October 2000/November 2000
The Never Ending 106th Congress
At press time, the 106th Congress had six of the thirteen
required spending bills left to pass. The Congress passed a two-week
Continuing Resolution to keep the federal government functioning until
Congress returns after Veterans Day.
VA BUDGET APPROPRIATION
The Fiscal Year 2001 VA-HUD appropriations bill, which Congress passed
in October and was signed by the President, accomplishes many of the goals
Vietnam Veterans of America set forth almost a year ago. While we did not
get the additional Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) medical care
appropriation VVA feels is truly needed to prevent the further
diminishment of services, the $1.4 billion added to the bill is the
largest one-year increase ever. Of the $20.3 billion for veterans’
health programs, $351 million is slated for medical research.
A group of good friends of veterans, led by Sens. Paul Wellstone (D-Minn.)
and Tim Johnson (D-S.D.), and aided by the united support of the major
veterans organizations, tried to secure an additional $500 million for
veterans’ health services. This would have prevented another loss of VHA
staff (up to 2,250 positions) in FY 2001. The Senate leadership, fearing
that this effort would succeed, resorted to the tactic of putting the
VA-HUD appropriation into the Transportation bill and bringing it to the
Senate floor under a closed rule. This prevents any amendment. While our
effort did not succeed, VVA is grateful to our good friends in the
Senate. In other provisions, $24.7 billion was provided for veterans’
benefits, of which $22.8 billion goes toward compensation and pensions for
veterans. As authorized in separate legislation passed by the Congress and
signed by the President, VA cost of living adjustment (COLA) for calendar
year 2001 will be equal to that of Social Security beneficiaries. Based on
the Consumer Price Index released in October, that increase will be 3.5
Also included in the VA-HUD appropriations bill is $400,000 for the
National Coalition for Homeless Veterans to do technical assistance,
training, and support activities that will assist community-based
organizations, local veteran organizations, and local chapters of veterans’
service organizations trying to help homeless veterans.
FUTURE VETERANS HEALTH-CARE FUNDING
It is VVA’s position that an additional increase of some $2 billion
for veterans health services will be needed in FY 2002 just to keep up
with medical inflation. We also believe that an additional $1 billion will
be needed to begin to restore the organizational capacity lost by the
Veterans Health Administration (VHA) in the last five years--particularly
in such specialized services as Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
treatment, services to blinded veterans, services to the seriously and
chronically mentally ill, and spinal-cord injured veterans.
The Independent Budget of the Veterans Service Organizations (IBVSO)
calls for an increase of $2.479 billion for FY 2002. VVA may well again
endorse the IBVSO. However, VVA also believes that the diminishment of the
organizational capability of the Veterans Health Administration in such
areas as acute care staff for hepatitis C, the dramatic diminishment of
in-patient and residential programs for treatment of chronic acute PTSD,
and the limitation of alcohol and substance abuse programs is of such
magnitude that it will take increases of about $1 billion per year for
several years to bring the VHA back into compliance with the VA
Eligibility Reform Act of 1996.
The new President will submit his FY 2002 request to the Congress for
consideration next year. However, the document is being framed now by the
VA and by the Office of Management and Budget. The effort to insure
sufficient resources for 2002 must begin now.
SEN. HAGEL HONORED
Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.), who has been a great champion of veterans’
causes in the Senate since his arrival in 1997, was selected as VVA’s
Legislator of the Year for the U.S. Senate. Sen. Hagel was chosen on the
basis of his leadership in securing meaningful legislation for veterans’
preference, championing of homeless veterans, assisting in business
opportunities for Vietnam veterans, and for his steadfast advocacy to
assist veterans and educate young people about the Vietnam War.
Sen. Hagel was wounded while in Vietnam. He is the only former enlisted
Vietnam veteran in the Senate. He also was the keynote speaker at VVA’s
commemorative service marking the 25th anniversary of the end
of the Vietnam War, held on April 29 in Washington, D.C.
SMALL BUSINESS DEVELOPMENT ASSISTANCE FOR VETERANS
Public Law 106-50, the Veterans Entrepreneurship and Small Business
Development Act of 1999, set a goal of 3 percent of all federal
contracting and subcontracting go to disabled-veteran-owned businesses.
President Clinton signed this law on Aug. 17, 1999. However, we are still
waiting for proper regulations to implement this requirement. The SBA
finally published regulations Oct. 11, 2000, under intense political and
legal pressure from a united front of the veterans’ community. But the
regulations do not meet either the letter or intent of the law in regard
to procurement goals.
Legislative fixes have been inserted into the Small Business
Reauthorization Act of 2000 by Sen. "Kit" Bond (R-Mo.) and Rep.
James Talent (R-Mo.), with the strong support of Rep. Nydia Velazquez (D-N.Y.).
The original version of this act became a Christmas tree that included
$250 billion in tax cuts and many other extraneous provisions, leading to
a presidential veto in late October. VVA hopes Congress will pass a
version of this act that the President will sign before Thanksgiving.
President Clinton appointed VVA National President George C. Duggins to
the Board of Directors of the new National Veterans Business Development
Corporation. The same legislation that created a 3% goal for
disabled-veteran-owned businesses created the corporation to provide a
formal mechanism that joins public and private resources to assist
veterans and disabled veterans who already are self-employed or own their
own small business. The corporation also will provide services and
assistance that will help veterans--particularly disabled veterans--start
their own businesses.
VETERANS HEALTH CARE
Congress passed, and the President has signed into law, legislation
that will provide a much needed increase in nurses’ pay, provide better
coordination and enhanced status of physicians assistants in the Veterans
Health Administration, provide for benefits and health care for natural
children born to women Vietnam veterans who served in-country, provide
better pay to help recruit and retain dentists in the VHA system, and
mandate a follow-up study of the landmark National Vietnam Veterans
Readjustment Study, which was conducted in the mid-1980s. The new study
will examine PTSD and will include a full physical to build on the basis
of the baseline information established in 1984 to produce a longitudinal
and potentially very significant study. The study will be government
funded, but independently conducted.
The same omnibus bill provides for special monthly pay for women who
have radical mastectomies resulting from service-connected conditions.
Both this provision and that providing health care and benefits to
offspring of female Vietnam veterans with birth defects resulted from the
efforts of the VVA Women Veterans Committee, led by chair Marsha Four. The
chair of the Veterans Health Care Task Force, Linda A. Schwartz, also
testified for these provisions, arguing that all birth defects in children
born to both women and men who served in Southeast Asia should be
accorded health care and other benefits.
VVA has long maintained that the VA health-care system must become a
Veterans Health Care System and not just a general health care system that
happens to be provided for veterans. VVA has praised Thomas Garthwaite,
the VA’s Undersecretary of Health, for his Veterans Health Initiative (VHI),
which is designed to educate VHA staff in the special nature of veterans
health care and establish the universal practice of taking complete
military histories and testing veterans for all of the conditions and
diseases that veterans may have been exposed to.
It is now the law that complete military histories must be taken by VHA
and used in the diagnosis and treatment of veterans. The law gives VHA
nine months to report to Congress on the status of the computerized
systems to accomplish this task for all veterans who use the VA
health-care system. This legal mandate reaffirms the vision of Dr.
Garthwaite (and of VVA) that this is the necessary first step toward a
wellness model that deals with all of ways in which a veteran’s health
may have been adversely affected as a result of military service. Initial
testing of the computerized system is due to begin at VHA in early 2001.
AGENT ORANGE & DIABETES
The Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Science on October
11 released the results of the special review of Type II-adult onset
diabetes requested by the Secretary of Veterans Affairs last year. The
report finds a ``limited suggestion’’ of a positive association
between exposure to Agent Orange in military service and an elevated risk
of developing diabetes years after that exposure.
VVA National President Duggins immediately sent a letter to Acting
Secretary of Veterans Affairs Hershel Gober reiterating VVA’s petition
of April that the Secretary issue regulations immediately to declare
adult-onset diabetes to be a service-connected presumptive condition.
While VVA has not yet received a reply to President Duggins’ letter, we
remain hopeful that such regulations will be issued this year.
In related developments, VVA has written to the panel performing the
biannual review of studies of health effects of Agent Orange and
other toxins present in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War. We asked
the panel to consider important evidence of PCBs and other chemicals that
were also present in the war zone and which work on the body in a manner
that is similar to dioxin, only compounding the already significant dioxin
VVA also testified in a similar vein before the Scientific Advisory
panel of the Environmental Protection Agency that is moving to finish a
formal review of the scientific studies and make a recommendation to
Administrator Carol Browner concerning action on dioxin. VVA asked for
action now due to the dangers of re-exposure to dioxin among Vietnam
veterans and their families already exposed to Agent Orange in Vietnam.
The chemical industry and agribusiness joined with Rep. James
Sensenbrenner (R-Wisc.) in arguing for no action at this time. VVA is
grateful to Rep. Ralph Hall (D-Tex) for resisting heavy industry pressure
and siding with veterans on this important issue.
Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-N.J.), a Vietnam veteran, introduced
legislation to insure proper outreach and testing for hepatitis C in all
areas of the country. The proposed legislation also contains very
important provisions that would insure that funds appropriated by Congress
for treatment of hepatitis C get put to the proper use at the service
delivery level. More than 60 co-sponsors were secured, but action on this
legislation will have to await the 107th Congress, which
convenes next year. Rep. Frelinghuysen plans to introduce this legislation
again in January. VVA has helped secure support for this measure in the
House of Representatives, and for a companion bill in the Senate.
It is also anticipated that Acting Secretary Hershel Gober will act
favorably on VVA National President George C. Duggins’ petition of March
23, 1999, and move to declare hepatitis C to be service connected
presumptive under certain conditions. We anticipate that the VA
regulations will be more restrictive than VVA thinks such regulations
should be, but will likely include all veterans who received blood or
blood products, served as medics or in another medical capacity, or who
had a solid organ transplant while in the military. Should such
regulations be issued this month, it will be a big step forward in efforts
to properly care for and compensate affected veterans. However, there is
more to be done for those veterans who may not be covered by such
At the end of October, VHA Undersecretary for Health Thomas Garthwaite
transferred responsibility for supervising and leading VHA effort on
hepatitis C to Lawrence Deyton, who has been in charge of VA services for
veterans with HIV and AIDS for the past few years. VVA takes this as a
positive sign that VHA is prepared to take many of the steps that we
believe are necessary to meet the challenge of this silent epidemic.