STATEMENT OF MICHAEL E. DOBMEIER, NATIONAL COMMANDER OF THE DISABLED AMERICAN VETERANS BEFORE THE COMMITTEES ON VETERANS' AFFAIRS, U.S. SENATE/U.S. HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES, WASHINGTON, D.C.
MARCH 1, 2000
MESSRS. CHAIRMEN AND MEMBERS OF THE VETERANS' AFFAIRS COMMITTEES:
As National Commander of the more than one million members of the Disabled American Veterans (DAV) and its Auxiliary, it is an honor and a privilege to appear before this joint meeting of the United States Senate and House of Representatives Veterans' Affairs Committees to discuss the agenda and major concerns of our nation's service-connected disabled veterans, their families and survivors.
Messrs. Chairmen, I wish to thank you and your committees for the support you have given to veterans and their families during the first session of the 106th Congress. Although the 106th Congress started out on a very bleak note—the fourth consecutive flat-lined, starvation budget proposed for the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) by the Administration—the session ended with a flurry of favorable activity on veterans' issues, including the passage of much sought-after legislation to expand health care services and compensation benefits to our nation's sick and disabled veterans and their survivors.
This legislation includes:
These provisions and other legislation enacted during the first session of the 106th Congress have and will continue to enhance the lives of disabled veterans and their families, and are greatly appreciated. This legislation has fulfilled some of DAV's long-standing mandates for expanding health care services and compensation benefits to our nation's disabled veterans and their survivors.
Again, Messrs. Chairmen, thank you and your committees for recognizing the needs of our nation's service-connected disabled veterans and their families, and for your leadership in guiding this important legislation through Congress.
However, the harsh reality is that, similar to the environment out of which this great organization was created 80 years ago, this nation's public policy towards veterans continues to be little more than empty words and broken promises. Much more must be done for our nation's sick and disabled veterans. Our government must make an investment in VA programs to ensure that our nation's service-connected disabled veterans and their families receive the benefits and services that were promised them.
In our nation of vast riches and resources, there is a group of men and women whose service to our country has never ceased, but sadly has gone unheeded for far too long. It is the dedication and devotion of America's veterans—represented by the men and women who sit before you today.
These brave men and women have served our country and protected our freedoms with honor and pride while in uniform in bases and camps across this country, in our coastal waters, on the high seas, and on foreign soil in time of war. The white crosses and forgotten monuments that mark battlefields far beyond our borders are symbolic of their sacrifices. Many who served and sacrificed still bear the scars of those battles in defense of our liberty.
While we can never fully repay those who have stood in the nation's defense, a grateful nation has established a system to provide benefits and health care services to veterans as a measure of restitution for their personal sacrifices and as a way for all citizens to share the costs of war and national defense.
Unfortunately, disabled veterans continue to pay more than their fair share of that burden. And the system designed to provide them with the benefits and health care services earned in service to our country needs fixing.
Delays in the delivery of benefits and health care services continue to cause undue hardships for disabled veterans and their families. While there have been great strides made to reduce these long delays, much more needs to be done.
More highly trained individuals are needed in Compensation and Pension (C&P) Service to adjudicate claims correctly the first time. Much of the needless delays occur because veterans must appeal incorrect claims decisions. Literally, years can be wasted in obtaining a final decision, which, in some cases, is not based on the merits of the issue.
After four consecutive years of a flat-lined budget, VA health care is at a critical stage. The $1.7 billion increase provided for last year is very much needed, yet it is insufficient to adequately care for our nation's sick and disabled veterans. Too many VA medical facilities are still talking about "doing more with less." There are proposals to reduce the already critically low levels of health care providers to further unacceptable levels. Even with the Administration's $1.4 billion increase in VA health care, a reduction of more than 1,300 employees is planned for FY 2001.
Service-connected disabled veterans must wait too long now to receive necessary services. Further delays can and will not be tolerated. Our government has the resources to adequately care for our nation's sick and disabled veterans—now is the time to fulfill this commitment.
It is extremely important that the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee moves quickly to confirm a new Under Secretary for Health once the Administration announces its nominee for the position. It is imperative that this leadership position be filled as soon as possible.
We are encouraged that this year, the Administration's budget proposal will increase VA spending by $1.5 billion for medical care and benefits programs for veterans and their families. This is a commendable start towards providing VA sufficient resources to carry out its mission. It is our sincere desire that Congress increase VA health care funding by $560 million above the Administration's request to ensure that the true health care needs of veterans are met.
Messrs. Chairmen, the DAV was founded in 1920 and chartered by Congress in 1932 as the primary advocate for America's service-connected disabled veterans, their dependents and survivors. Since its inception, the DAV has been dedicated to one, single purpose: building better lives for our nation's disabled veterans and their families. During the past 80 years, the DAV has never wavered in its commitment to serve our nation's service-connected disabled veterans, their dependents and survivors.
Major policy positions of the DAV in the framework of our National Legislative program are derived from resolutions adopted by the delegates to our annual National Conventions. Our 2000 mandates cover a broad spectrum of VA programs and services and have been made available to your committees and to individual members of your staffs. With the realization that we shall have the opportunity to more fully address those resolutions during hearings before your committees and personally with your staffs, I shall only comment upon a few of them later in my testimony.
The DAV was founded on the principle that this nation's first duty is to care for its wartime disabled veterans, their dependents and survivors. In fulfilling our mandate of service to America's service-connected disabled veterans and their families, the DAV employs a corps of 260 National Service Officers (NSOs), located throughout the country. Last year, these men and women, all wartime service-connected disabled veterans, represented almost a quarter of a million veterans and their families in their claims for VA benefits, obtaining for them more than $2.2 billion in new and retroactive benefits.
In our continuing quest to ensure that future generations of America's service-connected disabled veterans and their families receive professional representation in filing claims for benefits and services from the federal government, the DAV continues to hire and professionally train recently discharged men and women to provide this vital service. We are particularly proud of the fact that, since the DAV established its National Service Officer Training Academy in 1994, we have added more than 150 of these dedicated service-connected disabled veterans to the ranks of our NSO corps—many of whom are here with us today. Currently, there are 22 trainees attending our Training Academy. They are scheduled to graduate in May of this year, after four months of intense training, which will be followed by 12 months of on-the-job training in their respective offices.
Messrs. Chairmen, we are extremely proud of the services we provide to our nation to assist it in fulfilling its mission to sick and disabled veterans. In addition to the dedicated services performed by DAV NSOs, equally important are the activities of the more than 10,000 DAV and Auxiliary members who unselfishly volunteer their valuable time to assist America's sick and disabled veterans. Between October 1, 1998, and September 30, 1999, these men and women continued to serve this great nation by providing more than 2.4 million hours of critical service to hospitalized veterans, saving taxpayers more than $35 million in employee costs.
The DAV also employs 187 Hospital Service Coordinators at VA facilities around the country to assist our nation's sick and disabled veterans and their families. The DAV transportation program provides essential transportation to and from VA health care facilities to those veterans who could not otherwise access needed medical care. As of September 30, 1999, DAV volunteer drivers transported more than a half million veterans more than 19 million miles to and from VA medical appointments during a 12-month period. From its inception in 1987, the DAV's National Transportation Network logged in nearly 200 million miles and transported almost five million veterans to VA health care facilities. Since our transportation program began in 1987, DAV has donated 890 vans at a cost of more than $17 million. This June, DAV will donate an additional 102 vans at a cost of $2.4 million.
Additionally, in what can only be described as a true partnership between the DAV and the corporate world for the benefit of our nation's sick and disabled veterans, the Ford Motor Company has donated the use of 43 vans to VA medical centers since 1996 for the transportation of sick and disabled veterans. In addition, Ford Motor Company has also donated six vans for use in the DAV Homeless Veterans Initiative—a program I will discuss in more detail below.
As you can see, Messrs. Chairmen, as we have done for the past 80 years, the DAV devotes its resources to the most needed and meaningful services for our nation's disabled veterans. These services aid veterans directly and support and augment VA programs. We are able to do so only with the continuing support of an American public that is grateful for all that our veterans have done. Our commitment to America's service-connected disabled veterans and their families is unyielding.
The DAV also maintains a National Legislative Department in Washington, D.C. to promote reasonable, responsible legislation to assist disabled veterans, their families, their widowed spouses, and orphans. As the principle advocate for America's 2.3 million disabled veterans—a role we take very seriously—it is not only our policy to seek reasonable, responsible legislation, but to help disabled veterans keep the benefits they have earned by spilled blood, prolonged illness, and loss of mental well-being as a result of their military service.
As the principle advocates within Congress for our nation's veteran population, you are called upon to provide the critical leadership necessary to ensure that America honors its moral obligation to the men and women who served in our Armed Forces and fought to preserve the freedoms enjoyed by the citizens of our nation and countless others throughout the world. These men and women count on you to ensure that their sacrifices and service are remembered when it is time for our government to slice the budget pie to pay for discretionary programs. It is their sincere hope that you will educate and remind your colleagues of their service and sacrifice when it is time to decide whether to honor America's obligation to veterans and their families or to let parochial concerns control.
Two words come to mind in summing up the relationship between our government and its veterans: broken promises. When we served in uniform in the Armed Forces, we did so out of a sense of "Duty, Honor, Country." We gave our all in the defense of the cherished freedoms we all enjoy, without hesitation and without any thoughts for future benefits or services we would receive from our government when we returned to civilian life—whether after two years, three years, 20 years, or 30 years.
Now, when we seek adequate funding levels for veterans programs from our government, we are told that our requests are too costly and our demands are not reasonable. Yet, the total funding for veterans' programs—$43 billion—is a small fraction of the total U.S. budget—$1.7 trillion—a mere 0.025 percent. Nor are veterans' programs mentioned when the Administration and Congress talk about spending a portion of the surplus or saving government programs, such as Social Security or Medicare, for future generations of Americans.
It is not unreasonable that we should seek adequate funding for the proper and timely delivery of health care services and benefits, especially because of the special needs of our World War II veteran population who are getting older and require greater care which tends to be very complex, complicated, and costly. At the other end of the age spectrum is our Persian Gulf War veteran population who have similarly complex needs of their own due to undiagnosed illnesses that have destroyed their good health and mental well being.
We do not feel that we are unreasonable in our request for adequate funding. We are the men and women who have, and are, bearing the scars received in defense of our cherished freedom. We are the ones who have borne an unfair share of the heavy burden that has finally placed our nation's fiscal house in order. We have borne the scars and burdens willingly because our efforts continue to be in the best interests of our nation and its citizens. However, we cannot and will not sit idly by while others receive and benefit from the fruits of our sacrifices, while our sick and disabled comrades are forced to undergo long delays in the administration of health care services and compensation benefits.
Recently, the Congressional Budget Office has projected a 10-year budget surplus of $2 trillion. This recalculated, non-Social Security surplus, is double the amount projected last year. We realize that much of the surplus will be used to pay down the debt; however, we also know that Congress and the Administration will use some of this money for pork-barrel politics and new initiatives. All we ask is that Congress and the Administration, first and foremost, remember our government's commitment to its veterans. There are too many broken promises that need to be fulfilled before our government invents new initiatives.
Let's look at some of these broken promises. It is our hope that this Congress will take action to ensure that our government keeps its long-standing commitment to assist our nation's service-connected disabled veterans and their families.
About one-third of the adult male homeless population—about 275,000 on any given night—are veterans, many of whom are combat veterans. Many other veterans are considered near homeless or at high risk because of poverty, lack of family support, because they are living in cheap hotels or overcrowded or substandard housing, or because they are victims of the national trend to eliminate hospital beds for the mentally ill. These veterans have given their all for their country when it needed their service. Now that these homeless veterans are in need of assistance from our government, there is a reluctance to provide the needed resources to make a difference.
In a recently released report, designed and funded by 12 federal agencies—"Findings of the National Survey of Homeless Assistance Providers and Clients"—it was reported that:
The report went on to state that, when homeless people get housing assistance and other needed services, about 76 percent of those living along with their families and 60 percent of those living alone improve their living situation. Such services include health care, substance abuse treatment, mental health services, education, and job training.
Reducing homelessness among veterans requires greater government commitment and more federal resources. Veterans who are homeless deserve a better deal than what they are receiving from our government—in many cases, it is nothing more than lip service.
Messrs. Chairmen, I can tell you that DAV is making a difference in the lives of many homeless veterans across this nation.
As an organization committed to service, one of the DAV's top priorities is to help America's 275,000 homeless veterans break the cycle of poverty and isolation, and move from the streets to self-sufficiency. The DAV Homeless Veterans Initiative is our program to assist those veterans who find themselves living on the streets. Our motto—"We Don't Leave our Wounded Behind"—is more than a clever slogan, it is a principle, a rule, and a promise we need to keep—all of us, including our government.
The purpose of the DAV Homeless Veterans Initiative, which is supported by DAV's Charitable Service Trust and Colorado Trust, is to promote the development and provision of supportive housing and appropriate supportive services to assist homeless veterans to become productive, self-sufficient members of society again. Our goal is to establish a partnership between the DAV—national, departments, and chapters—and federal, state, county, and local governments to develop programs and initiatives to assist homeless veterans in becoming self-sufficient.
The issue of homelessness is a serious matter of concern for DAV and will require a long-term commitment—which the DAV is willing to make. We hope that Congress will also make a significant long-term commitment to getting homeless veterans off the street and into the mainstream of society again.
Messrs. Chairmen, the DAV is so concerned by the problem of combating homelessness in our veterans' population that we continue to encourage our departments and chapters to get involved on the local level. We encourage groups to apply for grants from our Charitable Service Trust and Colorado Trust to continue and expand local services and activities on behalf of homeless veterans and their families. Our network of volunteers is able to provide food and shelter and, in many cases, medical, vision, and dental aid to homeless veterans.
Since 1989, DAV's Charitable Service Trust grants and allocations for homeless projects total $814,764.00.
Later this month, at a hearing before the House Veterans' Affairs Subcommittee on Benefits, the DAV will be providing more detailed information on our Homeless Veterans Initiative and other local programs supported by the DAV Charitable Service and Colorado Trusts.
In addition to DAV's efforts, Miss America, Heather Renee French, the daughter of a combat-wounded Vietnam veteran, has taken up the cause of homeless veterans. With her support and efforts, I am certain that the issue of homeless veterans will continue to remain in the public forefront until more is done to address and begin to correct this unfortunate situation.
There is no question that with the proper assistance—including health care, substance abuse treatment, mental health services, education, and job training—homeless veterans can improve their situations and begin the transition to once again become productive and a part of mainstream America; the very ideals they served and fought to preserve for all Americans.
There are many reasons why veterans find themselves out on the streets—underemployed, unemployed, and health and disability problems, just to name a few. In many cases, the timely delivery of VA benefits and health care services can mean the difference between living on the streets or living in a home. Many homeless veterans are the victims of the national trend to close mental hospitals or beds. Due to funding shortfalls and apathy, those suffering from mental illness are being forced out of inpatient care and on to the streets before they are capable of providing for themselves.
We sincerely appreciate the efforts of the Veterans' Affairs Committees to authorize funding to the Department of Labor for the Homeless Veterans Reintegration Program at $65 million over a five-year period. Additionally, an annual appropriation of $50 million was authorized to carry out VA's authority to make grants under the Homeless Veterans Comprehensive Service Program Act of 1992. We hope that congressional appropriators will follow your lead and adequately fund homeless veterans programs. It is also important for the Department of Housing and Urban Development to target its efforts and funding to assist homeless veterans.
Sadly, our nation has chosen to continue to ignore another commitment to veterans. More than 90,000 of our citizen-soldiers have yet to be accounted for following World War II, Korea, and Vietnam.
This issue is of the utmost importance to DAV because members of the Armed Forces have always taken into combat an unwritten, unspoken, and unbreakable contract of the battlefield. Simply stated, it is: We will leave no one, dead or alive, in the hands of the enemy.
Because of this iron-clad contract, the DAV strongly believes that our nation has a sacred obligation to account for its missing service men and women who do not return from the fields of battle. There are no loopholes, no escape clauses, and absolutely no room for negotiation.
Yet our government has failed to meet the terms of this binding contract. At times, it appears as if our nation is more concerned about big business interests than in providing closure for the family members who wait for some definitive word of the fate of their loved ones who failed to return from combat. To put the interests of business before the needs of our POW/MIAs and their families is unconscionable.
We ask that you support efforts to obtain the fullest possible accounting of our POW/MIAs.
Many of us in this room sat through a reenlistment presentation wherein we were told that, should we choose to make the military a career, we would receive free medical benefits for ourselves and our dependents for the rest of our lives. Nothing could be further from the truth.
We were also told that should we become disabled or injured as a result of active duty military service, that our government would provide for our health care needs. In many cases, this is not true either.
During the 1990s, federal spending for VA health care has fallen drastically short of keeping pace with medical inflation and associated cost increases. These shortfalls have forced VA medical facilities to cut services, which have caused further delays and, in some cases, denial of care to some veterans in need of health care services. Without appropriate funding levels, the VA will be unable to meet its obligations to our nation's sick and disabled veterans.
Similar to the private sector, over the past decade, the VA has closed more than half of its acute care beds as it has moved to outpatient care. With 25,000 fewer employees and a budget that has not kept pace with inflation, the VA has provided care to an additional 500,000 veterans, and, in 1999, outpatient visits increased from 22.6 million to 37 million.
Although Congress and the Administration agreed to increase VA health care spending by $1.7 billion in fiscal year 2000, reports from around the country show that VA medical facilities are still being forced to downsize their employee workforce. Unfortunately, in most cases, it is the caregivers who are being cut.
According to the Administration's proposed VA budget for FY 2001, employment levels of VA health care providers will decrease by more than 1,300 employees. The average employment level for acute hospital care at VA medical facilities will decrease by almost 3,000 employees. The VA psychiatric care employee level is reduced by 1,200 employees. The employment level for rehabilitation care, including spinal cord injury care, will decrease by almost 250 employees.
Although VA is projecting that workloads will decrease in the above-listed service areas, we are concerned because of the already overworked and understaffed health care provided in these areas. In many cases, these health care providers must rely on "healthier" veterans under their care to assist in caring and watching out for the sicker veterans. This trend must be reversed.
Until Congress and the Administration realize the true value of the VA health care system, veterans will be unable to receive proper and adequate health care services. For the first time in four years, the Administration has put forward a workable health care budget for VA. The Administration's request of $20.4 billion is a commendable start toward providing VA with the resources it needs to adequately carry out its mission. It is our sincere belief that Congress will add an additional $560 million to VA health care, so that VA is appropriately funded.
Your recognition of the need for significant increased funding for VA in this fiscal year has not gone unnoticed by DAV and the veterans we serve, and it is greatly appreciated. VA now has available the momentum to put in place policies and procedures, together with an appropriate workforce, to regain the ability to provide timely quality health care services to a group of veterans who deserve no less.
Access to Technologies for Veterans with Physical Disabilities
Advancements in technology and adaptive equipment continue to offer great promise to veterans with physical disabilities in order to maximize function and independent living. VA's rehabilitation research and development program has developed a solid foundation for advancing assistive technologies for veterans with amputations and spinal cord injuries, including computer-assisted design and manufacture systems for the development of artificial limbs and orthotic seating and bracing systems. VA research led to the development of a new generation of prosthetic foot known as the SEATTLE foot system.
VA's Prosthetic and Sensory Aids Service, to its credit, has made a genuine effort to provide veterans with the newest technological advancements as they become available. With significant budget constraints, however, VA simply cannot meet the demand from veterans with disabilities for these assistive technologies.
Current Veterans Health Administration (VHA) prosthetics policy, based on budget constraints, requires that a VHA-preferred vendor must provide services at a rate less than what Medicare pays for the same service or product. The DAV was contacted by a 100 percent service-connected combat disabled veteran who attempted to use the prosthetic services of a vendor referred to him because this vendor provided quality products and services. However, this combat-disabled amputee was told by the VA that the vendor he chose was required to provide the appliance and necessary services at a cost of 14 to 16 percent less than what Medicare paid.
Messrs. Chairmen, since when does Medicare set the standard for VA services? And since when do the clinical needs of veterans fall below those of other segments of our society, especially when providing quality health care to combat disabled veterans?
The continuation of an inadequate budget is negatively impacting this nation's sick and disabled veterans, including 100 percent service-connected disabled combat veterans. It is clear that the cost of services is more important than providing quality assured health care. This should never be the case with respect to severely disabled veterans, especially those disabled in combat.
New and exciting technologies are on the horizon to maximize the function of people with disabilities. New mobility devices are soon to be available that climb stairs and curbs, raise the seated person to eye level by balancing on two wheels, and traverse almost any terrain. Computer-enhanced artificial limbs and other technologies for people with mobility and sensory impairment continue to enter the marketplace. VA must find a way to get these advancements in to the hands of veterans. But this cannot occur in a meaningful way until Congress recognizes the need for additional resources to fund "prosthetics and sensory aids" for veterans with disabilities. We appreciate that after several years of flat line budget requests, the Adminsitration's FY 2001 budget includes a request for approximately $59 million in new spending for prosthetics and sensory aids. We strongly encourage Congress to exceed this request and thereby acknowledge the importance of this undervalued are! a of veterans health care spending.
Third-party collections for the treatment of nonservice-connected disabilities continues to be a concern for DAV and the sick and disabled veterans we serve. I will briefly note four problem areas with respect to third-party collections:
A group of American servicemen who were deliberately exposed to ionizing radiation during the Cold War era—atomic veterans—have been almost totally ignored by our government. While there was favorable legislation passed in the mid-1980s, for the most part, these atomic veterans and their survivors have not been able to obtain the justice they so richly deserve.
Deliberately placed in harm's way by their government, studies show that atomic veterans have a higher death rate from leukemia, and higher rates of certain cancers. A study by the Institute of Medicine (IOM) found a 20 percent higher risk of fatal prostate cancer, 160 percent higher rate of fatal nasal cancer, and a 50 percent higher rate of fatal leukemia in some participants of tests in Nevada—a 14 percent higher risk of fatal leukemia among all atomic veterans.
The DAV has urged Congress for many years to add certain conditions to the list of presumptive disabilities for veterans exposed to ionizing radiation—a position consistent with statements made by the IOM study director, Dr. Susan Thaul. She alluded to the crucial missing data on the levels of radiation received by veterans, and stated that the results of the study could be used to formulate policy for presumptive disabilities for veterans and survivors. She noted that the list of presumptive disabilities should be expanded.
In fact, former VA Under Secretary for Health, Dr. Kenneth W. Kizer, said in an April 21, 1998 memo to VA Secretary Togo D. West, Jr., that there was no justification to keep radiogenic diseases off the presumptive list. Dr. Kizer made this statement in response to legislation introduced by Senator Paul D. Wellstone which would have added 10 radiogenic illnesses to VA's list of presumptive disabilities resulting from exposure to ionizing radiation.
With only about 500 compensation claims approved by the VA, out of about 20,000 claims filed for residuals of exposure to ionizing radiation, it is clear that atomic veterans are having their claims adjudicated by standards that make it impossible for them or their survivors to receive favorable outcomes. Let us work together to remove the bureaucratic nightmare that faces atomic veterans and their survivors.
It is difficult to ignore the inconsistencies in the treatment of atomic veterans and civilian workers at nuclear power plants. Recently, the Administration has been lobbying for legislation to compensate civilian workers exposed to nuclear material. Legislation for civilian workers includes many of the so-called "radiogenic" diseases that the DAV and atomic veterans have been attempting to have Congress include in the list of presumptive disabilities for atomic veterans. Where is the justice for atomic veterans? Why does our government continue to treat veterans like second-class citizens?
Now is the time for Congress to act to correct this great injustice. Now is the time for Congress to move favorably on legislation to include all "radiogenic" diseases in the list of presumptive disabilities. The members of the DAV call upon the Veterans' Affairs Committees to take action to increase the list of presumptive disabilities for atomic veterans, to include: lung cancer, bone cancer, skin cancer, colon cancer, posterior subcapsular cataracts, nonmalignant thyroid nodular disease, ovarian cancer, paraythyroid adenoma, tumors of the brain and central nervous system, and rectal cancer.
PERSIAN GULF WAR VETERANS
For nine years, Persian Gulf War (PGW) veterans have been waiting for answers to the questions of what is causing their sicknesses and what type of treatment will arrest the spread of these mysterious illnesses, and possibly lead to a cure. The absence of answers for almost a decade is a tragedy of unbelievable magnitude.
Recent studies on Gulf War Illness point to two possible causes of the illnesses that affect PGW veterans. In one study, researchers reported that brain scans of some PGW veterans show evidence of brain damage, possibly from exposure to chemicals during the Gulf War.
Another study points to an experimental drug given to U.S. troops during the Gulf War as possibly being responsible for illnesses affecting PGW veterans. The report notes that pyridostigmine bromide or PB, "cannot be excluded as a contributor to illness" suffered by PGW veterans.
In addition to these two possibilities, other possible causes identified include: depleted uranium, smoke from oil field fires, stress, pesticides, environmental toxins, and chemical and biological warfare agents. More needs to be done to ensure that these brave men and women receive the answers to their questions and a treatment regiment that will help them regain their good health and mental well-being.
While they are waiting for answers to these questions, Congress must continue to ensure that PGW veterans have access to needed health care services and the ability to receive adequate disability compensation for their illnesses. There must be no further delays with respect to health care treatment and receipt of disability compensation.
Also, Congress must require that there is an oversight committee or board in place to ensure that there is a coordinated effort on the part of VA, the Departments of Defense, and Health and Human Services to continue to find answers to the etiology and treatment of the disability(ies) referred to as Gulf War Illnesses. All efforts must be focused on identifying the cause or causes of Gulf War Illnesses and the care and treatment of those men and women who are suffering its effects.
The oversight committee or board should be responsible for eliminating duplicative efforts by the various departments, ensuring that research projects are given top priority, that medical and scientific research is intensified and that all possible avenues are explored.
CONCURRENT RECEIPT OF MILITARY LONGEVITY RETIRED PAY AND VA DISABILITY COMPENSATION
The issue of concurrent receipt of VA disability compensation and military longevity retired pay continues to be of grave concern to our membership. Military retirees are the only category of federal retirees who are required to waive their retirement pay in order to receive VA disability compensation.
While we are grateful and encouraged that Congress was able to pass legislation to provide "special pay" for those retirees who are too severely disabled to begin a second career following their military service, very few veterans will benefit from this legislation. It is our sincere hope and desire that Congress will expand the provisions of "special pay" to those veterans who retired on disability, after serving 20 or more years of active military service. Congress should also either eliminate the provision requiring a severe disability rating within four years of retirement or expand the number of years following retirement to a more reasonable period of time.
The DAV will continue to fight for the elimination of the prohibition on the concurrent receipt of military longevity retired pay and VA disability compensation. Former servicemembers who retire from the Armed Forces on the basis of length of service must waive their retired pay to receive VA disability compensation. This is inequitable because military retired pay is earned by virtue of the veteran's career service to our nation. On the other hand, disability compensation is recompense for injury or disease incurred as a result of military service.
Under current law, the earning potential of disabled career retirees is reduced commensurate with the degree of service-connected disability. To put them on equal footing with nondisabled retirees, they should receive full military retired pay and disability compensation to substitute for diminution of earning capacity.
Currently, there are several bills pending in Congress to provide for concurrent receipt of military longevity retired pay and VA disability compensation. These bills cover the spectrum from no offset, H.R. 303, to partial offset, H.R. 65/S. 1237.
More than half of the members of the House have joined as cosponsors on H.R. 303, yet this important legislation has not been given serious consideration.
Fairness and equity require that this legislation be moved forward and be favorably considered by both the House and the Senate during this session of the 106th Congress. Your support of this matter would be greatly appreciated.
SEVERANCE PAY AND SPECIAL SEPARATION BENEFITS
Another issue that concerns our membership involves the taxation of disability severance pay provided to military members separated from service due to service-connected disability. Although money paid to compensate individuals for personal injury is tax-exempt, military members leaving the service with disability severance pay are taxed, nonetheless. While current veterans are able to request a tax refund, a three-year statute of limitations bars other veterans from recouping their taxed disability severance pay. The three-year statute of limitations should be removed as a bar for the recovery of taxes paid on disability severance pay. The law should also be changed to discontinue the withholding of taxes from disability severance pay.
Additionally, those veterans separated from military service and provided special separation benefits as a part of the government's effort to downsize the military, are required to repay the separation pay before receiving any disability compensation from the VA. Although unrelated to any disability, VA recoups special separation benefits paid to servicemembers prior to payment of disability compensation.
There is no legitimate reason for veterans to be taxed on their disability severance pay or for VA to recoup special separation pay. We ask for your support to correct these matters.
The Administration's budget proposes to increase staffing levels for claims processing by 586 employees—299 of these additional employees would be reassigned from other programs within the Veterans Benefit Administration, while 287 employees represents a net increase. This increase is very much appreciated. However, more employees for claims processing are a necessity if C&P Service is to succeed in overcoming its quality and timeliness problems.
We believe, however, any gains from increased staffing will be more than offset by losses in efficiency and productivity as a result of court-imposed procedures with well-grounded claims. One of the most counterproductive obstacles to efficient and fair claims processing today is one created through a misinterpretation of law by the United States Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims. Congress designed VA's benefits delivery system to be informal and helpful so a veteran entitled to compensation for disabilities incurred in military service to our nation, for example, would not be met by a passive, indifferent, resistant, or contentious bureaucracy, or have to pay part of his or her modest disability benefits to an attorney just to get what the veteran was rightfully due. VA has carried out that policy toward veterans by assuming the obligation to assist veterans in filing and prosecuting their claims, identifying and gathering pertinent evidence, and making it VA's duty to! apply all relevant laws and regulations so that the veteran receives every benefit supported in law.
A premise for the requirement that VA fully assist the veteran in obtaining the evidence necessary to substantiate the claim was that the veteran—often sick and physically or mentally disabled—lacked the understanding and resources to deal with the regimented bureaucracy or institutions from which records must be obtained. The spirit of assistance, as well as efficiency, demanded that VA negotiate these processes for the veteran. This duty to assist the veteran or family members, has been the cornerstone of the benevolent system of benefits Congress established for America's veterans.
Another unique aspect of the VA benefits system is its liberal burden of proof. Unlike adversarial litigation, no opposing interest is involved in VA claims. Therefore, VA grants the benefits sought where the evidence supporting the grant is at least as persuasive as any evidence against a claim. Nonetheless, because the process is nonadversarial, there may be no evidence in opposition, and the veteran is still required to submit enough documentation to "justify a belief in a fair and impartial mind that the claim is well grounded." That has been the burden of proof for VA claimants since at least the early 1920s.
One of the things Congress did to preserve the existing system was the inclusion of the burden of proof and the duty to assist in a statute, so these beneficial provisions could not be abandoned. Despite clearly stated Congressional intent and sincere efforts to prevent it, the courts have not remained mindful of the will of Congress. One of the most notable ways in which the courts have imposed changes upon the VA process is the principle of the well-grounded claim. The Court of Veterans Claims turned the principle that the government has a duty to assist the veteran in establishing a well-grounded claim on its head. The court construed section 5107 (a), title 38, United States Code, as requiring claimants to provide, without VA assistance, evidence sufficient to establish that the claim is well grounded before VA has any duty to assist such claimants. Naturally, if claimants had the ability to obtain all the preliminary evidence required under the court's rulings, they! would not need the VA's assistance. The court's interpretation defeats the very purpose of the duty to assist; the court requires the claimant to do, without assistance, the very thing for which the assistance was intended.
Messrs. Chairmen, presently, there are bills that have been introduced in the House and Senate to correct this situation. In the Senate, Senator Patty Murray introduced S. 1810, the Veterans Claims and Appeals Processing Clarification and Improvement Act. In the House, Representative Lane Evans introduced H.R. 3193, the Duty to Assist Veterans Act. The DAV encourages all members of the Veterans' Affairs Committees to cosponsor and support this important legislation. Too many valuable VA resources are being wasted due to the multiple step process VA must now go through to determine whether a claim is well grounded. Additionally, many veterans have waited many years to have their claim decided on appeal, only to have their case dismissed by either the Board of Veterans Appeals or the Court of Veterans Claims because it is determined not to be well grounded.
The DAV is also concerned that the VA's rule changes on the issue of well-grounded claims and the duty to assist, further confuse the issue and force VA to needlessly waste scarce resources to do in multiple steps that which was once done in a seamless process. Therefore, only a legislative remedy will correct the current miscarriage of law.
THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR VETERANS CLAIMS
The creation of a special, Article I court—the United States Court of Veterans Appeals, recently renamed the United States Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims—has been a benefit to veterans and other claimants because the Court, in early decisions, sought to bring VA decision makers into compliance with the law. Prior to judicial review, almost two-thirds of the appeals decided by the Board of Veterans' Appeals were denied—12 percent were allowed and 20 percent were remanded to the agency of original jurisdiction. Since judicial review, less than 40 percent of the appeals are denied, 22 percent are allowed and 36 percent are remanded. Clearly a significant departure from how veterans' claims were handled in the past.
However, the veterans' community has become quite concerned with the trends and overall direction of the Court's jurisprudence in recent years. The time has come for congressional oversight into how this congressionally created Article I court is adhering to the intent of Congress that the application of law administered under title 38, United States Code, be fair and just and without unnecessary legislative formalities.
It is the intent of Congress to place upon the government many of the burdens that are typically upon a party to litigation. Congress obligated the VA to furnish veterans all reasonable assistance in obtaining their benefits, to explore all legal theories and avenues of entitlement and to ensure that all pertinent legal authorities are considered. The system is designed so that a veteran or claimant is not required to be represented to receive all benefits to which he or she is entitled.
Contrary to the intent of Congress and the law, the Court has imposed additional and unwarranted legalistic requirements on veterans and other claimants. Congressional oversight is necessary to ensure that unintended legal formalities do not place unreasonable and unnecessary burdens upon veterans and their families as they seek to obtain benefits and services from a grateful nation.
Messrs. Chairmen, I will briefly comment on other legislative issues that should be addressed by your committees this year. Congress should:
We recognize the significant progress the VA has made over the last several years in developing programs that address the unique physical, psychological, and social needs of women veterans. However, we fear the progress that has been made improving and enhancing services could be threatened by the restrictive fiscal policies of the Administration and may ultimately lead to erosion in services provided to women veterans. If the VA health care budget for fiscal year 2001 is not fully funded, women veterans' health care services and programs could decline.
In a period of fiscal austerity, VA hospital administrators have sought to streamline programs and make every possible efficiency. Often smaller programs, such as women veterans' programs, are endangered. The loss of a key staff member responsible for delivering specialized health care services or developing outreach strategies and programs to serve the needs of women veterans can threaten the overall success of a program. Because of previous years of neglect, women veteran coordinators need authorization to devote more time to monitoring the needs and eligibility of women veterans seeking care.
Improvements must be made to make sure that women veterans are recognized within the VA system and considered equal to their male counterparts and treated accordingly. A more extensive outreach program is necessary to tell women about programs and services available to them. Unfortunately, women veterans still face privacy issues during physical examinations and treatments. Administrators of VA health care facilities should provide a safe, private and comfortable environment for women veterans. A reality and important fact is that more women are serving in the armed services which means more women veterans will be seeking VA health care in the future. Congress must provide the VA with the adequate resources necessary to meet the needs of this growing veteran population.
50TH ANNIVERSARY OF THE KOREAN WAR
In a few months, our nation will celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Korean War, the "forgotten war." It gives me great pride to acknowledge those in this room and the hundreds of thousands of other veterans across this nation who served our country during its efforts to control the spread of communism in Asia. Those valiant warriors, almost a half a century ago, sacrificed and gave their all, no questions asked, at such places as Inchon, Wonsan, "Pork Chop Hill," the Chosin Reservoir, the "Punch Bowl," "Heartbreak Ridge," and Bloody Ridge.
I am struck by the deep sense of commitment—commitment to our nation's ideas and ideals—they exhibited, not only 50 years ago, but also to the present time. As a nation, we owe them—and all veterans—a great debt of gratitude.
There is a common bond among veterans, forged by their shared experiences that have molded their character and their values. Although their lives have been forever changed, their values have not, and their commitment to this nation remains strong, even though our government too often reneges on its commitment to them.
In return for sacrificing their lives, their limbs, and mental and physical well being, the only thing that veterans have ever asked in return is that our government honors its commitment to help them and their families in their hour of need. This sacred covenant between our nation and its citizen-soldiers has been both implied and implicit since our nation was founded. Regrettably, though, there are those in positions of immense power who wish to break or severely weaken this sacred covenant. These political power brokers seemingly have little regard for the time-honored commitments of the past. And in their zeal to win a few more votes and grab a few extra headlines, they have mistakenly chosen to place dollars above decency when it comes to funding veterans' programs—they are more inclined to make new commitments instead of honoring America's promises to its veterans and their families. Together we can once again make veterans and our programs a national priority—as t! hey should be.
I hope that I have demonstrated that America's veterans, rather than being satisfied to rest on their laurels, continue to stand ready to actively and unselfishly be involved in their communities and across the nation to assist in the future of the country. And, it gives me great pleasure to note that the veteran vote has made a big difference in some of the early primaries this year. I am sure this trend will continue through the federal elections in November.
We must never forget how blessed we are to live in a free society nor forget the price that was paid for our freedom. We must, therefore, honor and care for those who distinguished their lives in defense of freedom—whatever the cost.
I want to again impress upon you that the disabled veterans in this room, and our millions of comrades across this nation, have paid a high price for the freedoms all Americans cherish. The only thing they ask in return for their sacrifices and their service is for this great nation to honor its sacred contract with America's veterans. They deserve nothing less.
Messrs. Chairmen, this completes my testimony. I hope that the Committees recognize that my testimony comes from one who not only cares for the well-being of his fellow veterans and our nation; but also one who deeply appreciates the men and women whose daily work it is to care for our nation's veterans and their families.
Thank you for allowing me the opportunity to discuss the agenda of the DAV and to share our concerns with your committees.