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

August/September 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

In the 1960 presidential campaign, John F. Kennedy cited the "missile gap" as evidence that the administration of Dwight Eisenhower had allowed the United States to fall behind the Russians.  Later in that turbulent decade, the "generation gap" garnered a lot of media ink as many young people seemed to be breaking away from the values and the ways of their parents.  

Fast-forward to 2003.  Now there is an emerging "credibility gap."  People at the pinnacle of power speak in glowing terms about the brave young men and women on the front lines of freedom.  Yet at the same time, despite their protestations to the contrary, they are cutting benefits for these troops - and those who came before them. Actions speak louder than words: 

Funding for VA Health Care

To say that funding for veterans health care is inadequate is to understate the situation.  Funding for the VA's medical operations is, by law, supposed to be based on the 1996 "level of care."  If it were, the budget for the Veterans Health Administration would be some $36 billion for Fiscal Year 2004, which begins October 1.  For the VA to serve all veterans who are eligible and who seek care at its facilities, VA officials acknowledge that they need $28.5 billion in appropriations from Congress in addition to the $1.7 billion they hope to collect in third-party billing. 

After Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.), VVA's Legislator of the Year for 2003 who chairs the House Veterans' Affairs Committee, fought to ensure that $1.8 billion was added to the budget proposed by the President, and after his proposal passed muster in all the appropriate committees, the House leadership cut the $1.8 billion. Only 109 (59 Republicans and 50 Democrats) of the 435 members in the House had the courage to vote against this cut and for veterans.   

In September, the battle shifted to the Senate. The Senate added only $257 million to veterans health care in appropriations to VA medical operations. In addition, the Senate provided $1.3 billion in emergency-contingent funds for health care. In order for these dollars to become real, the President must declare an emergency. When Congress provided over $300 million in appropriations 18 months ago, the president rejected the money, even though veterans were waiting more than one year for an initial appointment to see a doctor.  The Senate also authorized transferring up to $400 million of the money appropriated for health care to construction under the CARES process, instead of appropriating construction funds. The Senate did not fulfill its promise to provide at least $1.8 billion in desperately needed appropriated funds over the Administration request.

The Senate and the House of Representatives will meet in conference to come up with an identical position. The conferees can do whatever they want, including fulfilling their promise of $1.8 billion in appropriations for health care more thatn the administration requested.

VVA Position on VA Health Care Funds

VVA's position is Congress should fulfill its promise of $1.8 billion more than the Administration request, for a total of $27.2 billion in appropriations. VVA also urges Congress to bar transfer of any funds from the medical care accounts to any other purpose. If dollars are needed for CARES-related construction, let it be provided in emergency contingency dollars under the construction account. VVA and other Veterans service organizations urge Congress to appropriate and additional $1.3 billion in emergency contingent dollars for health care, as proposed. This would enable the president to have $28.5 billion for health care funds so that he can reopen the VA health care system to all eligible veterans, if he chooses to do so. 

The long-term solution is to go off-budget and restore the funding for VA health care that was eroded in the late 1990s. A four-year plan of $3 billion the first year and $3.5 billion for each of the three subsequent years, over and above the normal percentage increases to VA medical operations through the ordinary appropriations process, would restore the funding base and enable our nation to fulfill its obligations to America's veterans. 

It is of critical importance that we continue to let our Senators and Representatives know that the budget for veterans health care is barely adequate, even with the increase in the President's original budget proposal. We must act to let them know that we are watching how they vote.   How they vote will determine whether or not they have credibility with veterans and their families.

Congress will give the President as much as he asks for veterans health care. The President can solve the budget problem with a letter or phone call to the Speaker of the House and the Majority leader of the Senate. We urge him to begin to close his credibility gap by making that call soon. 

The gap in credibility also continues to widen in the realm of veterans preference and in the effort to level the playing field for veterans, particularly disabled veterans, who own small businesses and seek government contracts. It seems that government gives a lot of lip service to helping disabled veterans, yet little is done to translate words into action.  While there are set-asides for minority and women owned businesses, for instance, there is a "goal" for veteran-owned businesses - a goal that government agencies do little to achieve. 

If the system is to level the playing field for veteran-owned businesses, it's got a long way to go.  And despite a lot of lip service, it's never really demonstrated true commitment to achieving this goal. 

DISABLED VETERANS TAX

A freshman congressman from Georgia named Jim Marshall, a Vietnam veteran, has been leading the charge to get a floor vote on concurrent receipt, which he's renamed the disabled veterans tax.  Rep. Marshall is attempting to redress a century-old injustice:  a law that penalizes disabled military retirees by taxing them 100 percent for any payment received from the VA for permanent service-connected disability.   

"In other words," as journalist Joe Galloway has written, "if a military retiree is judged 100 percent disabled as a consequence of old war wounds or Agent Orange or bone damage from jumping out of airplanes, he would draw a maximum disability payment of $2,300 per month.  His retired pay would disappear entirely, under the law.

"Curiously, if a former soldier served only a two- or four-year tour and was later judged disabled, he would draw full disability payments with no reduction for any other payments he might receive from Social Security or a government or private retirement plan." 

Rep. Marshall is challenging those who are creating their own credibility gap by finding it easy to vote to end the inheritance tax, the elimination of which would benefit only the wealthiest among us, yet who also argue that to vote in favor of eliminating the disabled veteran tax would be a budget-buster. He began a discharge petition to bring the bill before the House. Although the bill, H.R. 303, has 345 co-sponsors, only one of 170 Republican co-sponsors has signed the discharge petition, which Rep. Marshall vows he will continue to pursue. 

"It is the discrimination inherent in the law that rankles those who have spent a lifetime in service to the U.S. military," Galloway said, and who "are now punished for that service by seeing their retired pay eaten up by a law they declare is both unfair and discriminatory."

VVA members who did not attend at the legislative breakfast or the plenary session at the Convention and who therefore didn't hear him put forth his arguments should check out his Web site, www.house.gov/marshall, to learn more about this issue. 

Supporting The Troops? 

An article that first ran in the San Francisco Chronicle on August 14 became a major embarrassment.  The story noted that the Pentagon, which is spending billions to wage the war and attempt to keep the peace in Iraq, was seeking to save money by cutting the combat pay of 148,000 troops in Iraq and 9,000 in Afghanistan.  Pleading that it cannot afford $75 a month in "imminent danger pay" and $150 a month in "family separation allowances," the Defense Department intended to eliminate these "bonuses" to troops "who are already contending with guerrilla-style attacks, homesickness, and 120-degree-plus heat,"  reporter Edward Epstein wrote.  

Here again, the credibility gap would have widened, but the Pentagon did a quick reversal after an onslaught of criticism from VSOs, elected officials, and the parents of troops deployed on the front lines. Those who knock "the media" whenever a story seemingly unfavorable to a war effort appears, certainly need to applaud this one. 

Veterans Vote!

In his keynote address at the Convention, Medal of Honor recipient Paul Bucha's theme was basic and direct: Veterans and their families must vote in general elections and in the primaries.

Heeding Bucha's call, VVA will be gearing up its Veterans Vote! campaign. Former national president George Duggins has volunteered to spearhead this important effort.

   

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