. Paul Wellstone (D-Minn.) and Tim Johnson (D-S.D.) plan to offer an amendment on the floor of the Senate to the VA-HUD appropriations bill that would add the $500 million needed to prevent even more cuts and even longer waiting times for veterans in need of VA health care services. We urge all members to e-mail, call, and write to your senators and urge them to support the Johnson-Wellstone amendment.

VVA National Veterans Affairs Committee chair Bob Maras helped organize a "Take the Hill'' rally May 25 to help build support for increased funding for the veterans health-care system. Speakers at this rally included Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), Reps. Bob Filner, Marge Roukema (R-N.J.), Bill Pascrell (D-N.J.), Rodney Freylingheusen (R-N.J.), Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), Barney Frank (D-Mass.), and more than twenty others.

We ask that all VVA members pick up the telephone and call the offices of their Senators in their states, and let them know that this directly affects vitally needed health-care services to veterans at the VA hospitals, and that VVA will be watching their votes carefully.

Agent Orange & Diabetes

Last September, the Secretary of Veterans Affairs postponed the decision whether to grant service-connected, presumptive disability to Vietnam veterans suffering from diabetes mellitus (adult onset diabetes) as recommended by his staff. Instead, the Secretary referred the decision to the Institute of Medicine (IOM) of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), which is now considering reports of an association between diabetes and dioxin exposure issued by the United States Air Force Ranch Hand study group at the end of March in response to pressure from Reps. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.), Lane Evans (D-Ill.), Bernard Sanders (I-Vt.), and others. This latest Ranch Hand study report found a significant association between dioxin exposure and diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and other health problems.

The IOM has convened a panel, chaired by Dr. David Tollerud of Drexel University, to study the issue and make a report by the end of September. VVA and other veterans groups attended the meeting of this group on June 9 to hear a presentation by Dr. Joel Michalek of the Ranch Hand study group. Although VVA was not allowed to make a presentation, we were permitted to ask questions.

VVA remains cautiously optimistic that this will be a reasonable assessment by the IOM that will find that is "as likely as not'' that there is an association between diabetes and exposure to dioxin and other chemical toxins in Vietnam. Should that be the case, it is our hope that Acting Secretary Gober move immediately to declare diabetes mellitus as being a service-connected, presumptive condition for Vietnam in-country veterans.

NAS Agent Orange Review 

The Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences reviews all research and peer reviewed literature every other year in order to make recommendations and findings to the Secretary of Veterans Affairs on any possible association between exposure to Agent Orange and other toxic chemicals in Vietnam and diseases or other adverse medical conditions in Vietnam veterans. This review is mandated in Public Law 102-4, known as the Agent Orange Act of 1991.

The public hearing and comment session was held on May 23 in Washington, where the panel assembled for this review, chaired by Dr. Irva Hertz-Piccioto of the University of North Carolina, heard from veterans groups and other interested parties. At this hearing, VVA National Agent Orange/Dioxin Committee chair George Claxton and Linda Schwartz of Yale School of Nursing delivered excellent presentations before the review panel.

Claxton provided more than 70 important studies to the panel that the IOM had not previously reviewed which had direct bearing on the issues at hand. (To obtain copies of Claxton and Schwartz's presentations, see recent testimonies dated March 15, 2000.  For more information on the review process or the panels, visit www.iom.edu.

The panel also heard from representatives of the American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars and from two widows whose husbands had died as a result of illnesses due to their exposure to Agent Orange and other exposures during their Vietnam service. Jennie LeFevre, a widow of a VVA member who guiding force behind the Agent Orange Quilt of Tears, gave moving testimony, as did Shelia Winsett of Alabama.

The report of the panel's review and findings are due out by the end of calendar year 2000.

Hepatitis C

Vietnam Veterans of America is participating in the Veterans Council on Hepatitis C and Liver Diseases of the American Liver Foundation. George Duggins was joined by Bob Maras in representing VVA at the inaugural meeting of this council on June 14-15. The Council has representation from VVA, the American Legion, VFW, AMVETS, DAV, PVA, as well as the VA, private medical schools, and private practitioners. Non-voting attendees included representatives of pharmaceutical companies that support this effort.

Speakers included Rep. Vic Snyder (D-Ark.), key staff members from both the House and the Senate, and a briefing by various experts from the VA and from the private sector. The group formally approved the outreach effort via Internet and toll-free numbers to distribute the home testing kits to veterans who have not yet been tested for hepatitis C. The outreach was successful, with more than 2,000 veterans ordering the kit from Home ACCESS, the company that manufactures it and made the kits available for only $6 shipping and handling charge.

Also on the hepatitis C issue, Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn), Chair of the Subcommittee on National Security, Veterans' Affairs, and International Relations of the House Committee on Government Reform, held hearings on hepatitis C. The subcommittee heard from veterans who have been or are currently undergoing treatment for the disease. Heather Renee French, Miss America 2000, also testified at the hearing on the need for additional public awareness, education, testing, and treatment of this disease.

In addition to HR 1020, the bill introduced by Rep. Snyder that would classify hepatitis C as a presumptively service-connected condition, a more limited bill, HR 4791, has recently been introduced by Rep. J.D. Hayworth (R-Ariz.). While VVA favors H.R. 1020 because it is more comprehensive in scope, VVA also favors passage of either bill this year.

Ken Moore of the VVA Task Force on Veterans Health Care also worked with Miss America, Heather Renee French, the VA, the Illinois State Council, and local VVA chapters and others to conduct a successful outreach and testing event in Chicago, funded by the pharmaceutical company Shearing-Plough.

Hope for the Future

On March 23, 1999, VVA President George C. Duggins filed a formal petition with the Secretary of Veterans Affairs, asking that the Secretary declare hepatitis C to be a presumptive service-connected condition. Since that time until his abrupt departure, Secretary West took no publicly visible steps to do what is clearly within his power to do. This lack of action came despite the reported recommendations by his staff in the Veterans Health Administration and in the Veterans Benefits Administration.

At the end of April, Duggins wrote to West pointing out that he had taken more time in considering this petition than the average tour of duty in Vietnam. For more than two months after Duggins' latest letter on this issue, we did not hear from Secretary West on this issue.

VVA hopes that Acting Secretary Hershel Gober will move quickly to do the right thing on hepatitis C. VVA also hopes that the President and Vice President Al Gore will support and assist Gober in any forthcoming efforts do the right thing and to act decisively and immediately on this issue that is so vital to so many veterans.

Coalition Building

On June 15, VVA president George C. Duggins became the first leader of a veterans service organization to address the Veterans Council of the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), which represents more than 170,000 VA employees. Duggins spoke about areas of cooperation. He received a standing ovation at the end of his remarks, when he and AFGE Veterans Council President Alma Lee pledged to work together toward restoration of the VA health care system.

Planning is under way for AFGE, VVA, and other potential allies to join together on Flag Day 2001 in Washington to seek more adequate funding for veterans health care.

Undersecretary for Health

Thomas H. Garthwaite, M.D., the VA Acting Underscretary for Veterans Health, has been nominated by the President to a four-year term as Undersecretary of Veterans Health. President George C. Duggins has written to members of the Senate unequivocally endorsing the prompt confirmation of Dr. Garthwaite for this vital position.

"Dr. Garthwaite has the experience, knowledge, commitment, and the passion for the highest quality health care to the most veterans,'' Duggins said. He appears to have the vision necessary to restore VA to leadership in properly dealing with the wounds of war and, perhaps most importantly, he listens carefully to individual veterans about their health care."

Duggins also cited Dr. Garthwaite's leadership toward more properly addressing the need for awareness, testing, and treatment of hepatitis C among veterans, particularly Vietnam veterans; his leadership on steps to correct problems with diminishment of specialized services such as spinal-cord injury and Post-traumatic stress disorder; and--perhaps most important--the creation of the Veterans Health Initiative that will require taking a full military history for every veteran at the VA medical facilities and using it in the diagnosis and treatment plan to ensure that the medical problems due to military service are properly diagnosed and effectively treated.

Dr. Garthwaite attended the June meeting of the VVA National Board on June 16 and received a special Pointman Award in recognition of his leadership on a variety of veterans health-care issues from VVA National Veterans Affairs chair Bob Maras.

Small Business

VVA continues to work closely with other veterans organizations, as well as others, to insure that the National Veterans Business Development Corporation receives the full $4 million authorized in a line item appropriation for Fiscal Year 2001. VVA worked with the same broad grouping of veterans and military organizations to achieve enactment of Public Law 106-50, the Veterans Entrepreneurship and Small Business Development Act of 1999. Implementation of that act has been problematic.

There was no funding for the corporation or other key provisions in the act for FY 2000, as a result of the authorization being enacted after the appropriations bill was completed last summer.  The President has yet to name the directors of the National Business Development Corporation or to publish regulations that will result in the beginning of the implementation of the 3 percent goal in federal procurement for disabled veteran-owned and -operated businesses. There is still no permanent Associate Deputy Administrator for Veterans Business Development, and there is an on again-off again quality to the cooperation received by the veterans community from the SBA.

On a brighter note, VVA participated with other organizations in recognizing the efforts of many members of Congress and their staffs in the development and passage of P.L. 106-50. The bipartisan support received last year for this effort, and the commitment from both sides of the aisle that appears to be just as strong today, makes it all the more puzzling that the White House, the Office of Management & Budget, and the Small Business Administration are not pressing ahead with zeal to fully implement this statute.

Accountability in Employment

Rep. Jack Quinn (R-N.Y.), chairman of the Subcommittee on Benefits of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs, has introduced H.R. 4765, the 21st Century Veterans Employment and Training Act. This is a bipartisan bill strongly supported by Committee Chairman Bob Stump on the Republican side, as well as Lane Evans and Bob Filner on the Democratic side.

Vietnam Veterans of America favors prompt passage of this legislation. This landmark legislation would create incentives and real standards in the performance of employment services designed to assist veterans, particularly disabled veterans. VVA strongly commends all involved with this arduous effort to achieve a much-needed modernization and overhaul of the primary public mechanism for assisting veterans to get jobs in America.

   

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