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

October/November 2004
GOVERNMENT RELATIONS
 
 

Uninsured Veterans Barred From
VA Health Care System

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

That upwards of 42 million Americans are without health insurance should come as no surprise to anyone who has followed the issue. What is not so surprising is that almost two million veterans are among the ranks of the uninsured.

Many of these, VVA National President Thomas H. Corey said in a news release, are so-called Priority 8 veterans who are barred from gaining access to the VA health care system. A press conference was held on October 20 to focus attention on a sobering report released by the Harvard/Cambridge Hospital Study Group on Veterans' Health Insurance. The full study may be found online at www.pnhp.org/news/2004/october/ 17_million_veterans_.php

"It is appalling that so many of our fellow veterans, even those with disabling chronic illnesses and conditions, have not had the resources to see a doctor or receive basic preventive care, and that they have to be reduced to poverty before they are 'eligible' to get care from the VA," Corey said.

Corey also pointed out the hypocrisy of the current enrollment system under which hundreds of thousands of veterans are denied health care to which they are entitled by law.

"If anyone wants to greatly restrict who is eligible to receive health care from the VA, then they should push legislation to legally shut out veterans in Congress,'' Corey said.  "That way, the American people, through their elected representatives, can openly decide if some 'categories' of veterans are not deserving of proper medical care, and exactly which sick veterans should be cast aside.''

Corey called on Congress to hold hearings on the status of uninsured veterans "with an eye toward making the VA health care system truly responsive to their needs by providing enough funds and re-opening the system to all veterans the VA is currently excluding."

FUNDING SHORTFALL

The Harvard study draws attention to the critical issue of funding veterans' health care.  The current method of funding as VVA and other veterans service organizations have pointed out again and againsimply does not do what it is supposed to do. This is exacerbated by Congress not doing what it is supposed to do: pass a budget by September 30 for the federal fiscal year that begins October 1. Congress has failed to do this for five years.

"We all know that the VA's medical operations are severely underfunded," Corey said. "The VA needs, at minimum, $30.3 billion in appropriated dollars just to tread water in caring for its caseload and to reopen the system to Priority 8's who are statutorily eligible to receive VA health care." That figure is at least $1.7 billion more than what was on the table when Congress recessed in the fall. Without a significant boost in funding, the VA's medical operations will continue to limp along. Tens of thousands of eligible veterans will be denied health care. Tens of thousands more, who are already in the VA system, will have unconscionably long waits to see a primary care physicians or specialists.

"It is intolerable that there is not enough money provided to sustain the nation's veterans' health care system properly, even in the midst of war," Corey said. "This time, the government did not even wait until the war was over to forget our veterans." 

We urge all VVA members and their families and friends to talk up this issue with their senators and members of Congress back in their districts. The more they hear from us, the more likely they are to address this issue in the 109th Congress beginning in January.

PETITIONING CONGRESS

We also urge VVA members and supporters to express their support for H.R. 4423, which would significantly increase funding for the VA's medical operations. On October 5, Rep. Chet Edwards (D-Tex.) introduced a discharge petition that would force the House to consider a freestanding bill to increase funding for veterans health care to $32.1 billion.  That's 4.22 percent above the 2005 VA-HUD appropriations bill. In order to bring the measure to the House floor for a vote, 218 signatures are needed. When Congress returns November 16, we want it to address this issue. Please call, fax, e- mail, or use the prepared message on the VVA Legislative Action Center site at www.vva.org Click on "Government Relations," and let's try to salvage something of vital importance to veterans.

BOOST FOR BUSINESS

The White House has finally done, at least in part, what the Task Force on Veteran Entrepreneurship has been advocating. The President issued, on October 20, an Executive Order called "Providing Opportunities for Service-Disabled Veteran Businesses to Increase Their Federal Contracting and Subcontracting."

The President did not change the three percent goal for letting federal contracting to service-disabled veteran-owned businesses. While it is not everything that VVA and other partners wanted, the order is a real stride forward. The Executive Order gives teeth to the law that gives federal agency contracting officers the authority to reserve certain procurements for goods and services to veteran-owned businesses.

The Executive Order calls for the development of a "strategy" to implement this policy in each federal agency; the designation of a "senior-level official" to be responsible for developing and implementing the agency's strategy; and the submission of an annual report to the Administrator of the Small Business Administration on the progress made in implementing this policy.

It also calls for a definition of how an agency will reserve contracts exclusively for service-disabled veteran businesses; how it will encourage and facilitate participation by these businesses in competing for agency contracts; how it will encourage contractors to subcontract with service-disabled veteran businesses; how an agency will train appropriate personnel on applicable law and policies; and how it will disseminate information to these businesses to help them secure agency contracts.

Just as significantly, the Executive Order calls for the Administrator of General Services to establish a government-wide acquisition contract reserved for participation by service- connected veteran businesses and to help these businesses become included in federal supply schedules.

Now we have to see just how seriously agency heads will be in complying with the Executive Orderand with the law that is its foundation. Vietnam veteransno matter where we live, are always from Missouri in that after 30-plus years we all say, "show me" to any pledge by any Federal entity or official, on both sides of the aisle.

BOOST FOR HOMELESS VETERANS

In accordance with P.L.107-95, the Homeless Veterans Comprehensive Act of 2001, the VA awarded approximately $31 million in grants to 39 programs in 17 states as part of VA's Homeless Providers Grant and Per Diem Program. Recipients are community and faith-based organizations that provide critical services to homeless veterans.

VVA's Homeless Task Force was instrumental in garnering support for the passage of this law, but VVA is dismayed that the importance of seeking full funding of the employment section of the act seems to have eluded the VA and the Office of Management & Budget. The Department of Labor sought and received only $19 million of the $50 million the law authorizes. As a result of not having enough funds, some very fine grantee programs have been de-fundedprograms, such as an excellent one in Boston, that we feel were worthy of refunding.

These programs help veterans who need help. Not to seek or provide the maximum amount that has been authorized is shameful. It does cause us to wonder what part of helping homeless veterans to get and keep jobs and to earn their way off of the streets some people cannot understand. These programs need to be fully funded, even if it takes a supplemental or Secretary Elaine Chao transferring some of her considerable discretionary funds to fulfill the promise of this program to help veterans who are trying to help themselves. To view a list of the grantees, go to http://www1.va.gov/opa/pressrel

COLA INCREASE FOR BENEFITS

The rates of disability compensation for veterans with service-connected disabilities and the rates of dependency and indemnity compensation for survivors of certain service- connected disabled veterans will increase to 2.7 percent this year when H.R. 4175, the Veterans' Compensation Cost-of-Living Adjustment Act of 2004 introduced by Rep. Christopher Smith (R-NJ), is enacted into law. The bill was signed by the President on October 25. The increase is effective December 1, 2004.

Both houses of Congress have agreed to the National Defense Authorization Act of 2005. The conference report language and the bill were sent to the President on October 21. Below are some highlights:

Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) was successful in implementing language in the FY05 DoD Authorization Act, H.R. 4200, that would eliminate the 10-year phase-in for disabled retirees who are rated as 100 percent disabled. When the law is enacted, severely disabled veterans will begin receiving their full concurrent receipt in January 2005. This new law will help some 40,000 veterans rated at 100 percent whose disability benefits have been deducted from their earned military retirement pay.

This act also eliminates the Reduction in Survivor Benefit Plan (SBP) Annuities. It authorizes eliminating the Social Security offset under the SBP by increasing the annuities paid to survivors of military retirees who are 62 or older from 35 percent of retired pay to the percentages indicated below:

  • (1) For months after September 2005 and before April 2006: 40 percent

  • (2) For months after March 2006 and before April 2007: 45 percent

  • (3) For months after March 2007 and before April 2008: 50 percent

  • (4) For months after March 2008: 55 percent

Vietnam Veterans of America was instrumental in getting language for the following provisions in the H.R. 4200 - FY05 Authorization bill:

Sec. 731 Medical Readiness Plan and Joint Medical Readiness Oversight Committee provision mandates the Secretary of Defense to create this committee, to develop a comprehensive plan to improve Medical Readiness, and improve Department of Defense tracking of the health status of members of the armed forces throughout their service in the armed forces, as a means to strengthen medical readiness and tracking before, during, and after deployment of members of the Armed Forces Overseas. VVA is grateful to Sens. James Talent (R-Mo.) and Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) for their strong  bipartisan effort to safeguard the health of the service members in the military today.

In Section 732, Medical Readiness Of Reserves, the Comptroller General is directed to carry out a study of the health of the members of the reserve components of the armed forces who have been called or ordered to active duty for a period of more than 30 days in support of Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom. The Comptroller General will start the study not later than 180 days after the date of the enactment of this act. This provision is intended to greatly reduce the number of Guard and Reserve members being deployed or called to active duty who are not healthy enough to serve.

Other sections mandate the Secretary of Defense to maintain a Baseline Health Data Collection Program to collect such data from each person entering the armed forces at the time they enter. A further requirement is that the Secretary of Defense prescribe a policy that requires the records of all medical care provided to a member of the armed forces in a theater of operations to be maintained as part of a complete health record so that there can be tracking and health surveillance can be provided in the theater of operations and in the future.

The Secretary of Defense, in conjunction with the Secretaries of the military departments, is required by the act to take such actions as are necessary to insure  that the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps fully implement at all levels the Medical Readiness Tracking and Health Surveillance Program under this title and the amendments made by this title; and the Force Health Protection and Readiness Program of the Department of Defense relating to the prevention of injury and illness and the reduction of disease and non-combat injury threats.

ADVOCACY TRAINING

VVA will again be offering an Advocacy Training Workshop for members and associates who want to learn how to become effective in dealing with elected and appointed officials. The workshop is scheduled to occur from April 11-14, 2005 (arrival on the evening of Sunday, April 10) at VVA headquarters in Silver Spring. For those who sign  up and send in a check on or before February, the cost will be $80. The cost for those who sign up after February 1 will be $95.

For more information, check out the ad, or call Sharon Hodge at VVA's Office of Government Relations at 800-882-1316, Ext. 111.

   

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