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

December 2001/January 2002

Government Relations

Homeless Veterans Act Goes To President

By Phillip Litteer, Chair, Government Affairs Committee, With Rick Weidman, Director of Government Relations, and Pat Eddington, Associate Director

H.R. 2716, the Homeless Veterans Comprehensive Act of 2001, passed both houses December 11. This was after the bill had been held up for over a week by an anonymous hold from a Republican Senator. Sens. Larry Craig (R-Ind.) and Conrad Burns (R-Mont.) objected when unanimous consent was sought to bring up the matter, which was not on the calendar because of the anonymous hold that had been filed with Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.).

Many VVA leaders faxed letters, sent e-mails, and called the offices of their Senators urging that the person behind senatorial courtesy was embarrassing the entire Senate by holding up the bipartisan homeless legislation, which had already passed the House, and the comprehensive benefits bill, S. 1088/H.R. 1291. H. R. 1291 eliminates the 20-year time limit on the presuptive period for Agent Orange-related respiratory cancers; it also includes a five-year extension for Gulf War illness presumption, codifying a decision made by Secretary Principi earlier this fall. H.R. 1291 eventually was passed the second week of December, as well as legislation that increases the compensation checks to service connected disabled veterans by 2.6 percent the same Cost Of Living Adjustment (COLA) given to Social Security recipients. A special thanks goes to Reps. Christopher H. Smith (R-N.J.)Lane Evans (R-Ill.) of the House Veterans Affairs Committee for their extraordinary efforts on behalf of both bills, as Sens. John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.) and Arlen Spector (R-Pa.) of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee and Paul Wellstone (D-Minn.) for their efforts to overcome highly destructive partisanship that would hold veterans hostage while an ideological debate about the economic stimulus package unfolded.

The VA Budget and Category 7 Veterans

VVA has been saying since February that there is not enough money in the Veterans Health Administration (VHA) budget to take care of the medical needs of the veterans who currently use the medical system. VVA has maintained that the medial system needed at least $1.8 billion more that the Fiscal Year 2001 amount. Since only slightly more that half of that amount has been appropriated for FY 2002, every VA Medical Center in the country has been in a hard freeze on hiring staff. to replace those who die, retire, or leave the VA medical system for other reasons. Essentially, VA is still be laying off more than 7 percent of its medical personnel by the end of FY 2002 on September 30, 2002.

There is every indication that President Bush and his key advisers will again be misled by the Office of Management and Budget, despite the best efforts of Secretary of Veterans Affairs Anthony J. Principi, into requesting a budget for FY 2203 for the Veterans Health Administration that will further contribute to the destruction of the VA medical system.With troops in the field and under fire, and the very real threat of further attacks by terrorists against Americans on United States soil, it is incumbent on the President to request at least $25 billion for veterans health care for FY 2003. The number that the President requests will determine whether veterans have three months waiting time or decent medical care when they get to see a clinician

The President’s request will determine whether VA can fulfill its fourth mission of backing up a greatly reduced military medical system and the drastically reduced civilian medical system. At bare minimum, the President needs to request at least $25 billion, in addition to any funds for replacing all of the Mental Health and other specialized service staff, and acute care staff that was slashed by the Clinton administration. It is time to contact the President now, via e-mail and to urge party leaders and elected officials to put call on the President to request the funds necessary to deal with the aftermath of war.

Principi Hangs Tough

On a more hopeful note, veterans witnessed a case of rare fortitude and moral courage by a senior official who stood up to Office of Management and Budget, and told the truth to the President of the United States and to our nation’s veterans in late November.

As a result of the FY 2002 appropriation being so inadequate, there was not nearly enough money to keep the VA hospitals operating as they were. Therefore, Secretary Principi scheduled a meeting with the Executive Directors of all of the veterans and military service organizations on November 29. During which he was scheduled to announce that no further Category 7 veterans could be registered for health care after November 30.

Despite intense pressure by the OMB tot keep registering people and pretend that they would receive proper medical care, Secretary Principi met with the President and the President’s Chief of Staff Andrew Card earlier that week, and restated his case. At the last minute Card called Secretary Principi to say that the money would be found. When Secretary Principi announced this at the meeting, instead of the planned bad news, the room erupted in applause.

This is exactly the sort of advocacy and excellent leadership that VVA hoped and expected from him when the organization enthusiastically supported his nomination to be Secretary of Veterans Affairs. VVA National President Tom Corey expressed VVA’s view when he met with the Secretary a week later, saying, Thank you for hanging tough and doing the right thing in the face of extreme pressure.

ALS

In a December meeting with Principi, Corey also thanked the Secretary for moving to secure direct service connection for Gulf War veterans who have ALS, Lou Gerhig’s Disease, and who served in the Southwest Asia theater of operations between August 1, 1990 and July 31, 1991. This was based on preliminary results of an ongoing study of ALS and other conditions being conducted by VA and the Department of Defense.

This is, to VVA’s knowledge, the first time ever that a Secretary of Veterans Affairs has moved to offer such service connection disability based on preliminary results of an epidemiological or other scientific study. While VVA believes that there is a long way to go to achieve justice for Gulf War veterans whose health was harmed as a result of exposures or other harmful agents they absorbed or were injected with during the Gulf War, Secretary Principi’s actions and decisive leadership gives us hope that we will be able to move closer to the goal of fair and proper treatment for veterans of every generation.

SHAD, DOD, and VHA’s Environmental Hazards and Public Health Section

In late September and early October, VVA became aware that there was a great deal more to the Shipboard Hazards And Defense (SHAD) tests than had been previously revealed. (See article, p. 000). The story is still unfolding as of press time, but a few things are very clear to VVA’s elected leadership. First, Secretary Principi and his Chief of Staff at VA have acted in a thoroughly decent manner, and have been consistently pressing to insure that the Pentagon VA with the names of the ships involved, the names of those aboard these ships and the times of exposures, and what agents were actually used.

VVA leadership believes the heart of the problem is a corporate culture among some elements of the Veterans Health Administration (VHA) and some elements of the Veterans Benefits Administration that believes it is okay to do nothing and to avoid advising veterans of health risks to which they may have been exposed because it might alarm them. This attitude, and the resulting action or prevention of proper action, is just simply not acceptable.

VVA National President Tom Corey has made this point explicitly to Secretary Principi in a letter and in a personal meeting in the second week of December.

Secretary Principi is trying to do the right thing by veterans. Those in the permanent bureaucracy who are not following his fine leadership by example, but are more interested in protecting their careers must be removed and sent packing. Those who are true public servants then can be rewarded for doing the right thing, as opposed to being punished for striving to properly assist veterans. Fortunately, there are many more good people than the other sort within VA.

If you think you were exposed in SHAD or other Chemical or Biological Agent Tests, contact us today. If you know or suspect that you have been on a ship or in a unit involved in the SHAD program, contact VVA’s Government Relations department at 800-882-1316 or email us at govtrelations@vva.org

VVA will be sponsoring a symposium on SHAD in Washington in March. The event will take place on Capitol Hill and will be free to all veterans and the interested public. All interested veterans (and particularly SHAD program participants) are encouraged to attend.

Veterans Preference

In early October, the administration sent the proposed Managerial Flexibility Act to the Congress. Since the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) did not meet with the veterans service organizations for over two and one half years, it is perhaps not surprising that veterans groups were not consulted on this proposal either. This proposal, S 1612, has been introduced for the administration by Sen. Fred Thompson (R-Tenn.). It would totally eliminate the legal principle of veterans preference in federal hiring, and make legal Federal hiring practices that have been used to deny wartime veterans and disabled eligible persons their legal preference rights in federal employment.

VVA and other veterans service organizations have met with Kay Cole James, President Bush’s choice for Director of the OPM. VVA tends to believe that OPM sold James and the Bush administration on the false proposition that this proposal was both needed and a good idea by fudging figures, making false claims, and by outright lying.

VVA member Jerry Kahn of New York has been given the lead for the Employment, Training, and Business Opportunities Committee (ETABO) of VVA by Chairman Calvin Gross on this issue. Kahn is one of most knowledgeable persons on veterans preference law in America, and was instrumental in helping formulate the Veterans Employment Opportunities Act of 1998 (VEOA).

Unfortunately, almost none of the VEOA provisions have been implemented or followed through by OPM, the Special Counsel’s office, the Department of Labor’s Veterans Employment & Training Service, nor by the Merit System Protection Board (MSPB). The Department of Labor has not even trained all of its staff on how to do investigations or hold them accountable for how good and thorough a job they are doing. The Special Counsel has not filed a single case.

At a meeting with James’ Chief of Staff and a new special adviser on veterans preference in mid December VSOs presented a preliminary list of twelve things that the Director can do right now, under existing law, that would start to make a difference in what happens at the hiring and retention level to veterans-preference eligibles.

It is likely that the veterans organizations will re-establish a tight working group for a completely united front as we move in 2002 to achieve a full restoration of veterans preference as the most basic of all of wartime veterans benefits. VVA remains hopeful, and sees very encouraging signs, that Kay Cole James will move swiftly to start the process of reversing twenty five years of anti-veteran activity in the OPM bureaucracy.

Agent Orange Research in Vietnam

Linda Schwartz was selected as one of six United States scientists to work with six Vietnamese scientists to organize a meeting in Hanoi in the spring. The funds to make the effort possible were provided due to the efforts of Sens. Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) and Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and Rep. Lane Evans.

The United States and Vietnam signed a formal agreement to move ahead with joint research on July 9. The organizing committee held a public forum in Washington in September, where VVA National President Tom Corey testified as to the importance of this effort.

As of press time, VVA was set to join Rep. in hosting a meeting of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences with the five main VSOs to insure that all major facets of the organized veterans community have a reasonable say in the shaping of the structure of this event.

Expanded Hepatitis C Screening

At the same time as Secretary Anthony J. Principi raised the co-pay on prescriptions for pharmaceuticals, he also announced reductions in co-payments for outpatient visits and elimination of some co-payments altogether, including insuring that there is no co-payment for a veteran who comes in for an outpatient visit to get screened or tested for Hepatitis C. We thank the Secretary for another step down the road toward proper screening, testing, and treatment for Hepatitis C.

The Veterans Hepatitis C Liver Disease Council unanimously approved a three-year plan to increase the number of veterans screened and tested for Hepatitis C. While there is planned close cooperation with the Veterans Health Administration (VHA) and the VA Vet Centers, the plan is structured to reach out to veterans who never go near a VA facility of any sort.

Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-N.J.), an Air Force veteran and VVA member, led the effort in the House of Representative to oppose any effort to move Veterans Day from November 11. He also is the champion of better screening, testing, and treatment of Hepatitis C in the bill he sponsored, HR 639, the Veterans Comprehensive Hepatitis C Health Care Act. Contact your Member of Congress to ask him or her to co-sponsor HR 639, which would greatly assist in securing vitally needed Hepatitis C testing and treatment for veterans.

Concurrent Receipt Sham Passes

Despite vehement opposition from VVA and DAV, the Defense appropriators passed an unfunded concurrent receipt provision in the National Defense Authorization Act for 2002 (S. 1438). While the law would allow for concurrent receipt, Congress reneged on its obligation to provide funding for it, instead insisting that the administration find "offsets" to pay for the program. VVA is both outraged and disappointed that Congress would pass such a transparently fraudulent provision. VVA Government Relations staff urges members to contact their Congresspersons and Senators and express your demand that concurrent receipt be funded program, not a phony one.

   

E-mail us at TheVeteran@vva.org


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