And Remains the Same
BY H. AVERY TAYLOR, CHAIR, VVA
GOVERNMENT AFFAIRS COMMITTEE,
WITH VVA GOVERNMENT RELATIONS STAFF
As President George W. Bush begins his second term, it is a time
for endings and for new beginnings. Despite all the changes, some
things remain the same. First, the endings.
Anthony J. Principi resigned as Secretary of Veterans Affairs
after four grueling years on the job. This was not unexpected.
Secretary Principi served his nation and his fellow veterans with
honor and integrity under very trying circumstances. He earned the
respect and admiration of the majority of the veterans service
organizations. VVA President Tom Corey called him “a true champion
for the rights of veterans.”
“While we did not always agree with the decisions he made,” Corey
said, “we came to respect him as a man of principle and moral
When Secretary Principi did not agree with the amount requested by
the White House for the VA’s medical operations for the current
fiscal year, “he exhibited great integrity in answer to a direct
question from Rep. Lane Evans (D-Ill.) by saying publicly that his
department needed an additional $1.2 billion to serve the 4.2
million veterans who turn to the VA for the treatment and care to
which they are entitled as veterans,” Corey said.
With Principi gone, veterans have lost a sincere and staunch
CHRIS SMITH DEPOSED
Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.) is also leaving his post, involuntarily
and not without rancor. Rep. Smith was deposed as chairman of the
House Veterans’ Affairs Committee. He served only two of the three
terms customarily granted to chairs. Smith often was at odds with
the House leadership because he battled for improved benefits—and
more money—for the veterans he served. Despite their claims to the
contrary, the House Republican Steering Committee punished Smith
because the team he preferred to play on in recent budget battles
was the veterans’ team.
Smith worked well with his Democratic colleagues, particularly the
Ranking Member on the Committee, Lane Evans. Their stewardship of
the committee was bipartisan and nonconfrontational. Evans, a VVA
life member, will continue to press on issues of concern to all
veterans, and especially to Vietnam veterans. These issues include
a fresh approach to dealing with the psychological problems
associated with Agent Orange—and with service in Iraq and
Afghanistan. Smith, however, will leave the committee, having been
prevented from achieving his legislative goals to help veterans.
It is a sad day when a member of Congress is punished for being
too pro-veteran, particularly during a time of war.
Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) has stepped down as chairman of the
Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee after nine years at the helm.
Under his leadership, significant progress was made on many issues
pertaining to justice for veterans, particularly for women
veterans. Sen. Specter championed proper care for veterans with
mental- health problems, particularly those who suffer from
combat-related traumatic wounds that are neuropsychiatric in
In the fall of 2003, when the House of Representatives wanted to
redefine “service-connected disabled veteran,” it was Sen. Specter
who stepped in with an emergency hearing that headed off that
misguided move. He also repeatedly championed proper resources for
veterans’ health care, and often stood up to very heavy pressure
to stand with America’s veterans. His leadership was, and is,
Now, the beginnings.
BUYER AT THE HELM
Rep. Steve Buyer (R-Ind.), who campaigned for the post, was
selected to chair the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee. He is a
veteran of the Gulf War, having served with the Judge Advocate
General’s office as an attorney. He remains in the Army Reserves
as a colonel. Buyer has been a member of the committee for 12
years, since he was first elected to Congress. Most recently, he
chaired the Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations. “I am
honored to be selected by my fellow colleagues to lead the House
Veterans’ Affairs Committee. I appreciate their trust and
confidence in my commitment to our nation’s veterans,” Buyer said
in his first public statement as chair. “Chairman Smith leaves a
legacy of accomplishments for which veterans should be thankful.”
Buyer’s statement also telegraphed the direction he intends to go:
“The soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines who have served on
behalf of our country deserve to know that the VA will be there to
help the disabled and the indigent,” he said. “Having served in
the military for 24 years in peace and in war, I have an intense
appreciation and understanding of the sacrifices of our veterans
and their families. I will focus the VA on its core constituency
to honor our commitment to insure that VA benefits and health care
are sustainable in the future.”
It is also clear that a narrowing of the parameters for
eligibility for VA health care and other benefits is in the
offing. So, too, is a cutback in funding for veterans health care.
The VA system is grossly under funded even now, to the tune of
about 58 cents for every $1 spent on Medicare, which also is
commonly acknowledged to be under funded.
VVA will continue to fight for the rights of veterans. Eventually,
we will win this war. In the meantime, however, thousands of
veterans will be harmed by the effort to cut back funding for the
VA’s medical operations in a time of war. It seems that too many
political leaders are quick to praise our active-duty troops, but
once they can no longer fight, the troops and their rehabilitation
and health maintenance needs are pushed into the background.
CRAIG TAKES OVER
Sen. Larry Craig (R-Idaho) has been named chair of the Senate
Committee on Veterans’ Affairs. Sen. Craig is known in the Senate
as a “budget hawk” who believes that the U.S. government spends
too much money on most domestic (non-military) programs. To our
knowledge, Sen. Craig has not taken a strong role on most issues
of significance to veterans. Now that he is chair, VVA looks
forward to working with him to preserve, improve, and properly
fund services needed by veterans of every generation.
NICHOLSON AT THE VA
To replace Secretary of Veterans Affairs Principi, President Bush
has chosen a Republican Party loyalist, Jim Nicholson, who has no
history of advocacy for veterans, so far as we—or the other VSOs—can
Ambassador Nicholson “will have a high bar of accomplishment to
follow,” VVA President Tom Corey noted, adding: “We look forward
to working closely with him to protect and to advance the
interests of our nation’s veterans.”
The veterans’ community soon will learn about Amb. Nicholson. Will
he be an advocate for veterans? Or will he be an apologist for a
budgetary bloodletting? We had our first inkling of his
stewardship at his January 24 confirmation hearing.
That morning, the hearing room was jammed to capacity. Nicholson,
who has been Ambassador to the Vatican for the last three years,
arrived with his wife and a small entourage. He was billed by
enthusiastic Committee Chairman Larry Craig as a “remarkable man”
with an “extraordinary background.” Sen. Craig cautioned that Amb.
Nicholson will face “a fiscal environment that will be
considerably less friendly than the relatively flush times of
Sen. Craig then summarized the Ambassador’s background: He is a
graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. He served
eight years as an Army Ranger. During his 1965-66 tour of duty in
Vietnam, he was awarded the Bronze Star, the Combat Infantryman
Badge, the Meritorious Service Medal with Oak Leaf Cluster, the
Vietnamese Cross for Gallantry, and two Air Medals. He spent 22
years in the Army Reserve, exiting with the rank of colonel.
Amb. Nicholson holds a master’s degree in public policy from
Columbia University and a law degree from the University of
Denver. After briefly practicing law, he was involved in real
estate development in Colorado. He also involved himself in
Republican politics and in 1997 was elected chair of the
Republican National Committee, a post he held until his
appointment to the Vatican.
At the confirmation hearing, Sen. Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii), the
Ranking Member on the committee, warned that “it is a non-starter
to cut back on health-care services” to veterans in a time of war.
This theme was echoed by most of the other Democrats who attended
Texas Republican Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison praised Nicholson as “a
straight shooter who always does what he says he will do.” She
advised that she has a special interest in Gulf War syndrome and
the effect of returning veterans from Operation Iraqi Freedom on
veterans’ health care services provided by the VA.
When the former Republican and now Independent senator from
Vermont, Jim Jeffords, queried Nicholson, he brought up the fact
that Priority 8 veterans are no longer permitted to enroll to
obtain health care from the VA. To this Nicholson replied: “My
commitment to veterans is to find that balance in a world of
finite resources.” This theme was echoed several times by
Sen. Craig and others on the committee.
When Sen. Jeffords queried Nicholson on PTSD, saying that it is an
“absolute necessity” for the VA “to spend more to understand the
nature of PTSD,” Nicholson was quick to agree. He said that mental
health issues will command his attention, noting that early
intervention is critical.
It was quickly obvious, however, that the Ambassador has a steep
learning curve on the issues. His response to several questions
was, “I don’t know.” When Sen. Craig asked what he expected to
accomplish in his first hundred days, he was short on specifics
and long on the cliché of making a “seamless transition” from
active duty to the VA system.
Responding to freshman Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.), Nicholson said
he was “not aware [that any VA medical center was] turning away
Another freshman senator, Richard Burr (R-N.C.), asked one of the
more probing questions of the morning: “Are funds following the
migration of veterans” to southern locales, and is there “a need
to adjust VA’s funding formula?” Again, Nicholson’s response was
an entirely understandable, “I don’t know, but I’ll look into this
and get back to you.”
When Sen. Akaka brought up the concept of mandatory funding for
the VA’s medical operations, Nicholson appeared to parrot the
administration’s stated policy: “Given the mission of the VA and
given the exigent conditions of the war in Iraq,” he said, “having
the flexibility [of the current method of funding] is a plus. The
present system,” he added, “seems good to me.”
It was the freshman Democratic senator from Illinois, Barack Obama,
who brought up what he considers a glaring disparity in the amount
of compensation Illinois veterans receive in comparison to
veterans with similar disabilities in other states. To this
Nicholson replied: “I don’t know the issue. I will look into it
and provide the answer to you.”
The hearing broke for lunch at one o’clock. The confirmation of
Amb. Nicholson was a foregone conclusion. He was confirmed as head
of the VA unanimously by the Senate the next day.
VVA will seek to interview Nicholson after he familiarizes himself
with the issues of concern to our members—and to all veterans who
depend on the VA for their health care.
GOOD EYESIGHT IN HINDSIGHT
After five months of criticism from VVA and a wide range of
veterans and medical organizations, the VA rescinded a policy
initiative that would have permitted optometrists to perform laser
eye surgery on VA patients in VA facilities.
“Permitting optometrists, who are not licensed surgeons, to
perform this procedure not only puts patients at risk,” VVA
President Tom Corey said, “it also carries significant legal
liability issues. The VA deserves credit for recognizing an
unworkable policy and ending it. Surgery should be performed by
One of the problems acknowledged by VA officials was that a
working group of optometrists and ophthalmologists could not agree
on how supervisory rules would be implemented. “Instead of seeking
to push through an agreement, the VA cut its losses and opted to
do the right and honorable thing,” Corey said.
VA policy now calls for therapeutic laser eye procedures to be
performed only by ophthalmologists with the requisite training and
expertise. Each Medical Center director will be responsible for
insuring that privileges to perform these surgeries are granted to
ophthalmologists who meet the stated criteria.
KUDOS FOR VA MEDICAL OPS
Patients in the VA health care receive significantly better care
than private-sector patients, according to a recently released
study. The study by RAND, an independent think tank that came to
prominence doing studies of the Vietnam War, found that VA
patients were “significantly more likely” than non-VA patients to
receive needed preventive care. The study also found that VA
patients with chronic medical problems received the treatment they
needed more often than private-sector patients.
VVA and 28 other VSOs have joined together in an effort to get a
stamp approved by the Citizens’ Stamp Advisory Committee of the
U.S. Postal Service. The theme is simple and straightforward:
“Still Serving America.” A sheet of stamps would feature the
individual logos of the 29 VSOs.
Because this is a long shot, the VSOs involved are calling on
their members to “clamor” for this stamp by contacting their
senators and representatives to ask for their support in securing
a positive nod from the stamp committee.
We believe that our efforts need to be focused on preserving
veterans health care and protecting the VA from draconian budget
cuts. But VVA members certainly can help lobby for this
stamp sheet when they visit the local offices of their