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

December 2003
GOVERNMENT RELATIONS
 
 

Making Veterans' Voices Heard

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

LEGISLATIVE ROUNDUP

Most veterans, while respectful of the nation's institutions, grouse a lot, as they did in the service, about perceived ills and real issues. Most veterans, however, remain hesitant about confronting or denouncing elected officials. Some veterans service organizations (VSOs) issue press releases in which a leader "demands" action or "blasts" inaction on some policy initiative, but this is about as far as the outrage extends.

This year, however, veterans have united behind two issues of significance: adequate funding for the veterans health care system and ending the inequities of the Disabled Veterans Tax, a.k.a. concurrent receipt. VVA president Tom Corey is seeking a summit of VSO leaders to discuss unified actions to achieve shared goals.

FUNDING VETERANS HEALTH CARE, REDUX

As the first session of the 108th Congress closed, funding for veterans health care was wrangled with over and over again. The sticking point was the issue of appropriating an additional $1.3 billion. Every elected official claims to be for veterans. Yet few in the majority were willing to go against the wishes of the White House and congressional leadership, who adamantly opposed going beyond the $25.2 billion presented in the President's budget request last spring.

After a variety of proposals and counterproposals, it all boiled down to this: Would the
appropriators in the Senate follow the lead of Sens. Kit Bond (R-Mo.) and Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) and infuse the $25.2 billion with an additional $1.3 billion, a down-payment on what VVA and other VSOs have argued repeatedly was necessary to provide minimally adequate funding of the VA's medical operations?

In a transparent compromise, the White House purportedly agreed that $1.3 billion be provided - but only as "contingent emergency" funds. The folly of this proposal is the money can be released by Congress only if the President declares an emergency, a contingency that is highly unlikely.

An effort by Sens. Mikulski and Bond to attach the $1.3 billion to the $87 billion supplemental appropriation for the fighting and rebuilding efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan failed. The White House "strongly opposes provisions that would allocate an additional $1.3 billion for VA medical care," OMB Director Joshua Bolten said in a letter on November 12 to Rep. David Obey (D-Wisc.), because these provisions "are not directly related to ongoing military operations in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere or relief and reconstruction activities."

In a press release a week later, VVA president Corey rhetorically asked: "How is it that Congress can write a check for $87 billion to continue funding the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, but when those who fight that war need medical care, they are treated as second-class citizens? How can this administration argue that an additional $1.3 billion for veterans health care is not related to the war effort?"

COMPROMISING CONCURRENT RECEIPT

A second issue that has riled veterans is concurrent receipt, or the Disabled Veterans Tax, as Rep. Jim Marshall (R-Ga.) has called it. After failing to convince the VSOs that congressional leadership would be willing to move forward on some compromise version of this bill if the VSOs would agree to a change in the definition of injury or illness incurred in the line of duty, the leadership moved forward anyway. It announced a complex compromise that will prove to be a bureaucratic nightmare.

How would this affect eligible veterans? According to Rep. Lane Evans (D-Ill.), Ranking Member of the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs and a life member of VVA, among those who would be left out of the Republican proposal are:

  • A Vietnam veteran disabled due to a below-the-knee amputation.
  • A Gulf War veteran with debilitating fatigue, cognitive impairments, or other symptoms that are nearly constant and restrict daily routine to 50-75 percent of pre-illness level.
  • A Korean War veteran with pain, numbness, and cold sensitivity with tissue loss in both feet due to a cold injury.

"We should accord our nation's military retirees who are disabled as a result of service to the nation - all of them - greater consideration than millionaires clamoring for the Bush tax cut," Evans said.

VVA echoes the sentiment expressed by Rep. Evans and by Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.): "With a new generation of combat veterans deployed around the world, the federal government must gladly meet its obligations to veterans rather than look away in favor of other priorities. We should be extending additional aid, not penalties, to those injured during service."

In an open letter to members of Congress, Corey was blunt. "This is a bad idea, borne of political expediency, to make an embarrassing issue go away. For more than one hundred years, the law has levied a 100 percent tax on the retirement pay of military retirees receiving disability compensation. A disability incurred while serving one's country, whether in combat, in a combat zone, or in a support role far from the field of battle, is still a disability. Its cause is immaterial; its effect is not."

PERFORMANCE OF DUTY STANDARD

Entwined with the issue of concurrent receipt is the proposal put forward by congressional leadership to limit eligibility for veterans' compensation benefits for disabilities directly related to "performance of duty" injuries only. VVA is unequivocal in opposing this limitation, which is little more than an attempt to divide and confuse.

In testimony before the Senate Committee on Veterans' Affairs, VVA Director of Government Relations Rick Weidman said the attempt to add such language into the FY04 Defense Authorization Act is, "an unprecedented and unconscionable breach of America's covenant to care for those who have borne the battle."

"Decades of experience have taught us that disease or injury incurred as a direct result of service may not manifest for years after [a] serviceperson's separation from active duty," Weidman said.  "Delayed onset of disabilities directly incurred as a consequence of military service is responsible for thousands of inappropriately denied claims for disability compensation, even under current law. Under the proposed standard, it will likely prove impossible for tens of thousands of deserving veterans to be made whole or as close to whole as one can ever be made."

Weidman said the proposed definition would affect victims of sexual trauma. "Women veterans who have been victimized by sexual trauma, assault, and abuse may have no one they feel they can confide in while on active duty.'' Years after their discharge, many still find it difficult to come forward to deal with the results of this trauma. Under proposed legislation, sexual trauma would no longer be considered a line-of-duty disability.

"This is patently unjust and will send a clear and resounding signal to our troops and the American public that our government is, at best, indifferent and uncaring when it comes to the support of our troops. How anyone can claim to 'Support Our Troops!' and advance such a proposal is beyond our comprehension."

CARING ABOUT CARES

To get anything done in Congress, it helps if two senators or representatives from opposite sides of the aisle come together on a particular piece of legislation. Sens. Bond and Mikulski did that on funding for health care. Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-Colo.) and Rep. Mark Udall (D-Col.) did it on a bill that would empower the Secretary of the Interior to create a database of veterans memorials across the land. Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) and Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.) have made a similar effort in an attempt to keep the CARES initiative from further eroding the VA's ability to care for veterans.

Clinton and Enzi introduced an amendment to the VA-HUD appropriations bill that would prevent funds from going to CARES - Capital Asset Realignment for Enhanced Services - unless the Secretary of Veterans Affairs modified the program to, among other provisions, require long-term care, home-health care, and mental health services to be taken into consideration. The amendment also would require the VA to take into account the impact any transfer of services would have on veterans' access to health care in rural and frontier areas.

"Senator Enzi and I believe that the draft CARES plan," Sen. Clinton wrote in a letter to VVA's John Rowan, "contains some flaws in the CARES process and that the evaluations were rushed, not allowing for adequate consideration of the impact of the proposed changes on the lives of veterans."

One of these proposed changes would close the VA medical center in Canandaigua, New York.  In a hearing about the changes proposed for VISN 2, VVA was well-represented by dozens of members who spoke out passionately against one of the more ill-considered proposals before the CARES Commission.

The Commission will present its recommendations to VA secretary Anthony Principi. He has promised to accept or reject the entire package, not pick one from VISN 8 and one from VISN 16 for closing while overruling other recommendations of the Commission.

The Government Relations Department would like to acknowledge our sister and brother veterans who stood up to be counted during CARES hearings. We also want to acknowledge the efforts of Sharon Hodge in coordinating the testimony and appearances by those who officially testified as members and officers of VVA.

PROJECT BIOSHIELD ACT OF 2003, REDUX


Congress overwhelmingly passed one of the administration's top initiatives in the ongoing war against terrorism. One of the provisions of H.R. 2122, the Project Bioshield Act of 2003, however, potentially puts active-duty troops at risk: While the Bioshield program may "go a long way in providing increased flexibility in order to speed up government-sponsored research and development" associated with possible biological terror attacks, as Rep. Billy Tauzin (R-La.), chair of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, has said, it also grants new authority - "only in times of an emergency" - to permit "the use of unapproved products whose benefits in treating or preventing infection outweigh risks." And those who may be put at added risk are our troops.

   

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