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january/february 2007

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GOVERNMENT AFFAIRS
Continuing Resolution:
Harmful To Veterans

BY JOHN MITERKO, CHAIR,
VVA GOVERNMENT AFFAIRS COMMITTEE,
WITH VVA GOVERNMENT AFFAIRS STAFF

News item (from militarycity.com): “The 109th Congress was shut down by the Republican leadership for good without providing any increases in money for the Department of Veterans Affairs health care expenses next year—and the likelihood that the new 110th Congress will approve a budget increase before next autumn seems bleak.

“Despite pleas from major veterans’ service organizations that an increase in the VA budget is warranted in time of war, Congress left town without doing anything to boost VA’s fiscal 2007 budget covering the period of Oct. 1, 2006, through Sept. 30, 2007.

“Lawmakers were able to pass just two of the standard required 13 appropriations bills needed to keep the government running before leaving town for their holiday recess. Instead, they approved a temporary spending measure known as a continuing resolution that allows agencies to keep spending—but only at fiscal 2006 levels until new, permanent funding bills are passed.

“There had been talk about including a $3 billion increase in the VA budget as part of the continuing resolution, but that effort fell flat when Republican congressional leaders were reluctant to make an exception for one agency because they said that could have opened the floodgates for hundreds of other adjustments, making quick passage of the resolution more difficult.”

The most basic, most elemental responsibility of Congress is to pass a budget. For the eleventh time in twelve years, Congress has failed to accomplish this mission. The Republican-led Congress—which should be ashamed of its collective self—left a mess for the incoming Democratic-majority Congress to fix.

What will the Democrats who now lead the House and Senate do? The incoming chairs of the House and Senate appropriations committees—Rep. David Obey of Wisconsin and Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia—said in a joint statement that they do not see how it will be possible to give full consideration to the FY’07 federal budget next year while also working simultaneously on the FY’08 budget. They said they are inclined to extend the continuing resolution and its flat spending levels through the end of the current fiscal year.

This is no solution at all. It will succeed only in putting veterans at risk, as VA medical centers and outpatient clinics scramble to stretch the dollars they get. In some hospitals, waiting lists for specialists and primary care providers will get longer. The hiring of replacement nurses will be put off. Facility maintenance will be deferred. State-of-the-art medical equipment will not be purchased. And let’s not even think about cutting the backlog of claims that linger in the Veterans Benefits Administration queues, overwhelming a system that is not all that efficient under the best of circumstances.

True, Congress did authorize the VA to transfer up to $694 million to its health care accounts. But because of the failure of the do-little 109th Congress to pass a budget, the VA will lose some $3 billion in health-care funding alone. And don’t be surprised if VA honchos appear before Congress next spring, hat in hand, seeking additional funding just to maintain a status quo of minimal service.

THE VETERANS BENEFITS, HEALTH CARE, AND INFORMATION TECHNOLOGY IMPROVEMENT ACT OF 2006

On the other hand, happily, the Veterans Benefits, Health Care, and Information Technology Improvement Act of 2006 was passed before the 109th Congress faded into history. It has been signed and enacted into law. Among its provisions:

  • More than $600 million for repair or replacement of flood-damaged facilities in New Orleans and elsewhere on the Gulf Coast; and $98 million for the replacement of the VA Medical Center in Denver.
  • $65 million to increase the number of clinicians treating PTSD and improve their training; to expand tele-health initiatives that are of particular benefit to veterans living in rural areas; to expand the number of outpatient clinics able to treat mental illness; and to further the collaboration between the VA and DoD in diagnosing and treating PTSD. Families of those soldiers and Marines lost to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will have increased access to bereavement counseling.
  • “Increased support,” according to a press release from Rep. Steve Buyer (R-Ind.), outgoing chair of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, for veterans undergoing blind rehabilitation (although not nearly as much as urged by the Blinded Veterans Association), treatment for Parkinson’s disease and multiple sclerosis, and for veterans who are homeless.
  • A new office of rural health within the VA, with improved outreach to rural veterans.
  • A “historic provision” that would allow veterans to hire agents or attorneys to represent them after a notice of disagreement has been filed.
  • “Additional tools” to help the VA contract with veteran-owned small businesses and service-disabled veteran-owned small businesses.
  • Creation of an Information Security Education Assistance program to train and attract personnel with information technology skills.

STOLEN VALOR ACT

The House of Representatives passed a Senate-approved bill that would make it a felony to claim unearned military decorations. The bill would close a loophole in current law that allows phony recipients to escape prosecution as long as they do not physically wear the awards they claim.

If signed into law by the president, the Stolen Valor Act would impose up to six months’ imprisonment and a maximum $5,000 fine for any false verbal, written, or physical claim to an award or decoration authorized for military members. Penalties would be doubled for fraudulent claims to decorations awarded for combat valor, such as the Navy Cross, Silver Star, and Medal of Honor.

Rep. John Salazar (D-Colo.), who introduced H.R. 3352, the House version of the legislation in the summer of 2005, said the bill re-introduces a precedent set by George Washington in 1782. When he established the Badge of Military Merit, the nation’s only military award at the time, Washington wrote: “Should anyone who is not entitled to these honors have the insolence to assume the badges of them, they shall be severely punished.”

The House approval of the Senate bill, introduced by Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), was the result of a last-minute bipartisan effort to put the legislation to a vote before the end of the 109th Congress. Rep. Salazar agreed to set aside his own bill, which had been hung up in the Judiciary Committee since he introduced it, in order to support Sen. Conrad’s nearly identical legislation in the Senate.

VVA JOINS VETERANS COALITION

While VVA and the other VSOs focus on current budget and policy issues, the new Veterans Coalition has formed a Commission on the Future for America’s Veterans to focus on the long-range, rather than the short-term. Led by former VA Administrator Harry Walters, the Veterans Coalition was founded in June as a private, nonprofit organization by the American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars, Disabled American Veterans, AMVETS, and Paralyzed Veterans of America. VVA has joined the coalition as an associate member.

The commission bills itself as “an independent, autonomous body tasked with charting a clear course to a new era of veterans programs and services.” The commission receives financial support from grant-making organizations, private-sector partners, and individuals.

The issues on which the commission will focus are: the long-term viability of the veterans health care system; compensation and disability benefits; the heralded seamless transition of active-duty troops to veterans; the changing role of the Reserves and National Guard; and the need for lifetime care of veterans who have survived with catastrophic disabilities.

The commission expects to deliver its findings by Memorial Day 2008, it says, “in the form of an actionable, long-term plan intended to shape the future for veterans and inspire a new level of national resolve.”

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