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

June 2000/July 2000

Government Relations

106th Congress Rushes To A Close

By Philip A. Litteer, Chair, VVA National Government Affairs Committee and Rick Weidman, Director of Government Relations

The 106th Congress is coming to a close. Congress is rushing to pass the remaining 12 of the 13 appropriations bills that must be finished and signed by the President in order to keep the federal government running in fiscal year 2001, which begins October 1. Many pending issues affect vital services to veterans. Employment services to veterans, health care, hepatitis C treatment and compensation, and--perhaps most important--the overall appropriation for the Veterans Health Administration will be affected by this bill. Also pending are the important issues of concurrent receipt and improvements to health care for military retirees.


It is vital that VVA members and other interested citizens let Congress and the executive branch know their views on issues relevant to veterans and their families. It is not enough to complain or get mad. Each of us must care enough to make a difference. Please notify your state council president if you would like to participate in the VVA Legislative Network, or just write a thoughtful letter to your senators and representatives in Congress and let them know how you feel about the key issues.


One of the appropriations bills still pending is the VA, HUD, and related agencies appropriations bill. Sen. Christopher ``Kit’’ Bond (R-Mo.), the chair of the Senate Subcommittee on VA, HUD, and Related Agencies of the Senate Appropriations Committee, and his Democratic counterpart, Sen. Barbara Mikulski (Md.), have delayed moving forward on the FY 2001 appropriations bill because the Senate did not provide enough room under the so-called cap for them to come close to providing enough money for the operation of these agencies.

It is vital that letters are received by Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) and Senate Budget Chairman Pete Domenici (R-N.M.) to urge that there be enough money provided to fund the Veterans Health Administration at a level that is $1.9 billion more than the current year.

Equally as important, those who care about the veterans health-care system also should call and write their senators to ask that they actively support the amendment to be offered by Sens. Tim Johnson (D-S.D.) and Paul Wellstone (D-Minn.) to add $500 million to the amount provided for the Veterans Health Administration (VHA) by the House of Representatives. Without this additional money--which would increase the VHA budget by $1.9 billion--the VHA will have to lay off an additional 2,250 employees, thus increasing already too long waiting times and resulting in additional reductions in the quantity and quality of health care.

VVA estimates that at least 10,000 vacancies currently exist in the veterans health-care system because of lack of funds, in addition to the 22,500 positions that have been cut since FY 1996 because of the notorious flat-line budget deal cut by Congress and President Clinton. Now is the time to reverse this process and begin to restore the clinicians, doctors, nurses, and others needed in order for the nation to care for he and she who hath borne the battle.


The VA has denied a petition filed by VVA National President George C. Duggins on November 9, 1999, calling on the VA to work cooperatively with VVA and others to establish a task force to compile existing data to discover elevated incidence of maladies that may disproportionately affect Vietnam veterans. This includes a broad range of health problems, from hepatitis C to cancers of all kinds, to endocrinological and neurological problems.

Vietnam Veterans of America maintains that the VA General Counsel intentionally misread VVA’s petition to mean that we were concerned with undiagnosed illnesses. It was clear from our petition that the illnesses are diagnosed; rather, it is the etiology (or cause) of these maladies that is in doubt. VVA plans to pursue this effort.


The bills that would give presumption of service connection for veterans who have hepatitis C--HR 1020 in the House of Representatives and S. 71 in the Senate--still need more cosponsors to get any action in the few remaining work days of this Congress. We urge VVA members to contact their representatives and senators to ask why they are not cosponsors of this vital legislation, if they are not already on board. Please remember to thank those who are cosponsors and urge them to speak to colleagues.

We also urge you to write to Acting Secretary of Veterans Affairs Gober, the President, and the Vice President to ask why there has been no action on the March 1999 VVA petition. It has been more than 18 months with no action. It is time for Acting Secretary Gober to fill the vacuum of leadership at the VA and move immediately to grant VVA’s petition on hepatitis C.


VVA continues to work with the VA and with our friends in Congress to secure more proper addressing of the problem of adequate outreach, testing, and treatment of hepatitis C. Under Undersecretary Thomas Garthwaite’s leadership, the VA has done more than the private sector. But there is a long way to go before the VA response to hepatitis C can be considered adequate.

The biggest problem confronting us in securing proper treatment is that the massive cuts to the VHA system in the past four years have left too few acute-care staff to care for these sick veterans properly.

The VA must advance a plan as part of its FY 2002 budget request that explains how they plan to rebuild the capacity to treat veterans by restoring needed acute-care staff as well as staff that delivers specialized services for PTSD treatment, spinal cord injury, the seriously and chronically mentally ill, and blind rehabilitation.

Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-N.J.) has introduced legislation HR 5132, the Veterans Comprehensive Hepatitis C Health Care Act, that would require outreach testing and proper expenditure of funds for the Centers for Excellence for Hepatitis C and expand their capability to provide research, education, technical assistance, and oversight of the VA efforts to reach, test, and properly treat hepatitis C.

VVA Veterans Affairs chair Bob Maras took the lead role in pushing for a commitment on the part of VA to do a mailing to all VHA enrollees before Veterans Day with a brochure from the American Liver Foundation designed with the cooperation of major veterans service organizations. While this will help, it is not enough.

The American Liver Foundation is again cooperating with VVA and others to do a special outreach to veterans using home-access self-testing kits to test for hepatitis C. There is a reduced cost of only $6 for this service. For more information, please see your chapter and state newsletters or the VVA web site. The dates of this testing are November 9-19. Kits may be obtained via the Internet or by calling a toll-free number.


The chair of the VVA Task Force on Veterans Health Care, Linda Schwartz, and VVA Agent Orange and Dioxin Committee chair George Claxton participated in the International Conference on Dioxin, held in Monterey, California, in August. As the only representatives of the veterans service organization community, they were able to communicate the needs of veterans to the scientists and to learn more about recent research being done around the world. More than 40 countries were represented.

Immediately following that conference, the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences held a one-day conference on working with the government of Vietnam to start joint research on Agent Orange and other toxins that were used during the Vietnam War. Linda Schwartz sat on the panel that heard public comment. VVA National Vice President Tom Corey and George Claxton each testified. Corey was the featured public witness. Members of the panel thanked him and VVA for our tenacious work that resulted in this meeting being held.

On other fronts, the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences says that it is on track to deliver a report on the special review of diabetes by early October. VVA has urged Acting VA Secretary Gober to act immediately on this report to declare diabetes melitis a presumptively service-connected disability for veterans who served in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War or who were otherwise exposed.


Rep. Jack Quinn (R-N.Y.) of Buffalo was awarded the Legislator of the Year at a ceremony at the VVA Leadership Conference in August. The award was presented by VVA President Duggins and National Government Affairs chair Philip A. Litteer. Duggins noted that Rep. Quinn has shown remarkable leadership on veterans employment and training issues and in his efforts to improve the overall veterans benefits system.


VVA continues to press hard for proper implementation of Public Law 106-50, the Veterans Entrepreneurship and Small Business Development Act of 1999. This law was enacted with the signature of President Clinton on August 17, 1999, yet has not been implemented. VVA is working with the Task Force on Veterans Entrepreneurship, which includes most of the major VSOs as well as private-sector veteran-owned businesses, to press the Small Business Administration and the White House to implement this important legislation.

We seem to be making progress, with the active support and assistance of Acting VA Secretary Gober. While there is an agreement between veterans groups and the administration for implementing this law in all its aspects by October 1, 2000, the proof will be in the actions of the administration.


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