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

December 2004
GOVERNMENT RELATIONS
 
 

Many Days Late,
Even More Dollars Short

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

The Omnibus FY 2005 Appropriations Bill is, as of this printing, all but ready to go to the President for his signature. By the time you read this, the appropriation should be law.  

The bill includes $27.74 billion for the Veterans Health Administration's (VHA) operation of the health care system, plus $402 million for medical and prosthetics research. These figures do not include the money collected from veterans as co-payments for services or third-party collections from insurance companies and other sources.

In order for the Secretary to re-open the medical care system to so-called Category 8 veterans, VVA had estimated that approximately $30.3 billion was needed for the fiscal year that began October 1. VHA is more than $2.5 billion dollars short of this bare minimum figure and more than $2 billion short of the minimum funding level for veterans' health care recommended by our colleagues at the Independent Budget of the Veterans Service Organizations.

For the second year in a row, the VAor perhaps it was the Office of Management and Budget (OMB)has changed the categories and the way the figures are presented. Congress has been unhappy about this, but VVA would not be surprised if OMB and VA change the categories again in the FY 2006 budget request in order to keep people confused as they try to figure out what is really happening with the appropriation for veterans' health care.

HE WAS THERE

"Hero" is one of the most overused words in the English language, at least here in America. One man we consider a real hero will not be coming back to Washington, where he's served his constituentsand all of Americawith quiet grace and good judgment: Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota. Sen Daschle introduced sensible legislation a few months ago that would have insured at least minimally proper funding for VA health care. To the disappointment of VVA and all veterans service organizations, Daschle's bill was narrowly defeated along party lines. Tom Daschle was there for veterans, particularly Vietnam veterans, whether the issue was Agent Orange, homelessness among veterans, or funding for VA health care. He was there when we needed a champion.

After the election, VVA President Tom Corey sent a letter to Sen. Daschle. "The Senate will be less in your absence," he wrote. "In your 25 years in the House and the Senate, you were a strong and unwavering voice on issues that aided our fellow veterans. For this, you should always be proud; and for this, we will be forever in your debt."

ASSESSING THE POSSIBILITIES

Now that the political election season is over, we can assess the chances for passage of  legislation beneficial to veterans and their families, and we can look to future prospects for initiatives and funding for issues and projects of concern to veterans. 

One thing is certain: Our nation will continue to produce veteransmany of them veterans of combat in Iraq and Afghanistan. That an untold number will suffer from the psychological stresses of combat is a foregone conclusion. Already, according to a survey in the New England Journal of Medicine, some 17 percent of returnees from Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom are experiencing PTSD.

Hundreds more have suffered catastrophic amputations. In previous wars, manyif not mostwould have succumbed on the field of battle. Now they are being saved by body armor and by immediate care from mobile surgical teams. At Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, ground has just been broken on a $10-million training center for amputees because of the expanding caseload.

Funding for the VA's medical operations, which is now beginning to care for thousands of these returnees, is static. The $1.2 billion the VA says it needs to meet its obligations to veterans is nowhere to be seen. And things will be worse next year.

ADVICE FOR THE PRESIDENT

Corey also wrote to President Bush, "It is our hope that in your second four years, you will champion not only the service and successes of the men and women placed in harm's way while on active duty, but that you will acknowledge their sacrifices after their battles are over when they reach the status of veteran.

"It is our hope, too, that you will avoid the errors of your predecessor who, after his election to a second term, severely curtailed the budget for the VA's medical operations, an unfortunate decision that has led to the current crisis situation in regard to funding veterans' health care.

"The VA, in our estimation and that of most veterans service organizations, is creaking along, barely able to sustain itself, despite the increased funding provided by your administration. We are rapidly reaching a crisis stage, which will be exacerbated if the current budget passed by the House of Representatives is passed in the Senate and signed by you."

The letter ended with this: "We wish you only the best as you begin your second term. We hope that the legacy you leave will be celebrated by the men and women who have served our nation in uniform."  

VETERANS' EMPLOYMENT

Also included in the FY 2005 Omnibus Appropriations bill is $224.6 million appropriated for veterans employment and training activities at the Department of Labor. The $162 million appropriated for veterans staff at the local level for state-run job assistance offices is just $1 million more than last year. This will result in fewer staff doing these activities on a national basis, due to inflationary increases in state salaries.

It is a good thing that the National Veterans Employment and Training Institute (NVTI), operated by the University of Colorado at Denver, will again be funded at $2 million for another year. NVTI trains federal and state employees in the laws that mandate their activities and teaches them how best to get the job done for individual veterans. With the exception of HVRP, there is no wiser use of Department of Labor funds. Some $8.5 million also was provided for the Veterans Workforce Investment Program, an increase of about $1 million, the first since this program was initiated. 

VVA was pleased that the Homeless Veterans Reintegration Program (HVRP), which helps homeless veterans become gainfully employed and earn their way off the streets, was increased by about $2.1 million to a total of more than $21 million. Although this is a good improvement, we do not understand why the full $50 million authorized for this program was not requested. 

HVRP is, quite simply, the most cost-efficient program in the Department of Labor. Rivaled only by the Readjustment Counseling Program (Vet Center) program at VA, the HVRP is probably the most cost-efficient, cost-effective program for veterans. VVA, therefore, does not understand why we do not invest the full amount in getting homeless veterans back to work through HVRP. This program generates about the same amount in tax revenues as it costs in the first year or two after veterans reenter the workforce.

   

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