Asking for the best for our troops

Two experts from The American Legion testified at a March 23 hearing before the House Subcommittee on Military Construction, Veterans Affairs and Related Agencies.

Barry Searle and Phil Riley, directors of the Legion's Veterans Affairs & Rehabilitation Division, and its National Security & Foreign Relations Division, respectively, urged Congress to provide $14.5 billion in military construction funding to modernize Department of Defense facilities. They also recommended $2 billion for the construction, operation and maintenance of military family housing, and another $3 billion to properly support the Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) process.

In their prepared remarks, Searle and Riley said that, "No servicemember should ever have to worry about the quality and safety of facilities used by their family members on a military installation anywhere in the world."

The Legionnaires recommended that affordable, high-quality child-care services should be expanded at U.S. and overseas military installations. "Clearly, the increased number of rotations by servicemembers in support of Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom is taking its toll on the military family unit," they said.

Thanking Congress for passing the 2008 Veteran's Budget Reform and Transparency Act, which provides advance funding for VA's health-care system, Searle and Riley also reminded the subcommittee that servicemembers should ever be in doubt about the quality of health care they receive, the availability of their earned benefits and the quality of survivors' benefits.

The American Legion's most critical VA concerns - easier access to benefits and services, reducing the disability claims backlog, and ending veterans' homelessness - are being addressed by some of the VA's high-priority performance goals.

Searle and Riley stressed that one way to reduce the VA claims backlog is to "make claims adjudicators more accountable." Noting that it takes about two years to train such workers properly, the Legionnaires also pointed out that these entry-level positions have a high turnover rate, "which is not conducive to an efficient process."

VA, the Legionnaires suggested, should offer permanent positions to the 1,800-odd temporary claims adjudicators it hired with 2009 economic stimulus funds. These new adjudicators "are becoming efficient at their positions" and should be "encouraged and rewarded for remaining in their current positions."

Moving on to the subject of women veterans, Searle and Riley noted the increasing demand for gender-specific VA health services, saying, "The previously ‘male-dominated' culture of the VA must be changed to include more extensive health care for women veterans and single-parent veterans with children. VA medical facilities must be modified to reflect the shift in patient population, and "provide the gender-specific medical services, as well as military sexual trauma support and child care for single parents."

In additional testimony, The American Legion called attention to the health-care needs of veterans living in rural areas and offered Legion assistance with VA's outreach program via telemedicine and mobile clinics.

"The American Legion has a physical presence in many of these rural areas," Searle and Riley told the subcommittee. "The local American Legion family is more than willing to assist VA in the timely delivery of quality health care. If VA needs a place to park a mobile clinic, an American Legion post would make an excellent ‘waiting room' for patients. Some local post homes may even have enough space to set up a temporary or semi-permanent remote clinic, if appropriate." About 14,000 American Legion posts are located throughout the United States, many of them in rural areas.

Searle and Riley expressed The American Legion's support for including more Priority Group 8 veterans in the VA health-care system, and for the realization of the Virtual Lifetime Electronic Record, which will facilitate DoD and VA delivery of medical benefits to veterans.

The American Legion recommended specific funding levels for the following VA programs in fiscal 2011:Information technology: $3.8 billion.Medical and prosthetics research: $700 million.Major construction: $2 billion.Minor construction: $1.5 billion.State Cemetery Grants Program: $50 million.National Cemetery Administration: $260 million.State Extended Care Facility Construction Grants Program: $275 million.Homeless Veterans Reintegration Program: $50 million.

"Military housing, military schools for dependents, and child-care facilities remain critical factors in the recruitment and retention of military families," Searle and Riley said in their concluding remarks. The American Legion feels that additional attention should be paid to major and minor construction in the VA budget to reflect the changing demographics of the veterans' population," including long-term care facilities. More funding should also be provided for Priority Group 8 veterans, "who - like their less fortunate fellow veterans - have served this nation faithfully, and their families have sacrificed equally."