BY JOHN MITERKO,
VVA GOVERNMENT AFFAIRS COMMITTEE,
WITH VVA GOVERNMENT AFFAIRS
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
“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
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
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.
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
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.
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.”
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
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.
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
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.”