Pillar I: Veterans Affairs & Rehabilitation

The American Legion has for nearly 90 years acted as the nation’s leading advocate for proper health care, economic opportunity and legal benefits for U.S. military veterans. The Legion was instrumental in the creation of the Veterans Administration in 1930 and an ardent supporter of its elevation to cabinet status when it became the Department of Veterans Affairs in 1989. The relationship between VA and The American Legion continues to evolve today.

As it has for decades, The American Legion continues to aggressively lobby for adequate funding of VA health care, timely access to facilities, fair rulings on benefit claims and economic opportunities for those who have come home changed by their military experience. A nationwide network of American Legion department service officers works diligently to assist veterans as they pursue benefits and care they earned and deserve. At the local, state and national levels, thousands of Legionnaires provide countless hours to help veterans understand their benefits. The American Legion provides professional representation in claims appeals, discharge disputes and transition assistance from active-duty to civilian status throughout the country.

Today, as the number of discharged veterans from the global war on terrorism has surpassed 500,000, the Legion’s federally chartered role to support them could not be more profound. The Legion strongly believes that a veteran is a
veteran, no matter the war era, nature or location of service. In that light, The American Legion is the only organization that works on behalf of all 24.5 million U.S. veterans, and all who will follow.

The American Legion stands on the front line of change in the pillar of service known as “Veterans Affairs & Rehabilitation.”

It is a complex and vital part of the organization’s mission, particularly now, as a new generation of wartime veterans enters the civilian and VA world.

Following are Veterans Affairs & Rehabilitation issues of high priority to The American Legion:

Access to VA Health Care.
VA has undergone a well-documented evolution in the past 25 years, dramatically increasing quality of care beyond that of the private or public sectors. An equally well-documented problem, however, is access to that high-quality care. Access to VA care is restricted in many ways, including:

Denial of VA health care to veterans of certain demographic characteristics. The continued budget-driven suspension of Priority Group 8 veterans from new enrollment in the VA health-care system defies the spirit and intention of the Veterans Health Care Eligibility Reform Act of 1996 and denies access to the population of veterans most likely to contribute to the cost of their own care. Among those Priority Group 8 veterans are many with service-connected disabilities who are denied enrollment.New VA facilities await construction in many areas of veteran population growth. The Capital Asset Realignment for Enhanced Services (CARES) decision of 2004 identified urgent needs across the country for new VA hospitals and clinics in areas of fast veteran population growth. Four years later, only a fraction of those construction projects are funded and actually under way.Long waiting times for appointments drive away veterans in overburdened VA markets. Waiting times for VA doctor appointments can take months. At one point in recent years, more than 300,000 veterans were waiting 30 days or more for primary-care appointments. The waiting time to see a VA specialist is typically even more frustrating, often taking months.Failure to adjudicate VA benefits claims and appeals in a timely manner denies access to veterans in need. VA’s backlog of more than 400,000 undecided claims, along with thousands of disputed decisions that have not been reconciled, denies care by delaying it. VA health-care facilities must be adequately staffed with health-care providers who receive competitive compensation. In too many markets across the country, doctor, nurse and technician shortages lead VA to seek more expensive and less efficient services from outside providers. Inadequate staffing prevents VA from keeping timely appointment schedules and drives veteran patients away in many markets.Restricted access unnecessarily sends veterans to private contractors for health care formerly available to them in VA facilities. Particularly for long-term care and mental-health services, VA increasingly relies on outside contractors who not understand the unique needs of veterans who consistently suffer from such conditions as combat-related post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury, Agent Orange exposure and other service-connected problems.Veterans in rural areas are often denied access by the sheer distance between their homes and the VA medical centers equipped to serve them. Many plans have been piloted to enhance care for rural veterans, but significant improvement – aside from a recent mileage-reimbursement increase from 11 cents to 28 cents per mile – has yet to be realized. Without greater VA clinical presence in many areas of the country, access is denied to these veterans. A Better Funding Formula for VA Health Care. The discretionary process of funding the Veterans Health Administration is flawed because it fails to match actual dollars with actual demand. This breakdown has led to numerous emergency funding actions by Congress and has left VA without any new budget at all to begin a new fiscal year for over a decade. VA must be funded on the basis of real cost, without burdening veterans on fixed incomes by doubling deductibles and installing new enrollment fees that do not guarantee timely access to care. VA administrators must be given workable budgets to begin their fiscal year; the practice of running VA health-care facilities on questionable cost estimates in multiple continuing resolutions must cease. Enrollment fees are paid through honorable military service, not out of veterans’ pockets, as a hedge against a miscalculated discretionary budget. New patient enrollment fees and dramatic co-payment increases are not viable options to balance VA’s medical-care budget.

The American Legion supports:

A mandatory funding formula for VA health care, based on dollars per patient, indexed annually for inflation.The authorization of VA to collect Medicare reimbursements for services provided to enrolled, Medicare-qualified, non-service-connected veterans, similar to the authorization granted to other Indian Health Services and TRICARE for Life.The reinstatement of Priority Group 8 veterans and improved performance standards in collections from their insurance companies.Protection from a doubling of prescription co-payments and/or the introduction of annual VA health-care enrollment fees.A mandate to give VA health-care facility administrators the budgets they need at the beginning of each fiscal year.

Veterans With Special Needs. The American Legion strongly supports efforts to improve services, advance research and deliver compassionate treatment to veterans with special needs, such as:

Those who have become homeless since discharge.Those who suffer from traumatic brain injuries and/or mental illness.Those who have suffered multiple combat injuries, defined as “polytrauma.”Those who battle with conditions related to Agent Orange exposure, Gulf War illness, radiation exposure due to atomic testing, mustard-gas exposure and other medical problems linked, or presumably linked, to military service.

The Legion specifically urges VA and Congress to fund and adequately staff a greater number of Vet Centers around the country, which provide mental health and occupational outreach to thousands of veterans who otherwise look to the VA medical system for help, or who end up on the street.

The Legion also supports recommendations from the President’s Commission on Care for America’s Returning Wounded Warriors to enhance focus on traumatic brain injury and PTSD among veterans of Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom. The Legion also supports new VA polytrauma centers across the country to manage unique problems faced by OIF and OEF combat veterans.

Career Opportunities for Veterans. Job and education opportunities are pushed aside to make time for military service. Career advancement and college educations are often delayed. For some veterans returning to civilian life with physical disabilities or personal problems, such a transition can be daunting. The Legion’s Economic Division, a major part of the Veterans Affairs & Rehabilitation pillar, works specifically in that area.

A GI Bill for a New Century. The American Legion worked closely with Congress to help pass a new GI Bill last summer. However, many veterans do not fully understand the education benefit and how it can help them. The Legion is now working on an outreach effort to provide information.

Employment and Business. The American Legion actively participates in numerous acts of outreach for veterans seeking employment or business opportunities after military service. The Legion aggressively lobbies for veterans preference laws and compliance with laws designed to provide incentives for disabled-veteran entrepreneurship. Similarly, the Legion’s Economic Division assists in job and career fairs throughout the country and works to protect the careers and benefits of reservists and National Guardsmen during military deployments.

Heroes to Hometowns. The American Legion’s Heroes to Hometowns program helps severely injured U.S. servicemembers successfully transition back into their communities and civilian lives. Technically a national program, Heroes to Hometowns, or H2H, cannot work without the grassroots efforts of American Legion posts.
The American Legion works closely with DoD and VA to identify veterans in need and provide readjustment help and mentoring at the local level.

Final Respects. The American Legion works closely with the National Cemetery Administration (NCA), Arlington National Cemetery, and other federal and state governments and entities to ensure a proper burial for all veterans as well as honorable burial services for the veteran, the family of the veteran, and other loved ones. The Legion also serves as a major coordinator of the Missing in America Project, which ensures that cremated remains of veterans, long forgotten in funeral homes, hospitals and other establishments, are respectully laid to rest. The American Legion provides a large portion of the Missing in America Project’s volunteers.