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

August 2001/September 2001

Government Relations

Concurrent Receipt: Robbing Peter, Paying Peter

By Phillip A. Litteer, Chairman, National VVA Government Affairs Committee, with Rick Weidman, Director of Government Relations, and Pat Eddington, Associate Director

The so-called concurrent receipt issue has been of passionate interest to the leadership of Vietnam Veterans of America for many years. Many VVA members served in the military for 20 to 30 years before retiring. After retirement, service-connected disabilities often are manifest among this group of citizens. The disabilities include cancers and other conditions due to exposure to Agent Orange and other herbicides in Vietnam, Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and skeletal problems due to the extreme rigors of military service that manifest as the veteran ages. VVA has been particularly active in the past two years to correct a major injustice that has been visited on this group.

Perhaps the best explanation is one advanced by the House Armed Services Committee in the Defense Authorization Act of 2002: "Under current law, military retirees with service-connected disabilities have their retirement pay reduced to offset disability compensation paid by the Department of Veterans Affairs. This is fundamentally unfair, as military retirees deserve the retirement pay they earned for years of service, as well as the VA disability compensation that recognizes a lifelong limitation on earning potential. Therefore, the Committee recommends a provision to authorize military retirees to receive VA compensation without a reduction in retirement pay. Retirees who receive disability retirements may still have their retirement pay reduced, but only to the extent that their retirement pay exceeds the amount of retirement pay to which they would have been entitled based on time of service."

VVA agrees with the explanation of the problem and the proposed action. However, VVA cannot accept the delay of implementation until the President requests the funds and Congress authorizes them. Given the fact that the struggle to correct this unfair discrimination against retired disabled veterans has gone on for over 20 years are acceptable.

It is very unlikely that the President’s budget request will include such proposed legislation and that Congress will go along with it. The Department of Defense has consistently opposed this proposal and continues to be adamantly against paying the money that retirees earned by virtue of long and faithful service, as long as VA is paying compensation. Essentially, the Department of Defense does not want to pay retirees what they have already earned.

Passage of this provision will allow members of the House to claim that they fully supported and voted for concurrent receipt when in fact they voted for a useless palliative. We urge VVA members to write to their Representatives and Senators demanding fully funded concurrent receipt action this year.

MANSFIELD, GAUSS, & KICKLIGHTER SWORN IN

Gordon H. Mansfield, former head of the Washington office of Paralyzed Veterans of America, was sworn in on August 10 as Assistant Secretary of Veterans Affairs for Congressional and Legislative Affairs. Mansfield is a highly decorated Vietnam veteran who served two tours. He received spinal wounds during his second tour as an infantry officer with the 101st Airborne Division. He served at PVA for 16 years--the last eight as Executive Director of the Washington office.

Assistant Secretary Mansfield is a respected advocate for veterans and has worked closely with VVA. VVA has great respect for his integrity. We have every reason to believe he will be a positive force at VA to help improve relations with Congress.

Mansfield is fortunate to be assisted by Richard Wannemacher, who has joined VA as Deputy Assistant Secretary for Congressional Affairs. Wannemacher also is a well-known and highly respected advocate for veterans. He served as a Disabled American Veterans national staff member for over 25 years, most recently as Deputy Director of Legislative Affairs at the DAV Washington office.

Also sworn in as Assistant Secretaries during early August were Claude M. Kicklighter, Assistant Secretary for Policy and Planning, and John A. Gauss, Assistant Secretary for Information and Technology. Kicklighter, a retired Army lieutenant general, pledged to work with Secretary Principi and Deputy Secretary Mackay to implement the requirements of the Government Performance and Results Act of 1993 by improving the actual implementation of VA’s existing strategic plan and to improve the plan itself. Kicklighter also emphasized the need for the VA to improve its delivery of benefits and health care to veterans; to modernize its database of veteran-related information and statistics; to improve program evaluation; and to institutionalize the best management and business practices available to improve services to veterans. VVA wishes him well and will follow his actions closely.

John Gauss, a retired Navy rear admiral, is the former commander of the Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command who directed the development, acquisition, and management of command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance systems for the Navy. In his confirmation testimony, Gauss pledged to integrate disparate telecommunications networks to improve VA’s performance and responsiveness to veterans. Gauss also committed to implementing a strong information security infrastructure to protect the privacy of veterans, and to make the VA computer systems work as advertised and communicate with each other.

 

Currently, the computer system in the VA benefits offices cannot communicate with the computers in the medical centers, even after many billions of dollars were spent to try to correct this huge flaw. Gauss faces the large and vital task of rationalizing the crazy-quilt VA computer system to create reasonable management information systems that will for the first time allow top VA officials to have timely information to make good decisions and institute effective quality assurance programs. VVA--as well as Congress--will be watching closely and with great interest.

Gauss can expect tough questioning in October when the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee holds an oversight hearing on problems affecting the Government Computer-based Patient Record (GCPR) project. GCPR was designed to provide a relatively seamless process for three agencies to share patient information to speed up the health care and claims process within the VA. In April 2001, the General Accounting Office issued a scathing report on GCPR: "Expanding time frames and cost estimates, as well as inadequate accountability and poor planning, have raised doubts about GCPR’s ability to provide its expected benefits."

VVA will continue to voice concerns about the failure of DoD and VA to create a simple, user-friendly system for quickly digitizing patient records to speed up the claims process and improve health care delivery for veterans.

AO RESEARCH IN VIETNAM

On July 2, the governments of the United States and Vietnam signed a historic document to conduct joint research in Vietnam on the effects of Agent Orange and other toxins used in the Vietnam War on people and the environment. The agreement, the first of its kind between the two governments, sets forth a timetable and a framework for resolving specific issues and approving specific studies. The agreement was signed by Christopher Portier of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and by Nguyen Ngoc Sinh, General Director of the National Environmental Agency for Vietnam.

VVA has been working toward making such an agreement happen for almost 20 years. VVA started this effort with the first delegation we sent to Vietnam in December 1981. The purpose of that mission was to urge cooperation and negotiations on achieving the fullest possible accounting of American POW/MIAs and on documenting the health and environmental impact of Agent Orange and other toxins. VVA’s newly inaugurated President, Tom Corey, in a letter to Sinh and to officials of the United States government, called this a landmark agreement.

There is much work that must be accomplished to make the promise of this agreement a reality. Joint research in Vietnam--the world’s natural laboratory on Agent Orange and other toxins--will move us closer to helping affected veterans, their families, and their survivors.

VVA is grateful to all of those in the organization who pushed this work forward over the past 20 years. VVA is also grateful to Portier and Sinh, to Ambassador Pete Peterson, to the many other people in the State Department who helped in this effort, to Arthur Olden and the NIEHS, to the White House science office, and to the many others for helping us get this far. We are also deeply grateful for the strong and steadfast leadership and support of Sen. Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) and Rep. Lane Evans (D-Ill.).

VA BILL AWAITS FINAL SENATE ACTION, CONFERENCE

On July 31, the House passed H.R. 2540, the Veterans Benefits Act of 2001. The bill included a 2.7 percent Cost-of-Living Adjustment for 2.3 million disabled veterans or their surviving dependents, effective December 1. Another provision established a two-year nationwide pilot program to expand the available hours for the VA’s toll-free information service. The bill also allows payment of National Service Life Insurance or U.S. Government Life Insurance policies to alternate beneficiaries when a first beneficiary cannot be found within three years of an insured’s death. According to the committee, there have been 4,000 cases in which insurance policy proceeds totaling $23 million could not be paid.

The most contentious provisions in the bill were those dealing with the problems affecting ailing Desert Storm veterans. The House provided for just a two-year extension of the presumptive period for Gulf War veterans to manifest undiagnosed illnesses relating to their wartime service--despite VVA’s repeated assertion that there is no scientific basis for putting any time limit on the development of service-related diseases or disabilities. Absolutely no scientific evidence has been brought forth by the government to justify such a delimiting date. The House also failed to include effective language in the bill for precluding the VA from denying undiagnosed illness claims. The rejection rate for such claims has exceeded 75 percent since the original undiagnosed compensation law was passed in 1994. The House did include a provision that would insure that no Gulf War veteran would lose compensation for a poorly defined illness once the illness was diagnosed.

House Republicans claim that the bill represents a large increase in funding for key compensation programs. The reality, however, is that many other programs--particularly those affecting homeless veterans and those suffering from substance abuse and mental disorders--remain woefully under funded.

The Senate veterans omnibus bill (S. 1088) provides for a 10-year extension for the first diagnosis of undiagnosed illness and has more effective language that should preclude the VA from denying undiagnosed illness compensation to Gulf War veterans who manifest one or more unexplained symptoms whether or not other symptoms are traceable to known diagnosable conditions.

Increases in the rate of the basic Montgomery GI Bill (MGIB) from $650 per month to $700 per month, effective October 1 were included, with subsequent increases to $800 per month in 2002 and $950 per month in 2003. VVA is grateful to Chairman of the Committee Rep. Christopher Smith (R-N.J.), for securing the commitments to fund this major increase in the GI education benefits. These increases are less generous than those adopted by the House in H.R. 1291, but are still a significant improvement. The bill also allows MGIB participants to receive their monthly payments as an accelerated lump-sum payment for the month in which the course begins; permits greater flexibility in the payment method for MGIB to partially pay for short-term high-tech courses; allows certain Vietnam-era veterans to convert to MGIB; and makes it easier for the VA to allow use of MGIB benefits at educational institutions that offer certification for high-tech courses.

S. 1088 also restores a VA presumption, eliminated by a court decision, that in-country Vietnam veterans were exposed to herbicides such as Agent Orange. The legislation also mandates that the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) continue reviewing scientific evidence on the effects of dioxin or herbicide exposure for 10 more years and extends the authority of the VA Secretary to presume service connection for additional diseases based on future NAS reports for 10 more years. Other major provisions include excluding life insurance proceeds from countable income for determination of non-service-connected death pension eligibility; fully repealing the limitation on payment of benefits to incompetent institutionalized veterans who have no dependents; and increasing the home loan guaranty amount to $63,175 from the current $50,750.

The proposed legislation also extends for four years the authority for housing loan guaranties for members of the Selected Reserve (now set to expire in 2007), and increases VA burial benefits for service-connected deaths from $1,500 to $2,000. S. 1088also provides for technical and other changes to procedures involving the Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims, including the repeal of the Notice of Disagreement as a jurisdictional threshold for appearing before the court. For a full reading of all the provisions of this bill, consult the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs web site.

Neither the Senate nor the House has acted on hepatitis C legislation this session. VVA will intensify its efforts to secure passage of H.R. 639 (for hepatitis C screening, testing, and treatment), sponsored by Rep. Rodney Freylinghuysen (R-N.J.) and S 457 (for hepatitis C service connection) sponsored by Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) when Congress returns from its recess. The Senate is in recess until September 4. The House is in recess until September 5.

The key to movement on hepatitis C is what VVA members do while members of Congress are at home during the summer recess. We ask that each of you work hard to insure that every member of your state’s delegation to the House of Representatives is a co-sponsor of H.R. 639, and that both of your Senators are co-sponsors of S. 457. It is vital to many ill veterans who need treatment and who are too sick to work that you write, call, or visit your congressional delegation.

CDC SAYS DATA INADEQUATE ON HEP C

At the eighth annual Hepatitis C Coordinators Conference in Richmond, Miriam Alter of the Center for Disease Control’s (CDC) Division of Viral Hepatitis delivered a presentation on the CDC’s latest views of the prevalence of the hepatitis C virus (HCV) among the American public. In previous forums Alter and her colleagues had stated that based on data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, individuals who had served in the military were not any more likely to have HCV than other members of the population.

At the Richmond conference, however, Alter backed away from this position, stating that there is "no or insufficient data" showing an increased risk for HCV infection among those who served in the military. In a post-presentation conversation with VVA government relations staff, Alter conceded that one major information gap in the HCV picture is information on rates of HCV infections among combat-wounded veterans. Nearly all HCV studies to date on military personnel have focused exclusively on active duty members. No large-scale dedicated study of combat-wounded Vietnam veterans and other potentially exposed Vietnam-era veterans has been conducted. VVA is continuing to push for precisely this type of study with VA and CDC officials.

VVA OPPOSES PROPOSED VA MASTECTOMY COMP REG

Under the Veterans Benefits and Health Care Improvement Act of 2000, Congress directed the VA to provide a special monthly compensation (SMC) to women veterans who suffered the service-connected anatomical loss of one or both breasts.  On July 20, the VA published a proposed regulation that would authorize SMC for a woman veteran who has suffered the "anatomical loss of one or both breasts (including loss by mastectomy)."  VA's definition of loss, however, is "complete loss"--meaning that women who had wide local excisions, with or without significant alteration in size or form would be ineligible for the SMC.  On August 20, vVA filed its response to the proposed regulation, calling the VA's Position a "direct defiance of Congress' edict."

VVA noted in its reply that the VA's  proposed  restriction "flies in the face of congressional intent and fundamental fairness.  Given the relatively small number of women who would actually qualify for SMC, as well as the relatively low amount of the SMC payment, affording SMC to women who have had wide local excision of breast tissue would not result in inordinate cash outlays."

A final regulation is expected to be published later this year.  VVA will continue to monitorthis process and to push for gender equality in all benefits and healthcare issues affecting male and female veterans.

   

E-mail us at TheVeteran@vva.org


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