VETERAN-RELATED LEGISLATIVE ACTIONS
House Approves MilCon/VA Spending Bill for FY ‘12
On June 14, the House of Representatives passed H.R. 2055, a spending bill to fund Military Construction, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and Related Agencies for fiscal year (FY) 2012. The recorded vote for approval was 411-5. VA discretionary funding would be set at $60.2 billion, $476 million less than the President's request. It would also include $52.5 billion in advance appropriations for the major VA medical accounts for FY 2013.
H.R. 2055 contains some major changes in specific VA funding accounts from the President's budget proposal. They include:
• Elimination of a $953 million "contingency fund" in the Medical Services account. Money was completely pulled from this ill-defined fund. Some of these funds could have been used to increase both the Major Construction and/or the Minor Construction accounts. This zeroing out will almost assuredly be put under "savings."• The American Legion was instrumental in working with Rep. Altmire (PA) to increase by $22 million the Medical and Prosthetic Research account, giving this account a total of $531 million. However, The American Legion is seeking a minimum funding level of $600 million for this category;• A $136 million decrease in the Information Technology account, for a total funding level of $3 billion. This account encompasses all of VA's automation, and is vital for the day-to-day operations of the department. The American Legion believes at least $3.5 billion is needed; and,• A decrease of $75 million dollars - to $475 million - in the Minor Construction account. The American Legion feels this category should receive a minimum of $800 million in funding.
It is the continuing hope of the House leadership to have all twelve of the FY '12 spending bills passed by the beginning of the August recess. In addition to the MilCon/VA spending bill, the House has approved H.R. 2017, the Homeland Security appropriations measure. After passing H.R. 2055, the House began consideration of H.R. 2112, the FY '12 spending bill for the Department of Agriculture, Rural Development, Food and Drug Administration, and Related Agencies.
LEGISLATIVE FOCUS FOR THE WEEK: House Committee Testimony
Legion Testifies at Hearing on Sexual Assault in the VA
American Legion Veterans Affairs and Rehabilitation Director Verna Jones testified Monday, June 13th before the House Veterans' Affairs Subcommittee on Health. The hearing was called to address a recent Government Accountability Office (GAO) report about sexual assault and security issues within VA. The GAO report sent shockwaves through the veterans' community, detailing a system-wide failure to implement safeguards or reporting standards to deal with sexual assaults happening to patients, providers and other employees in the VA health care system. Chairman Ann Marie Buerkle (NY) opened by decrying "the gross failure of VA leadership to protect the safety and security of our veterans and VA staff and systematically report and respond to sexual assaults" further identifying the problem as "contemptible."
Director Jones outlined the Legion's concerns, noting the system-wide lack of even clear definitions of what constitutes assault, and how to go about reporting. Citing the oft repeated phrase that "If you've seen one VA medical facility, you've seen ONE VA medical facility," Director Jones repeated the long-standing Legion concern regarding a lack of consistency amongst regions within VA. Drawing on the experiences of the Legion "System worth Saving" reports and the recent Women Veterans Survey, Ms. Jones noted the need to expand existing part time Military Sexual Trauma Coordinators to "full time, front line soldiers in this battle" and expressed support for HR 2074, the "Veterans Sexual Assault Prevention Act" which would require VA to provide more consistent definitions and strengthen reporting standards.
Yet Jones reminded the panel, "[L]et's not allow this to be another opportunity to add high-level bureaucrats to the system and further exacerbate the problems of a top-heavy operational model. This problem doesn't require a battalion of senior executives, it requires VA authorizing the employees they have to take charge and manage this on a local level, but with consistency. It requires VA to implement clear accountability goals for the people already in place."
Ms. Jones' testimony can be accessed here.
House Veterans Panel Examines VA Treatment of Mental Disorders
American Legion legislative staff attended a hearing on Tuesday, June 14th of the full House Veterans' Affairs Committee on delving into an apparent disconnect between treatment and compensation of mental health disorders in the VA. The hearing focused on whether the current structure of VA might be failing veterans who seek help, and whether the system might even be set up in a way which discourages or creates obstacles to receiving help and treatment. The first panel recounted the testimony of Daniel Hanson, a young Marine suffering from PTSD who had initially struggled to get help from VA while receiving compensation, which he by his own admission used on alcohol, drugs and other distractions. It was not until he was forcibly put into an outside treatment program by his parents and loved ones that he was able to master his addictions and come to terms with his struggle with PTSD to come to a more productive life. Later panels focused on existing VA treatment options, and outside suggestions about how to correct the current state of affairs.
The most contentious panel was the second panel, which included Dr. Karen Seal, a psychiatrist from the VA Medical Center in San Francisco; Lt. General James Terry Scott, Chairman of the Advisory Committee on Disability Compensation; and Dr. Sally Satel, a former VA psychiatrist who is now a resident scholar for the American Enterprise Institute. Dr. Satel's suggestions proved the most controversial. She advanced the notion that the current system, which front loads disability benefits was preventing the proper mindset for healing in veterans suffering from PTSD. By stating early on they are 100% disabled, it fosters the mindset that there is no improvement potential. Instead, she suggested such veterans should be compensated with a temporary stipend to cover expenses (recognizing the dire financial straits such veterans are commonly encountering) while these veterans are in initial treatment, with an evaluation to be made after six months to a year as to what the actual level of disability would be and a disability rating assigned at that time. Generally, after an initial burst of treatment, sufferers can see greatly diminished overall effect of the disorder and shift to a much more productive mode.
Critics of this approach characterized this as withholding disability benefits as a stick to force veterans into treatment they may not be ready for, which would be unproductive and, as Dr. Seal noted "highly unethical"
General Scott reiterated the findings of the Advisory Committee which called for more frequent examinations (every two to three years) of psychiatric disorders to determine improvement. While this may provide a better longitudinal picture of the progress of the disorder, current VA examination schedules are already heavily backlogged with new claims, and reopening and reexamining existing veterans could prove exceedingly challenging.
The hearing was at times more partisan and contentious than any previous hearing this year, although not outright argumentative. Of the positive notes and directions to come out of the hearing, perhaps most interesting was the finding that more active duty service members are seeking treatment within the service through the Chaplain's Corps, as there is less perceived stigma to this treatment route than there is for traditional medical and psychiatric help. This, coupled with findings of the successes outside the VA system through faith based groups, perhaps indicates an alternate source towards recovery for troubled veterans. With rising rates of suicide amongst veterans that saw a record 14,000+ calls to VA's suicide hotline last month, this is clearly an issue only beginning to raise its ugly head.
Senate Flag Amendment Introduced
On Tuesday, June 14 - Flag Day - Senators Orrin Hatch (UT) and Max Baucus (MT) introduced Senate Joint Resolution 19, a proposed constitutional amendment to protect the American flag from physical desecration. Its text is identical to the House companion bill, H.J. Res. 13: "The Congress shall have power to prohibit the physical desecration of the flag of the United States." There were also five additional original cosponsors: John Barrasso (WY), Chuck Grassley (IA), James Inhofe (OK), Richard Lugar (IN), and David Vitter (LA). The day after the resolution's introduction, four more senators signed on as cosponsors: John Cornyn (TX), Roy Blunt (MO), Mike Enzi (WY), and Lindsey Graham (SC). As the primary sponsor, Sen. Hatch will also solicit his Senate colleagues to become cosponsors of the measure.
Legion's Washington Office Hosts Special Visitors
The American Legion's Washington headquarters was visited on Wednesday, June 15 by two soldiers from the Military of Mongolia. Mongolian forces are being recognized by the Legion for their contribution to coalition efforts in Afghanistan and service as peacekeepers in U.N. missions.