National commander urges Congress to correct VA funding mistakes.
"This was a crucially important Mid-Winter Conference," said National Adjutant Arthur H. Wilson. "Our leaders showed up in great numbers to defend veterans health care and benefits, which are again under fire from Congress and the administration."
In delivering the DAV's legislative agenda, Commander Jackson stressed to the Senators and attending U.S. House members that the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere have resulted in thousands of severely wounded and injured veterans who will need the VA health care system.
"Not since the Vietnam War has our nation had to deal with such a significant number of severely disabled wartime casualties," he said. "I am concerned about whether they will be able to receive timely, quality health care from the VA well into the future."
"Veterans health care remains under-funded and that threatens the quality and availability of care to America's sick and disabled veterans," Commander Jackson said. "And just what kind of message does that send to the brave men and women who are fighting in the war on terrorism?"
Commander Jackson said there were reports that VA medical facilities were being required to repay the additional funds received to cover a funding shortfall last year. For some facilities, the additional funds only helped pay for salary increases, while others report continued deficits and backlogs.
"Some are actually reducing health care," he said. "And some medical facilities are wondering how they will make it through the year."
Faulty accounting methods and unrealistic assumptions by the VA were blamed for obscuring the true funding needs for veterans health care last year. A recent Government Accountability Office (GAO) report found that unrealistic assumptions, errors in estimates, insufficient data and an unresponsive budget model contributed to the VA health care funding shortfalls. It also said funding needs projections fell short due to understating the number of returning veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan who needed health care and the increased requirements for long-term care.
To counteract the shortfall, Congress last year approved nearly $3 billion in supplemental appropriations to fill funding gaps in 2005 and 2006.
The administration's fiscal year 2007 VA budget proposal, released Feb. 6, calls for health care spending of $34.3 billion, which is claimed to be an 11.3 percent increase in health care spending. The figure, however, includes an estimated $2.8 billion generated from third-party payments, enrollment fees and higher prescription drug costs for veterans.
"We are united in opposing new fees and higher co-payments on certain veterans who choose to get their care from the VA," Jackson said.
Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee Chairman Larry Craig (R-Idaho) said that the administration was doing its best with the budget and expressed concern about rising VA health care costs.
"I hope you will engage us in a pleasant and candid conversation about which way we go," said Craig. "We need to find a way to sustain this quality health care system in the future. At the present rate of growth, VA health care costs will double every six years."
Sen. Ken Salazar (D-Colo.), who introduced Commander Jackson at the hearing, said that "VA officials and the veterans they serve deserve to know that the care they need will be there today, tomorrow and every day for years to come. The only way to do that is mandatory funding."
Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) said she was skeptical of the administration's budget for VA health care. "Veterans are still struggling to get care," she said. "I know that Iraq War veterans are waiting months to get an appointment with a doctor."
"Veterans should not be limited by co-pays," she said. "The [administration's] budget should be based on real numbers and real realities."
"We need a better budget model," she said. "We have an obligation to make sure we have the necessary funding for VA health care."
Sen. Daniel K. Akaka (D-Hawaii) said he shared many of the concerns presented by Commander Jackson. "I will remain dedicated to ensuring that VA has the resources it needs to care for all veterans," he said. "Questions still remain as to whether or not the administration's proposed budget for next year adequately takes returning servicemembers into account."
In a sharp change to tradition, the DAV's legislative agenda was presented only to the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee. The annual presentation to a joint meeting of the House and Senate Veterans' Affairs committees was cancelled when House Veterans' Affairs Committee Chairman Steve Buyer (R-Ind.) last November decided to do away with the decades-long tradition that allowed veterans groups to present their legislative agenda to a joint meeting. The action was harshly criticized by DAV and other major veterans service organizations.
The Senate hearing was, however, attended by several members of the House Veterans' Affairs Committee, who were not allowed to speak or ask questions. Those attending were Reps. Darlene Hooley (D-Ore.), Michael H. Michaud (D-Maine) John T. Salazar (D-Colo.) and Tom Udall (D-N.M.). Rep. Jeb Bradley (R-N.H.) also attended, standing in the back of the room alongside DAV members.
"The Senate hearing was one of cooperation," said Department of Minnesota Adjutant Dean Ascheman. "We need to work together with our elected leaders and help them develop a whole picture of veterans programs."
"I thought Commander Jackson gave a highly professional presentation," he said. "I think he did a great job in presenting the DAV's legislative agenda."
"I think the Commander's presentation was enormously productive," said Past Department of New Mexico Commander Billy F. Jones, St. "I really felt good about Senator Craig's understanding of our legislative agenda. Senators Akaka and Murray are really great veterans' advocates."
More than 550 DAV leaders attended the 2006 Mid-Winter Conference which began Feb. 26 with remarks by National Adjutant Wilson at the Commanders and Adjutants Association Business Session. "You represent the heart and soul of the DAV," he said. "What we do here will have a lasting effect on the future of veterans health care and benefits."
Addressing the administration's latest budget proposal, Wilson said, "there are some very serious concerns about where it will take us. We will make veterans a national priority."
Commander Jackson told the session that veterans are facing a direct assault on their benefits from the government. "It is true that federal funding for veterans programs has gone up in recent years, but those increases have not even kept place with inflation, let alone the increased demands on the VA for health care and other earned benefits."
"Despite the so-called record increases for veterans, thousands of our comrades have been denied access to VA health care," he said. "Because of budget shortfalls, VA facilities in every region of the country have exhausted reserve funds to meet critical needs."
To make matters worse, Jackson said veterans "have witnessed a systematic erosion of benefits even while our nation is engaged in a war that is adding to the ranks of sick and disabled veterans who will need the VA for decades to come."
Deputy Secretary of Veterans Affairs Gordon Mansfield told the conference that the VA was facing several challenges on different fronts. "Our first priority is to our service-connected disabled veterans and service members that are coming from the battlefield," he said. "The members of the DAV know a great deal about great deeds on the battlefield and good deeds on the fields of life."
Citing the veterans of the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere, Mansfield said, "the newest generation of veterans will receive no less than the best care our nation can provide," he said.
In her remarks Auxiliary National Commander Judy Steinhouse said the Auxiliary would continue to fully support veterans. "We will always be there to fight against efforts to take away benefits from our veterans," she said. "You can count on that."
Auxiliary National Adjutant Maria Tedrow followed by saying the organization was attending to support National Commander Jackson's testimony before the Senate Committee. "We are here to support you in every way in the constant battle for the DAV," she said. "We need to take care of every veteran who was given a promise."
The session was followed by the Benefits Protection Team Meeting and Legislative Workshop in which members received up-to-the-minute information on the second session of the 109th Congress and issues affecting veterans programs. Workshops filled the day Feb. 27 with presentations on DAV's programs for service, voluntary services, membership and communications.
The Charitable Service Trust met Feb. 28 and approved a $750,000 grant to the Center for the Intrepid at the Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas. The state-of-the-art physical rehabilitation and advanced training skills center will serve more than 5,000 veterans each year. The National Service Foundation agreed to provide $100,000 to support a 30-minute Public Broadcasting Service documentary describing the history of the Bonus Army. (See page 20.)
"The Mid-Winter was very interesting," said Department of Oregon Senior Vice Commander Dwayne Adams, a member of Chapter 1 in Portland. "I learned a lot that I can take back to my Department to share with various Chapters."
Prior to Commander Jackson's Feb. 28 testimony before the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee, DAV members fanned out across Capitol Hill to meet with their elected representatives urging them to support veterans programs, including increasing the VA budget for health care and mandatory funding.
"I enjoyed the Hill visit," said Adams. "All three members of Congress I met sounded supportive of veterans programs."
The 2006 Mid-Winter Conference concluded March 1 with meetings for the DAV Board of Directors and National Executive Committee.
National Commander Jackson summed up the four-day conference by expressing his appreciation for the support of DAV's leaders during his legislative testimony.
"I know you are all aware that we are facing a more difficult job in making the needs of our nation's disabled veterans known to members of Congress," he said. "The work you did on the Hill this week will go far in achieving victory over those who believe that our sacrifice has a limited worth and who have placed veterans far down the list of our nation's priorities."
"As we return home, I ask that you not leave your determination and resolve here," he said. "I know that we will win with what is right and just for our veterans. Once we are fully heard, there is no one who can deny us."
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|Title Annotation:||Paul W. Jackson|
|Date:||May 1, 2006|
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