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March / April 2009

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March / April 2009


The chairs of both the House and Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committees took “a major but far from final step,” as reporter Rick Maze put it in his article in Navy Times, in fulfilling the top request from veterans’ service organizations: They introduced the Veterans Health Care Budget Reform and Transparency Act (H.R. 1016 and S. 423), legislation that would provide funding a full year in advance for the health care budget of the Department of Veterans Affairs. The chairs announced this step at a standing-room-only press conference on February 12.

When he was running for president, President Obama stated in a letter to the American Federation of Government Employees that he supports the idea. Even though Congress has been very generous in funding VA health care over the last two years, the fact is that the VA budget has been late—on average, three months late—in 19 of the past 22 years.

The legislation would have Congress approve the 2011 veterans’ health care budget this year, when it also passes the 2010 budget. Then, beginning with the 2012 budget, funding levels for veterans health care programs—but not the rest of the VA budget—would be finalized one year before the VA needed the money. There are proponents of other issues—education, agriculture, and defense, for instance—that could, and undoubtedly will, argue that they, too, are deserving of advance appropriations.

But with a shooting war going on halfway around the globe and with often grievously injured or wounded men and women returning to our shores, there is growing public sentiment to support this initiative. The need for its passage is obvious.

“We can’t hire anyone [in the second half of the year] because we don’t know what the budget’s going to be,” said J. David Cox, AFGE’s national secretary-treasurer. “Then, we get our funding in February, and we need to hire everybody. But nurses aren’t coming out of school then; they’re coming out in May and June.”

The Senate bill (S. 423), introduced by Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chair Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii), was co-sponsored by Sens. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine), Tim Johnson (D-S.D.), Jon Tester (D-Mont.), Mark Begich (D-Alaska), Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), Russ Feingold (D-Wisc.), Mary Landrieu (D-La.), Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.), Bernard Sanders (I-Vt.), Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), John Thune (R-S.D.), and David Vitter (R-La.).

The House bill (H.R. 1016), introduced by Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chair Bob Filner (D-Calif.), was co-sponsored by Reps. Walter Jones (R-N.C.), Phil Hare (D-Ill.), Stephanie Herseth Sandlin (D-S.D.), Mike Michaud (D-Maine), and John Hall (D-N.Y.).

What is needed now, more than ever, is a grassroots effort. It is critically important that VVA members—and your families—reach out to your Senators and Representatives. Ask how they stand on the issue of funding for veterans’ health care. If they profess their support for sufficient, timely, and predictable funding, ask them to support and co-sponsor H.R. 1016/S. 423. If they agree, thank them. If they demur, raise the heat at town hall meetings and via letters and emails.

Achieving sufficient, timely, and predictable funding is VVA’s highest legislative goal. With the support of the President, it is within reach. And your efforts will make a difference.


The best laid plans of mice and men, to paraphrase Robert Burns, too often bring disappointment. Crisis, however, often brings change.

It looks as though it took the near collapse of the American economy to get the Filipino veterans of World War II, men who fought under the flag of the United States, the recognition and compensation they have been seeking for more than six decades.

A provision in the stimulus bill authorized the release of $198 million to rectify Uncle Sam’s postwar snub. Some 18,000 Filipino veterans will now receive up to $15,000 for their service.

Their long quest for compensation stems from President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s decision in 1941 to draft 140,000 soldiers from the Philippines, then an American colony. A year later, Congress passed a law allowing Filipino soldiers to become U.S. citizens with full military benefits. But in 1946, after Filipino soldiers fought and died side by side with U.S. troops, President Harry Truman signed two bills denying them citizenship and most veterans’ benefits. The bills were postwar cost-saving measures.

Of the 250,000 Filipino veterans of World War II, some 12,000 live in the Philippines and 6,000 in the United States. About 30,000 came to this country in the early ’90s after President George H.W. Bush signed a bill granting them instant citizenship. About 2,000 settled in the San Francisco Bay Area. All but a few hundred in Northern California have either died or returned to the Philippines.

Last April, the Senate by a vote of 96-1 passed a bill that would have given the Filipino veterans a pension from the Department of Veterans Affairs of $900 a month if they lived in the United States or $300 plus VA health care if they lived in the Philippines. But the bill stalled in the House and eventually was replaced by the lump-sum provisions. Veterans who are U.S. citizens would get $15,000; those who are citizens of the Philippines would get $9,000.


During the presidency of George W. Bush, there was a ban on media coverage of flag-draped caskets arriving at Dover Air Force Base, Delaware, and on allowing media coverage of military funerals at Arlington National Cemetery and other military cemeteries.

Out of sight, however, didn’t mean out of mind, as more than four thousand men and women returned to our shores in caskets. We have long believed that the policy of banning coverage was a misguided attempt to conceal the human cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. We salute Defense Secretary Gates for reversing the policy of his former boss.

“There is no more important parade in this nation than the parade of flag-draped caskets of returning U.S. servicemen and women who have given all that they might have been for all of us,” said Paul Bucha, chair of the VETPAC Advisory Board and a Medal of Honor recipient. “As such, that parade above all others deserves the nation’s attention and respect.”

Bucha remembered President Reagan personally trooping the line of flag-draped caskets upon their return from Beirut in 1983 to publicly express a nation’s pride in the valor of the fallen. Reagan did not try to hide the results of the deadliest single-day loss since the 1968 Tet Offensive from the view of a grieving public. Nor did he shrink from responsibility for his decisions that led to the tragedy.


The Social Security Administration began using the nationwide health information network on February 28, making it the first agency to test the government’s approach to interoperable electronic health records.

MedVirginia, a regional health information organization, agreed to let SSA officials retrieve the electronic medical records of disability benefit applicants in the Richmond, Virginia, area. What will this mean? The typical disability claim takes 80 to 90 days to process, with the bulk of that time spent waiting for medical records. In a pilot program with Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, it took less than a minute to retrieve records, with no human interaction on the hospital’s end.

This is part of the National Health Information Network, a network of networks being developed under the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology at the Health and Human Services Department. The goal is to provide a nationwide, interoperable infrastructure that will allow federal agencies, state, and local health care providers and consumers to share patients’ information while safeguarding their privacy.

While implementation of this network will be gradual, it will happen. We hope that executives with the Veterans Benefits Administration take heed of the progress being made in other areas of government. This might help impel them to figure out ways to improve the efficiency of claims adjudication. In this age of stunning advances in electronic communications, for the VBA’s claims processing to be bogged down with what seems like stone-age technology is, to us, inconceivable.

This is one of the reasons VVA joined in a federal lawsuit to “encourage” VBA, by court order, to adjudicate new claims in 90 days, or begin paying claimants 30 percent disability rating.


According to the American Federation of Government Employees in Cleveland: “Employees [of VBA] are being placed on case production shortly after the hiring process, and the only training many specialists receive…only covers the basics.”

This will not help reduce the backlog of benefits claims, and it is patently unfair both to the new employees and to the veterans whose cases will be thus “adjudicated.” If they’re adjudicated properly the first time, even though this takes a little longer, there will be far fewer remands. But it doesn’t seem that the VBA works this way.

VVA has long advocated for better training of adjudicators, competency-based exams for all who touch a veteran’s claim, and accountability measures for supervisors and managers in that system.

VBA administrators ought to rethink how they do what they do.






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