Commander to Congress: Prepare for huge wave of veterans

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On March 26, American Legion National Commander Daniel M. Dellinger called upon Congress to be prepared for a huge influx of new military veterans as deployments end and the armed services shrink.

The leader of the nation’s largest veterans service organization testified before a joint session of the U.S. House and Senate Committees on Veterans’ Affairs, outlining the Legion’s concerns and legislative priorities for the current Congress. Hundreds of Legionnaires, who attended the 54th American Legion Washington Conference, sat as spectators in the Hart Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill.

After opening statements by co-chairs Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., and Ranking Members of the House and Senate committees, Dellinger was introduced by House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi. The national commander began his oral testimony by characterizing this time as a “crucial threshold in history” with more than 1.2 million servicemembers soon to be discharged and entering the ranks of veterans. “I call this a crucial threshold in our nation’s history,” Dellinger said, “because today’s veterans are coming home, looking to their elected leaders in Washington for fulfillment of responsibilities befitting their military sacrifices.”

In his remarks, Dellinger addressed issues such as the need for enhanced and expanded Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) medical facilities and access to them, as well as mental health treatments and specialized care for women veterans. He also criticized VA for delays and cost overruns in medical facility construction and called for action to improve accuracy and speed in processing veterans’ benefits claims, as well as protection of the nation’s defenses against the negative effects of a shrinking armed force and dramatically reduced funding for the military under the umbrella of sequestration.

Dellinger ended his presentation by promoting the Legion and its veterans’ advocacy role. “Through nearly 14,000 local posts in communities worldwide, along with a fast-growing digital media presence The American Legion is the nation’s largest voice of today’s veterans,” he said. “We have listened to the needs and expectations of those who served, and of their families. We know that today’s veterans want education, employment, adequate housing, timely benefits and decent health care. Not only were such benefits promised from the day they enlisted, they are a small price for our nation to pay for the freedom and safety we enjoy.

“I thank you for the opportunity to come before you to renew The American Legion’s ongoing commitment to work closely with you so we can all do what’s right for those who have served, to whom we owe so much.”

Questioning by the congressional panel followed Dellinger’s testimony. First to pose queries was Sanders, chairman of the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs. He raised issues addressed in his recently tabled “Comprehensive Veterans Health and Benefits and Military Retirement Pay Restoration Act of 2014.” Dellinger agreed with Sanders’ favoring the extension of the existing “Caregivers and Veterans Omnibus Health Services Act,” which aids family members of veterans with severe disabilities. The national commander also agreed that more comprehensive dental care should be integrated into the VA health-care regime.

House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs Chairman Jeff Miller also questioned Dellinger. One of Miller’s major concerns presently is what he considers the lack of oversight and accountability in VA’s handling of benefits claims. Miller asked what the Legion is finding in this regard, and Dellinger responded by saying that in a recent visit to a VA Regional Office (VARO) in Salt Lake City, he was told by officials that their accuracy rate in claims processing closely approached 100 percent. Similar claims are being made by administrators of other VAROs, said Dellinger. “However, when we have gone in we have found the accuracy (rate) is as low as 56 percent.”

A major factor in both processing inaccuracy and delays, said Dellinger, is “waiting for paper copies of (medical) records.” Repeating a point made during his oral testimony, Dellinger said that the wholesale adoption of electronic medical records (EMRs) would “help tremendously.”

The advisability of EMRs and the swift, seamless transfer of them from the Departments of Defense to Veterans’ Affairs were also promoted in response to remarks made by Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Colo. In a related line of questioning, Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., asked what steps, in the Legion’s view, should be taken to reduce the infamous VA benefits claims backlog. Legion Veterans Affairs & Rehabilitation Division Director Verna Jones said that the Legion-pioneered “fully developed claim” (FDC) process is the most effective claims adjudication tool being employed.

Isakson also inquired about cases of medical instrument contamination and preventable infections reported at a handful of VA medical facilities. Dellinger blamed lack of oversight. “Correct procedures are in place,” he said, “but they do a better job if they know you’re watching.”

Rep. Mike Michaud, D-Maine, expressed concern for veterans in primarily rural states such as his. He and Dellinger agreed that VA’s Telehealth system, by which patient data and consultations are communicated electronically at a distance, is a boon to vets in outlying areas. The value of alternative and non-traditional medical treatments was also promoted during Dellinger’s conversation with Michaud.

Referencing the repeatedly delayed and dramatically over-budget VA hospital and outpatient facility project in Orlando, Rep. Corinne Brown, D-Fla., asked about VA’s maligned construction practices. Dellinger, who “owned and operated a construction management and general contracting firm for 20 years specializing in commercial, institutional and industrial construction,” was eager to answer. “The right people are not making the right decisions,” he said. Dellinger touted the so-called design/build concept in which architects and builders confer on a project to ensure that designs are feasible for a builder and can be executed within established budgets. “When we sit down as a team – architect and contractor, it works,” Dellinger said. He also cited what he characterized as a burdensome bureaucracy (“too many layers”) for VA construction delays and cost overruns.

The highest-ranking enlisted servicemember in Congress, Rep. Tim Walz of Minnesota, didn’t ask The American Legion leader questions, but offered an endorsement of the organization. “You are America’s conscience,” said Walz, urging the Legion to forever continue its work at the community level for the sake of future generations. “They need to know why we are blessed to live in this wonderful country.”

Walz also spoke of politics or, as he sees it, the lack thereof as opposing viewpoints on veterans’ issues are aired in Congress. “This issue (of veteran care) unites the country,” he said. “We share commonalities. We work together. Many things that happen up here don’t happen because of political malice or some deep conspiracy. They happen out of ignorance and apathy. So, if you’re not making the hard trip to venture here, if you’re not getting out and talking, (your) voice is not going to be heard. Less than ten percent of the people are veterans in the country, (so lawmakers) don’t know. Once they know, they stand with you.”

As he banged the gavel to end the hearing, Chairman Miller struck a shorter but similar note when he said to Dellinger and the large assembly of Legionnaires, “Thank you for bringing truth to Washington.”

While Dellinger’s oral testimony and subsequent questioning by senators and representatives were necessarily limited, the commander also submitted a 15-page written statement that delineated and expanded upon the Legion’s current legislative priorities. Read it here.