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

July 2004
GOVERNMENT RELATIONS
 
 

Double Speak And Double Talk

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

"Your claim is not that you are being lied to, your claim is not that you are being misled into believing something that is not true. Your claim is that you are being lied to even though you know you are being lied to. So you are not being harmed by it.'' This was the position advanced by the Department of Justice attorney representing both the defendants and the government as the official position of the U.S. government and the Department of Defense in federal court on May 25, regarding the withholding of crucial data veterans needed for proving their VA claims due to SHAD exposures.

At issue was the latest motion hearing in the lawsuit Vietnam Veterans of America, et al. vs. Robert S. McNamara, et. al concerning the denial of access to key materials concerning the deliberate exposure of U.S. military personnel to biological warfare agents, chemical warfare agents, and so-called simulants without their knowledge and consent during the 1960s and early 1970s.

During the same hearing, the position taken by the Department of Justice was that VA never asked for crucial dosage information involving the 6,000 veterans we know were exposed. This will come as a surprise to Secretary of Veterans Affairs Anthony Principi, because VVA has uncovered hard evidence that he asked Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld for this information. The government attorney also falsely implied to the judge that VVA had refused to pay for copying the needed documents. In fact, DoD never asked, and in most cases denied, that the documents existed. Most of the documents are not classified now, nor were they ever classified. The government withheld these documents from public view because they wished to
avoid what they described as "possible public embarrassment.''

Many veterans who participated in SHAD have died prematurely. Many more are sick from illnesses that may have been caused by these exposures forty years ago, in a manner similar to Agent Orange. Yet the administration appears to believe that the bureaucrats who are withholding information needed by these veterans must not be subject to "embarrassment'' and that it is okay for government officials to continue to lie to veterans because we know they are lying to us.

Perhaps it is finally time for a hearing and serious congressional action reaffirming the veteran's right to know what he or she was exposed to in military service, as well as any and all information (including dosage reconstruction) that is pertinent to that exposure to toxins and potentially hazardous materials or conditions.

MEDICAL TRACKING

The amendment sponsored by Sen. James Talent (R-Mo.) and Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) passed the Senate on June 18 as part of the FY05 Defense Authorization bill S.2400. This amendment would strengthen requirements on the Department of Defense to properly screen the health and fitness for duty of Reservists and members of the National Guard before calling them to active duty. This needed legislation also would require DoD to perform full health screenings of all troops prior to sending them overseas in any deployment. It also would require that DoD take blood and tissue samples before and after deployments, and properly preserve those samples so that years later it could be determined if a service member had been exposed to toxic materials or diseases overseas that resulted in illness. If done properly, this would avoid situations where veterans, like SHAD participants and Vietnam veterans exposed to Agent Orange, spend years trying to prove harmful exposures.

The proposed legislation also would set up a proper medical tracking system, make testing and tracking mandatory, and require periodic reports by DoD to Congress on how it was carrying out the provisions of this bill, as well as providing for periodic investigations by the General Accounting Office and for civilian oversight boards.

William Winkenwerder, assistant secretary of Defense for Health Affairs, led the fight by the administration and the Department of Defense to stave off the most meaningful changes. Despite the best efforts of Sens. Clinton and Talent, the Committee on Armed Services weakened some of the most important provisions of the bill at the behest of administration officials in DoD.

VVA and the National Gulf War Resource Center strongly supported this valiant effort by Sens. Talent and Clinton to safeguard the health of Americans serving in the military today, as did several of the other major veterans service organizations. While the provisions need to be strengthened as soon as there is another opportunity, the provisions that were passed will help service members serving today in many ways. VVA is grateful to Sens. Clinton and Talent for their strong efforts.

DASCHLE AMENDMENT

Sen. Thomas Daschle (D-S.D.) introduced an amendment to the S.2044, FY05 Defense Authorization Bill, that would make important strides toward providing adequate funding for the VA health care system. VVA and most of the other veterans service organizations have joined together and called for mandatory funding at a proper level for the VA hospital system.

Sen. Daschle crafted a way to solve the dilemma faced by Congress in how to accomplish proper and adequate funding by calling for continuing discretionary funding for the next ten years at the FY 2004 level of $26.2 billion for veterans' health care. Additionally, the Daschle amendment would provide for mandatory funding each year calculated on the number of veterans using the system and indexed for medical inflation. The amount available next year under the Daschle proposal would be an additional $4.7 billion in mandatory funding to be delivered by the Comptroller of the United States on October 1 to the VA, whether the discretionary spending package is enacted by then or not.

The amendment originally was scheduled for debate and a vote on the afternoon of June 22, the 60th Anniversary of enactment the GI Bill. This would have been fitting and proper. However, the majority leadership at the last minute postponed the debate and vote in order to insure that several senators who strongly favored the amendment would not be available to participate in the debate nor vote on this legislation.

In the end, the amendment never made it to the Senate floor because the vote to waive the budget rules of the Senate failed, 49 to 48. Sixty votes were needed to waive the budget rules and consider the Daschle amendment.

FORUM ON MANDATORY FUNDING

VVA life member Lane Evans (D-Ill.), who also serves as the Ranking Member on the House Veterans' Affairs Committee, sponsored a forum on June 3 on the issue of funding veterans' health care. Evans is the author of H.R. 2318, the "Assured Funding for Veterans Health Care Act,'' which has 184 co-sponsors from both sides of the aisle. He was joined by Sen. Tim Johnson (D-S.D.), who sponsored S.50, a companion bill, in the Senate. Johnson is the only member in either the Senate or the House who has a son or daughter serving on active duty in a combat zone.

The discussion put on the record the arguments for mandatory fundingand certainly for a significant change in how the VA's medical operations are funded. Speaking on behalf of VVA President Tom Corey, Rick Weidman noted VVA believes some members of Congress "are genuine in their belief that two-thirds of the federal budget should not be on 'automatic pilot,' as they call it, and that Congress should exercise and not abdicate their right and duty under the Constitution to set spending levels each year as appropriate for each program.

"However, Congress has not done so thus far,'' Weidman noted, "and two successive
administrations, in collusion with the Office of Management and Budget and to some degree the leadership of one or both bodies of the Congress, have acted so as to hold appropriations to an unconscionable inadequate level.'' How unconscionable is this level? He pointed out that "each veteran user on a per capita basis will receive 58 cents for each dollar that a Medicare recipient receives.''

"To those who are resistant to the idea of mandatory funding, we say: If you have a better idea, one that will fix the system and restore the funding base to 1996, the year eligibility reform was enacted, we're certainly open to hearing a proposal. Because what we have now is a formula for disaster.''

To salvage the VA health care system for future veterans, three things are needed: (1) A reliable and predictable funding stream; (2) greater accountability of senior managers in the VA; and (3) a true veterans health care system, as opposed to a general health care system that happens to be for veterans.

FISCAL SHENANIGANS

That's what the New York Times, in an editorial, called the machinations in the
Executive Branch that will result in devastating cuts to the budget for the VA's medical
operations. According to estimates by the non-partisan Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, veterans' medical care would be slashed by $1.5 billion in FY 2006 after a less draconian cut of some $380 million in FY 2005. "And the administration recently submitted legislation to impose caps that would result in further reductions in every year after [FY 2005] through 2009,'' The Times noted.

This is unacceptable. The enormous deficits are "being created by the White House's fiscal recklessness,'' the Times noted. "Although the fate of specific programs has not been decided, there is no way the administration can take a multibillion-dollar whack out of the relatively small budget for domestic discretionary programsa mere one-sixth of federal spendingwithout hurting services that are both popular and desperately needed.''

All of the VSOs oppose these cuts, which will cause the VA to retrench even further on the services it provides to some six million veterans. We must do everything in our collective power to derail these ill-considered plans.

CARES, REDUX

After much wrangling, VA Secretary Principi finally announced the VA's plans for enhanced services in the great CARES realignment. VVA has adopted a wait-and-see attitude, reserving judgment on the efficacy of the plan. While we applaud the construction of two new VA Medical Centers in Las Vegas and Orlando, "We will carefully review and consider what Secretary Principi endorses and what he rejects from the proposals to modernize the VA's medical infrastructure recommended by the CARES Commission,'' VVA National President Tom Corey said. "The yardstick we will use to measure these decisions is simple: Will the enhancements actually get funded and the work done? Will they enhance the availability and quality of health care for our nation's veterans?

"We will give careful consideration to the long-term as well as the immediate consequences of these decisions, which will set the course for the VA's medical operations well into the future. "We can say, however, that for this restructuring to succeed, an infusion of at least $10 billion will be needed to rebuild the infrastructure of VA facilities over the next five to six years.

"VVA also wants to applaud the efforts of the CARES Commission, chaired by Everett Alvarez, which has done a tremendous amount of work to meet its mandate, particularly with regards to expanding 'special needs' services for blinded veterans and veterans suffering from spinal cord injuries.''

To find out how Senators voted on the Daschle amendment, go to www.vva.org The roll call vote was 49 yeas, 48 nays, and 3 not voting.

   

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