Time To Stop Passing
The Buck On VA Funding
BY H. AVERY TAYLOR, CHAIR, VVA
GOVERNMENT AFFAIRS COMMITTEE,
WITH VVA GOVERNMENT RELATIONS STAFFF
Vietnam Veterans of America's highest legislative priority is the
institution of obligatory or assured funding for veterans health
care. Such funding would be based on the per capita use of the
veterans health-care system (including long-term care) at the 1996
level of funding, indexed for medical inflation.
To make the case for obligatory funding, VVA has issued a White
Paper that will be distributed to members of Congress, the media,
government officials, other veterans service organizations, and
anyone with an interest in bringing sanity to a system that
The debate for the past several years has been whether to fund the
veterans health-care system at a very inadequate level or at a
grossly inadequate level. This annual debate needs to end. It is
our obligation to give more than lip service to the mandates for
health care set forth in law and by the will of the American
people to care for those who have borne the battle.
In the mid-1990s, the VA health-care system welcomed higher
income, non-disabled veterans, with the caveat that these
enrollees pay a nominal co-payment toward the cost of their care.
The rationale behind this initiative was to insure a patient base
that would support the infrastructure needed to develop a modern,
integrated health care system. Congress endorsed this initiative,
enacting Public Law 104-262, the Veterans Health Care Eligibility
Reform Act of 1996, giving the VA the mandate to do what it had
Because the law did not set a level of funding, it established an
annual enrollment process and categorized veterans into priority
groups to be used in managing enrollment. Last year the system
hemorrhaged, and Secretary Principi had to make a difficult call.
Overburdened by an influx of enrollees, the VA did not have the
financial resources to provide care for all who chose to enroll.
The Secretary then temporarily suspended new enrollments of
Priority 8 veterans. This suspension, which went into effect
January 17, 2003, is to be continued through Fiscal Year 2004.
Although it is to be reviewed annually, many fear that Priority 8
veterans will be effectively banished from the health-care system
as the VA, with no promise of an infusion in supplemental
appropriations, refocuses on its core mission of serving veterans
``with service-connected disabilities, the indigent, and those
with special health care needs.''
The VA is not assured adequate funding that complies with Public
Law 104-262. This law, undermined by years of flat-line budgeting
by Congress and by medical inflation, effectively trained the VA
system beyond capacity and rendered the VA unable to respond
adequately to the needs of veterans. Access to this care is their
right as veterans, and that right is being abrogated.
To adequately serve all of those who seek its services, VA
officials acknowledge they need $28.5 billion in hard,
appropriated dollars in FY 04. To avoid future funding crises,
Congress must go beyond the rhetoric of considering whether the
current discretionary funding model needs to be replaced by an
obligatory system of funding indexed both to per capita costs of
treatment and medical inflation.
Congress and the President must not pass the buck any longer. They
must grapple with the issues keeping the compact between our
government and our veterans, and they must enact legislation that
will insure a consistent, predictable, and appropriate level of
funding for VA medical operations.
INDEPENDENT INVESTIGATOR FOR SHAD/PROJECT 112
``The move by the Pentagon [on June
30] to conclude its investigation into secret tests of chemical
and biological weapons in the 1960s is a violation of public trust
and the public's right to know what really happened,'' VVA
president Tom Corey said. Corey called on Congress to establish
and empower an independent office to investigate the alleged
exposures perpetrated on unwitting sailors and soldiers, and other
toxic issues as well. These include the diseases and undiagnosed
symptoms that constitute Gulf War illnesses.
``For the Pentagon to end its investigation based on an arbitrary
end date will cause hardship for those veterans and their families
who still have many unanswered questions as to what toxic agents
they may have been exposed to while serving in the U.S. armed
forces. Many veterans have yet to be notified of their exposures
in these tests and have yet to be seen by VA clinicians,'' Corey
Project 112 was a secret program that exposed sailors and
soldiers, without their knowledge or consent, to a variety of
toxic chemical and biological agents. These included two agents
that simulate the infectious profile of anthrax and bacillus
globigii, which has been associated with several opportunistic
infections, VA officials acknowledge.
VVA joins with those members of Congress who have asked Defense
Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to refrain from closing the DoD's
investigation into Project 112, which has confirmed that
classified medical records exist. Affected veterans need to obtain
these records so they may qualify for health care and
compensation. Currently, DoD intends to end the investigation
without releasing the relevant classified medical records.
VVA believes that Congress should determine what the evidence
dictates and whether or not the investigation into Project 112
should be continued or terminated. Because new information is
received from SHAD veterans that raises new and disturbing
questions, VVA believes that further examination of the issue is
appropriate and necessary. For instance, VVA recently received
``Some time mid 1966-November 1967, I participated in a combat
training exercise on the Island of Hawaii. I was assigned to the
11th Infantry Brigade, 1st Battalion, 20th Infantry. It was a
Joint Training Exercise with the Navy utilizing LSDs and LSTs to
beach land, occupy, and establish a Command Post. We were on
location for two weeks during which we took pills, and I seem to
recall immunizations of some sort. We also participated in CBR
activity. Was this part of SHAD 112?''
VVA, through our Project 112/SHAD Task Force, will do all that we
can to help any special investigation.
SAFEGUARDING THE TROOPS
The Department of Defense, responding
to a chorus of criticism, announced that it is enhancing the
post-deployment health assessment process for ``all current and
future deployments.'' These so-called enhancements were made,
according to a memorandum from Under Secretary of Defense David S.
C. Chu, ``in response to national interest in the health of
deployed personnel.'' The improvements include, according to DoD,
``a more comprehensive health assessment and a blood sample taken
within 30 days of leaving the theater.''
VVA President Tom Corey said, ``It is unconscionable that those
entrusted with the national defense--and with the health of our
troops--would ignore the law and neglect to take all prescribed
steps to insure that we have baseline data in the event our troops
have been exposed to some chemical or biological agent that might
adversely affect their health. Even with so-called enhancements,''
Corey said, ``DoD still fails to meet the requirements of the law
regarding the health of our troops overseas.''
Section 765 of Public Law 105-85 states that the "Secretary of
Defense shall establish a system to assess the medical condition
of members of the armed forces who are deployed outside the United
States or its territories or possessions as part of a contingency
operation or combat operation. The system shall include the use of
predeployment medical examinations and postdeployment medical
examinations (including an assessment of mental health and the
drawing of blood samples) to accurately record the medical
condition of members before their deployment and any changes in
their medical condition during the course of their deployment."
``Many of the enhancements announced by DoD don't meet the
requirements of the law,'' Corey said. ``This will eventually
result in an added burden on the VA, which is charged with caring
for those who have borne the battle.''
THE DISABLED VETERAN TAX
Reps. Jim Marshall (D-Ga.) and Chet Edwards (D-Tex.) are leading
the push to end the disabled American veteran tax. Marshall, many
of his colleagues in Congress, and most of the major veterans
organizations, including VVA, are working to bring the issue known
as ``concurrent receipt'' to a vote on the House floor against the
will of the House leadership. Currently, 202 members have signed
the discharge petition, H.Res.251; 218 signees are needed to force
The Administration is opposed to H.R. 303, which would restore the
earned benefits of retirees who are also service-connected
disabled veterans. The Speaker and House leadership have refused
to let this bill come to the House floor for a vote. The Senate
has endorsed concurrent receipt in the Defense Appropriation Bill
Report 108-087. The Senate authorized full concurrent receipt
funding. There are currently 352 co-sponsors of the bill. One
wonders just how honestly committed the 150 co-sponsors who have
not signed the discharge petition really are.
As part of the strategy for righting a 100-year-old wrong, Rep.
Marshall is urging all veterans to tell the truth about what this
bill is about: the prohibition on concurrent receipt is really the
disabled veterans tax. He argues that Congress should cut the 100
percent tax on veterans who have given at least 20 years' service
and who have suffered a service-connected disability. American
citizens should not be taxed for being disabled as a result of
military service to their country.
Please use the legislative alert on the VVA legislative action
center at www.vva.org Click
on "government relations" to request your member sign on to the
H.Res.251 discharge petition. Send a letter directly to your
member if he or she has not signed the petition.
You are also urged to write the White House and to Speaker of the
House Dennis Hastert urging their support to move to an early vote
on H.R. 303 to correct this long-standing injustice of taxing
disabled veterans. Rep. Marshall will be attending many VSO
conventions this summer, including VVA's legislative breakfast, to
carry the message that if disabled veterans are to be granted
their earned benefits, each of us must passionately speak out to
our House member, and do so now.
VA/HUD APPROPRIATIONS BILL
Many of you have written letters, sent e-mails, made telephone
calls, and seen your Senators and Representatives seeking adequate
funding for the veterans health care system. We reported earlier
this year that some progress was being made in adding money to the
administration's inadequate budget request. We are now back to
square one with all of that work swept away.
The Executive Branch asked for $25.2 billion in hard taxpayer
dollars for medical operations. What VA has admitted to the VSOs
is that a minimum of $28.5 billion in taxpayer appropriated
dollars (not including third-party collections from veterans and
from insurance companies) is needed for medical operations to even
contemplate restoration of eligibility for all veterans, including
Priority 8 veterans. On July 15, the House Appropriations
Subcommittee on VA-HUD passed what is essentially the President's
request. This amount falls more than $3 billion short of the bare
minimum to operate VA health care for all eligible veterans and is
more than $10 billion short of what is actually needed for good
health care and adequate access.
As noted in the VVA White
Paper, we have an extraordinary crisis in veterans health
care. Since Congress will give this President anything he asks for
veterans health care, we urge the President to take bold and
decisive action to properly fund the health care needs of
America's veterans. Harry Truman did in 1946.