June 2000/July 2000
VA Secretary Togo West Resigns
By Philip A. Litteer, Chair, VVA National Government Affairs
Committee and Rick Weidman, Director of Government Relations
Rep. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), left, confers with
chairman Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.) at the March 15 oversight
hearing of the House Government Reform Committee.
On July 10, Secretary of Veterans Affairs Togo D. West, Jr., announced
that he would be leaving
his VA post to return to private law practice. In a press release
responding to the news of West's
departure, VVA National President George C. Duggins said: "We urge
the President and VicePresident Gore to work with Acting Secretary Hershel
Gober to clear the log jams on many issues of vital concern to veterans
and their families, and to take bold and swift action on keyfronts.''
Duggins went on to note that it is time to move quickly on the petition
on what is known as the "in-country effect''--the overall negative
health effects on those who served in Vietnam--and to ensure that this
request receives an immediate and thorough consideration at the VA.
Duggins also noted that VVA's petition on Hepatitis C has been languishing
in the Secretary's office for some fifteen months, and that it is time to
publish regulations immediately that would declare hepatitis C a
presumptively service-connected, compensable condition.
Duggins also called on the President to expedite movement toward
cooperative scientific studies between the United States and Vietnam,
conducted in Vietnam, on the health and the environmental effects of
dioxin and other potential hazards that were used during the VietnamWar.
Lastly, Duggins called on the President and the Acting Secretary to
initiate research projects in the United States on American veterans of
the Vietnam War and their families, as required by the Agent Orange Act of
1991. "It is vital that the President and Vice President actively
support and encourage Acting Secretary Gober to move quickly and boldly to
re-establish a positive momentum at the VA, '' Duggins said. "Only
effective leadership will result in obtaining more adequate funding for
veterans health care, benefits, and services. Without that assertive
leadership, VA will be condemned to the same unfortunate pattern of
decline veterans have seen in recent years.''
Get Out And Register
Vietnam Veterans of America has launched a significant VETS VOTE!
campaign for 2000. Materials--including bumper stickers and lapel
pins--have been sent to each chapter and state council. In addition, the
printed materials are available at Vet Vote
2000. It's vitally important that each chapter set up
voter-registration booths at fairs, shopping centers, and other public
places--in addition to insuring that our own members are registered and
ready to vote for office-seekers at every level in the November elections.
A successful voter-registration drive and public-awareness campaign by
every chapter, no matter how small, will help secure the attention of
those seeking to represent us in the Congress and at the state and local
level, when we seek additional authority for vitally needed veterans
services and more adequate funding for health care and other pressing
Please check the VVA web site for more details about the VETS VOTE!
campaign or e-mail Sharon Hodge at firstname.lastname@example.org
for further information or assistance.
Funding for Veterans Health Care
The House of Representatives has passed the VA, HUD, and related
agencies appropriations bill for Fiscal Year 2001 and sent it to the
Senate for action. Rep. Lane Evans (D-Ill.) and others were able to secure
an additional $184 million over the President's request for state veterans
homes and other purposes, along with an increase of $ 32.5 million in
prosthetics. The House also, with the able leadership of Reps. Bob Stump
(R-Ariz.), James T. Walsh (R-N.Y.), Bob Filner (D-Calif.), and others
blocked the administration's plan to send $350 million collected for
health care co-payments back to the Treasury. However, the FY 2001 budget
for the Veterans Health Administration health-care system for veterans,
even with these increases, is still about $500 million short of what is
needed to prevent further cuts in staff and services to veterans. Without
these additional funds. VA will have to eliminate about 2,200 doctors,
nurses, and other care givers. That is in addition to the more than 25,000
positions eliminated in the last five years.
Be a Lobbyist
Sens. Paul Wellstone (D-Minn.) and Tim Johnson (D-S.D.) plan to offer
an amendment on the floor of the Senate to the VA-HUD appropriations bill
that would add the $500 million needed to prevent even more cuts and even
longer waiting times for veterans in need of VA health care services. We
urge all members to e-mail, call, and write to your senators and urge them
to support the Johnson-Wellstone amendment.
VVA National Veterans Affairs Committee chair Bob Maras helped organize
a "Take the Hill'' rally May 25 to help build support for increased
funding for the veterans health-care system. Speakers at this rally
included Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), Reps. Bob Filner, Marge Roukema
(R-N.J.), Bill Pascrell (D-N.J.), Rodney Freylingheusen (R-N.J.), Robert
Menendez (D-N.J.), Barney Frank (D-Mass.), and more than twenty others.
We ask that all VVA members pick up the telephone and call the offices
of their Senators in their states, and let them know that this directly
affects vitally needed health-care services to veterans at the VA
hospitals, and that VVA will be watching their votes carefully.
Agent Orange & Diabetes
Last September, the Secretary of Veterans Affairs postponed the
decision whether to grant service-connected, presumptive disability to
Vietnam veterans suffering from diabetes mellitus (adult onset diabetes)
as recommended by his staff. Instead, the Secretary referred the decision
to the Institute of Medicine (IOM) of the National Academy of Sciences
(NAS), which is now considering reports of an association between diabetes
and dioxin exposure issued by the United States Air Force Ranch Hand study
group at the end of March in response to pressure from Reps. Christopher
Shays (R-Conn.), Lane Evans (D-Ill.), Bernard Sanders (I-Vt.), and others.
This latest Ranch Hand study report found a significant association
between dioxin exposure and diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and other
The IOM has convened a panel, chaired by Dr. David Tollerud of Drexel
University, to study the issue and make a report by the end of September.
VVA and other veterans groups attended the meeting of this group on June 9
to hear a presentation by Dr. Joel Michalek of the Ranch Hand study group.
Although VVA was not allowed to make a presentation, we were permitted to
VVA remains cautiously optimistic that this will be a reasonable
assessment by the IOM that will find that is "as likely as not'' that
there is an association between diabetes and exposure to dioxin and other
chemical toxins in Vietnam. Should that be the case, it is our hope that
Acting Secretary Gober move immediately to declare diabetes mellitus as
being a service-connected, presumptive condition for Vietnam in-country
NAS Agent Orange Review
The Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences reviews
all research and peer reviewed literature every other year in order to
make recommendations and findings to the Secretary of Veterans Affairs on
any possible association between exposure to Agent Orange and other toxic
chemicals in Vietnam and diseases or other adverse medical conditions in
Vietnam veterans. This review is mandated in Public Law 102-4, known as
the Agent Orange Act of 1991.
The public hearing and comment session was held on May 23 in
Washington, where the panel assembled for this review, chaired by Dr. Irva
Hertz-Piccioto of the University of North Carolina, heard from veterans
groups and other interested parties. At this hearing, VVA National Agent
Orange/Dioxin Committee chair George Claxton and Linda Schwartz of Yale
School of Nursing delivered excellent presentations before the review
Claxton provided more than 70 important studies to the panel that the
IOM had not previously reviewed which had direct bearing on the issues at
hand. (To obtain copies of Claxton and Schwartz's presentations, see recent
testimonies dated March 15, 2000. For more information on the review
process or the panels, visit www.iom.edu.
The panel also heard from representatives of the American Legion and
the Veterans of Foreign Wars and from two widows whose husbands had died as
a result of illnesses due to their exposure to Agent Orange and other
exposures during their Vietnam service. Jennie LeFevre, a widow of a VVA
member who guiding force behind the Agent Orange Quilt of Tears, gave
moving testimony, as did Shelia Winsett of Alabama.
The report of the panel's review and findings are due out by the end of
calendar year 2000.
Vietnam Veterans of America is participating in the Veterans Council on
Hepatitis C and Liver Diseases of the American Liver Foundation. George
Duggins was joined by Bob Maras in representing VVA at the inaugural
meeting of this council on June 14-15. The Council has representation from
VVA, the American Legion, VFW, AMVETS, DAV, PVA, as well as the VA,
private medical schools, and private practitioners. Non-voting attendees
included representatives of pharmaceutical companies that support this
Speakers included Rep. Vic Snyder (D-Ark.), key staff members from both
the House and the Senate, and a briefing by various experts from the VA
and from the private sector. The group formally approved the outreach
effort via Internet and toll-free numbers to distribute the home testing
kits to veterans who have not yet been tested for hepatitis C. The
outreach was successful, with more than 2,000 veterans ordering the kit
from Home ACCESS, the company that manufactures it and made the kits
available for only $6 shipping and handling charge.
Also on the hepatitis C issue, Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn), Chair
of the Subcommittee on National Security, Veterans' Affairs, and
International Relations of the House Committee on Government Reform, held
hearings on hepatitis C. The subcommittee heard from veterans who have
been or are currently undergoing treatment for the disease. Heather Renee
French, Miss America 2000, also testified at the hearing on the need for
additional public awareness, education, testing, and treatment of this
In addition to HR 1020, the bill introduced by Rep. Snyder that would
classify hepatitis C as a presumptively service-connected condition, a
more limited bill, HR 4791, has recently been introduced by Rep. J.D.
Hayworth (R-Ariz.). While VVA favors H.R. 1020 because it is more
comprehensive in scope, VVA also favors passage of either bill this year.
Ken Moore of the VVA Task Force on Veterans Health Care also worked
with Miss America, Heather Renee French, the VA, the Illinois State
Council, and local VVA chapters and others to conduct a successful
outreach and testing event in Chicago, funded by the pharmaceutical
Hope for the Future
On March 23, 1999, VVA President George C. Duggins filed a formal
petition with the Secretary of Veterans Affairs, asking that the Secretary
declare hepatitis C to be a presumptive service-connected condition. Since
that time until his abrupt departure, Secretary West took no publicly
visible steps to do what is clearly within his power to do. This lack of
action came despite the reported recommendations by his staff in the
Veterans Health Administration and in the Veterans Benefits
At the end of April, Duggins wrote to West pointing out that he had
taken more time in considering this petition than the average tour of duty
in Vietnam. For more than two months after Duggins' latest letter on this
issue, we did not hear from Secretary West on this issue.
VVA hopes that Acting Secretary Hershel Gober will move quickly to do
the right thing on hepatitis C. VVA also hopes that the President and Vice
President Al Gore will support and assist Gober in any forthcoming efforts
do the right thing and to act decisively and immediately on this issue
that is so vital to so many veterans.
On June 15, VVA president George C. Duggins became the first leader of
a veterans service organization to address the Veterans Council of the
American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), which represents more
than 170,000 VA employees. Duggins spoke about areas of cooperation. He
received a standing ovation at the end of his remarks, when he and AFGE
Veterans Council President Alma Lee pledged to work together toward
restoration of the VA health care system.
Planning is under way for AFGE, VVA, and other potential allies to join
together on Flag Day 2001 in Washington to seek more adequate funding for
veterans health care.
Undersecretary for Health
Thomas H. Garthwaite, M.D., the VA Acting Underscretary for Veterans
Health, has been nominated by the President to a four-year term as
Undersecretary of Veterans Health. President George C. Duggins has written
to members of the Senate unequivocally endorsing the prompt confirmation
of Dr. Garthwaite for this vital position.
"Dr. Garthwaite has the experience, knowledge, commitment, and the
passion for the highest quality health care to the most veterans,''
Duggins said. He appears to have the vision necessary to restore VA to
leadership in properly dealing with the wounds of war and, perhaps most
importantly, he listens carefully to individual veterans about their
Duggins also cited Dr. Garthwaite's leadership toward more properly
addressing the need for awareness, testing, and treatment of hepatitis C
among veterans, particularly Vietnam veterans; his leadership on steps to
correct problems with diminishment of specialized services such as
spinal-cord injury and Post-traumatic stress disorder; and--perhaps most
important--the creation of the Veterans Health Initiative that will
require taking a full military history for every veteran at the VA medical
facilities and using it in the diagnosis and treatment plan to ensure that
the medical problems due to military service are properly diagnosed and
Dr. Garthwaite attended the June meeting of the VVA National Board on
June 16 and received a special Pointman Award in recognition of his
leadership on a variety of veterans health-care issues from VVA National
Veterans Affairs chair Bob Maras.
VVA continues to work closely with other veterans organizations, as
well as others, to insure that the National Veterans Business Development
Corporation receives the full $4 million authorized in a line item
appropriation for Fiscal Year 2001. VVA worked with the same broad
grouping of veterans and military organizations to achieve enactment of
Public Law 106-50, the Veterans Entrepreneurship and Small Business
Development Act of 1999. Implementation of that act has been problematic.
There was no funding for the corporation or other key provisions in the
act for FY 2000, as a result of the authorization being enacted after the
appropriations bill was completed last summer. The President has yet
to name the directors of the National Business Development Corporation or
to publish regulations that will result in the beginning of the
implementation of the 3 percent goal in federal procurement for disabled
veteran-owned and -operated businesses. There is still no permanent
Associate Deputy Administrator for Veterans Business Development, and
there is an on again-off again quality to the cooperation received by the
veterans community from the SBA.
On a brighter note, VVA participated with other organizations in
recognizing the efforts of many members of Congress and their staffs in
the development and passage of P.L. 106-50. The bipartisan support
received last year for this effort, and the commitment from both sides of
the aisle that appears to be just as strong today, makes it all the more
puzzling that the White House, the Office of Management & Budget, and
the Small Business Administration are not pressing ahead with zeal to
fully implement this statute.
Accountability in Employment
Rep. Jack Quinn (R-N.Y.), chairman of the Subcommittee on Benefits of
the House Committee on Veterans Affairs, has introduced H.R. 4765, the
21st Century Veterans Employment and Training Act. This is a bipartisan
bill strongly supported by Committee Chairman Bob Stump on the Republican
side, as well as Lane Evans and Bob Filner on the Democratic side.
Vietnam Veterans of America favors prompt passage of this legislation.
This landmark legislation would create incentives and real standards in
the performance of employment services designed to assist veterans,
particularly disabled veterans. VVA strongly commends all involved with
this arduous effort to achieve a much-needed modernization and overhaul of
the primary public mechanism for assisting veterans to get jobs in