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

January/February 2005
GOVERNMENT RELATIONS
 
 

Everything Changes...
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 courage.”

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 advocate.

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.

SPECTER DEPARTS

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 nature. 

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, appreciated. 

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 tell. 

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 recent years.”

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 the hearing.

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 claimants.”

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 surgeons.”

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.

STAMP ACT

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 congressional representatives.

   

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