The Official Voice of Vietnam Veterans of America, Inc. ®
An organization chartered by the U.S. Congress
March/April 2006
FEATURE
 
 

Disability Benefits Commission:
Town-Hall Meeting After-Action Report

 

BY JERRY A. KLEIN

The Veterans Disability Commission met in St. Petersburg, Florida, in a Town Hall format to listen to the concerns of the veterans’ community. The meeting was conducted over two days. The entire 15-member commission was present. The first session began with the chair making brief remarks explaining the mission and purpose of the commission. The executive director then explained the process the commission would undertake to complete its mission.

The main focus of the commission was to listen to the public. The public-comment session lasted ninety minutes. The hearing room was packed because the word had reached the veterans’ community in the St. Petersburg-Tampa area. Veterans from across the state also were in attendance.

In advance of the meeting, Craig Tonjes, the Florida State Council president, sent a letter to all veterans’ organizations, apprising them of the importance of showing up at the commission sessions. I also contacted the local VVA chapters to insure that VVA and interested veterans were in attendance. The early warning worked.

The Town Hall process doesn’t leave individuals much time to state a point of concern. Most presenters didn’t have a clear understanding of the purpose for which the commission was formed and presented remarks that were not germane. Many of the presenters expressed a feeling that the commission was created for the purpose of finding ways to reduce or eliminate benefits.

The chair addressed that perception when he stated that it was not the intention of the commission to reduce or eliminate benefits. However, I am not sure the statement convinced anyone in the meeting room.

The statement prepared by David Houppert, VVA’s director of Veterans Benefits, was entered into the record. Craig Tonjes and Tom Hall, the Florida State Council treasurer, also addressed the commission.

Fewer veterans attended the second session. Yet, some veterans who had just heard about the commission through the local media showed up. The structure for the second day was even more restrictive. After opening remarks, the executive director of the Florida Department of Veterans Affairs, Col. Rocky McPherson, spoke. He mentioned the concern that the Veterans Benefits Administration in Bay Pines showed a reduction of staff in the Regional Office, but he could not provide an explanation. The new regional office director did not have an explanation, either.

The chief of the Tampa VA Hospital Poly Trauma Rehabilitation Center, Steven G. Scott, described the workings of the Trauma Center. He went into great detail about how they care for seriously injured service members. The process of analysis and evaluation of injuries covering all aspects from initial diagnosis to secondary and tertiary issues, including the issue of pain, was explored. Commission members asked about the relationship between pain and rating for disability purposes.

Donald Ivers, the former Regional Office Director in St. Petersburg, explained the theory used by the VA to incorporate the issue of pain into current ratings. The issue of PTSD versus blast syndrome was discussed since many of the symptoms are similar for each and could be misdiagnosed.

The public comment period was even shorter than it was the previous evening. It was during that session that I presented a brief version of my prepared testimony. Also in attendance at the morning session was the former Director of the St. Petersburg VA Regional Office, Donald Ivers, and the former Under Secretary for Veterans Benefits, John Vogel.

The commission will visit seven additional areas of the country. Preparation prior to appearing before the commission is very important. Since each individual only has five minutes to speak, targeted brief remarks are needed.

Issues should be broken up into individual, short presentations so more territory can be covered. This will require more VVA members to attend these meetings. Turnout is important.

During the evening session, I had a chance meeting with one of the commission staff members, a friend of almost 20 years, Jackie Garrick. She is a veteran, a social worker, and previously she worked for the American Legion. Garrick mentioned that she would attend the commission hearings in Boston and Chicago.

I also had an opportunity to talk with Joe Wynn, a member of the commission. Craig Tonjes, Tom Hall, and I also spoke to Butch Joeckel, another commission member.


Many questions persist, and we still don’t know for sure what recommendations will be made to the President and Congress. The overbearing presence of VA personnel and the reliance on the IOM and the Center for Naval Analysis make me nervous. So does the number of high-ranking retired military officers.

   

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