February 2001/March 2001
VA Secretary Makes Historic Visit to VVA National Office
By Philip Litteer, Chair, Government Affairs Committee, And Rick
Weidman, Director of Government Relations
VVA National President George C. Duggins led a contingent of senior
national staff and a group of national VVA leaders in a meeting with new
Secretary of Veterans Affairs Anthony J. Principi in early February.
Principi came to the VVA office for the meeting, becoming the first
Secretary of Veterans Affairs ever to visit the VVA national headquarters.
VVA had enthusiastically supported the nomination of Principi to be
Secretary of Veterans Affairs, as we believe him to be a man of integrity
who cares deeply about veterans. His open attitude of listening carefully
to veterans organizations and others since taking office--as well as his
receptivity to VVA’s comments and views at this first meeting--confirm
our positive assessment of him.
In a friendly but very frank exchange, VVA shared many of our most
pressing concerns about vital needs of veterans that are not being met.
Most of these concerns paralleled the 2001 VVA Legislative & Policy
Initiatives, approved by the National Board of Directors at its January
While Secretary Principi did not commit to particular actions on our
priorities, the nature of his questions and comments made it clear that he
understood our concerns on key issues and was willing to seriously
consider them. As George Duggins noted at the end of the meeting, VVA
looks forward to working closely with the new secretary toward our common
goal of justice for all veterans.
APPROPRIATIONS FOR 2002
As a follow-up to the meeting with Secretary Principi, VVA delivered
the same message to the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs on the need
to dramatically improve on the President’s proposed budget increase of
only $1 billion in discretionary spending funds for the entire VA. This
would not even begin to keep up with inflation. It is our belief that the
Secretary fought hard to get this increase out of the Office of Management
and Budget. VVA also believes that the Secretary believes that a greater
increase is probably justified.
VA NEEDS MORE RESOURCES FOR FY 2002
VVA strongly recommends that $1.7 to $2 billion more than FY 2001 be
budgeted for the Veterans Health Administration (VHA), just for the
veterans health care system to keep pace with medical inflation. VVA
believes that the effects of the FY ’96 to FY ’98 flat-line budgets so
reduced the staff and general capability of many VA medical facilities
that the appropriation of an average of $1 billion per year over a
three-year period is the minimum needed to restore vital organizational
capacity--particularly in specialized services such as spinal cord injury
treatment, treatment for PTSD, serious and chronic mental illness, and
blind and visually impaired services.
NEED FOR BETTER ACCOUNTABILITY BY VA
While Vietnam Veterans of America is concerned that there be enough
resources available to VA, VVA is equally concerned with how well these
funds are used by VA.
VVA feels very strongly that there has to be a management information
system at VHA, hopefully on a real-time basis, but at least on a quarterly
basis. VISN directors and directors of facilities are acting as if they
have total license--as opposed to authority commensurate with
responsibility--and are not being held sufficiently accountable for the
range and quality of care they deliver. There is a need for similar
accountability in the Veterans Benefits Administration. Congress and the
veterans service organizations are much more passionate and angry about
this lack of accountability than folks at VA understand.
VVA also called on the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs to
undertake a series of oversight hearings to begin to hold VA managers more
accountable for how they spend the funds that are appropriated.
VETERANS BENEFITS ADMINISTRATION
VVA believes there is a need to increase funding for the Veterans
Benefits Administration (VBA). With increased workloads due to, among
other things, recent legislative and regulatory changes, there is a need
to hire new adjudication staff to prevent the creation of an
insurmountable backlog at the VA regional offices. However, these new
staffers must be taught how to render fair and accurate decisions the
The VBA must continue existing programs and develop new measures to
insure that decisions from the regional offices are rendered in a timely
fashion, that they are accurate and fair, and that there is accountability
for inadequate performance. VBA has historically hired or promoted
adjudication staff at various levels without requiring that the staffers
demonstrate their ability to perform at required levels. Generally, they
are trained after hiring or promotion and then placed on probation, often
for extended periods of time. If they do not perform adequately, they are
either terminated or transferred elsewhere.
We propose that individuals being promoted first demonstrate their
ability to do the job and that they be encouraged to give veterans the
benefit of the doubt. Implementing proper training and promoting the
proper mindset will assist in the quality-assurance aspect of the claims
VVA also strongly favors passage of "concurrent receipt" of
compensation and military retirement pay with no penalties to the disabled
veteran or retiree--HR 303, introduced by Rep. Ronnie Shows (D-Miss.).
This is a simple matter of equity and fairness for those whose careers
with the federal government were in the military, versus those whose
careers were in civilian employment with no exposure to danger. VVA also
urges Congress to act so that retired military personnel can buy into
Federal Employee Health Benefits (FEHB) at the same cost as retired
civilian federal employees.
VVA favors at least a 10 percent increase in funding for the State
Approving Agencies for FY2002, which have been flat-lined for four years.
VVA is calling for a complete and thorough examination and investigation
of the fiduciary and guardian program at VA, which has all the signs of a
WHAT VVA MEMBERS NEED TO DO
The word around Washington is that OMB is proposing yet another
flat-lined budget for FY 2002, but that Secretary Principi has succeeded
in getting OMB bureaucrats to increase this request to $800 million for
health care and $200 million for the administration of veterans benefits.
The House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs has taken action on its
Statement of Views and Estimates--its recommendation to the Appropriations
Committee regarding the FY 2002 VA appropriation. Led by Chairman
Christopher Smith (R-N.J.) and Ranking Democrat Lane Evans (Ill.), the
Committee unanimously voted to recommend an increase of $2.1 billion in
discretionary funding for VA for FY 2002 over the FY 2001 level. The
$1.25-billion increase for VA medial care would include $141 million for
mental health programs, $100 million for increased pharmacy costs, $88
million for long-term care, $30 million for homeless veteran programs, $75
million to hire additional staff to reduce waiting times, and $1 billion
to adjust for inflation.
A $130-million increase for the Veterans Benefits Administration
includes $49.8 million for an additional 830 full-time employees to help
deal with the worsening backlog of claims.
The Committee also recommended $300 million in additional direct
spending for increases to the Montgomery GI Bill and for other purposes.
Additionally, the Committee recommended $325 for building repair and
facility upgrades to provide seismic resistance to earthquakes. Increases
for the state nursing homes and state cemetery grants programs were also
included, as well as a modest increase for the National Cemetery
All VVA members, chapters, and state councils are urged to contact
their Senators and Representatives to make the case for at least the
modest increases recommended by the House Committee on Veterans’
Affairs. The recommended increases are less than what VVA and the
Independent Budget of the Veterans Service Organizations would like.
Still, the Committee on Veterans Affairs’ recommendations are much, much
better and more realistic than what the Bush administration requested.
Vietnam Veterans of America is grateful to Chairman Smith and Rep. Evans
for their efforts. Please note that the VVA budget testimony is posted on
both the VVA website www.vva.org and on the House Committee on Veterans’
Affairs website http//www.veterans.house.gov .
The Senate held a hearing on the FY 2002 VA budget on March 13 and will
submit recommendations to the Senate Committee on Appropriations. This
process will go on for at least three to four months, but it is important
that VVA members contact Senators and Representatives to let them know how
important it is to at least appropriate funds at the level recommended by
the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, if not at the level VVA
believes is needed.
Vietnam Veterans of America has joined with other veterans
organizations and several unions in planning an event on the morning of
Flag Day--June 14--on the Capitol grounds. The event commemorates the
importance of our national symbol and also asks for full funding for
proper medical care for the men and women who served our nation under the
American flag, making possible the freedoms that the flag symbolizes. Most
of the rest of the day will be spent talking with legislators and staff
about proper funding of medical care. If you are interested in joining
with this effort on that day, please contact the national office via
THE HEATHER FRENCH HENRY HOMELESS VETERANS RECOVERY ACT
Rep. Evans introduced the Heather French Henry Homeless Veterans Act
(HR 936) on March 8. This proposal is designed to be a comprehensive
approach to assisting homeless veterans to get the assistance they need to
surmount problems, obtain and keep employment, and rejoin the mainstream
of American society. Sen. Paul Wellstone (D-Minn.) introduced a companion
bill in the Senate.
Speaking at a press conference attended by many veterans service
organizations and homeless veteran advocates, including VVA Homeless
Veterans Task Force Bob Piaro, and Task Force members Paul Sutton, Marsha
Four, and Sandy Miller, Rep. Evans and Sen. Wellstone saluted the tireless
effort of Heather French Henry, who served as Miss America 2000. Now
married to the lieutenant governor of Kentucky, Henry continues to
advocate for decent services and treatment of veterans, particularly
Vietnam Veterans of America strongly favors many of the provisions of
this act and applauds the goal set by Rep. Evans and Sen. Wellstone to end
homelessness as a major problem for veterans within ten years.
BRADY BILL ISSUES
The VA General Counsel recently opined that under the Brady Bill, the
VA is required to report to the Justice Department individuals whom the VA
has determined to be incompetent for purposes of handling their VA
compensation. The list allows the Department of Justice to facilitate the
denial of applications for the purchase and licensing of firearms to these
Vietnam Veterans of America realizes that the VA is constrained by law
to comply with this procedure. However, VVA President Duggins has
requested the Secretary to support legislative and other initiatives to
eliminate this restriction on the constitutional rights of veterans. The
current guidelines on competency at the VA are about financial matters for
elderly veterans and others to insure that they use their compensation or
pension checks to meet the basic necessities of life, such as food,
shelter, and clothing. It has nothing to do with the ability to
distinguish right from wrong or the propensity toward violence. This
provision needs to be changed.