A publication of Vietnam Veterans of America, Inc. ®
An organization chartered by the U.S. Congress

February 1999/March 1999

Government Relations

VVA's Agenda For 1999

By Rick Weidman, Government Relations Director

VVA President George C. Duggins and the organization's national officers and Board of Directors have clearly delineated our direction for 1999. The themes of our advocacy reinforce what we have always stood for as an organization: that we tell the truth and act honestly; and that we demand that our government always tell us the truth and that veterans be treated justly and with respect. VVA also demands accountability for the effectiveness and the efficiency of each government program charged with helping veterans and their families.

VVA has a set of guidelines we believe every government veterans program should abide by. Each program
should have as its goal helping veterans return to the greatest degree possible of self sufficiency or wellness of the whole person. Each program should be making progress toward that goal and should be doing so in the most cost-efficient and cost-effective manner possible.

Dole Commission Study

The report of  the Congressional Commission on Service Members and Veterans Transition Assistance,  popularly known as the "Dole Commission'' Study, was released in January. The report has caused many in the veterans' community, in Congress, and the federal government to re-think how we are doing the job of assisting veterans. The release of the report provides  an opportunity and presents a challenge for all of us in the veterans community to take a second look at how we are pursuing our goals.

VVA suggests that it may be time to think anew about the range of veterans programs. We must take care to keep what is working well and not change things simply for the sake of change. However, it may well be time to restructure some services that clearly are not performing well. The call for doing so is reflected in many of the resolutions passed by the 1997 VVA National Convention. That includes resolutions dealing with small-business development assistance for veterans, particularly disabled veterans; the need to inject accountability and private-sector principles of rewarding good performance into employment and training programs for veterans; and changes other vital veterans programs.  If we do a good enough job of seeking enactment the 1999 VVA legislative agenda, we will have done a great job of helping focus the nation on the legitimate unmet needs of veterans of every generation.

The President's Budget

The request for veterans' health care in President Clinton's proposed Fiscal Year 2000 budget is, we believe, drastically inadequate. One problem with this budget stems from the "flat-lining'' of the veterans' budget as part of the so-called "Balanced Budget Agreement.''  What this means is that funds for veterans' health care are not scheduled to be increased from Fiscal Year 1997 through Fiscal Year 2002.  Health care for veterans is virtually the only item that is flat-lined in the budget over that period of time.

This sounds very discriminatory to us.  No other group of Americans has been singled out in this manner. What's particularly disappointing is that health care for veterans is being flat- lined during a period of a well-publicized federal government "budget surplus.''

It is true that  the VA health-care system needs to reinvent itself, but the hospitals also need a reasonable amount of money with which to operate. VVA agrees with the assessment of the "Independent Budget of the Veterans' Service Organizations'' put together by the large veterans service organizations, which noted that the President's VHA (Veterans Health Care Administration) request of just over $17-billion is at least $3-billion shy of the money t the system needs in order to function.

VVA believes that the VA should better use the funds it receives and more explicitly focus on "he [and she] who hath borne the battle,'' beginning with requiring VA to take a full military history on each veteran. However, this budget request is so inadequate that, if it goes into effect, the VA medical system will implode from lack of resources. Many medical services that should be available to veterans today at the VA simply do not effectively exist in actual practice. Veterans are not refused services, but the resources are not there to help them achieve wellness.

 Some in the veterans community believe that the Clinton administration took a long look at what happened last year when the VSOs lost the battle in Congress over tobacco compensation and decided that cutting VA funds would not be politically risky. That is simply wrong and is unfair to veterans of every generation. The bottom line is VVA believes at least an additional $3-to-$4-billion is needed to sustain this VA health care-system, particularly such vital programs as PTSD treatment, diagnosis and treatment of Hepatitis C, and the diagnosis, treatment, and compensation for the adverse health effects of Agent Orange and other toxic substances we were exposed to in Vietnam.

VVA often has differed with Under Secretary for Veterans Health Dr. Kenneth Kizer on issues. But  we certainly agree with his recently stated concerns about the proposed VA budget. Kizer said that if Congress does not drastically increase the budget, there will be extensive layoffs and facility closings, and even more curtailment of the so-called "Special Emphasis'' programs, such as those dealing with spinal-cord injury, PTSD, and neuro- psychiatry in general. He described the state of VHA as being "in a serious and precarious situation.'' This is simply unacceptable.

Because of the way the budget process is designed, it is extremely difficult to make up a shortfall of this magnitude. In most cases, it would be next to impossible to add more than a few hundred million dollars to the President's requested budget.  VVA believes this is unacceptable and urges the leadership of both parties in Congress take extraordinary measures to insure the viable future of the entire VA system.

Agent Orange

On Feb. 11, the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) released its latest review of the scientific evidence regarding adverse health effects from exposure to Agent Orange and other toxins in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War.  We have known for a long time that the NAS reports are only as good as the reports they review.  VVA believes that many more cost- effective, quick turn around studies should be funded by this session of Congress. However, the fact remains that the practical results for veterans of this review by NAS was virtually the same as its 1996 report.

VVA has joined with the NAS in calling for more and larger studies and for efforts that can be accomplished quickly.  The need for oversight hearings on the Ranch Hand Study is even more pressing now.  While VVA president George Duggins has expressed our continued faith in NAS, he noted that simple justice demands answers to Agent Orange/dioxin questions before most of us are dead.

The day after the release of the NAS report, Duggins wrote to Secretary of Veterans Affairs Togo West asking the Secretary to join us in pushing for more quality studies, particularly ones that focus on the impact on the health of Vietnam veterans of one or more of the chemicals in Agent Orange, as well as the many other toxins present in our "work environment'' during the Vietnam War. The NAS report should give us renewed vigor to pursue the introduction and enactment of comprehensive legislation on Agent Orange and the toxic battlefield during the 106th Congress.

Next year marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War.  It is high time that the problems of the men and women who fought the war be properly addressed before that landmark anniversary.  It is our hope that all VVA members will read the following agenda and decide to become even more actively involved by contacting the government relations staff and lending us your skills and passion as part of VVA's legislative-coordinator network, now nicknamed VVA's "The A Team.''

 VVA's Board of Directors approved an ambitious, far-ranging legislative agenda for 1999 at its January  meeting in Washington, D.C. Number one on the agenda in the health area is VVA's commitment to work for introduction of and enactment of the Service Members and Veterans' Self Sufficiency Act. That proposed legislation calls, among other things, for making mental-health and PTSD services available in all areas of the country and expanding existing DeTox programs to every VAMC. The bill also calls for substantive changes in the areas of transitional housing and subsidized apartments and a ten-year extension of the Homeless Veteran Reintegration Program.
VVA's agenda also includes lobbying for the enactment of the Comprehensive Agent Orange and Toxic Chemicals Act of 1999. That legislation provides for multifaceted, indepth research in Vietnam and in this country. Along those lines, VVA also will work to strengthen the Scientific Advisory Group in order to ascertain civilian control of the ongoing Operation Ranch Hand Study.

VVA, too, will continue to press for additional birth defects studies and presumptive connections where indicated, including among Vietnam veterans' children and grandchildren, and for greater responsiveness of programs administered by Health and Human Services. Of particular note is the effort to foster studies that examine the combined effects of two or more of the toxic agents that affected military personnel in Southeast Asia.

VVA will work for enactment of the Veterans Comprehensive Health Care Act of 1999. That  proposed bill includes language that will allow veterans' military histories to be used as a diagnostic tool. It also calls for testing, treatment, and compensation for veterans with Hepatitis C and for implementing a holistic  approach in the VA system for the care of PTSD, mental health, and sexual-trauma patients. The act also would set up a former-POW health registry that includes POW health studies and the designation of an ombudsman at each VAMC for former POWs.
In the labor and business arenas, VVA will work to strengthen the Veterans Employment Opportunities Act of 1998. Among other things, there is a need to eliminate the targeting of veteran-held jobs during federal workforce reductions and to bolster veterans preference in hiring and retention.

The 1999 legislative agenda includes support of the Veteran Family Preservation Act of 1999, sometimes known as veterans' "one stop'' legislation. That proposed law calls for, among other things, the re-education and training of veterans; an expansion of the Work Therapy Program; and a mandatory DVOP outstation at each Vet Center, VA VocRehab, and other sites. VVA also will work with Rep. Jim Talent (R-MO) and others for the creation of the proposed National Veterans Business Development Corporation.

As far as veterans benefits are concerned, VVA will work for congressional oversight hearings to address a variety of issues. That includes the future schedule for Agent Orange and  Depleted Uranium studies and the disparity between Agent Orange claims versus awards.
VVA will work to secure the enactment of legislation that would extend IRS eligibility dates from the mid-1950s to May 31, 1975, to qualify as an in-country Vietnam veteran and also would modify the inclusive dates for Vietnam-era veterans. VVA will work to increase the Montgomery GI Bill to a reasonable rate.

On the POW/MIA front, VVA will work for enactment of  legislation that would create a permanent Select Committee on Prisoners of War and Missing In Action in the U.S. House of Representatives.

In the state legislatures, VVA will cooperate with its State Councils to push for state legislation that would create Veterans' Preference laws modeled on Florida's recently enacted law, veterans' set asides in state procurement based on a California law, and a POW/MIA Recognition Day that would conform with the federal date of the third Friday of each September.

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