Commander tells congress: guaranteed health care honors commitment to veterans.
Supported by a standing-room-only crowd of DAV members, Commander Heath told the lawmakers that "because we ask a great sacrifice of these young men and women, our government must be prepared to care for them when they need us the most."
Among the hundreds of DAV members joining Commander Heath was U.S. Army Sgt. Michael Murphy, a disabled veteran of the War on Terror in Afghanistan, who lost a leg to a landmine explosion.
"Because the funding to cover the costs of treating veterans is not guaranteed, it is repeatedly insufficient," Commander Heath said. "The VA is forced to ration medical care. Rationing health care is no way to honor America's obligation to the men and women who have so honorably served our nation and continue to carry the physical and mental scars of that service."
Many of those attending the Mid-Winter Conference lead scheduled meetings with members of Congress and their staffs to deliver the DAV's message personally. "It's vital that lawmakers hear directly from their constituents about the issues that are most important to disabled veterans and their families," said DAV National Legislative Director Joseph A. Violante. "Personal visits are one of the best ways DAV members can have an impart on the policy issues that directly affect them."
Commander Heath told lawmakers that the DAV and other veterans service organizations would continue to urge thin guaranteed funding for VA health care and the concurrent receipt of military longevity retirement pay and disability compensation be included in the fiscal year 2004 budget.
"Most disabled military retirees were again denied legislation to repeal the prohibition against concurrent receipt of VA disability compensation and full military longevity retired pay," Commander Heath said. "The DAV will continue to fight for concurrent receipt."
Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee Chairman Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) agreed with the Commander. "It is time to focus on the men and women who fought to make this the greatest nation in the world," he said.
"Justice demands that we honor those who have gone on before us," said House Veterans' Affairs Committee Chairman Christopher H. Smith (R-N.J.). "I know how effective DAV has been in advocating your issues. It is time we guaranteed funding for veterans health care. It is a matter of when, not if, you will get guaranteed funding for VA health care."
At the hearing. Sen. Olympia J. Snowe (R-Maine), who introduced Commander Heath, a Maine resident, said Congress "can and must do more to alleviate the VA Health care funding crisis. Health care is a growing concern for our veterans," she said.
Hers was but one of many voices urging support for veterans health care and praising the DAV Commander for his eloquence.
Raymond H. Hutchinson, a member of DAV Chapter 63 in Ohio, said he was impressed with Commander Heath's remarks. "He did a real good job," he said. "Members of the House and Senate Veterans' Affairs Committees responded favorably to his remarks and agreed, in principle."
"I think he had a very good agenda as to what disabled veterans need from Congress," said William L. Mosely, a member of DAV Chapter 57 in Greenville, Ohio. "They agreed with what the Commander said. The Congress hasn't done what it promised for veterans."
Rep. Ted Strickland (D-Ohio) said that "talk is cheap, but health care costs money. There is nothing more important than to serve the men and women who served our nation."
Sen. Jim Bunning (R-Ky.), attending his first hearing as a member of the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee, said, "The DAV is one of the most influential veterans service organizations. I expect budget increases for veterans, especially for health care."
Rep. Susan Davis (D-Calif.) acknowledged that there is a crisis in VA health care without guaranteed funding. "We must get a reliable system of VA funding," she said.
"Our nation is at a critical point in our relationship with veterans," said Rep. Henry E. Brown, Jr. (R-S.C.). "It is time for Congress to resolve the problem. We need to change VA health care funding from discretionary to mandatory."
Commander Heath's testimony concluded a busy DAV Mid-Winter Conference that featured appearances by VA Secretary Anthony J. Principi, informational workshops, face-to-face discussions with members of Congress, and strong support for the DAV's legislative goals.
"It was an exciting and worthwhile Mid-Winter Conference;" said DAV National Adjutant Arthur H. Wilson. "We got a lot accomplished, but there's still much work to do lit support of guaranteed VA health care funding and concurrent receipt. I know all those attending returned home with a renewed enthusiasm in support of DAV's goals."
Secretary Principi told the Fob. 23 opening session of the Commanders and Adjutants meeting that he would "fight for every dollar I can squeeze out of the Office of Management and Budget. Health care resources haven't kept pace with demand," he said. The Secretary said the number of veterans enrolled for VA health care had increased from 2.9 million in 1998 to an expected 6.8 million in 2003.
Secretary Principi credited DAV advocacy for additional funding for VA. "I don't know what's gazing to happen with guaranteed funding for VA health care, but I know your advocacy will mean more for VA health care."
The Secretary told the 550 DAV leaders attending the conference that VA programs were beginning to cut the number of backlogged claims. He said the mountain of delayed claims had slipped from 432,000 last year to 316,000, and that the time required to resolve claims had declined from 233 days last year to 200 days. "We focused on the oldest cases of our older veterans," he said. "This success would not have been possible without the DAV's National Services Officers who worked hand-in-glove with the VA to make that success possible."
Commander Heath told the meeting that another inadequate budget "is more a product of the Office of Management and Budget than it is of Secretary Principi. In fact, had it not been for Secretary Principi's steadfast advocacy and standing toe-to-toe with OMB, VA's proposed budget would be even more disappointing."
The DAV's priority, Commander Heath said, "is to guarantee adequate resources for veterans health care. No longer should we allow health care to be subject to the whims of political uncertainties in the annual appropriations process."
"It's a sad commentary that our nation is asking for our sons and daughters, husbands and wives, brothers and sisters to join in combat abroad while those who have answered the call before are, in many way's, disregarded," said Commander Heath.
National Adjutant Wilson told the conference that the National Commander's Membership Strength for Service program was working well, but more effort is needed to improve DAV membership. "We have a new responsibility to the organization and the mission we have dedicated ourselves to for all these years," he said. "We have to actively pursue growth in our ranks."
While the DAV is approaching its goal of one million full-paid life members, "there is the potential for three or four times as many Vietnam and Gulf War veterans who could be eligible for DAV membership," Mr. Wilson said. Currently, Vietnam War veterans make up the largest segment of DAV members, followed closely by Gulf War veterans.
Mr. Wilson praised the DAV National Service Officers for brilliantly acquiring new members through their "expertise, professionalism, and dedication" which clearly make a lasting first impression on disabled veterans who seek DAV's help. The Mid-Winter Conference offered a variety of information and interesting seminars for members. The Benefits Protection Team/Legislative Workshop featured Mack Flemming, a former House Veterans' Affairs Committee staff director, who spoke about guaranteed VA health care Funding and ways to promote the plan to elected representatives. He was joined by VA management and program analyst John Carswell who updated members on the VA's Capital Asset Realignment for Enhanced Services (CARES) program. The workshop focused on up-to-the-minute information about the 108th Congress and issues affecting veterans programs.
"I got good information from the Legislative Workshop," said Dave Herrera, Commander of DAV Chapter 3 in Albuquerque, N.M. "I liked the response of the Chapters and Departments to the issues presented."
Other DAV seminars included the National Service Workshop that provided updates on some of DAV's newest service and outreach programs, including the Mobile Service Office Program, Transition Service Program, and the Department/Chapter Training and Certification Program. The large crowd heard VA Compensation and Pension Service Director Ron Henke, who said that, the VA will no longer tolerate long delays in claims procession. "We are going to do it in 100 days," he said. In addition, he said that VA is working to improve communications so veterans can make sense of VA decisions. "We're going to try to use common, understandable English. The intent is to clarify."
"Everything in the National Service Workshop was informative," said Department of Delaware Senior Vice Commander Raymond E. Stanfield, a member of DAV Chapter 9 in Seaford, Del. "The Service Workshop was very valuable."
The VA Voluntary Services Workshop addressed the DAV Volunteer Recruitment Initiative and the youth volunteer scholarship program. The large number of DAV members who attended learned how to help recruit new volunteers for the DAV Voluntary Services Program.
"Voluntary services is changing now," said Department of Delaware Commander Paul V. Lardiezone, a member of DAV Chapter 1 in Dover, Del. "The VA can now go to DAV for volunteers, drivers--for whatever they need."
The Membership Workshop offered insight and suggestions to help Chapter and Department leaders in recruiting new members and to encourage participation in DAV programs and initiatives.
Armed with a wealth of new knowledge and spirit, DAV members fanned out across Capitol Hill to meet with their elected representatives in support of guaranteed VA health care funding and other important issues.
The Mid-Winter Conference ended Feb. 26 when the DAV Executive Committee unanimously approved changing the name of the youth volunteer scholarship program to the Jesse Brown Memorial Youth Scholarship Program in honor of the late Secretary of Veterans Affairs and long-time DAV leader.
"The DAV feels it is highly appropriate to name the scholarship program in Jesse's memory because he was known both as a scholar and a warrior,"said National Adjutant Wilson. "He represented the very best of our nation, and with this action, his memory will be carried forward by the outstanding young men and women who receive scholarships in his name."
"Naming the scholarship program in honor of Jesse's life is a fitting tribute to a man who was so instrumental to the DAV and the lives of veterans everywhere," Mr. Wilson said. "Where people saw disability, Jesse saw opportunity. He sought achievement as well as success. Jesse was a visionary who moved among and became a role model for new generations."
The attendance at the DAV Mid-Winter Conference was the largest in recent years, and DAV members said the resources presented helped make DAV the preeminent organization that it is.
Richard M. Stentiford, a member of DAV Chapter 6 in North Attleboro, Mass., said the conference was interesting. "The best part of it was it's a DAV effort."
The result of the DAV effort was success, based on a vocal, informed presence that conveyed to lawmakers that veterans still count and their needs should not be ignored or given less than priority importance. Which was, in fact, the purpose of the DAV Mid-Winter Conference. And it was a strong DAV effort.
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|Date:||May 1, 2003|
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