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

March/April 2004
GOVERNMENT RELATIONS
 
 

VA Secretary Stands Tall,
Acknowledges Budget Shortfall

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

Legislative Roundup

On February 4, testifying before the House Veterans' Affairs Committee in a packed hearing room in the Cannon House Office Building, VA Secretary Anthony Principi was explaining the VA'sthe administration's--budget request for the fiscal year that begins October 1. In defending the very modest budget increase of some 1.8 percent for his department's medical operations, Principi noted how the VA had reduced the backlog of veterans having to wait more than six months for primary care and specialty clinics. With justifiable pride, he heralded his department's decision to begin filling non-VA prescriptions for some veterans not scheduled for care within 30 days, and for issuing a directive requiring priority scheduling of care for severely
disabled, service-connected veterans.

In replying to the first question put to him by Rep. Lane Evans (D-Ill.), ranking minority member of the committee, Principi was forthright in acknowledging that the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) had cut his original request to fund the department's medical operations by $1.2 billion. He didn't dodge the question; he didn't obfuscate. He told the truth.

Which only adds ammunition to the arsenal of arguments put forth by the Partnership for Veterans Health Care Funding Reform: Leaving the funding of veterans health care to the discretion of Congress and to the machinations and manipulations of the bean-counters at OMB shortchanges veterans.

IN UNITY THERE IS STRENGTH

It's worth restating that VVA's highest legislative priority is the institution of a mechanism to remove veterans' health care from the vagaries and uncertainties of the current system of discretionary funding. We believe that the current model must be replaced with a mandatory funding mechanism that would provide an appropriate level of funding for the care of veterans who are eligible and choose to use the VA to meet their medical needs.

VVA is not alone in this fight. If you read this column in the last issue, you'll recall that VVA and eight other VSOs have formed the Partnership for Veterans Health Care Budget Reform. To kick off this united effort, the Partnership held a press conference February 18 at the National Press Club in Washington.

"We're here today to launch a campaign,'' VVA National President Tom Corey said in opening the event. "The goal of this campaign is to fix the manner in which the veterans' health care system is funded. The current method of discretionary funding for the medical operations of the Department of Veterans Affairs is broken. The VA has to compete with dozens of other programs for a sliver of a shrinking discretionary pie. This puts veterans at risk. This is wrong.''

"We believe the VA health care system warrants a predictable funding stream to care for those who have borne the battle. We believe that a new model of mandatory funding, with checks and balances to insure managerial accountability, will provide what the system needs, and what the veterans who avail themselves of its services, deserve.''

"Otherwise,'' Corey continued, "we will continue to be faced every year, every budget cycle, with having to trek here to our Nation's Capital to attempt through testimony at hearings and at meetings with members of Congress to fight for additional funds to meet the health-care needs of our veterans. Rather than this 'deja vu all over again,' we really need to focus our efforts to work with the VA to improve its services, its treatment and care for those it serves.''

Corey's sentiments were echoed by Robert W. Spanogle, National Adjutant of the American Legion; Jim King, Executive Director of AMVETS; Tom Miller, Executive Director of the Blinded Veterans Association; Alan W. Bowers, National Commander, and Joe Violante, National Legislative Director, of Disabled American Veterans; Mike Marcus, Public Affairs Director of Jewish War Veterans of the USA; Hershel Gober, National Legislative Director of the Military Order of the Purple Heart; Carl Blake, Associate Legislative Director of Paralyzed Veterans of America; and Dennis Cullinan, National Legislative Director of Veterans of Foreign Wars.

To help convince our legislators that they need to discuss and debate the issue and move to enact a solution, the nine VSOs are meeting with key members of the House and Senate, stating the case for reform, and attempting to enlist their backing. VVA and our colleagues also will move to make funding of the VA's medical operations part of the upcoming presidential debate.

PUBLIC SUPPORT

In a related development, according to a recent nationwide survey commissioned by DAV and PVA, three out of four Americans believe veterans health care should be a "top to high funding priority " in the federal budget. Most Americans (87 percent) also support making veterans' health care funding mandatory.

The survey, conducted by Princeton Survey Research Associates International, indicated that 74 percent of Americans believe Congress and the President have a responsibility to insure that veterans receive their health care and other benefits following military service. Nearly all survey respondents (95 percent) said veterans should not have to wait to receive their benefits.

Regarding veterans' issues and this year's elections, 82 percent of respondents stated that the care of veterans is an issue that should be discussed by candidates to a "great to moderate extent.'' Of the 1,000 Americans queried, 63 percent affirmed a belief that veterans issues will play a "very big to moderate part '' in their decision about which candidates to vote for this fall. Interviews for this survey were conducted from February 20-25.

SOBERING PROJECTION

According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a policy organization working on the federal and state levels on fiscal policy and public programs that affect low- and moderate-income families and individuals, "Funding for veterans' health services in 2009 would fall 17 percentor $5.7 billionbelow the 2004 level, adjusted for inflation.''

With a looming federal deficit that has reversed any hope of a surplus in the foreseeable future, this projection only adds to the litany of reasons why insuring funding for veterans' health care be removed from the ranks of discretionary programs. If not, the budget battles VVA and the other VSOs are now waging will seem like children's war games.
 

   

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