Legion to testify on Capitol Hill

Members of the House and Senate Veterans’ Affairs committees will hear from American Legion National Commander Daniel M. Dellinger on Sept. 10 when he testifies in Washington about the top legislative priorities of America’s largest organization of wartime veterans.

Topics that Dellinger will cover in his testimony include protecting Department of Defense and Department of Veterans Affairs from budget cuts, reducing the VA claims backlog, improving the medical transition process for servicemembers and VA medical care for women veterans, expanding the Veterans Employment and Training Service (VETS), and passing a constitutional amendment to protect the U.S. Flag from physical desecration.

Dellinger will share key findings and recommendations of the Legion’s ad hoc committee on traumatic brain injury (TBI) and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The committee has been investigating the existing science, procedures and alternative methods for treating TBI and PTSD. It received policy briefings from leading medical experts in DoD, VA and the private sector on TBI/PTSD research, screening, diagnosis and treatment. Committee members also interviewed veterans and servicemembers suffering from the conditions to learn more about the challenges they face each day and how their lives, jobs and marriages have been affected.

On the sequestration issue, The American Legion believes that mandatory cuts are damaging America’s ability to defend itself and those who stand up to protect it. The automatic cuts remain a danger to programs for veterans. The Legion is concerned about further pay and benefits cuts and increased TRICARE rates for military retirees. While VA’s budget was declared exempt from sequestration last year, it remains to be seen how insulated VA will be in coming years.

VA has set a goal of eliminating the benefits claims backlog and achieving 98 percent accuracy in its claims processing by 2015. According to VA’s own records, more than 65 percent of veterans with disability claims have been waiting longer than 125 days (backlogged) for them to be processed. Through its field research at VA regional offices, The American Legion has found that the time it takes to process a claim varies widely, from average rates below 80 days to others that are more than 300 days - a troubling inconsistency.

Dellinger will remind Congress that The American Legion has been doing its part in reducing the claims backlog by increasing the number of fully developed claims (FDCs) being submitted to VA by its 2,600 accredited representatives nationwide. Since last December, the Legion has spearheaded the FDC program, providing additional training to its service officers and evaluating the claims process at VA Regional Offices in Pittsburgh, Denver, Indianapolis, Baltimore, Nashville, Oakland, Calif.; Reno, Nev.; and Togus, Maine.

Each year, American Legion service officers assist veterans on more than 540,000 benefits claims and an additional 164,000 death benefits claims, at no cost to the veterans. They also help veterans, dependents and surviving family members secure more than $8.7 billion in earned compensation and pension benefits per year.

On the subject of improving VA health care for women veterans, Dellinger will preview in his testimony some of the results of a report on the topic by the Legion’s System Worth Saving Task Force; it conducted 15 site visits to VA medical centers across the country, focusing on the quality of health care being provided to women veterans. The task force’s report will be issued Sept. 17 in Washington.

Dellinger will also testify on The American Legion’s deep concern over the lack of accountability among some of VA’s senior executives, and the rift in trust this is causing between the Veterans Health Administration and the veterans it serves. For example, after five veterans died from an outbreak of Legionella bacteria at the VA medical center in Pittsburgh, the facility’s leadership was still rewarded with bonuses. The Legion believes that not cracking down on such failures that impact patient safety is unacceptable.

Dellinger was elected national commander of The American Legion on Aug. 29 at its 95th national convention in Houston. He will present the Legion’s testimony at 10:15 a.m. in the Senate Dirksen Office Building, Room G-50, on Tuesday, Sept. 10, before the Senate and House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs in Washington. Local Legionnaires are encouraged to attend the hearing. To watch a live webcast, go to the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs home page.