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

May/June 2004
GOVERNMENT RELATIONS
 
 

Stating the Case to Congress:
Mandatory Funding Crucial

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

"Each year we come before you and say the same thing: Veterans health care is dangerously under funded." 'With these words, VVA vice president Ed Chow, filling in for President Thomas H. Corey, opened VVA's annual testimony on funding priorities and significant issues for veterans on March 25 before a joint session of the House and Senate Committees on Veterans' Affairs.

Highlighted in the testimony were VVA's concerns, leading off with the organization's highest legislative priority: restoring the funding base for the VA medical system, which would probably best be accomplished by a change in the manner in which veterans' health care is funded. This is VVA's priority and is a priority for many other veterans service and military service organizations.

Why is mandatory funding so important? Because the current method of funding pits veterans against other groups and projects for a smaller and smaller piece of the shrinking discretionary budget pie. If the administration's budget passes, caps on spending will result in a decrease of billions of dollars for VA's medical operations. Under almost any scenario now possible under the current rules of funding, Priority 8 veterans will continue to be denied service, effectively shutting out 450,000 veterans over the two-year period. Mandatory funding will provide VA with a predictable funding stream for its medical operations, a position nine VSOs are united behind in The Partnership for Veterans Health Care Budget Reform.

Also highlighted was a reiteration of VVA's grave concerns regarding some of the
recommendations of the CARES Commission, even though VVA endorses the concept of good stewardship behind the efforts of the commission. VVA particularly appreciates the dedication, integrity, and hard work of commission members.

VVA offered praise for the Vet Centers as havens for veterans suffering emotional difficulties as a result of their military service. "We ask you to provide additional funds earmarked for the Vet Centers, which will see an infusion of new clients, new veterans from the current battles being fought around the globe," said VVA.

On the thorny issue of hepatitis C, VVA praised the progress made in the testing and treatment of the virus by the VA under the leadership of Lawrence Deyton. What VA leaders still need to address is how to reach out to the 80 percent of all veteransmore since the administration started freezing out so-called Priority 8 veteranswho do not use VA for their medical care.

Concerning Agent Orange, in addition to supporting a study of the disposition of specimens collected as part of the Ranch Hand study, VVA endorsed funding during the next decade to track the health issues of Vietnam veterans exposed to herbicides. We urge that Congress provide significant funding for research into the long-term and possible intergenerational effects of exposure to herbicides.

"Unlike set-asides for minority-owned and women-owned businesses, goals for awarding federal contracts to veteran entrepreneurs are just that: goals, which need strong presidential leadership if they are to be met," Chow said. "Congress must act to insure that agencies comply with the law regarding contracting with disabled veteran-owned businesses. Additionally, those same agencies and departments must be forced to properly accord the earned veterans' preference rights of wartime veterans in hiring and retention of federal employees."

Despite the laws passed and monies appropriated to meet the psychological and domiciliary needs of homeless veterans, "the resources never seem to make a dent in the need," said VVA. "For years, we've been talking about a quarter of a million homeless veterans sleeping on the streets or in shelters every night. For these veterans, who once served our nation with pride, we simply must do more and we must do better."

Noting that women have served our nation in every war since the American Revolution, he said, "we must endeavor to insure that their needs, particularly the emotional residuals of sexual trauma, are met with understanding and compassion. As recent headlines attest, many military women never report physical assaults, let alone the trauma of sexual harassment." VVA supports legislation that would make outreach and counseling services for veterans who have experienced sexual trauma while on active duty "a permanent facet" of VA health care.

VVA's entire written testimony can be found at www.vva.org, it is considerably more detailed. We urge all VVA members to take a few minutes to visit the Web site and read the full text of the testimony.

NO ON NUSSLE

In his presentation, Chow urged the defeat of the budget for veterans proposed by the House Budget Committee, chaired by Rep. Jim Nussle (R-Iowa). This budget, which essentially rubber-stamps the budget proposed by the administration, calls for a modest 1.8 percent increase in funding for the VA's medical operations. It also caps future spending for the VA that will result in decreases of billions of dollars during the next four federal fiscal years. It also causes the VA health care budget to be billions less than what is needed for decent care for all statutorily eligible veterans. On a per capita basis, veterans using the VA health care system get less than 60 cents for each dollar given to those receiving Medicare, using 1996 as the base year. This should be unacceptable to all Americans.

Every House Democrat voted against the Nussle bill. They were joined by ten Republicans. Of these, only four cited the impact of the budget on veterans and veterans' programs as the reason for their "Nay" votes. For the record, the four are: Reps. Chris Smith of New Jersey, chair of the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs; Christopher Shays of Connecticut; Virgil Goode, Jr., of Virginia; and Rick Renzi of Arizona.

SAVING PRIVATE OVERTIME FOR VETERANS

On April 20, the Department of Labor (DOL) released its final rules on updating Part 541 reform as it relates to workers' rights to receive overtime. The final rules exclude the controversial language that originally included Armed Forces training as a provision that would exclude a veteran from receiving overtime and reclassifying his or her position as a professional position. Just as important, the new rules omit Armed Forces training noting: "Thus, a veteran who is not performing work in a recognized professional field will not be exempt, regardless of any training received in the armed forces."

On March 31, 2003, the DOL had proposed regulations that would possibly deny overtime protection to thousands of veterans who have received certain kinds of military training. Under current and past regulations, workers can be denied overtime protection if they fall within the category of "professional employees." But generally only workers with specialized degrees can be classified as professional. Under the failed proposal, employers would have been able to do away with this standard requirement and allow equivalent training in the armed forces to be routinely substituted for a specialized degree.

VVA was the only VSO to challenge those proposed rules. The other VSOs either agreed with DOL or remained silent. VVA sent formal comments and several letters to Secretary Elaine Chao and others complaining that the proposed rules would harm veterans. VVA also attended several meetings with other interested parties to form alliances to defeat the proposed rules.

Veterans Employment and Training Service, a division within DOL, held a VSO-only meeting on April 20 to announce that it has heard our concerns and removed the contentious language from the final rules, thus protecting overtime rights for thousands of veterans. The Solicitor of the Department of Labor attended to the meeting to explain the revisions of the proposed rule and to answer questions. VVA thanks Secretary Chao and her department for reconsidering the original proposal and for making these important changes in the final rule. The rule and explanatory material can be found at www.dol.gov/fairpay

DISABLED VETERAN BUSINESS OWNERS

As a result of Public Law 106-50 enacted in 1999 and Public Law 108-183 enacted in December 2003, all federal agencies and departments are supposed to provide at least 3 percent of all contracts to service-connected disabled veteran-owned and operated businesses, and 3 percent of all subcontracts to service connected disabled veteran-owned and controlled businesses. Agencies are permitted to create competitive reserves for service-connected disabled veteran-owned businesses, or contract on a sole-source basis the smaller contracts to such businesses.

The Small Business Administration and the Office of Federal Procurement Policy issued a memorandum in February to all heads of federal departments and agencies to encourage them "to focus contracting efforts on small businesses owned and controlled by service disabled veterans" and to inform them of the new tools. VVA and all other VSOs and military service organizationsalmost all of whom participate actively in the Task Force for Veteran Entrepreneurshipawait publication of the formal regulations implementing these new tools.

VVA joins with the other participants in the Task Force in voicing hope that the White House will issue at least a "Presidential Memorandum" directing all agency heads to meet and exceed this goal. VVA has contacted the White House and others urging such strong action.

VETERANS PREFERENCE

Some senators voted against the bill creating the Department of Homeland Security because they felt it further weakened meaningful veterans' preference rights in the new department. (Max Cleland was defeated in his reelection bid in part because of this vote.) That legislation, as well as the new Department of Defense personnel system, deliberately gut the legal protection for those who are veterans-preference eligible. "Veterans-preference eligibles'' includes veterans noted as wartime veterans by Congress, along with the spouses of MIAs, POWs, or veterans permanently and totally disabled.

Veterans are not just another affirmative action group. We are men and women, black and white, brown and yellow, young and old, and look like America in our diversity. In fact, we are not an affirmative action group at all.

The philosophical basis of veterans preference and of the current 3 percent floor in federal contracting is based on part five of the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which guarantees the right of veterans who defended the United States in wartime to a bounty19th century talk for a reward, or "earned right."

Veterans' preference is an earned right, not a statistical measure of gross numbers. In fact, the hiring of veterans can go up or down without that being any indication of whether the individual rights of veterans are being ignored or violated. VVA knows this. Officials at the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) know this. Policy makers at the White House know this. Yet OPM and others continue to treat veterans as if we were one of many competing groups. A department can more than meet all of its affirmative action goals by hiring only those who are veterans and disabled veteran preference eligible because the two are very different and veterans
come in both genders, all races, all creeds, all ethnic backgrounds, and all colors.

It is time for VVA and our counterparts to seek additional legislation, because the Veterans Employment Opportunities Act was ignored by the previous administration. It continues weakening veterans preference by practice and procedures, despite the impression of meaningful enforcement of veterans' preference activity in a recent torrent of press releases from OPM.

ACCOUNTABILITY AT VA

In recent moves linked to holding senior managers and officials accountable for performance, VA Under Secretary for Health Robert Roswell left his post. VVA is appreciative of Dr. Roswell's many contributions during his career, particularly his role in helping VA move from a facility/service-centered system toward a system that is gradually becoming a more patient-centered one. VVA also thanks Dr. Roswell for his support for taking a military history from every veteran seeking health care at VA, and for the Veterans Health Initiative see www.va.gov/vhi

VVA also notes the departure of Dr. Thomas Holohan as Chief Patient Care Officer, and his replacement by Michael J. Kussman. On the Veterans Benefits Administration, VVA notes the departure of Ron Henke as Director of the Compensation & Pension Service.

   

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