The Official Voice of Vietnam Veterans of America, Inc. ®
An organization chartered by the U.S. Congress

May/June 2003
GOVERNMENT RELATIONS
 
 

VVA Continues To Press For VA Funding

BY H. AVERY TAYLOR, CHAIR, VVA GOVERNMENT AFFAIRS COMMITTEE,
WITH VVA GOVERNMENT RELATIONS STAFFF

The top priorities of Vietnam Veterans of America for 2003 are securing enough funding for veterans health care at the VA and insuring that there is much greater accountability so that those dollars are spent as well as possible. VVA's officers and other leaders continue to be consumed with getting the funds needed to get the job done correctly, and to make sure that we get the best bang for the buck for each hard won dollar.

VVA will soon issue a White Paper entitled "VVA's Position on Full Health Care Funding for ALL Veterans.'' To this end, leaders and staff have been gathering materials, analyzing federal data, and developing a more effective explanation of how much money in appropriated taxpayer dollars, why it is needed, and to what programs it should be most effectively directed.

The veterans health care system at VA is in desperate circumstances. Part of the reason is that there have been increasingly inadequate resources provided for its medical operations in the VA budget. Because of the flat line years of FY 1997, 1998, and 1999, the base on which percentage increases are developed is drastically below what it ought to be for FY 2004. Therefore, the percentage increase from FY 2002 to 2003--and projected from FY 2003 to 2004--would be reasonable and fine if the base were not $10 billion below where it should be.

It is VVA's position that the restoration of the base and per capita funding must take place outside of the normal budget process. We will never get to full restoration of the 1996 base year medical operations funding, the minimal level of proper funding, through the ordinary budget process. VVA continues to push the proposal for a four-year plan to add off-budget funds to the base, in increments over a four year period, while continuing to secure reasonable percentage increases each year on budget. We need that plan to call for $3 billion the first year, $3.5 billion the second year, $3 billion the third year, and $1 billion the fourth year, or whatever additional funds are needed to bring the medical operations budget at VA to conform with what the figures
from the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Studies at the Social Security Administration indicate would keep pace with inflation per capita to the rate of FY 1996.

Entwined in this issue are the twin legislative goals of mandatory, or obligatory, funding for veterans health care, as opposed to the current situation where funds to care for injured and ill veterans are provided in the discretionary account. The fact that funding for veterans health care is discretionary results in protracted appropriations battles every year.

VVA, therefore, along with all of the other Veterans Service Organizations, has to devote ever increasing time, resources, and energy to fight for just enough crumbs to keep the VA medical centers going. What we should all be doing is pending much more time pressing for much greater accountability--real accountability--of those charged with administering VA and other governmental agencies. As one example, there is no standardized financial tracking system because each hospital is allowed to have different accounting systems and methods. VVA believes this is outrageous. It serves no purpose except to prevent effective financial tracking and being able to hold officials at each VA Medical Center accountable in a rigorous and proper
manner. Other needed accountability measures are posted on the VVA web site,
www.vva.org

Assured Funding

VVA strongly endorses HR 2318, the Assured Funding for Veterans Health Care Act of 2003, introduced by Rep. Lane Evans (D-Ill.). This act will make funding for veterans health care mandatory, and steady from year to year, with increases based on the consumer price increase.

VVA President Tom Corey noted that high praise is due to Rep. Evans for his leadership on this, as well as so many other key veterans' issues. VVA is concerned, but will work hard to do all we can to assure that the base funding is at an adequate level from the start. To accomplish this, VVA believes that the Off-Budget Veterans Health Care funding restoration must be accomplished simultaneously with the move from discretionary funding to assured funding.

VVA also takes the firm position that we must demand more and better accountability from VA managers at every level to accompany the restoration of adequate funding, which must be a minimum of $28.5 billion just for medical operations alone in FY2004 in order to restore all veterans to eligibility.

You are urged to contact your Member of Congress to ensure that they are listed as a co-sponsor of HR2318, and are actively pressing.

Part-time Physicians

On June 3, the House Veterans Affairs Committee held a hearing to hear the views of the VA Inspector General (IG) on the issue of pay to part-time physicians at VA medical centers. The Inspector General found that there was virtually no documentation of time spent seeing VA patients or doing any work expressly toward accomplishing the VA mission at the hospitals audited. In fact, the IG found that the attitude of VA officials at these sites was to openly express the sentiment that VA saw the "pay to part-time physicians as a program to meet the needs of the medical schools, not the needs of ill or injured veterans.''

The findings of this report confirms what Vietnam veterans have been saying for more than 20 years. The relationship of VA with the medical schools has gone very wrong and needs to be revamped. When the affiliations were done after World War II, by President Truman and General Bradley, it made sense for veterans and for the medical schools. However, since the 1960s the relationship has been largely one-way, benefiting the medical schools by allowing them to use VA as a cash cow. This was always wrong, but now in today's dire fiscal climate it is even more outrageous and unacceptable.

American Forces in Iraq

VVA and others have devoted much energy over the past 18 months to try to get the Pentagon to obey the 1998 law that directs full and complete physicals for each service member before deployment and within 30 days of return. These pre-deployment and post-deployment physicals are supposed to include a complete before and after psycho-social exam and a blood draw that preserves the whole blood, freezing it or testing it for all exposures immediately and then freezing the remainder.

VVA's particular concern with American forces engaged in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is that they not end up sick due to exposures there, and the government via the Department of Defense and VA saying, "Prove it.'' The flouting by the Pentagon of the law that mandated pre-deployment physicals and blood sampling for all troops sent overseas will already make it harder to assess the in-country effect on our troops of toxic exposures. But at least the Pentagon is now offering "enhanced medical assessment" which is more than was being done before, but which also fails to meet the letter of the law.

Small Business

VVA continues to provide leadership in regard to fostering programs and tools that help veteran small business development and entrepreneurship, especially for disabled veterans. Cooperatively with the Task Force for Veterans Entrepreneurship, which counts most of the VSOs and military service organizations as participants, VVA has been moving forward with an aggressive agenda to try to institute mechanisms at the highest levels of government to insure that more veterans, particularly disabled veterans, who are business owners get a level playing field and a fair shot at supplying government with goods and services. For more information,
visit www.vva.org or e-mail govtaffairs@vva.org

Project 112/SHAD and other Toxic Exposures

On June 6, 7, 8, and the first reunion of SHAD veterans was held in Topeka, Kansas. The event was organized by VVA members Jim Druckmiller of Kansas and Homer Tack of Pennsylvania, with strong help and encouragement from the VVA State Councils in Kansas, Missouri, and Iowa.

The purpose of the meeting was to pool knowledge about the SHAD experiments, a part of the vast Project 112 effort to test live chemical warfare agents and live bacteria warfare agents, often deliberately on our own military service members. A second purpose was to share experiences as to how VA is treating veterans who seek SHAD physicals or other health care.

All present were very pleased that Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), and Rep. Dennis Moore and Jim Ryun (R-Kan.) came and listened to their personal experiences during the tests and with the VA. Sen. Brownback made several specific commitments in regard to follow-up in the effort to seek justice for these veterans, as did Rep. Moore. Staff from all three offices are already working in cooperation with VVA national staff.

VA's Ron Henke, Director of the Compensation Pension, came to listen to the veterans concerns regarding filing claims for service connection for their disabilities. Most of the problems the veterans reported, however, were with the VA Medical Centers. The Veterans Health Administration apparently did not send a physician to listen to these sick veterans because the VA General Counsel office, acting on instructions from the Department of Justice, instructed them not to go. VVA is hopeful that Secretary Principi, who learned of this after the fact, will take swift action to correct this situation.

   

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