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

July 2003
GOVERNMENT RELATIONS
 
 

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 shortchanges veterans.

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 proposed.

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 said.

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 this e-mail:

``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 a vote.

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.

   

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