The Official Voice of Vietnam Veterans of America, Inc. ®
An organization chartered by the U.S. Congress

November/December 2005
GOVERNMENT RELATIONS
 
 

Seamless Transition?


A GOVERNMENT RELATIONS DEPARTMENT STAFF REPORT

How can Congress expect the Departments of Veterans Affairs and Defense to transition medical records and other services for soldiers seamlessly when they become veterans when the computer systems of various branches of the VA—
the Veterans Benefits Administration, the Veterans Health Administration, the National Cemetery Administration—can’t even seamlessly communicate with one another? The VA’s Information Technology (IT) capabilities came under scrutiny at a Senate Veterans’ Affairs hearing in late October. Senators offered praise for the VA’s electronic medical records. Unlike paper records that were destroyed in the flooding caused by Hurricane Katrina, VA doctors have access to the records of displaced VA medical patients.

A press release announcing the hearing noted: “The VA’s record system has been so well thought of that earlier this year officials at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services announced they would distribute to non-government doctors and hospitals scaled-down versions of software, developed for and used by, the VA for use in its hospitals and clinics.”

The release went on to say, however: “While the VA has had its successes with information technology, it has also taken some hits. In the past ten years the VA has spent approximately $600 million on a yet-to-be-implemented compensation and pension claims-processing system, and $342 million on a failed financial management system.” Additionally, some $300 million was wasted on a failed automated personnel system.

The House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs voiced similar concerns. In a welcome display of bipartisanship, Chairman Steve Buyer (R-Ind.) and Ranking Member Lane Evans (D-Ill.) introduced H.R. 4061, the Department of Veterans Affairs Information Management Improvement Act of 2005. This bill would give the VA’s Chief Information Officer (CIO) authority over the VA’s IT budget, which currently is balkanized in the VISNs. It also would give the CIO control in the oversight of policies, procedures, personnel, and assets.

The VA has an excellent CIO: Robert McFarland, a Vietnam veteran, spent most of his career in the private sector, most recently as vice president of government relations for Dell Computer Corporation. We know him to be a man of integrity and talent who, if given the authority, will help make the VA’s IT system cost-effective and innovative.

The rest of the House, seeing the wisdom in this bill, passed it, 408-0. The Senate is expected to do the same.

Significant Disconnect
VVA and most other VSOs pointedly disagree with Rep. Buyer’s stances on several issues. We do agree with him, however, that the much-heralded “seamless transition” between DoD and the VA is more fantasy than reality.

A hearing on the subject by Rep. Buyer’s committee at the end of September focused on the “significant disconnect” between what Congress expects and what VA and DoD envision. Both departments have issued broad statements—the VA even created an Office of Seamless Transition—and do very little.

Buyer noted that this is hardly an innovative subject: The concept was, in fact, codified in 1982 in what was known as the “Sharing Act.” Since 1996, both departments have made surface attempts to show that they were doing something to shape, focus, and clarify joint sharing plans. In reality very little was accomplished in this arena.

The VA and DoD “are still operating in separate worlds,” Buyer said. “What do we have to show,” he wanted to know, “for 20 years of effort?”

This is unacceptable. Both departments need to cooperate and coordinate their efforts, their systems, and their personnel if they are to fulfill the ethical and legal mandate.

What Buyer found entirely unacceptable was the non-appearance of two top DoD officials at his hearing. Both David Chu, Under Secretary for Personnel and Readiness, and William Winkenwerder, Assistant Secretary for Health Affairs, declined Buyer’s invitation to testify at the hearing. The chairman was so annoyed that he noted this on three separate occasions.

David Chu, however, perhaps to deflect some well-deserved criticism, issued a memorandum a few days before the hearing that proclaimed that DoD and the VA “identified an initiative to expedite data exchange … for ‘seriously injured’ members, and those members entering the Physical Evaluation Board Process. The goal is to assist the VA in its efforts to better insure members are aware of their benefits and that these benefits start as soon as possible when the member is eligible.”

What should be obvious to all seems to be a major undertaking at DoD.

For his part, Buyer has promised to hold future hearings on the subject, in part to hold officials’ feet to the fire. For this, he deserves kudos.

MORE BUDGET WOES
At press time, the VA budget for fiscal year 2006 had not been passed by both houses and signed into law. While we are focusing on the immediate, we also should be considering the future.

Back in May, the Democratic Caucus of the House Budget Committee issued a letter that was sent to interested parties. This letter noted that the Republican Budget Conference report would cut veterans health care funding $13.5 billion below what the Congressional Budget Office estimates will be needed just to maintain services at their current levels.

It’s not too early to start agitating, yet again, for a more effective way of insuring sufficient funding for the VA’s medical operations. In this effort, we will need the active support of VVA members and continued pressure from the Partnership for Veterans Health Care Budget Reform. You’ll be hearing a lot more about this in Legislative Alerts, as well as in future issues of The VVA Veteran.

PTSD Claims No Longer Threatened
Testifying before the House Veterans’ Affairs Subcommittee on Disabilities and Memorial Affairs, Ronald R. Aument, Deputy Under Secretary for Benefits at the VA, said that the VBA had conducted its own review of the 2,100 cases reviewed by the Inspector General (IG).

“Our preliminary findings are that we generally agree with the IG that some of the decisions made were premature. We did, however, find that a large percentage of cases judged to have insufficient development were older cases in which VA statutes prohibit a change in the rating decision. If a condition has been determined to be service-connected for a period of 10 years or more, service connection is protected and may not be severed except for a finding of fraud on the part of the veteran. In other cases, we found that evidence verifying a stressor was of record, but the decision failed to adequately address the evidence.

“Additionally, in a number of the claims we reviewed, the benefit was granted by the Board of Veterans’ Appeals, and VBA is not authorized to review Board decisions. VBA has agreed, because of the strong recommendation of the IG, to conduct a review of PTSD claims in which the veteran was awarded a 100 percent disability rating or IU rating in the last five years. In that review, we expect that the majority of the claims will be found sufficient and will not require further development. We also expect to find, based upon our review of the 2,100 IG cases, that further consideration of entitlement in some cases is barred because the benefit granted is now protected by statute.” The complete testimony may be found at www.veterans.house.gov

When asked at the hearing by Rep. Tom Udall (D-N.M.), what it would take to stop this study, which is expected to begin in January, Aument answered, simply, “the Administration.”

The Senate version of H.R. 2528, the VA FY06 funding bill, incorporated language that would prohibit the VA from using federal dollars to review these 72,000 PTSD claims. As The Veteran went to press, however, this provision had not been agreed upon by both houses.

Action by Congress is now moot. On the day before Veterans Day, VA Secretary Nicholson put the kibosh on this retrospective review. He, too, deserves kudos.

   

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