The System Worth Saving Task Force met at The American Legion's Washington, D.C., office last week to discuss the upcoming report on VA medical centers. The focus of the upcoming System Worth Saving Report is a past, present and future of VA healthcare report to coincide with SWS's 10th year anniversary of the program, which was designed by Past National Commander Ron Conley.
Specifically, SWS report will examine progress over the last 10 years, current issues and concerns and VA's five-year plan to address the following programs: budget, staffing, enrollment, outreach, mental health, intensive care unit (ICU), long-term care, homeless programs, scheduling/phone problems and construction programs.
During the two-day event, the committee heard from congressional staff members, VA staff members and others about topics including VA's scheduling initiatives and plan to fix the phones at medical centers; VA construction programs and updates; VA's budget situation for fiscal year 2014; and concerns regarding the government shutdown, raising of the debt ceiling and sequestration.
According to Kathleen Turco, chief financial officer for the Veterans Health Administration, VA medical centers are appropriated for 2014 so the government shutdown will not affect them. However, if the U.S. hits the debt limit and there is no deal to raise it, the government will not have any money from the U.S. Treasury and VHA medical centers will be affected. While advance appropriations allowed VHA's budget to be appropriated, those appropriations cannot be spent if the money is not there in the U.S. treasury and that is the situation that VHA would face if the VA hits the debt limit.
On Oct. 3, Ed Lilley, field service representative, presented at a veteran's health forum at American Legion Post 108 in Cheverly, Md. The purpose of the forum was to educate the community as well as Post 108's members on eligibility (who is eligible for care at VA medical centers), the breadth of coverage, and the challenges and best practices of VA health care. During the forum, Lilley also provided remarks on claims, homelessness, suicide prevention and TBI/PTSD.
In other news:
Student veterans: The Economic Division met on Sept. 30 with staff from Student Veterans of America (SVA) and Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) to discuss the launch of a new interactive in-state tuition map for all student-veterans to identify states that offer in-state tuition to transitioning servicemembers. Based upon recent VA Education Benefits data, SVA reports that at the beginning of 2013, approximately four out of five veterans using education benefits lived in a state that did not provide a residency waiver to veterans for in-state tuition. Therefore, veterans may be disqualified from receiving in-state tuition simply because their past military obligations do not conform to the state's stringent residency requirements. This often forces veterans to either take out burdensome student loans, attempt to balance full-time employment with full-time education, or abandon their higher education dreams altogether.
Homeless veterans: The American Legion participated in a meeting Oct. 2 to discuss the Jan. 25 Stand Down (Winterhaven) for homeless veterans in Washington, D.C. The American Legion has been involved with Winterhaven for over 15 years. Winterhaven is a one-day, one-stop shop for homeless veterans where they can receive health screenings; psycho-social referrals for PTSD and substance abuse; podiatry, oral and women's health consultations; legal, employment, and housing assistance; and flu vaccinations. In the past, the Legion has provided assistance with disability claims, discharge review, education, training and employment assistance as well as notified veterans of other benefits that have earned through their military service.
Job fair: Nearly 100 jobseekers attended a Sept. 10 Hiring Our Heroes job fair in Peekskill, N.Y. This job fair fielded 41 employers who collected 181 resumes and conducted 71 interviews. There were nine job offers made and three on-the-spot hires.
This event was highly successful and well attended. Special thanks goes to the N.Y. National Guard for permitting the partners to host this event onsite in Camp Smith, First Command staff for conducting the employment workshops and mock interviews for veterans and spouses, along with The American Legion Department of New York for generating publicity.
Meanwhile, planning continues on upcoming job fairs in Michigan, New Jersey and Rhode Island.
Military pay: Although Congress has yet to address the looming VA default in benefits payments, it has taken action to protect the paychecks of America's servicemembers. A bill signed into law by President Barack Obama on Sept. 30 will keep paychecks flowing to members of the military and many Department of Defense civilian workers, despite the government shutdown. H.R. 3210, the Pay Our Military Act, which passed the House and Senate without opposition last week and was signed into law, protects military paychecks and the jobs of many civilian employees of the Defense Department. The American Legion called for such protections.
Letters of support: The American Legion on Oct. 1 sent a letter of support to Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas for draft legislation that would fund a number of accounts under the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). These include: Compensation and Pensions account; Readjustment Benefits, the Veterans Housing Benefit program fund administrative expenses (of the VA Guaranteed Home Loan Program); Vocational Rehabilitation loans program and administrative expenses; and Native American veteran home loan program and administrative expenses.
Also on Oct. 1, the Legion sent a letter of support to Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, chairman of the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee, for S. 1564, legislation titled Protecting Those Who Protected Us Act of 2013. This legislation would ensure that benefits and services to veterans, dependents, and survivors provided under chapters 11, 13, 15, 18, 21, 23, 30, 31, 33, 35, and 39 of title 38, United States Code, would be adequately funded and the services under these chapters remain available until January of 2015, or until an appropriate budget authority is passed.
Claims: During the week ending September 27, 2013, the Board of Veterans' Appeals reached dispositions on 163 American Legion represented appeals. Of those dispositions, 69.3 percent of the denials were overturned with outcomes favorable to the veteran. In 49 cases, the board granted benefits outright after considering The American Legion's arguments. In 64 cases, The American Legion was able to point out errors in the development of the veteran's claims which mandated corrective action under the law. Of the total number of dispositions, 35 (21.5 percent) were outright denials.
POW/MIA update: The identification of Army 2nd Lt. Vernal J. Bird, 13 Bombardment squadron, was officially announced Sept. 25, 2013. Lt. Bird was the pilot of an A-20G Havoc aircraft on an attack mission over the island of New Guinea on March 22, 1944. Other airmen in the formation saw Bird's aircraft lagging behind, and reported the last known location of the aircraft was "about half way down the run over Boram Airstrip." Bird's aircraft did not return to base and attempts to locate the aircraft, both during and after the war, were unsuccessful.