Legion supports VA advance appropriations

The American Legion voiced its strong support at a July 17 congressional hearing for a House bill that would extend advance appropriations to all Department of Veterans Affairs programs, including discretionary accounts such as information technology and construction.

Louis Celli, legislative director for The American Legion, testified in favor of the Putting Veterans Funding First Act (H.R. 813) at a hearing before the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs. Previously, the Legion supported the 2009 passage of the Veterans Health Care Budget Reform and Transparency Act. This measure helped to ensure sufficient, timely and predictable funding for veterans health care by authorizing funding of VA medical programs one year in advance.

At the hearing, VA panelists failed to support the measure, which would give their department even more benefits derived from advance appropriations.

According to Celli, committee members could not get a straight answer as to why VA did not support the bill. Testifying for VA were Robert Snyder, acting assistant secretary for the office of policy and planning; Helen Tierney, executive-in-charge for the office of management; and Duane Flemming, director of the policy analysis and forecasting office.

The committee’s chairman, Rep. Jeff Miller of Florida reminded the VA panelists that he had introduced the bill last February, and that VA had been asked to evaluate the bill at previous hearings, which, in the opinion of the committee, gave VA more than enough time to evaluate and formulate an opinion.

The committee pointed out to the panelists that advance appropriations currently account for 84 percent of the VA budget. Excluding the remaining 14 percent was causing serious delays in the deployment of vital new equipment, such as X-ray machines, because VA cannot contract for network cable installation until Congress approves its pending IT budget request.

When asked why VA was unable to support the measure, Snyder told the committee that government review and analysis would have to be conducted before VA could agree to dedicate the remaining 14 percent of its budget to advance appropriations.

The American Legion has continued to support, by resolution, the assured funding of VA medical care. It now recognizes that many other key VA accounts would benefit from advanced appropriations, including information technology, the Veterans Benefits Management System, electronic health records and major/minor construction.

Through the work of more than 2,600 American Legion accredited representatives, 10 years of System Worth Saving reports that have evaluated the quality of VA health care and services, and the hundreds of programs facilitated through thousands of Legion posts working on behalf of veterans nationwide, The American Legion has the ability and resources to assess firsthand the importance of safeguarding the important initiatives rolling out to meet the needs of America’s veterans.

"We want this committee to know that we are adamant about protecting these vital services," Celli said. "Whether they are in place to serve our recently returning servicemembers ... our Vietnam-era veterans facing retirement, or World War II and Korean War veterans facing the decisions revolving around elder care."

VA budgets need to properly reflect the long-term planning necessary to meet expansion of the national cemetery system, the Veterans Benefits Management System and electronic health-record projects. These programs, and our veterans, deserve the same benefit of a long-term planning window that the medical care accounts enjoy.

The American Legion strongly supports the expansion of advanced appropriations to all VA discretionary accounts. Assured funding that supports long-term planning is essential in preventing future backlogs, future breakdowns in benefits delivery, and providing the smooth IT structure required for seamless transition.

In other news:

Mobile apps: Jacob Gadd, deputy director for Health Care, and Edward Lilley, national field service representative, on July 18 attended a live demonstration on VA’s Mobile Applications at the VA central office. With its new VA Mobile Health strategy, the VA aims to revolutionize health care for veterans, caregivers and VA care teams. The demonstration involved the Family Caregiver Pilot which was launched to veterans in May 2013. The pilot provides loaner iPads to nearly 1,000 caregivers already enrolled in VA’s Family Caregiver Program for seriously injured post-9/11 veterans. The iPads come loaded with nine apps created to help caregivers and the veterans they assist. The 12-month pilot features technology that allows veterans and caregivers secure access to healthcare information, the ability to track personal health-related information, and functionality to share this personal health information with their VA healthcare teams. The apps include a Summary of Care App (active medications, vitals, lab results), Health Advocate App (allows the veteran to give his or her caregiver access to their information), Prescription Refill App and a Scheduling App.

Job fair: On July 16, a Hiring our Heroes job fair was held in Detroit. This event was sponsored and hosted by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce (USCC), with The American Legion Department of Michigan, Department of Labor, Department of Veterans Affairs, Employer Support of the Guard and Reserves (ESGR), CVS, and the Detroit Chamber of Commerce. The job fair fielded 41 employers and a total of 169 jobseekers. Overall there were 703 resumes accepted, 193 interviews conducted, 43 tentative job offers and 40 on the spot hires.

Military sexual trauma roundtable: On July 18, American Legion Legislative staff attended a roundtable discussion of VSOs regarding the issue of military sexual trauma (MST). Specifically discussed were proposed changes to the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) with regard to how MST cases are handled: New York Sen. Kristen Gilibrand’s proposed legislation titled The Military Justice Improvement Act, California Rep. Jackie Speier’s of STOP Act, New York Sen. Carl Levin’s amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), as well as various other similar amendments dealing with the issue of MST.

Sen. Gilibrand’s legislation proposes to move disposition authority out of the chain of command, to a professional military prosecutor. Rep. Speier’s legislation would create a Sexual Assault Oversight and Response Office (SAORO), and all prosecutorial responsibilities of sexual-related offended committed by a member of the armed forces would be ceded to it. Sen. Levin’s amendment, taking a more conservative approach, would allow commanders to retain disposition authority, but would require the review of a commander’s decision by the next higher level of the chain of command in cases where the commander opts not to prosecute.

Meetings: The Economic Division met July 18 with key figures in advance of a July 23 hearing titled "The 90/10 Rule: Improving Educational Outcomes for Military and Veteran Students," The American Legion’s position on education policy and legislation. Economic staff members met with Sen. Carper of Delaware, chairman of Homeland Security & Governmental Affairs Committee, and Katie Bailey, director of Governmental Affairs. Currently, the VA and DOD educational benefits count toward the 10 percent of revenue that must come from non-Department of Education sources. Sen. Carper’s proposal would count VA and DOD educational benefits on the 90 percent rather than the 10 percent side.

Claims benefits: Verna Jones, director of the Veterans Affairs & Rehabilitation Division, assisted veterans with health-care benefits and claims during the week of July 15 at the 104th Annual Convention of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in Orlando, Fla.

Claims: During the week ending July 12, the Board of Veterans’ Appeals reached dispositions on 126 American Legion represented appeals. Of those dispositions, 73.8 percent of the denials were overturned with outcomes favorable to the veteran. In 24 cases, the Board granted benefits outright after considering The American Legion’s arguments. In 69 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, 30 (23.8 percent) were outright denials.