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National Commander Steese urges support for veterans programs. (DAV Mid-Winter Report 2002).

The call by DAV National Commander George H. Steese, Jr., to make veterans health care an entitlement thundered through the halls of Congress on February 27, blowing away political smoke and shattering phony mirrors found in the Administration's 2003 fiscal year VA budget proposal. (See page 1 for highlights of Commander Steese's legislative presentation.)

Addressing a joint session of the House and Senate Veterans' Affairs Committees at the conclusion of the DAV Mid-Winter Conference, Commander Steese said, "the unacceptably long delays in delivering benefits and health care continue to cause undue hardships for disabled veterans and their families."

"We must put an end to this deplorable situation," he demanded.

Commander Steese pointed out to lawmakers that what the Administration calls an historic increase in VA health care is in reality nothing but illusion since it doesn't meet the documented needs of sick and disabled veterans. Much of the so-called increase would come from medical care co-payments and new deductibles charged to some veterans.

"This clearly is a move to shift more health care costs from the government to veterans," he said. "The DAV disagrees with any practice that charges veterans for benefits that a grateful nation intended to be provided as repayment for veterans' extraordinary sacrifices."

"Congress and the Administration have an obligation to provide adequate appropriations to meet those needs," Commander Steese said. "The VA must not be forced to rely on subsidies from patients or their health insurance to cover the cost of caring for veterans."

House Veterans' Affairs Committee Chairman Christopher H. Smith (R-N.J.) agreed with Commander Steese that the proposed VA budget "does not contain enough to cover VA health care." He also agreed with DAV's call to make health care an entitlement. "Congress should not act to discourage veterans from using the VA health care system by imposing co-payments and deductibles," he said. "I believe that we have a sacred obligation to care for veterans who engage our enemies of foreign soil."

Rep. Bob Filner (D-Calif.) said the Administration's VA budget proposal was filled with "smoke and mirrors. It's a budget that will never be approved. There's not one additional dime built into the President's budget," he said.

Rep. Michael Bilirakis (R-Fla.) said the Administration's budget was close to meeting the needs of veterans. "The budget people are working on it. I think we're pretty dam close."

But Rep. Ciro Rodriguez (D-Tex.) said Congress would not accept building a touted historic budget increase on medical co-payments and deductibles charged to veterans.

"This budget actually puts veterans farther behind," said Rep. Stephen F. Lynch (D-Mass.).

Rep. Ander Crenshaw (R-Fla.) said Congress should approve an additional $1.7 billion VA budget increase called for in The Independent Budget. "You are asking for less than you gave our nation," he said.

Rep. Rob Simmons (R-Conn.), a Navy combat veteran of the Vietnam War, said he was interested in learning more about DAV's efforts to make health care an entitlement.

Cheered on by several standing ovations, Commander Steese pressed Congress to add 350 employees to relieve the vast backlog in VA claims processing. "This infusion of additional personnel is absolutely necessary to improve the quality and timeliness of rating decisions and to fulfill the VA's duty to assist veterans in obtaining evidence to support their claims," he said. The VA has nearly 800,000 backlogged VA claims, but has begun the process to reduce delays.

Just days after Commander Steese's testimony, the House Veterans Affairs' Committee rejected the Administration proposal to charge a $1,500 deductible to some veterans without service-connected disabilities. Instead, the committee recommended the Administration's budget request be increased by $1.8 billion for VA health care services.

Commander Steese's forceful legislative presentation marked the conclusion of the week-long DAV Mid-Winter Conference that featured face-to-face meetings with members of Congress, interesting and informative seminars, and appearances by the top leaders of the DAV and the VA.

Daniel Miller of DAV Chapter 58 in Gloster, Va., said the Mid-Winter Conference afford members "the ability to access members of Congress and their staff and to have them accommodate us on veterans' legislation."

"I appreciate the people of the DAV and how we represent veterans," he said. "It makes me proud to be a DAV member."

Lloyd McCool of DAV Chapter 7 in Little Rock, Ark., said the meetings between DAV members and members of Congress "worked real good. The DAV Mid-Winter Conference seminars were outstanding, particularly the session presented by the DAV Benefits Protection Team."

The DAV Mid-Winter Conference began Sunday, February 24, with the Commanders and Adjutants Business Session in which VA Secretary Anthony J. Principi broadly praised the DAV's mission to build better lives for disabled veterans and their families.

"I am absolutely convinced the VA cannot succeed without the DAV's advocacy," Secretary Principi said. "The VA cannot succeed without the fine leadership of people like ... [DAV National Adjutant] Art Wilson, [Washington Headquarters Executive Director] Dave Gorman and [National Headquarters Executive Director] Rick Patterson, who give me some wonderful advice and some constructive criticism. I'm absolutely convinced that we will not succeed without your National Service Officers and your Transition Service Officers, and now your Mobile Service Offices."

"Most important is that the VA cannot succeed without volunteers, and I really applaud the National Commander for making volunteer recruitment one of the cornerstones of his leadership this year," the Secretary said.

Addressing the war on terrorism, Secretary Principi said that our nation's military are beacons of liberty that shine brighter because they stand and fight. "I know so well that the DAV will be there for every single one of them," he said. "You are protecting the rights of veterans who were injured in the service of our nation."

Turning to the complex problem of huge numbers of backlogged veterans' claims, Secretary Principi said that the 34 recommendations made last year by a blue-ribbon VA claims task force were being implemented. "In January, we decided 62,536 claims, which is a record high for the VA," he said. "That compares with 29,034 in January 2001. We did this with an accuracy rate of 88%--also an all time high. It can be done, and we must continue on that road."

Secretary Principi said VA health care is being stressed even further because veterans are seeking health care in record numbers.

"I commit to you that I will not comprise on quality and that I will remember that this system was built first and foremost for our service-connected disabled veterans," he said. "I expect we have, must, and will treat others from different categories. But I certainly don't want to see service-connected disabled veterans squeezed out of the system."

National Adjutant Wilson, addressing one of the best-attended Mid-Winter Conferences in recent memory, said the DAV's mission of service has taken on new significance since Sept. 11,2001.

"I am truly proud to be an American," Mr. Wilson said. "Our nation has stood up in hard times. We have seen a resurgence of national pride. Let me promise you one thing--the DAV will be there to serve those who defend our country."

"DAV's mission continues to be unwavering," he said. "The DAV has the best claims service program of any veterans service organization in the nation."

Looking to the future, Commander Steese praised the Mobile Service Office Program, Transition Service Program, our Chapter and Department Service programs, and Voluntary Services for expanding the DAV's presence in communities all across the nation. "We are building a highway to the future," he said, "and our members are the bedrock." "The Voluntary Services Program is run by you," Commander Steese said. "The National Commander's Volunteer Recruitment Initiative is a `we make it happen' campaign. The need for volunteers has never been greater."

Joe L. Ruit of DAV Chapter 2 in Deming, N.M., said he learned a lot at the DAV Mid-Winter Conference. "It's been very informative. I've learned a lot about the rights of veterans." He said the conference featured an extensive list of good speakers.

"The DAV Mid-Winter Conference provided an excellent venue for our members to examine the problems facing veterans in the Administration's spending plan and to urge influential members of Congress to correct the funding inadequacies," National Adjutant Wilson said. "Our members learned first-hand this difficult but worthwhile process of reminding our nation's leaders of the courage and sacrifice made by each member of the DAV."

"It was a tremendously successful conference that will yield results far into the future," he said. "The unity of the DAV members and the common purpose to build better lives for disabled veterans and their families is a powerful force recognized by Congress and the Administration."

"It was an excellent program," said DAV Department of Vermont Commander Ronald L. Kantorski of Chapter 7 in Rutland, Vt. "Everything has gone real smooth and was very effective."

DAV Department of Arkansas Commander Bill Terry of Chapter 10 in Conway, Ark., said the Mid-Winter Conference was "very informative and offered great seminars. We really need to work on making major changes in veterans legislation," he said. "But, overall, the DAV has a great program."
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Author:Wilborn, Thom
Publication:DAV Magazine
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:May 1, 2002
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