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

February 2002/March 2002

Government Relations

Phillip Litteer Resigns As Government Relations Chair

By Rick Weidman
Director, Government Relations

VVA National President Thomas H. Corey reluctantly accepted the resignation of Phillip A. Litteer as chair of VVA's Government Affairs Committee. "Phil's leadership,  judgment, and good humor were deeply appreciated by all the Government Affairs Committee members, the officers and Board of Directors, and VVA national office staff,'' Corey said. 
     "His contributions over the years on the VVA Constitution Committee, as   Parliamentarian, as a member of the Veterans Benefits Committee, as well as his pivotal role in the Government Affairs Committee has earned him deep respect from all who had occasion to have contact with this special man.  His wit, understanding, and quiet but firm and steady leadership will be sorely missed. All of us who know him wish him well.''

EMERGENCY $750 MILLION NEEDED

As a result of an inadequate request for funds and appropriations for veterans health care last year, the Veterans Health Administration has a shortage of funds to operate until the end of September. The shortfall ranges from the administration's estimate of $442 million to VVA's estimate of $700 to $750 million. The administration reportedly will seek an emergency supplemental appropriation of $142 million soon and will make up the rest through "management efficiencies,'' a term used for cutting staff and reducing services.  VVA believes that more cuts and even longer waiting times for veterans are unacceptable and is urging a supplement of at least $700 million.

VA BUDGET'S "HISTORIC" INCREASE

During his State of the Union address, President Bush pledged to seek "an historic increase'' in the VA budget for fiscal year 2003. On February 4, the President formally released his budget, which calls for $25.5 billion for the Veterans Health Administration (VHA). While this figure is nearly identical to that which VVA and other veterans service organizations have called for, the catch is that to help pay for this increase, Category 7 veterans will be charged a $1,500 yearly deductible. VA officials have told VVA that they believe this increase should be covered by veterans' private medical insurance.
     VVA remains skeptical that this will happen unless the VA is designated a Medicare preferred provider. Moreover, it is highly unlikely that veterans who are close to the income threshold for Category 7 status will be able to afford this increase. It is even more unlikely that Congress will enact legislation that would authorize the VA to collect this $1,500.
     Based on the VA's past poor performance in collecting third-party health insurance payments, VVA believes the VA's projected $1.5 billion in revenue from this source is too optimistic. A far more likely outcome will be inadequate third-party collections, resulting in a revenue shortfall for VA that will mean further reductions in the quality, quantity, and availability of vitally needed veterans health-care services. VA officials have told VVA that they expect to seek a significant emergency supplemental appropriation for the FY 2002 budget due to inadequate revenue and the exploding number of Category 7 veterans seeking access to the system. More of the same is likely with regard to the FY 2003 budget.

$26 BILLION TO STOP HOSPITAL LAYOFFS

Every VA medical facility in the country is reducing staff by means of layoffs by attrition, meaning that when employees leave, their spots are not filled. Some facilities have gone to transfers and layoffs. If at least an additional $1.3 billion is not added to the President's request for FY 2003, even larger layoffs and further reductions of needed services will occur.
     VVA estimates that VHA needs $25.5 billion to stay where they are. In order to begin restoring organizational capacity lost during the last several years, VVA believes that we need $500 million for FY 03, $1 billion for FY 04, and $1.5 billion for FY 05, over and above increases, just to keep pace with inflation. Therefore, VVA recommends that $26 billion be provided for VHA for FY 03, which begins next October.

FOURTH MISSION IN JEOPARDY

The so-called Fourth Mission of the VA medical system is to serve as America's primary medical system in case of natural disaster or enemy attack. The VA medical system cannot take care of the needs of the veterans who use it now, much less be able to respond adequately to the medical needs of the general population following a terrorist attack. VA officials have admitted to VVA that, if there had been three to five thousand casualties in New York, the civilian medical system would have collapsed and the VA medical system would have imploded. Many of those wounded would have died for lack of a medical system that could meet their needs.
     VVA believes that the President is doing all that can be done to prevent such attacks. The administration is also taking many sensible moves toward preparing us for contingencies, except insuring that the primary medical system, the VA, if fully funded and staffed and able to meet this vital mission, should it be necessary. VVA is puzzled how anyone can speak of Homeland Security and then let the VA hospital system further deteriorate.

WAITING TIMES AND DIMINISHED CARE

To address the issue of lengthy waiting times and other access problems, the proposed VA FY 2003 budget would create a 30/30/20 formula. The goal would be for each veteran to be able to get a primary-care appointment within 30 days of making a request. Specialist referrals would take no more than an additional 30 days. Once in any clinic office, the veteran would have to wait no more than 20 minutes to see a health-care provider.
     VVA applauds this effort but continues to believe that the TRICARE access standard -- an appointment within seven days for a routine primary care visit and not more than 30 days for a specialist referral--is the only acceptable standard for VA health care. No matter what standard is adopted, the reality is that veterans have to wait months for even routine appointments, and specialized services can take even longer.
     The backlog problem is just as acute in the Veterans Health Administration as it is in the Veterans Benefits' Compensation and Pension System. Both must be addressed with more resources and greater accountability about the performance of regional and local managers. VVA believes the President was not aware of the true nature of the scope and the depth of the crisis in veterans' health care and the gimmicks advanced in his name. VVA will keep its membership fully informed about the progress in securing a fully funded VA budget this year, along with our efforts to insure that veterans health care becomes an entitlement program, just as TRICARE is for military retirees.

VETS VOTE! CAMPAIGN

The VETS Vote! Campaign is being launched again in late March. The purpose is to insure that as many veterans as possible are registered and vote in both the primaries and the general elections this year. Moreover, the emphasis will be to seek public commitments of support from all public officials for the vital needs of veterans, especially health care.
     All members are needed as part of the VVA cyberwarrior team. Place your name on the Legislative Alert List by sending an e-mail to shodge@vva.org or by signing up on the VVA web page at www.vva.org . Your faxes, e-mails, telephone calls, and in-person visits with your Member of the House of Representatives and both of your Senators on this vital issue of proper resources for the VA hospitals is needed now more than ever.

VETERANS EMPLOYMENT

The President's budget request calls for the transfer of the Veterans Employment and Training Service (VETS) from the Department of Labor to the VA. As there is not yet any plan as to how this would be accomplished and what the details of any such move might be, it is difficult to comment on this notion. The VVA Employment, Training, and Business Opportunities Committee has noted many reasons why the program might be better off at the Department of Labor and the absence of any compelling reason for the proposed move.
     VVA's longstanding position is that wherever the program is housed, there simply must be greater accountability. The need is to measure placements accurately and to reward good performance with additional money. Only then will this troubled program begin to meet the pressing employment needs of the veterans most in need of assistance -- particularly disabled veterans and veterans who are at risk.

VETERANS ENTREPRENEURSHIP

As a new year begins, the Task Force on Veterans Entrepreneurship (TFVE) will be redoubling its efforts to gain government-wide compliance with the provisions of PL 106-50, the Veterans Entrepreneurship and Small Business Act of 1999. VVA and other VSOs continue to find that many federal entities have only begun tracking and measuring statistics relating to contracts with service-disabled veteran-owned businesses as required by the law, as well as other veteran-owned businesses within the past year. There is continued ignorance of the requirement that at least 3 percent of prime contracts and subcontracts of every federal entity must go to disabled-veteran-owned businesses.

VETERANS PREFERENCE

Responding to the concerns raised by VVA and other VSOs, representatives of the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) hosted several meetings on veterans preference in the last few months. Although OPM-appointed officials appear to be listening to the concerns of the veterans community, their presentations made clear that on some key issues they are still not getting the message. They are still exhibiting the same anti-veteran bias they have shown for years, especially since 1993.
     OPM officials said they would work more closely with Department of Defense and Department of Labor officials to improve outreach to service members through the Transition Assistance Program and other vehicles. VVA strongly suggested that OPM establish designated representatives at all separation points and get the word out to service members about other federal jobs at least 180 days before the service member separates from the service. OPM said it would take VVA's suggestion under advisement.
     OPM officials confirmed that OPM Director Kay Cole James would be sending a memo to all agency heads reminding them of their responsibility to apply veterans preference in all hiring decisions. A similar letter will be sent to the HR elements of the same agencies.
     There is no serious effort to investigate complaints about veterans being abused and discriminated against in federal employment because they are veterans (especially disabled veterans), and the veterans preference law is mocked. The Department of Labor has not even trained all of its staff to conduct investigations. DoL's weak efforts in the past three-and-a-half years have left veterans with virtually no options when their rights are violated. The Merit System Protection Board (MSPB) has yet to find in favor of a single veteran-preference-eligible citizen whose veteran preference rights are violated, no matter how obvious the violation is. MSPB also carries anti-veterans preference articles and political tracts on their web page.
     It is VVA's hope that this President and OPM Director James will start the process of making government bureaucrats obey the law. The next year will tell whether this Administration will take steps to enforce veterans preference law in the future, particularly with about half of the federal workforce to change in the next three to ten years.

FORCE HEALTH PROTECTION

Seeking to discover whether the Pentagon has learned any lessons about force health protection from the Gulf War, the House Veterans Affairs Health Subcommittee held a hearing on January 24 to address the issue. VVA communicated the very clear message that DoD has learned little from the Gulf War experience.
     VVA noted the Pentagon's continued refusal to take seriously the potential health effects of low-level chemical exposures, pointing out that GAO has already concluded that "past research by DoD and others indicates that single and repeated low-level exposures to some chemical warfare agents can result in adverse psychological, physiological, behavioral, and performance effects that may have military implications.'' VVA will continue to press the administration and Congress to fund research and treatment initiatives properly to deal with these kinds of exposures.
     VVA also called for Congress to force the Pentagon to live by the law when it comes to force health protection measures. VVA pointed out to the committee that the pre- and post-deployment health assessment forms used by the Pentagon's Deployment Health Center at Walter Reed Army Medical Center contain no questions about the specific environmental hazards the service member may have encountered in theater.
     Moreover, even though the AVIP has been the most highly publicized DoD vaccination program in recent history, there is no space on this form specific to the anthrax vaccine, despite the fact that the anthrax vaccine is considered a mandatory inoculation for those heading to designated high-threat areas such as the Persian Gulf and Korea.
     On the basis of the IOM's report and DoD's failure to collect and record environmental exposure and other data automatically and record it in the service member's medical record, VVA argued that DoD is in breach of the law. As several members of the full House Veterans Affairs Committee are also members of the Armed Services Committee, VVA suggested that those members call for immediate hearings to investigate DoD's failure to comply with the law and its potential long-term implications for American veterans. Chairman Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) pledged to follow up on VVA's concerns.

VVA TESTIFIES ON HEALTH CARE

On January 15, VVA testified before the President's Task Force To Improve Health Care for Our Nation's Veterans. VVA emphasized four key themes in its testimony:
     1. Changing the DoD and VA healthcare system's corporate culture from one of "generic health care for veterans and service members'' to one of a "military and veterans unique health care.'' VVA noted the place to start is to require taking a complete military history and use the information known about exposures based on when and where a veteran served, and use this information in the diagnosis and treatment of that veteran.
     2. Establishing a medical education system that emphasizes the unique nature and hazards associated with military service and the communication of those hazards to all medical providers within both medical systems.
     3. Creating a common, life-long military medical history for each service member that can be seamlessly transferred to and updated by the Veterans Health Administration when the service member becomes a veteran.
     4. Reversing years of declining appropriations and ever-diminished organizational capacity by providing adequate resources for both systems to deal with the existing and future population of veterans.
     Nine other service organizations and military service organizations testified. All delivered the same essential message:

Any attempt to improve health care for veterans and military service members must begin with adequate resources for both medical systems. Any attempts to merge the two systems and force beneficiary populations to compete against one another for increasingly scarce access to health care would be vigorously opposed by all of the service organizations.

A complete copy of VVA's written testimony is on the VVA web site, www.vva.org. ■

   
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