VVA Testimony VVA Testimony
VVA Testimony


           

Statement
of
 

VIETNAM VETERANS OF AMERICA

 

Presented By

 John Rowan
National President

Before the

House Committee on Veterans' Affairs

Concerning

Accomplishments and Goals
In Veterans' Affairs

September 20, 2006



Good morning, Mr. Chairman and distinguished members of this committee.  On behalf of the members and families of Vietnam Veterans of America (VVA), it is my privilege today to offer our comments concerning what has been accomplished in the arena of veterans’ affairs during FY 2006, what remains to be done in the waning days of this fiscal year, and what needs to be addressed by this committee in FY 2007.

First, let me review the simple and straightforward legislative agenda of VVA. First, to secure adequate resources to properly administer the network of services that our Nation’s veterans have earned. This includes a more adequate sum for operation of VA Medical Centers and other vital health care functions. It also included increasing the number of adjudicators in the Compensation & Pension (C & P) system, counselors in Vocational Rehabilitation & Education (VR & E).  

Second, we asked that you and your colleagues take action to greatly enhance the accountability of all employees in the VA, but especially managers and political appointees. This would include being held accountable for accurate adjudication decisions as opposed to just the volume of files moved forward in the C & P service, as it has appeared to be the case in the past. It include ensuring that contracts are drawn in such a manner as to systematize the reporting of contracts and unit costs, with an eye toward getting the most goods and services for the least expenditure of each taxpayer dollar. It would also include greater accountability in regard to access to medical and other services, as well as clinical outcomes. 

Third, we asked that you take steps to greatly enhance outreach by the VA to inform veterans of their earned benefits at the VA and elsewhere in the Federal government. 

As to what did happen this year, VVA commends you on your activism in tackling some of the issues of critical importance to veterans, particularly our newest veterans.  You have sought to give real meaning to the term “seamless transition,” to foster active cooperation between the VA and the Department of Defense in providing assistance to newly minted veterans transitioning from active duty.  You have pushed the VA to greatly improve the way it conducts its business in regard to Information Technology (IT).  And you have rejected the Office of Management and Budget notion that the co-pay for prescription drugs be increased and a user fee be imposed on certain veterans who avail themselves of the VA health care system. 

Perhaps the most important piece of progress concerning veterans during the current fiscal year has resulted from the unfortunate theft of a laptop computer and external hard drive from the home of a long-time VA employee.  The information contained on this hard drive – we’re still not quite sure if it was the name, birth date, and Social Security number of 17.6 million or 26.5 million veterans – piqued the attention of the media and the public on the very fragile cyber-security of VA computers.   

This committee – and your counterparts on the other side of the Capitol – held more hearings on this one topic than on any other single subject in the past five years.  Because of your swift action the VA moved quickly to set up a telephone hotline and to send “don’t-panic” letters to all living veterans (although we know of several who never received this letter).  And Secretary Nicholson has promised that henceforth the VA will set the “gold standard” in cyber-security for the rest of the agencies of government. 

However, numerous initiatives that have been started have yet to be completed.  These include cutting the enormous backlog of cases awaiting adjudication by personnel of the Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA).  We know that Undersecretary of Veterans Affairs for Benefits Cooper is focusing on this problem; we hope his will not be the same fate as that of former Secretary Principi, whose goal to significantly cut this backlog was defeated by . . . the backlog. 

VVA maintains that if the VBA is to make a permanent dent here it needs more adjudicators who are well trained, can pass rigorous competency based examinations, and are properly supervised.  And these adjudicators must endeavor to get it right the first time. Quality control is of the essence here. We think that you’ll find that most veterans are okay with the D&C process itself; what they are upset about is how long it takes before a decision is rendered and/or lack of sharing the reason(s) for rejection in a clear manner if their claim is denied. VVA thanks you and your colleagues on both sides of the aisle for taking action that led appropriators in the House to add on to the amount slated for the veterans’ medical care system, for research, and especially for adding additional adjudicators and VR & E specialists. 

The bottom line, of course, is funding – funding for adjudicators and, indeed, funding for the entire VA health care system.  Every year, it seems, funding for the VA is accomplished via continuing resolution until Congress can come to an agreement on a budget as well as the actual appropriations.  VVA believes that the method by which VA health care is funded is flawed and must be rethought, to ensure a predictable, consistent, sustainable flow of funds based on the per capita use of the system and indexed for medical inflation. While we believe that accountability and means of measuring performance must be greatly enhanced at the same time, more adequate resources must be found. 

We urge and hope that a bipartisan effort will be made to rectify this situation in the next Congress and we would hope that like minds from both sides of the aisle can come together to grapple with this issue and, with input from the veterans’ service organizations, propose a legislative solution.  Any solution, of course, must contain provisions for accountability – the accountability of senior and middle managers for the work they are charged with overseeing. This is likely an initiative for the 110th Congress.   

What we hope the current Congress will address, and pass appropriate legislation that will permit veterans to secure legal representation when filing claims for disability and compensation before the Veterans Benefits Administration. With the enthusiastic backing of Senator Larry Craig, the Senate passed S. 2694, the Veterans' Choice of Representation and Benefits Enhancement Act of 2006.   

We know that some have expressed fears that such a bill will only make adversarial a process that should be cooperative.  Others worry that passage of this bill will herald the demise of veterans service representatives.  VVA heard the same arguments before passage of the legislation that accorded veterans at least limited judicial review, and created the United States Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims. We believe that the realities will be just the opposite:  that giving veterans the right to legal representation will make the VA more cognizant of its obligation to assist veterans making claims; and that service reps will still have more cases than they can reasonably be expected to handle. It is our belief that many (probably most) veterans will still utilize a veterans’ service representative from one of the recognized veterans’ service organizations or state or county veterans’ counselor where there is a good one available. We hope that the House will pass similar legislation expeditiously, and we commend to you H.R. 4914.  Passage of this bill will be a tribute to the Honorable Lane Evans, the retiring Ranking Member of this committee. 

We strongly commend to you as well H.R. 808, introduced by Mr. Brown of South Carolina.  This bill would repeal the dependency and indemnity compensation (DIC) offset from survivor benefit plan (SBP) surviving spouse annuities.  We urge swift action on this bill, which would right a grievous wrong. 

Mr. Thompson of California and Mr. Rehberg of Montana have long in favor of H.R. 4259, the Veterans Right to Know Act, introduced VVA. This bill would create and empower a commission to look into the testing of chemical and biological weapons to determine if health issues suffered by veterans who participated in these tests might have been caused by toxic exposures during these tests.  We know that jurisdiction over this bill is with the Armed Services Committee, but you, Chairman Buyer, and Ranking Democrat Lane Evans have significant “weight” with that Committee. We also ask that you hold a hearing, or just take action to extend the authority of the VA to provide a full physical, with a national protocol, for all veterans who participated in any chemical or biological weapons research such as Project 112, Project SHAD, or other activities by any branch of the Federal government that may have caused them to be exposed to these biological agent, chemical agents, so-called simulants, or the highly toxic decontamination agents.  Similarly, we urge you to take steps to extend such authority for such examinations for those exposed to Agent Orange and other toxins in the Vietnam theater of operations. 

Sooner or later, Congress is going to have to come to grips with the availability of long-term care beds for service-connected disabled veterans.  Currently there are a pastiche of long-term care services and programs, some run by the VA, others by the states.  Demand is dwarfing available bed space.  And as more and more veterans are living longer and longer, at some point, soon, Congress and the VA are going to have to address the long-term care needs of these men and women and grapple with how to pay for this care.  We urge you to hold hearings on this issue early in the next Congress.

We also trust that you will work to ensure that the mental health needs of returning servicemen and women are met.  VVA has had grave concerns that there is too wide a disparity between supply and demand in this arena, depending on where one lives. Some “networks”(VISNs) of the Veterans Health Administration (VHA) have done a good job, and have organizational capacity to meet much of the apparent needs…if there is proper outreach to these younger veterans.  

Just as whether or not a veteran can receive proper mental health services should not depend on where one lives, similarly it should not depend on one’s gender.  While VA has done a very commendable job of ensuring that proper counseling for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) resulting from military sexual trauma, there is virtually no organizational capacity at VA to deal with PTSD in women that results from exposure to combat and other hazardous duty. Frankly, mixing men and women in the same group sessions for combat trauma is not likely to work, given the nature of the condition and its manifestations. Similarly, Congress must ensure that the top civilian and uniformed leaders in the military services take appropriate measures to eliminate the stigma that is too often still attached to mental health issues.  

VVA thanks you for passing H.R. 3082 regarding service disabled and other veteran owned businesses selling goods & services to the VA. We strongly support this issue as well as extending the authority for future Federal funding of the Veterans Corporation in exchange for re-structuring of the Veterans Corporation. In the next Congress we urge you to address the Veterans Employment & Training Service and the funds that are contracted out to the states to explore whether there is a way to get more services for the same amount of money, whether more funds are needed, and whether assistance now available to veterans, particularly disabled veterans and recently separated veterans (including those National Guard or Reserves members who are underemployed or unemployed) is adequate to meet the need. VVA continues to believe that the nexus of the readjustment process is helping returning veterans obtain and sustain meaningful employment at a living wage. 

Finally, to conclude just about where we started, we ask that you monitor the progress of the VA in ensuring the privacy of veterans’ medical and service records.  We believe this will mean requiring progress reports from the VA which. History has shown that has been less than resolute in guarding its myriad records against theft or computer hacking. 

Mr. Chairman and members of this committee, VVA thanks you for the opportunity to share our thoughts and views with you, and is pleased to work with you to achieve mutually held objectives that are to the benefit of the men and women who don the uniform to preserve and protect the citizens of our land. 

Thank you.


VIETNAM VETERANS OF AMERICA
Funding Statement
September 20, 2006

The national organization Vietnam Veterans of America (VVA) is a non-profit veterans membership organization registered as a 501(c)(19) with the Internal Revenue Service. VVA is also appropriately registered with the Secretary of the Senate and the Clerk of the House of Representatives in compliance with the Lobbying Disclosure Act of 1995.

VVA is not currently in receipt of any federal grant or contract, other than the routine allocation of office space and associated resources in VA Regional Offices for outreach and direct services through its Veterans Benefits Program (Service Representatives). This is also true of the previous two fiscal years.


For Further Information, Contact:
Executive Director of Policy and Government Affairs
Vietnam Veterans of America.
(301) 585-4000, extension 127



JOHN ROWAN

 John Rowan was elected National President of Vietnam Veterans of America at VVA’s Twelfth National Convention in Reno, Nevada, in August 2005.  

John enlisted in the U.S. Air Force in 1965, two years after graduating from high school in Queens, New York. He went to language school, where he learned Indonesian and Vietnamese. He served with the Air Force’s 6990 Security Squadron in Vietnam and at Kadena Air Base in Okinawa helping to direct bombing missions.  

After his honorable discharge, John began college in 1969. He received a BA in political science from Queens College and a Masters in urban affairs at Hunter College. Following his graduation from Queens College, John worked in the district office of Rep. Ben Rosenthal for two years. He then worked as an investigator for the New York City Council and recently retired from his job as an investigator with the New York City Comptroller’s office.   

Prior to his election as VVA’s National President, John served as a VVA veterans’ service representative in New York City. John has been one of the most active and influential members of VVA since the organization was founded in 1978. He was a founding member and the first president of VVA Chapter 32 in Queens. He served as the chairman of VVA’s Conference of State Council Presidents for three terms on the national Board of Directors, and as president of VVA’s New York State Council.   

He lives in Middle Village, New York, with his wife, Mariann.

E-mail us at govtrelations@vva.org

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