VVA Testimony VVA Testimony
VVA Testimony

Testimony of

Vietnam Veterans of America

Presented by

Richard Weidman
Executive Director for Policy & Government Affairs

Before the

Subcommittee on Health
Committee on Veterans’ Affairs
United States House of Representatives

Regarding 

VA FY’09 Construction Authorization

February 27, 2008

Good morning Chairman Michaud, Ranking Member Miller, and distinguished members of this subcommittee.  Thank you for giving Vietnam Veterans of America (VVA) the opportunity to offer our comments the VA FY’09 Construction Authorizations.

In the last few years, the VA has spent millions of dollars on a plan to restructure the VA health care system’s capital assets.  After extensive study—although some of us believed it was flawed due to the absence of mental health and long-term care in its models—the report called for about $6 billion to be invested in the system.  VVA believes this indicates the magnitude of the problem of a crumbling infrastructure that was, for the most part, built in the 1940s and 50s. 

The promises of VA’s Construction Acquisition and Restoration for Enhanced Services, or CARES, program has seemed far from fulfillment in the past three or four years as the coffers of medical facilities continued to be robbed to pay for medical services operations. It must be disheartening for hard-working and dedicated employees of the VA to compare the state of many of their facilities to those in the community. 

Some VA hospitals are barely maintaining accreditation because they cannot meet privacy and access standards because of overcrowding.  The VA has delayed vital capital equipment purchases and non-recurring maintenance projects in order to fund gaps in veterans’ health care.  Yet the Administration has proposed a decrease in construction funds. This is not only not a prudent or conservative response to the clear infrastructure needs of the VA health care system, it would appear to be wildly irresponsible and far from anything that could be considered prudent business practice, much less good medicine. This practice must cease. 

Dilapidated and over-crowded facilities are symbolic of the lack of consistent and concerted commitment toward meeting the obligation the federal government has to those who have served or would serve their nation, even after five years of a seemingly endless war.  We can do better; we must do better. 

I would be remiss if I did not note for the record that VVA never “agreed” to the civilian formula being used in the CARES process because it does not

 

take into account the diseases, wounds, and maladies that are due to military service, depending on the branch of service, when and where one serves, and what one actually did and was exposed to (including vaccines).

VVA respectfully requests that this distinguished panel hold a future hearing on the dual subject of “caring for war wounded and ill” that would include the CARES formula, the need for VA clinicians to take a complete military history to assist in the diagnosis and treatment of veterans, and the general lack of attention to the VA’s Veterans Health Initiative (VHI) 24 curricula in the wounds and maladies of war. VVA reiterates that VA must truly become a “veterans health care system” instead of a general health care system that happens to be for veterans (which is generally what we have now, with a few add-on programs). Because this shift will affect plans for physical plants to adequately meet the needs of veterans in the future, it would be a much needed and quite useful hearing that would be directly related to the matter at hand of this hearing.

Congress should restore and enhance the medical facilities budget by at least $.5 billion for medical facilities in fiscal year 2009. It should increase VHA’s portions of major and minor construction by at least $1 billion.   

The VA FY’09 request for construction funding for health care programs is $750.0 million -- $476.6 million for major construction and $273.4 million for minor construction.

The VA budget request for major construction would provide additional funding and VVA fully supports authorization for the following five medical facility projects:

  • Denver, Colorado ($20.0 million) -- replacement medical center near the University of Colorado Fitzsimons campus;
  • Lee County, Florida ($111.4 million) -- new building for an ambulatory surgery/outpatient diagnostic support center;
  • Orlando, Florida ($120.0 million) -- new medical center consisting of a hospital, medical clinic, nursing home, domiciliary, and full support services;
  • San Juan, Puerto Rico ($64.4 million) -- seismic corrections to the main hospital building; and
  • St. Louis, Missouri ($5.0 million) -- medical facility improvements and cemetery expansion.

 

VVA fully supports the FY’09 VA budget for major construction funding in that would allow construction of the three new medical facility projects listed:

  • Bay Pines, Florida ($17.4 million) -- inpatient and outpatient facility improvements;
  • Tampa, Florida ($21.1 million) -- polytrauma expansion and bed tower upgrades; and
  • Palo Alto, California ($38.3 million) -- centers for ambulatory care and polytrauma rehabilitation center.

 

In regard to Puerto Rico, however, we ask that this distinguished panel begin to champion the cause of correcting the shoddy infrastructure of VA facilities in Puerto Rico. VVA National President John Rowan led a fact-finding delegation to Puerto Rico in December 2006. What that delegation found was a shoddy, outdated, and non-hurricane proof VA medical center building, totally inadequate parking facilities for both staff and patients, and a cemetery that was literally “racking and stacking” remains of veterans (this last hardly qualifies as highest respect for these heroes, or the stated goal of making the national cemeteries “national shrines”).

The degraded physical plants were indicative of the degraded services provided to these veterans, who disproportionately served in the combat arms. The delay in adjudicating claims was much longer than the already too long national average.. Perhaps indicative was the locked door to the “veterans’ service center” that had a “Closed until further notice” sign.  There were scant services for PTSD (and seemingly only desultory interest in improving care for PTSD). Both veterans and staff were driving to the VAMC at 3 and 4 in the morning and sleeping in their cars in order to get one of the very limited parking spaces. And there was clear evidence that an additional Vet Center was vitally needed (especially in light of the scant services at the VAMC).

A report on the above was provided to the Secretary of Veterans Affairs, and VVA followed up with repeated conversations with top VA officials. VVA also discovered that our findings mirrored the findings of the Center for Minority Veterans and other VA entities. A copy of this report was also provided to the delegate from Puerto Rico and to the Hispanic caucus, with a copy to this committee.

It is worth noting that VVA sent a one-year later follow-up delegation in December 2007 led by VVA National Secretary Barry Hagge and including VVA Regional Board of Directors Member Carol Strumkopf. They found that there were some plans in the works, but that the basic situation was little changed.

In fairness to the VA, there are plans to add a new Vet Center in Puerto Rico, to add a new bed tower, and to make some structural changes to strengthen the old VAMC building to make it a bit sturdier in the face of a major hurricane.

VVA recommends that there be an entirely new hospital designed from the outset to withstand a category 3 or 4 hurricane. Why is it that $2 billion can be found to build an entirely new hospital in Denver but not in Puerto Rico? Were those who fought and returned home to Puerto Rico any less valiant or true to the United States than those who returned home to Colorado? VVA thinks not. Funds should be provided in FY’09 to put this vital move on the fast track.

Further, VVA has urged the Administration to acquire land for a large new national cemetery now, with a view especially to the divestment by the Department of Defense of numerous parcels of land in Puerto Rico.

VVA also strongly urges that the Congress provide funds that shall be used specifically to acquire land and build a new and large parking garage with a 6 AM to 6 PM every 15 minute shuttle service to the VAMC.

VVA believes that degraded physical plants lead to degraded medical services to the veterans who use the VA medical system. Therefore, we recommend that this committee to secure a General Accountability Office (GAO) study of medical services, doctor/patient ratios, RN/patient ratios by facility to discover if there is a correlation between poor physical facilities and the recruitment/retention of staff and the actual shape of medical services provided. Medical outcomes by DRG should also be studied to find out if new facilities improve the medical outcomes for veterans affected.

VVA fully supports the Department of Veterans Affairs Construction Authorization as written.

I thank you for affording VVA the opportunity to present our views, and thank you for what you are doing to assist veterans and their families. I will be pleased to answer any questions you may have.


VIETNAM VETERANS OF AMERICA
Funding Statement
February 27, 2008

 

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


Richard F. Weidman

Richard F. “Rick” Weidman is Executive Director for Policy and Government Affairs on the National Staff of Vietnam Veterans of America. As such, he is the primary spokesperson for VVA in Washington. He served as a 1-A-O Army Medical Corpsman during the Vietnam War, including service with Company C, 23rd Med, AMERICAL Division, located in I Corps of Vietnam in 1969.

Mr. Weidman was part of the staff of VVA from 1979 to 1987, serving variously as Membership Service Director, Agency Liaison, and Director of Government Relations.  He left VVA to serve in the Administration of Governor Mario M. Cuomo as statewide director of veterans’ employment & training (State Veterans Programs Administrator) for the New York State Department of Labor.

He has served as Consultant on Legislative Affairs to the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans (NCHV), and served at various times on the VA Readjustment Advisory Committee, the Secretary of Labor’s Advisory Committee on Veterans Employment & Training, the President’s Committee on Employment of Persons with Disabilities - Subcommittee on Disabled Veterans, Advisory Committee on Veterans’ Entrepreneurship at the Small Business Administration, and numerous other advocacy posts. He currently serves as Chairman of the Task Force for Veterans’ Entrepreneurship, which has become the principal collective voice for veteran and disabled veteran small-business owners.

Mr. Weidman was an instructor and administrator at Johnson State College (Vermont) in the 1970s, where he was also active in community and veterans affairs. He attended Colgate University (B.A., 1967), and did graduate study at the University of Vermont.
He is married and has four children.

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