Congress scrambles to finish business

In advance of the winter break, members of Congress worked to resolve some pending issues, including some important to veterans:

• The federal budget: Members of a House-Senate conference committee announced last week an agreement for the fiscal year 2014 budget (H.J. Res 59). The measure constitutes the agreement reached between House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin and Senate Budget Chairman Patty Murray of Washington to partially roll-back the sequester of discretionary spending scheduled for fiscal 2014 and fiscal 2015 and increase discretionary caps for those two years.

• The National Defense Authorization Act of fiscal year 2014. House-Senate conferees agreed Wednesday on H.R. 3304, which ensures that a Defense authorization measure is enacted before Congress leaves for the year. It authorizes $632.8 billion for the Pentagon and defense-related programs for FY 2014, including $80.7 billion for the war in Afghanistan and other overseas contingency activities. The bill’s authorization for regular defense funding is roughly equal to the president’s request and slightly more than the current spending level.

The agreement establishes new procedures to combat sexual assault in the military and provides the president’s request of a 1 percent pay raise for servicemembers.

• The Department of Veterans Affairs Major Medical Facility Lease Authorization Act of 2013. On Dec. 10, the House passed this bill (H.R. 3521) by a vote of 346-1. The bill would authorize $237 million in fiscal 2014 for VA leases at 27 major medical facilities around the country. Federal law requires the VA to obtain congressional authorization for leases of VA medical facilities with an annual cost of at least $1 million. According to the VA, using leasing authority rather than constructing VA-owned facilities allows the VA to quickly establish convenient primary care facilities for veterans in their communities. The bill, sponsored by House Veterans Affairs Chairman Jeff Miller, R-Fla., would require the VA to submit a copy of a proposed lease and an analysis of it to the House and Senate Veterans’ Affairs committees at least 30 days before entering a lease.

In other news:

VA accuracy questioned: Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Undersecretary Alison Hickey on Dec. 11 testified before the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs (SVAC) about the growing questions about the validity of VA’s recent numbers on improving accuracy in the disability claims process. The American Legion has said that VA is inflating the accuracy numbers.

SWS visits: Two System Worth Saving site visits were conducted last week, one in Kansas and one in West Virginia. The details:

• In Kansas, the Rev. Daniel J. Seehafer, a SWS task force member, and Roscoe Butler, assistant director for health care conducted, visited Leavenworth Dec. 9-11. They held a town hall meeting at American Legion Post 94 for veterans to discuss the care offered at the Dwight D. Eisenhower VA Medical Center. Seehafer and Butler held a site visit at the medical center on Dec. 10-11, focusing on VA’s accomplishments and progress over the past 10 years, current issues and concerns as well as VA’s five-year strategic plan for several program areas, such as: VA’s budget, campus alignment, staffing, enrollment/outreach, hospital programs, information technology and construction programs.

• In West Virginia, task force member Vickie D. Smith-Dikes and Derrick Redd, national field service representative, held a town hall meeting at American Legion Post 16 in Huntington for veterans to discuss the care offered at the Dwight D. Eisenhower VA Medical Center. Smith-Dikes and Redd toured the Huntington VA facility and focused on the same issues as the group in Kansas.

Teaming up with USDA, Purdue: The Employment and Education Division met on Dec. 9 with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to discuss the Returning Veterans to Agriculture Project. This pilot program will be spearheaded and implemented through a partnership with Purdue University, which will include many resource partners. USDA has reached out to the Legion to discuss ways that we can work together in ensuring that the implementation will be a success and how we can avoid common pitfalls in marketing the program. The initial meeting will take place at Purdue University on Dec. 19.

Job fair: On Dec. 3, a Hiring Our Heroes job fair was held at the RR Donnelley headquarters building in Warrenville, Ill. Overall, there were 40 in-person interviews conducted and eight veterans were hired. Special thanks goes to RR Donnelley for hosting the event and conducting 6 employment workshops throughout the day, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce for their role in planning this event, along with The American Legion Department of Illinois Gary Jenson (assistant adjutant) for hosting an outreach table, and the Illinois Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve, whose outreach for this event ensured that this event would be a success.

Claims: During the week ending Dec. 6, the Board of Veterans’ Appeals reached dispositions on 192 American Legion represented appeals. Of those dispositions 73 percent of the denials were overturned with outcomes favorable to the veteran. In 60 cases, the board granted benefits outright after considering The American Legion’s arguments. In 80 cases, The American Legion was able to point out errors in the development of the veteran’s claims that mandated corrective action under the law. Of the total number of dispositions, 46 (24 percent) were outright denied.