July 17, 2013

America’s veterans deserve sufficient, timely and predictable funding for the programs of the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).  The entire country has watched the budget squabbles and territorial infighting of Congress over the last several years.  Though this committee has steadfastly risen above the fray and maintained a bipartisan spirit of cooperation, veterans’ program have still suffered from the specter of government shutdown, sequestration, and a bitterly divided budgetary landscape that has led to stop gap continuing resolutions in the place of the passage of real budgetary legislation.

Chairman Miller, Ranking Member Michaud and distinguished Members of the committee, on behalf of Commander Koutz and the 2.4 million members of The American Legion, I thank you and your colleagues for the work you do and especially your bipartisan dedication to “getting it right” for America’s veterans and their families.

The legislation considered by the committee today is focused on fixing some of the budgetary concerns related to the VA, and helping to achieve that goal of forward thinking, sufficient, timely and predictable funding for veterans’ programs.

H.R. 806:

To amend title 38, United States Code, to make permanent the requirement for annual reports on Comptroller General reviews of the accuracy of Department of Veterans Affairs medical budget submissions, and for other purposes.

This legislation makes permanent a current requirement for the Comptroller General to review the accuracy of the Medical Care Budget Submission, as it relates to the Baseline Health Care Model Projection.  The review is to be submitted to the House and Senate Committees on Veterans’ Affairs, as well as the House and Senate Appropriations committees, and the Committee on the Budget of the House of Representatives not later than 120 days after the submission of the President’s budget.

As a resolution based organization that derives its operational mandate from resolutions passed by membership in regular meetings, The American Legion has no resolution respective to oversight of the VA budget submissions by the Comptroller General.

The American Legion has no position on this legislation.

H.R. 813:  Putting Veterans Funding First Act of 2013

To amend title 38, United States Code, to provide for advance appropriations for certain discretionary accounts of the Department of Veterans Affairs.

When Congress passed the Veterans Health Care Budget Reform and Transparency Act in 2009, the intent was quite clear: ensure sufficient, timely and predictable funding to care for those who have worn the nation’s uniform. The key improvement was the authorization of Congress to approve investments in medical care for veterans one year in advance to allow VA to more effectively plan for the future and ensure veterans would get the quality medical care they have earned.  Supported by resolution[1], The American Legion worked closely with Congress, and this Committee, to ensure that this legislation passed.

This goal is still as vital and important as it was four years ago and The American Legion certainly supports assured funding for VA through resolution[2]. Daily news stories about the backlog of disability claims, and the inability of VA and the Department of Defense (DOD) to come together on plans for a joint electronic health record, have made it clear that veterans’ health care is not the only component of the budget that needs to benefit from advance appropriations.

Through American Legion analysis, and close working projects regarding VA programs, we now recognize that many other key VA accounts, such as the Information and Technology (IT) accounts; necessary to provide long term planning as VA struggles to implement technology goals, like a fully electronic operating environment to help tame the claims backlog, or; the ability to transmit health records back and forth with the DoD, would benefit from advance appropriations.  The Major and Minor Construction budgets would also benefit from a longer range planning window, to better understand and project how VA will meet their growing infrastructure needs, even though they have routinely slashed funding for construction over the past several years.

The American Legion worked closely with the Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA) as they grappled with turning the tide of a massive claims backlog through the looming threat of sequestration, which held future planning hostage for nearly a year until the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) was able to render their report.  And, as many of the committee members here remember, it took much hounding from this committee, the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, and Veterans Service Organizations (VSOs), including The American Legion, to ensure that the main VBA programs be exempt from sequestration.  That looming threat was potentially devastating to the long term planning needs of VBA employees seeking to tame the massive backlog.  Just as VBA was attempting to implement a major IT infrastructure change with the Veterans Benefits Management System (VBMS), planners were facing down an uncertain future because only the already-protected medical care budgets had the certainty of advanced appropriations to enable long range planning.

Through the work of the 2,600 American Legion Accredited Veteran Service Officers, our 10 years of System Worth Saving reports that have chronicled a decade of VA healthcare and services, and the hundreds of programs facilitated through thousands of American Legion posts working on behalf of veterans nationwide, every day, 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; whether they are in place to serve our recently returning service members who are coming back from fighting two grueling wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, or our Vietnam era veterans facing retirement, or World War II and Korean war veterans facing the decisions revolving around elder care.  Finally, the VA budgets need to properly reflect the long term planning necessary to meet expansions of the National Cemetery system, the VBMS and electronic record projects which affect VBA, VHA and IT, as well as ongoing Office of the Inspector General (IG) oversight.  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 discretionary accounts of the Department of Veterans Affairs.  Assured funding that supports long term planning is essential to preventing future backlogs, future breakdowns in benefits delivery and the smooth IT structure required for seamless transition.

The American Legion supports the passage of H.R. 813.

Draft Legislation:  Department of Veterans Affairs Budget Planning Reform Act of 2013

To amend title 38, United States Code, to direct the Secretary of Veterans Affairs to submit to Congress a Future-Years Veterans Program and a quadrennial veterans review, to establish in the Department of Veterans Affairs a Chief Strategy Officer, and for other purposes.

This legislation, broad in scope, seeks to formalize planning procedures and develop tools for use, both within VA and by outside but vital stakeholders such as Congress and VSOs, to determine whether VA budgeting is on track to meet their goals and deliver benefits and services to the nation’s veterans.  The intention of the legislation is admirable, as more transparency and access to more data is helpful for all stakeholders to ensure VA is moving forward in the direction that will best meet the needs of veterans.  As The American Legion is a resolution based, grass roots organization that derives our operational mandate from our combined membership in the form of resolutions passed at regular meetings, and the resolutions are silent on the structural changes this legislation would impose, we cannot support or oppose this legislation.  However the very important concepts outlined in this legislation merit discussion on a section by section basis, and the following points should be considered if this legislation moves forward.

Section I:        Simply outlines the title

Section II:      

Future-Years Program: This section outlines the mission for VA to create a “Future-Years Veterans Program” to coincide with the annual budget submission.  The Future-Years program would be similar to the budget, but would also cover expected expenses over a five year period.  The first two years of the Future-Years program would exactly mirror the budget submission (which presumably would cover two years in anticipation of advanced appropriations) but would also contain out year projections to meet the goals of VA in seeing to the needs of the nation’s veterans.  This process potentially could be useful to outside observers, as if VA were to suddenly lower funding from a key project in one year’s budget, and not reflect a down the road increase, it would immediately raise red flags as to how they still intended to meet the outcome down the road with drastically reduced funding.

Furthermore, by comparing the Future-Year plans from year to year, within a brief period, any budgetary legerdemain would presumably become glaringly obvious.  An example of this type of behavior can be seen with recent underfunding of VA’s Construction budgets.  Despite the fact that VA has a Strategic Capital Investment Planning (SCIP) program to determine long term construction needs, the budget request for Major and Minor Construction over the past few years were low.  As noted by past National Vice Commander of The American Legion William Schrier before the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee[3], VA’s SCIP plan called for $65 billion in projects over the next ten years, which should have amortized to approximately $6.5 billion a year in construction costs, yet VA’s own ask was less than $2 billion.  This glimpse into the longer term picture was what prompted The American Legion to push for more funding for Construction so VA would not fall behind their SCIP program needs.  Sadly, the budget was not increased, but perhaps with better tools to see the discrepancies, Congress will also be able to recognize these shortfalls and help adjust VA’s budget upwards when critical goals are in danger of not being met.

Quadrennial Veterans Review:        This would require, starting in Fiscal Year (FY) 2017 and every four years thereafter, a review of the commitments of the United States to veterans and a determination of what resources are necessary to deliver on those commitments.  This review would be comprehensive in scope, would examine all policies and strategies, and would require consultation not only within the Department, but with other governmental bodies, as well as State and local governments, tribal officials, private sector and academic concerns, and importantly members of VSOs.

Herein lies a major concern of The American Legion, as the full role of VSOs is not clearly delineated, and it is unclear what is meant by re-examining the commitments of the United States to veterans.  In certain cycles, when the blood sacrifices of our nation’s veterans are less prominent on the nightly news, there are forces that rise to question why we provide compensation to our veterans.  Though the devastating effects of exposure to the chemical defoliant Agent Orange were only brought to light by the tireless efforts of advocates like The American Legion, there are those who would roll back the clock on hard fought gains for those Vietnam veterans who have suffered devastating effects and terrible disabilities because of exposure.  When the eyes of the nation are not squarely on the wounded veterans, there are those would question the entire system of VA disability.

The rise of such attitudes and how they might factor in to “a re-examination of the commitments of the United States to its veterans” is deeply troubling to The American Legion.  The American Legion strongly opposes any administrative or legislative proposals to dilute or eliminate any provision of the disability compensation program[4].  In order to ensure the voice of those most important to an overview of VA commitments, the veterans who would be affected, is not lost there would have to be clearer direction about the nature of VSO involvement in the evaluation process. 

Already VSOs contribute greatly to the tools Congress and VA have at their disposal to evaluate the effectiveness of VA programs.  The American Legion provides annual “System Worth Saving” reports on the effectiveness of health care delivery in the VHA system, as well as “Regional Office Action Review” assessments of VBA claims processing.  VSOs are clear experts in VA programs, and their essential role in the evaluation of VA should be reflected.

Section III:     This section would designate a Chief Strategy Officer (CSO) for the Department of Veterans Affairs.  The CSO would be a principal advisor to the Secretary, and would advise on long range strategic planning and the implications of such planning.  This would include, but not be limited to, such tasks as cost estimation, integration of planning, analysis on the planning and programming phases of the new system, and developing and executing the Future-Years Program.  This would be done to give this new system appropriate heft and weight within the Department, and ensure the work of planning the future programs was not circumvented by other concerns.           

Section IV:     This section provides for a study on the functions and organizational structure of the office of the Secretary of Veterans Affairs and of VA in general.  As with any major change in scope to an organization’s long range planning mechanisms, a study of the existing systems in place is warranted.  The study mandated by this legislation will take place no later than one year after the enactment of the legislation.

Overall, the importance of ensuring VA has proper tools in place for long range strategic planning is something The American Legion supports, even if the mechanism is still under consideration.  We are continuing to study and evaluate the matter, and are working with our membership and leadership to analyze the legislation as it evolves to develop a position that reflects what is best for the veterans of America.  We appreciate the Ranking Member’s diligence and attention to VA’s resources in bringing the legislation forward, and hope to continue to work with Mr. Michaud and the committee to ensure the best outcome for America’s veterans.

Because The American Legion is a resolution based organization with two and a half million voting members, we have not had sufficient time to thoroughly review all of the components of this legislation, and plan to do so at our annual convention in Houston, Texas August 27th – 29th, and therefore has no position on the draft legislation at this time.

[1]  Resolution No. 313: Support Budget Reform of Annual Appropriations for the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Health Care Funding

[2]  Resolution No. 180: Assured Funding for VA Medical Care

[3] Statement of William F. Schrier, Department of Washington on behalf of The American Legion before the Committee on Veterans Affairs, United States Senate, February 29, 2012

[4] Resolution 178: Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Disability Compensation, AUG 2012