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
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
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
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
"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
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
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.