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

February 2001/March 2001

Government Relations

VA Secretary Makes Historic Visit to VVA National Office

By Philip Litteer, Chair, Government Affairs Committee, And Rick Weidman, Director of Government Relations

VVA National President George C. Duggins led a contingent of senior national staff and a group of national VVA leaders in a meeting with new Secretary of Veterans Affairs Anthony J. Principi in early February. Principi came to the VVA office for the meeting, becoming the first Secretary of Veterans Affairs ever to visit the VVA national headquarters. VVA had enthusiastically supported the nomination of Principi to be Secretary of Veterans Affairs, as we believe him to be a man of integrity who cares deeply about veterans. His open attitude of listening carefully to veterans organizations and others since taking office--as well as his receptivity to VVA’s comments and views at this first meeting--confirm our positive assessment of him.

In a friendly but very frank exchange, VVA shared many of our most pressing concerns about vital needs of veterans that are not being met. Most of these concerns paralleled the 2001 VVA Legislative & Policy Initiatives, approved by the National Board of Directors at its January meeting. 

While Secretary Principi did not commit to particular actions on our priorities, the nature of his questions and comments made it clear that he understood our concerns on key issues and was willing to seriously consider them. As George Duggins noted at the end of the meeting, VVA looks forward to working closely with the new secretary toward our common goal of justice for all veterans.


As a follow-up to the meeting with Secretary Principi, VVA delivered the same message to the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs on the need to dramatically improve on the President’s proposed budget increase of only $1 billion in discretionary spending funds for the entire VA. This would not even begin to keep up with inflation. It is our belief that the Secretary fought hard to get this increase out of the Office of Management and Budget. VVA also believes that the Secretary believes that a greater increase is probably justified.


VVA strongly recommends that $1.7 to $2 billion more than FY 2001 be budgeted for the Veterans Health Administration (VHA), just for the veterans health care system to keep pace with medical inflation. VVA believes that the effects of the FY ’96 to FY ’98 flat-line budgets so reduced the staff and general capability of many VA medical facilities that the appropriation of an average of $1 billion per year over a three-year period is the minimum needed to restore vital organizational capacity--particularly in specialized services such as spinal cord injury treatment, treatment for PTSD, serious and chronic mental illness, and blind and visually impaired services.


While Vietnam Veterans of America is concerned that there be enough resources available to VA, VVA is equally concerned with how well these funds are used by VA.

VVA feels very strongly that there has to be a management information system at VHA, hopefully on a real-time basis, but at least on a quarterly basis. VISN directors and directors of facilities are acting as if they have total license--as opposed to authority commensurate with responsibility--and are not being held sufficiently accountable for the range and quality of care they deliver. There is a need for similar accountability in the Veterans Benefits Administration. Congress and the veterans service organizations are much more passionate and angry about this lack of accountability than folks at VA understand.

VVA also called on the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs to undertake a series of oversight hearings to begin to hold VA managers more accountable for how they spend the funds that are appropriated.


VVA believes there is a need to increase funding for the Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA). With increased workloads due to, among other things, recent legislative and regulatory changes, there is a need to hire new adjudication staff to prevent the creation of an insurmountable backlog at the VA regional offices. However, these new staffers must be taught how to render fair and accurate decisions the first time.

The VBA must continue existing programs and develop new measures to insure that decisions from the regional offices are rendered in a timely fashion, that they are accurate and fair, and that there is accountability for inadequate performance. VBA has historically hired or promoted adjudication staff at various levels without requiring that the staffers demonstrate their ability to perform at required levels. Generally, they are trained after hiring or promotion and then placed on probation, often for extended periods of time. If they do not perform adequately, they are either terminated or transferred elsewhere.

We propose that individuals being promoted first demonstrate their ability to do the job and that they be encouraged to give veterans the benefit of the doubt. Implementing proper training and promoting the proper mindset will assist in the quality-assurance aspect of the claims process.


VVA also strongly favors passage of "concurrent receipt" of compensation and military retirement pay with no penalties to the disabled veteran or retiree--HR 303, introduced by Rep. Ronnie Shows (D-Miss.). This is a simple matter of equity and fairness for those whose careers with the federal government were in the military, versus those whose careers were in civilian employment with no exposure to danger. VVA also urges Congress to act so that retired military personnel can buy into Federal Employee Health Benefits (FEHB) at the same cost as retired civilian federal employees.

VVA favors at least a 10 percent increase in funding for the State Approving Agencies for FY2002, which have been flat-lined for four years. VVA is calling for a complete and thorough examination and investigation of the fiduciary and guardian program at VA, which has all the signs of a major problem.


The word around Washington is that OMB is proposing yet another flat-lined budget for FY 2002, but that Secretary Principi has succeeded in getting OMB bureaucrats to increase this request to $800 million for health care and $200 million for the administration of veterans benefits.

The House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs has taken action on its Statement of Views and Estimates--its recommendation to the Appropriations Committee regarding the FY 2002 VA appropriation. Led by Chairman Christopher Smith (R-N.J.) and Ranking Democrat Lane Evans (Ill.), the Committee unanimously voted to recommend an increase of $2.1 billion in discretionary funding for VA for FY 2002 over the FY 2001 level. The $1.25-billion increase for VA medial care would include $141 million for mental health programs, $100 million for increased pharmacy costs, $88 million for long-term care, $30 million for homeless veteran programs, $75 million to hire additional staff to reduce waiting times, and $1 billion to adjust for inflation.

A $130-million increase for the Veterans Benefits Administration includes $49.8 million for an additional 830 full-time employees to help deal with the worsening backlog of claims.

The Committee also recommended $300 million in additional direct spending for increases to the Montgomery GI Bill and for other purposes. Additionally, the Committee recommended $325 for building repair and facility upgrades to provide seismic resistance to earthquakes. Increases for the state nursing homes and state cemetery grants programs were also included, as well as a modest increase for the National Cemetery Administration.

All VVA members, chapters, and state councils are urged to contact their Senators and Representatives to make the case for at least the modest increases recommended by the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs. The recommended increases are less than what VVA and the Independent Budget of the Veterans Service Organizations would like. Still, the Committee on Veterans Affairs’ recommendations are much, much better and more realistic than what the Bush administration requested. Vietnam Veterans of America is grateful to Chairman Smith and Rep. Evans for their efforts. Please note that the VVA budget testimony is posted on both the VVA website www.vva.org and on the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs website http//www.veterans.house.gov .   

The Senate held a hearing on the FY 2002 VA budget on March 13 and will submit recommendations to the Senate Committee on Appropriations. This process will go on for at least three to four months, but it is important that VVA members contact Senators and Representatives to let them know how important it is to at least appropriate funds at the level recommended by the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, if not at the level VVA believes is needed.


Vietnam Veterans of America has joined with other veterans organizations and several unions in planning an event on the morning of Flag Day--June 14--on the Capitol grounds. The event commemorates the importance of our national symbol and also asks for full funding for proper medical care for the men and women who served our nation under the American flag, making possible the freedoms that the flag symbolizes. Most of the rest of the day will be spent talking with legislators and staff about proper funding of medical care. If you are interested in joining with this effort on that day, please contact the national office via e-mail.


Rep. Evans introduced the Heather French Henry Homeless Veterans Act (HR 936) on March 8. This proposal is designed to be a comprehensive approach to assisting homeless veterans to get the assistance they need to surmount problems, obtain and keep employment, and rejoin the mainstream of American society. Sen. Paul Wellstone (D-Minn.) introduced a companion bill in the Senate.

Speaking at a press conference attended by many veterans service organizations and homeless veteran advocates, including VVA Homeless Veterans Task Force Bob Piaro, and Task Force members Paul Sutton, Marsha Four, and Sandy Miller, Rep. Evans and Sen. Wellstone saluted the tireless effort of Heather French Henry, who served as Miss America 2000. Now married to the lieutenant governor of Kentucky, Henry continues to advocate for decent services and treatment of veterans, particularly homeless veterans.

Vietnam Veterans of America strongly favors many of the provisions of this act and applauds the goal set by Rep. Evans and Sen. Wellstone to end homelessness as a major problem for veterans within ten years.


The VA General Counsel recently opined that under the Brady Bill, the VA is required to report to the Justice Department individuals whom the VA has determined to be incompetent for purposes of handling their VA compensation. The list allows the Department of Justice to facilitate the denial of applications for the purchase and licensing of firearms to these veterans.

Vietnam Veterans of America realizes that the VA is constrained by law to comply with this procedure. However, VVA President Duggins has requested the Secretary to support legislative and other initiatives to eliminate this restriction on the constitutional rights of veterans. The current guidelines on competency at the VA are about financial matters for elderly veterans and others to insure that they use their compensation or pension checks to meet the basic necessities of life, such as food, shelter, and clothing. It has nothing to do with the ability to distinguish right from wrong or the propensity toward violence. This provision needs to be changed.


E-mail us at TheVeteran@vva.org


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