Legion to Congress: VA accountability means action, not just words

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On Feb. 18, The American Legion launched a Thunderclap campaign (#Accountable2Veterans) calling for action, not just words, when restoring accountability at the Department of Veterans Affairs. More than 4,800 social media users signed up to support the campaign, creating a reach of more than 1.5 million.

On Feb. 24, American Legion National Commander Dale Barnett took that same message to Congress.

“We can only achieve accountability to America’s veterans if we work together – honestly and transparently – to prove that a grateful nation will put real execution behind all the words,” Barnett told a joint session of the House and Senate Committees on Veterans’ Affairs. “Congress, VA, the DoD and veterans service organizations must show those who have served in uniform that America can be as accountable to its veterans as veterans have been to America.”

In front of a dozens of Legion family members who filled both a hearing and overflow room, Barnett expressed disappointment over recent reversals of disciplinary actions handed down to VA employees who were found to have abused their positions.

“You cannot imagine how disappointed I and my fellow American Legion members were on Oct. 21, 2015, when five senior VA witnesses failed to appear at an accountability hearing, and the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs had to issue subpoenas to summon them,” Barnett said, adding that once two did show up, they invoked the Fifth Amendment to avoid explaining findings from the Inspector General that they had manipulated the system to the tune of about $400,000 in unscrupulous relocation costs and practices.

“Our disappointment only grew after additional hearings established wrongdoing, and punishments were imposed, only to be overturned in the appeals process,” Barnett said. “Veterans do not see this as accountability.”

Barnett said the United States has a moral contract to care for its veterans in a compassionate and efficient manner that is easily accessible. That includes proper staffing, a timely and accurate benefits adjudication and appeals process, and a seamless Choice Program that creates no additional burden to the patient.

And, Barnett said, it means “VA executives, managers and employees who fail to perform in a responsible or competent manner – or, worse yet, abuse their positions for personal gain – should be appropriately disciplined, to include termination. The American Legion, Congress and VA all supported the Accountability Act because it made clear that dereliction of duty would have consequences.

“The words are all there. Execution is the problem.”

In the area of treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury, Barnett urged the government to look at treatment methods beyond prescription drugs. “The American Legion supports no fewer than six bills in the 114thCongress to recognize different ways to succeed in the battle to help veterans with PTSD and TBI,” he said. “All of these open the door to treatment that does not depend on drugs. I call on Congress to move bills such as these through the process and into law. You have The American Legion’s support.”

During his testimony, Barnett presented the Legion’s other legislative priorities to the committees. Those include providing effective assistance to military personnel transitioning into the civilian world, jobs and business opportunities that match the skills and training of those transitioning servicemembers, gaining passage of a constitutional amendment to protect the U.S. flag from physical desecration, and the budget resources necessary for the U.S. military at war today.

“Veterans and Americans at war today are looking to their nation for nothing less than action and accountability to back up those priorities,” Barnett said. “Too often, what they’re seeing is the assignment of blame over an inability to execute.

“We need to find different ways to succeed. It’s time to expand the definition of accountability.”

Following his testimony, Barnett, Legion staff and other Legion leadership went through a question-and-answer sessions with members of both committees. Several issues were discussed, including:

• VA’s claims appeals process. Barnett said the Legion wants to be a partner in helping reform the process, “but we need to make sure that our veterans continue to have full due process of law in any reform of that appeals process.” Louis Celli, director of the Legion’s Veterans Affairs & Rehabilitation Division, said confidence was an issue. “Our veterans do not have enough faith in (VA’s) adjudication system to know their claim was processed accurately the first time,” Celli said. “If we can get that adjudication system improved and processed the first time, we wouldn’t have 440,000 appeals. We have to fix the adjudication process from Day 1.” And Barnett said the use of American Legion service officers to file claims on behalf of veterans also will make a difference in the appeals process. “You need to have a service officer advising you,” Barnett said. “If you think you’re going to go into the claims process without a service officer, you are a lost cause. They’re a key to the solution.”

• Privatizing veterans health care and the future of VA. “If you listen to some people, they’re ready to shuck the VA now and send every veteran out into the community,” Bozella said. “We certainly don’t support that. Veterans need total health care. VA understands veterans. They understand the whole person. They understand the mental health aspects, as well as the physical health aspects and emotional health aspects, that go on to treating the whole person.”

• PTSD-TBI treatment. Barnett said prescribing drugs isn’t the only viable treatment plan. “We’ve got to do better than that,” he said. “There’s so many innovative ways out there. I’ve been with the equestrian therapy, dog therapy. It doesn’t work for every person. But we need to be innovative because our veterans deserve that. We should be looking at ways (to treat them) – not looking at ways NOT to treat veterans.”

• Transition assistance for servicemembers entering civilian world. James Oxford, chairman of the Legion’s Veterans Employment & Education Commission, said efforts to employ newly discharged veterans should begin earlier in the process. “We need to bring employers into the active-duty bases and … let them help those active-duty people transition,” he said.