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

We at VVA feel compassion for the many adults and children in Vietnam who have been injured and made ill by exposure to Agent Orange and the many other toxins used in Vietnam during the war. That said, it is now time to deal fully with the same effects on Americans who served in Vietnam and other areas that were contaminated. The effects of these toxins on the children, grandchildren, and even great-grandchildren of Vietnam veterans must be addressed.

The reality is, however, that the U.S. government is not studying the possible intergenerational effects of exposure to Agent Orange, nor are any morbidity studies being funded or conducted by the Department of Veterans Affairs, the National Institutes of Health, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or anywhere else.

All members of VVA should know that National President John Rowan has called for “the immediate declassification of all Department of Defense information that pertains to exposure of U.S. military service members to any toxin at any time, to include the Vietnam Era” and to take immediate steps to begin epidemiological studies, birth defects registries, and outreach necessary to scientifically document the problems suffered by our veterans and their offspring.

It is unrealistic even to think that Dow Chemical or any of the other companies that manufactured Agent Orange will put up the cash to pay for these studies. Only our government can reasonably be expected to fund this vital research, and the responsible entities of government have not been doing their job. In fact, it appears that for the last decade our government has been doing everything possible to block such studies.

As John Rowan has said, “That the Administration is adding another $3 million to the $3 million already pledged from the Ford Foundation for work to help those suffering in Vietnam is fine and good. However, there needs to be at least a commensurate commitment by the U.S. government and the Ford Foundation to American veterans and their families. Under a new President, now is the time for a dramatic change of direction for our country. Similarly, now is the time for a new direction from the Ford Foundation.”

A BUDETARY WIN

Veterans have little to complain about with the President’s FY2010 budget for the Department of Veterans Affairs. According to the VA, “The budget emphasizes a veteran-centric commitment to expanded services with a 15.5 percent increase over 2009, the largest percentage increase for VA requested by a President in more than 30 years.”

VA Secretary Eric Shinseki said, “Our 2010 budget represents the President’s vision for how VA will transform into a 21st century organization that is veteran-centric, results-driven, and forward-looking. This transformation is demanded by new times, new technologies, new demographic realities, and new commitments to today’s veterans. It requires a comprehensive review of the fundamentals in every line of operation the Department performs. We must be sure that valuable taxpayer dollars are invested in programs that work for our veterans.”

After years of joining with other veterans service organizations advocating for increased funding, mostly to support the VA’s healthcare operations, we can now shift our focus to insist upon accountability—accountability for how this funding bonanza is allocated and expended, with the bottom line being: Are veterans’ health care needs better served? This is our responsibility, as well as that of those agencies of government—the House and Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committees, along with the Budget and Appropriations Committees—that have oversight over what the VA does with the funding it is appropriated.

Because far too many veterans are simply unaware of the benefits to which they are entitled by virtue of their service in the military, and because they are unaware of the health conditions that are associated with their service, we will continue to advocate for increased outreach by the VA. We urge passage of S. 315, introduced (once again) by Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wisc.). If enacted into law, it would mandate that the outreach activities of the VA and its various entities have separate budget lines.

This will be of significant assistance in tracking how the VA does outreach. This does not mean simply producing pamphlets and brochures that are free for the taking in VA medical centers, or producing “television segments” that are rarely viewed by patients waiting to be seen. (If you go into most waiting areas in VA medical centers, you’ll see Oprah or CNN or ESPN on the tube, not a program about blood-borne pathogens.)

ADVANCE APPROPRIATIONS

Both Secretary Shinseki and President Obama have expressed support for providing advance funding for VA healthcare accounts. By the time you read this, there will be, we hope, movement in Congress to include health care funding for FY2011 in the current budget. Some key members of Congress from both sides of the aisle seem to be moving in the direction of favoring this change, which VVA and most other VSOs believe will help ensure a predictable, timely, and sufficient funding stream for VA medical operations.

As Rep. Chet Edwards (D-Texas), chair of the House Military Construction-VA Appropriations Committee, put it: “If we are to implement this for 2010 and 2011, we have to see the numbers pretty quickly. In fact, taking a look at those numbers might allow us to determine which way we want to go. If we feel good about the numbers, and we could continue oversight over VA despite a two-year budget, we might move ahead. If we feel the numbers are rushed and not well put together, that might cause us to second-guess that.”

We urge you to contact your Representative and your Senators and urge them to co-sponsor legislation— H.R. 1016 or S. 423—that would make advance appropriations a reality.

Meanwhile, the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, by a 14-0 vote, approved language in legislation “that will allow Senate passage of advance funding for VA health care,” said Sen. Daniel K. Akaka (D-Hawaii), the sponsor of the bill, S. 423. The measure would specifically establish FY2011 discretionary budget authority this year for VA accounts related to medical services, medical support and compliance, and medical facilities. And it would clear the way for Congress to provide advance budget authority for VA medical services in subsequent years.

ON THE CUTTING EDGE

Rep. Bob Filner (D-Calif.), chair of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, is to be applauded for a mid-May hearing about innovative technology and treatments that are currently available or in development to help veterans. The hearing focused on how private-sector companies work, or attempt to work, with the VA to provide veterans access to the latest technologies.

The first panel discussed research, new inventions, and technological upgrades that could be used to help veterans recover. Products to improve the delivery of health care to rural veterans were discussed. These included upgrades to patient video conferencing equipment and mobile surgery units that would allow the VA to provide care instead of contracting out surgical services.

Witnesses discussed cutting-edge research that has proven beneficial to those with vision and hearing loss by restoring the function of damaged tissue using stem cells. Also discussed was screening technology that allows early detection of oral cancer. Some treatments and technologies are in use at VA medical centers across the country, but a national universal implementation plan is lacking.

VA patients should not be guinea pigs, but they should benefit from advances in medical science and technology and from new, more effective drugs. We concur with Filner’s closing statement: “If it works, let’s use it.”

CONCURRENT RECEIPT

We also concur with another item in the FY2010 budget request of President Obama. Within that budget is a line item for full restoration of concurrent receipt of military retirement for all retirees receiving Veterans Disability Compensation. This request is historic as President Obama is the first President in history to request the total correction of this injustice.

INFORMED CONSENT

The Department of Veterans Affairs Office of the Inspector General (IG) released findings of its review of institutional compliance with informed consent requirements pertaining to human subject research.

House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs Ranking Member Steve Buyer (R-Ind.) had requested the investigation following an oversight hearing on a VA research study. Buyer called upon the IG and the VA Chief Research and Development Officer to determine if veterans were receiving proper counseling and information about potentially dangerous side effects of pharmaceuticals used in research studies.

The IG estimated that more than 6,000 research subject consent forms could not be located and that anywhere from 0.6 to 4.5 percent of VA research subject consent forms did not comply with regulations. The vast majority of consent forms considered noncompliant were due to lack of witness signatures. Other insufficiencies included the lack of signatures from subjects’ authorized representatives.

“The dimensions of this problem are potentially enormous,” Buyer said. “VA could be conducting medical research on some veterans without their consent. This is serious, and it requires immediate corrective action. VA must immediately implement the IG’s recommendations to: require mandatory annual informed consent audits at every facility; develop and implement training programs for all research oversight boards; hold VA facility directors accountable for ensuring informed consent is prospectively obtained; and require facility directors to ensure that all informed consent forms are properly witnessed. It is extremely disappointing and unacceptable that these longstanding problems continue after years of reported noncompliance with consent requirements.”

Bravo, Rep. Buyer. This is the type of oversight that the VA needs—and the kind of oversight the House and Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committees need to focus on once advance appropriations is initiated.

EMPLOYING VETERANS—NOT

Another important hearing was conducted by HVAC Economic Opportunity Subcommittee Chair Stephanie Herseth Sandlin (D-S.D.). This hearing reviewed the current state of federal contractor compliance with current regulations.

“These reports are specifically troubling considering the increased number of service members returning to the civilian workforce,” Rep. Herseth Sandlin said. “It is also disturbing when I hear that disabled veteran hiring practices are inadequate, coupled with the lack of effort by contractors to employ disabled veterans.”

Witnesses discussed current state and federal contractor compliance with  the Vietnam Veterans’ Readjustment Assistance Act of 1974 and Section 4212 of Title 38. These laws ban discrimination and require federal contractors and subcontractors to ensure that all veterans and disabled veterans have equal opportunity in the work place.

The Department of Labor’s Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs is responsible for ensuring that contractors doing business with the federal government do not discriminate and take steps to employ and advance in employment service disabled veterans who are entitled to a disability compensation for a disability rated 30 percent or more and veterans of the Vietnam Era.

“As the government relies on federal contractors to provide necessary and specialized services, they are expected to comply with regulations and take affirmative steps to employ and advance veterans employment,” said HVAC Chair Bob Filner. “There is a need to streamline efforts between the Department of Labor and the Department of Veterans Affairs when it comes to training and employing veterans. The Committee stands ready  to work with newly appointed Labor Secretary Solis to address this important issue to support our returning veterans.”

VET-FORCE REPORT

On June 1, the Veterans Entrepreneurship Task Force (VET-Force) posted its Report to the Nation on its website as a preliminary step prior to its formal presentation during its Veterans Small Business Congressional Roundtable. The report, Small Business Survival under U.S. Trade Policy, Department of Defense Contracting, and Economic and National Security Policies, was developed by James Wilfong, a service-disabled veteran business owner who chairs the VET-Force Small Business Policy Committee.

While the report is presented on behalf of the thousands of veteran business owners participating in the Veterans Federal Procurement Program, it actually addresses the issues in the decline of small business contracting in the federal marketplace and its resulting threat to the nation’s national security. Alan Gibson, chair of VVA’s Employment, Training, and Business Opportunities Committee (ETABO), noted that “in the ten years that VVA has been  a member of VET-Force, this is the first report that gets straight to the point about why the federal agencies are not achieving the mandatory small business goals.”

Prior to the posting of the report at www.VET-Force.org, research was gathered from more than four dozen sources. The report, or White Paper, provides a detailed analysis of the intent of Congress in passing legislation that created the Small Business Administration in 1953. It provides a historical overview of federal small business contracting, It also identifies the Defense Department’s contracting practices as the primary cause of  the decline in the use of all small businesses.

FALSE POWs

Representatives Mike Coffman (R-Colo.) and Jim Marshall (D-Ga.) “have asked the Department of Veterans Affairs to investigate whether some veterans are falsely claiming to have been” prisoners of war, according to the Associated Press. “Coffman and Marshall sent the request to VA Secretary Eric Shinseki.” According to an April AP report, the Department of Defense has identified a total of about 580 surviving POWs from the Vietnam War and the first Gulf War in 1991, but the VA is paying disability benefits to about 1,250 purported POWs.

Coffman is a Marine veteran of the first Gulf War who also served in Iraq, while Marshall served in Vietnam with the Army and, by the way, is a life member of VVA.

The VA will re-open enrollment in its health care system by July 2009 to about 265,000 veterans throughout the country whose incomes exceed current limits. The change affects veterans whose incomes exceed the current VA means test and geographic means test income thresholds by 10 percent or less.

Enrollment for the lowest priority of the eight groups—veterans who are not being compensated for a military-related disability and who have incomes above a set threshold—was suspended on January 18, 2003, although veterans in that priority group who were already enrolled for care were permitted to remain enrolled.

Veterans who applied for VA health care enrollment on or after January 1, 2009, and were denied enrollment because their incomes exceeded the VA income thresholds will be automatically reconsidered and do not need to re-apply. Veterans who are found to be eligible under this new rule will receive a letter from the VA Health Eligibility Center notifying them of their eligibility for enrollment and welcoming them to the VA health care system.

Veterans who applied for VA health care before January 1, 2009, and were denied enrollment because their incomes were too high will need to re-apply to take advantage of the relaxed income restrictions. These veterans are urged to contact the Enrollment Center for the VA Maryland Health Care System, Monday through Friday, from 8:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. at 800-463-6295, ext. 7324, to re-apply for VA health care. Veterans also may apply for VA health care or receive additional information about the relaxation of Priority Group 8 enrollment restrictions by visiting the VA health eligibility website at: www.va.gov/healtheligibility

The new regulation for expanding VA enrollment takes effect on June 15.

 

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