STATEMENT OF GEORGE H.
STEESE, JR. NATIONAL COMMANDER OF THE DISABLED AMERICAN VETERANS BEFORE THE
COMMITTEES ON VETERANS' AFFAIRS U.S. SENATE/U.S. HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES
FEBRUARY 27, 2002
MESSRS. CHAIRMEN AND MEMBERS OF THE VETERANS' AFFAIRS COMMITTEES:
As National Commander of
the more than one million members of the Disabled American Veterans (DAV)
and its Auxiliary, it is an honor and a privilege to appear before this
joint meeting of the United States Senate and House of Representatives
Veterans’ Affairs Committees to discuss the legislative agenda and foremost
concerns of our nation’s service-connected disabled veterans, their families
Messrs. Chairmen, as we begin 2002, America’s young men and women are again
committed to war—a War on Terror. These brave men and women have the
overwhelming support of all Americans as they put their lives on the line
both here and abroad to protect our freedoms. Our government must not forget
them when they return to civilian life. All that can be done must be done to
allow them to rapidly transition to civilian life, especially those disabled
as a result of their military service.
The tragic events of September 11, 2001, have had profound and long-term
consequences on America. How we Americans conduct our business and go about
our daily lives have been forever altered. I am proud to say, however, that
the services provided by DAV to veterans and their families have not
As it has done for the past 82 years, DAV was there to give a hand to those
veterans and their families who were adversely affected on that catastrophic
day in New York City and Washington, D.C. Further in my statement, I will
elaborate on the assistance DAV provided to these families. At that time, it
will become obvious that I am extremely proud of the DAV and our Auxiliary
for the services we continue to provide to our country and our fellow
veterans and their families. In large part, the success of our mission is
due to the dedication and hard work of our members and professionally
Before I discuss the critical issues facing disabled veterans, let me convey
the thanks and the sincere appreciation of the DAV for the support your
committees have continually given us. Last year, the members of these
committees worked hard to pass legislation that was particularly important
to veterans, and we are especially grateful for your efforts. We are
encouraged by the dedication and deep sense of purpose that was evident in
Legislation enacted into law during the first session to provide new or
enhanced benefits and services to disabled veterans and their families
addressed many DAV legislative goals. These measures included:
a 2.6% cost-of-living
new and expanded
programs to assist homeless veterans break the cycle of homelessness
replacement of the
30-year presumptive period for respiratory cancers associated with Agent
Orange exposure with an open-ended period
repeal of the estate
limitation for mentally incompetent veterans
expanded eligibility for
presumptive service connection for Persian Gulf War veterans and extension
of the presumptive period until September 30, 2011
increase in the grant
for specially adapted housing
increase in the
Automobile and Adaptive Equipment Grant
increase in burial and
funeral expense benefits
government marker for privately marked gravesites
increase in the Home
Loan Guaranty Program
expansion of the Service
Dog Program for severely disabled veterans
requirements for the
Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to maintain specialized medical
programs for sick and disabled veterans
new incentive and
recruitment programs to attract and retain nurses to provide medical care
to sick and disabled veterans
expansion of the CHAMPVA
program for certain surviving spouses.
These new or
enhanced benefits and services will improve the lives of disabled veterans
and their families.Again,we are very grateful for your hard work to
introduce and pass this beneficial legislation.
Unfortunately, disabled military retirees were again denied the enactment of
meaningful legislation to remove the prohibition against the concurrent
receipt of VA disability compensation and military longevity retired pay.
This injustice has continued notwithstanding the fact that more than three
quarters of the members of Congress have cosponsored legislation to
eliminate this travesty of justice, and both Congress and the Administration
have placed high importance on stimulating our economy. What better approach
to stimulate the American economy than to pay earned longevity retirement
benefits to those men and women who have protected our cherished freedoms
and our way of life during a career in America’s Armed Forces.
DAV will continue to fight for the removal of the prohibition on concurrent
receipt of VA disability compensation and military longevity retired pay. We
greatly appreciate the efforts to keep this issue before the Administration
and Congress by Representative Michael Bilirakis.
It is also regrettable that Congress failed to provide a sufficient health
care budget to meet the medical requirements of our sick and disabled
veterans. It is frustrating to observe that the amount appropriated for VA
health care in fiscal year (FY) 2002 was not only less than your committees
recommended, but also less than recommended in the Congressional Budget
Resolution. VA health care spending for FY 2002 was $1.5 billion less than
recommended by the Independent Budget. In fact, the funding level approved
for VA health care will not even fund the mandated wage increase for VA’s
A January 7, 2002 New York Times article titled, “Propelled by Drug and
Hospital Costs, Health Spending Surged in 2000,” noted national health care
spending shot up 6.9 percent in 2000, as reported by the Department of
Health and Human Services (HHS). HHS also indicated that health costs and
spending are likely to climb faster, even in a weak economy. Yet VA health
care funding for FY 2002 was only increased by slightly more than five
This year, the Administration’s budget calls for a $1.3 billion net increase
in VA health care. But what President Bush calls “an historic increase” is
no such thing when you consider that his budget request attempts to shift
more of the cost of care onto veterans.
Without adequate resources, the VA cannot meet the increasing demands for
Congress and the Administration have an obligation to provide adequate
appropriations to meet those needs. The VA must not be forced to rely on
subsidies from patients or their health insurance to cover the cost of
caring for veterans. The VA’s medical care budget must be based on the
principle that third-party collections are not a substitute for
It is difficult to believe that health care for veterans, especially
veterans with combat or service-connected disabilities, is not an
entitlement. Veterans’ health care is discretionary, and the level of VA
health care funding is judged in light of pork barrel politics or other
priorities. While billions of dollars are earmarked for special legislative
favors each year, service-connected disabled veterans suffer the
consequences of an inadequate health care budget. Why should sick and
disabled veterans have to fight year after year for timely access to health
care they have earned and rightfully deserve as a result of their military
service to this nation? It is disingenuous for our government to promise
health care to veterans and then make it unattainable because of inadequate
Hospital administrators throughout the country are now struggling to meet
veterans’ increased health care needs with fewer dollars. Within weeks of
passage of the FY 2002 appropriations, VISN directors were ordered to
develop a plan to cut two percent from their budgets. We are receiving
reports from the field that, because of the budget shortfalls, many hospital
directors will likely have to cut back on full-time employees, which will
result in increased waiting times for primary and specialty services. Many
facilities are considering consolidation of services within their VISN,
which would require veterans to drive longer distances to get the care they
Proposed cutbacks threaten to reduce the number of joint replacement
procedures in an attempt to save dollars. We have also received accounts of
100 percent service-connected veterans on waiting lists for some health care
and other specialty services they need today. Everything we are hearing
leads us to believe rationed VA health care is a trend nationwide and not
just a few isolated incidents. The Administration and Congress cannot
continue to ignore the negative repercussions of the inadequate veterans’
health care budget they have approved. Rationed health care is no way to
honor America’s obligation to the defenders of her freedom.
Disabled veterans must wait too long now for vital health care services. It
is absolutely imperative that VA be provided an adequate health care budget
to enable it to reverse this negative trend. We have recommended in the
Independent Budget a “current service” budget of $24.5 billion for VA
medical care in fiscal year 2003. This amount will allow the government to
honor our nation’s obligation to those who served our country, especially
those disabled in military service.
However, if the Administration and Congress truly want to honor veterans
with appropriate benefits and services for their dedicated service to this
nation, we suggest making VA health care benefits an entitlement, like
TRICARE for Life. Enactment of TRICARE for life provides an entitled benefit
military longevity retirees richly deserve. The men and women injured during
combat and in military service to this nation, who will bear the burdens of
those disabilities for a lifetime, deserve no less than those who made the
military a career. Further, Congress and the Administration have recognized
the special circumstances and the need for health care services of other
veterans and have placed them in Priority Groups 4, 5, and 6.
DAV strongly urges these committees to make health care benefits for
veterans in Priority Groups 1 through 6 an entitlement, and not part of
discretionary funding, subject to parochial politics common in the annual
As we move ahead to ensure the future of VA and its indispensable programs
and services, the members of DAV and their families look forward to working
with the members of these committees to reaffirm our nation’s commitment to
veterans. DAV and Auxiliary members will do their part to get our message
out; however, as the principle advocates within Congress for our nation’s
veteran population, we call upon you to provide the critical leadership
necessary to make sure that America honors its moral obligation to the men
and women who served in our Armed Forces and fought to preserve the freedoms
enjoyed by the citizens of our nation and countless others throughout the
world. It is our genuine hope that you will educate and remind your
colleagues of the service performed and sacrifices made by veterans when it
is time to decide whether to honor America’s obligation to veterans and
their families or to let parochial concerns control.
The members of these committees must continue to send a strong message by
your own actions. It is extremely important that you set the example. You
must make sure that you have taken care of veterans. Veterans must become a
national priority for those who set our government’s agenda. Remember that
veterans ask far less from our government than what they have given to our
nation. Educate your colleagues on the higher merits of veterans’ programs.
Jointly, we can change the government mindset and make veterans a national
priority. However, time is of the essence.
Not long ago, war was dramatically brought to the shores of America. On
September 11, 2001, everyone in America was a victim of terrorism. We
witnessed events that had never before been seen or even imagined. We
observed the horror of airliners crashing into buildings in New York City
and Washington, D.C. and an open field in Pennsylvania. We watched as two of
the world’s tallest buildings crashed to the ground. We witnessed the
horrors of terrorism reach an unprecedented scale.
At the same time, we witnessed the courage, strength, and determination of
our country. Airline passengers fought to the death with hijackers. Men and
women willingly gave their lives to rescue others. Who will ever forget the
determination and self-sacrifice of the police officers, firefighters, and
rescue workers who climbed floor after floor of the World Trade Center to
rescue the victims, only to become victims themselves when the buildings
We witnessed unprecedented horror, but we also observed unprecedented
heroism. In the days following the attack on our nation, our sorrow and
grief turned to anger and resolve. America will not be deterred in seeking
justice against those who precipitated these attacks. We are all victims and
we all seek justice.
Sadly, seeking that justice will have its costs. The finest and best young
people of our nation’s armed services are being called upon again to
sacrifice themselves for freedom and justice for all. They have left behind
loved ones and a safe and comfortable environment in order to carry out
War, all war, has casualties. Thus, this war is no different. Some young men
and women have died, and the sad reality is that more will perish. Their
hopes and aspirations will die with them, their potential will be lost, and
their families will grieve. But their memories will remain in the hearts of
all of us.
The highest price we pay as a nation for freedom is the loss and disability
war brings to those who are asked to fight it. Men and women will be maimed
and crippled. They will be blinded. They will suffer mental disabilities
from seeing unimaginable horrors. It is our duty as Americans to care for
them. It is the duty of the DAV to ensure that the gratitude and promise of
our nation are not forgotten.
Today, there are 2.3 million veterans who have been disabled in service to
our nation. They ask very little, and the American public deeply appreciates
Look at what the American public did for the victims of September 11.
Americans gave more than one billion dollars to charities for those victims.
And, at the request of President Bush, American children gave more than a
million dollars to help Afghan children. Additionally, as part of the
government’s $15 billion bailout of the airline industry, a Victim
Compensation Fund was established to compensate victims for the loss of a
loved one. Because a victim’s lost earnings are considered along with
several other factors, some families could receive settlements in the
millions of dollars. It is estimated, however, that the average payout will
be $1.6 million, once life insurance awards and pensions are deducted.
Compare this to the maximum of $250,000 received by a family member of a
servicemember who is killed in action defending our freedoms and a great
disparity becomes very apparent.
Furthermore, imagine how the American public would respond if they realized
VA is ill-prepared to care for our nation’s heroes, both young and old, due
to the inadequate funding provided by our government. Or that the surviving
spouse and children of a deceased servicemember must struggle not only with
their grief, but also to meet financial burdens. Paradoxically, the public
widely believes that veterans and their families are being generously
provided for. As a result, our government continues to under fund veterans’
health care programs.
Therefore, it remains incumbent on the DAV to be prepared to help the
disabled veteran, the families of veterans who will lose their lives or
become profoundly disabled, and to help the children whose mothers and
fathers will not return or will return, but different than they were before
the military action which followed the tragic events of September 11.
As I mentioned earlier, your support of our mission—building better lives
for America’s disabled veterans and their families—is of the utmost
importance. We must help our nation give those disabled veterans the tools
they need to restore their lives, because we can morally do no less. They
will be our heroes. They will suffer the wounds of war. And they all should
be loved and cared for because of the prices they have paid for our
We are asking a great sacrifice of these young men and women, and of their
families. We must be there when they turn to us for our help. Our nation’s
gratitude must not be limited to caring for their wounds but to fully
restoring their lives. The price of war will be our finest and best young
Americans. Let us return the best to them when they will need us the most.
Let us not forget that caring for those disabled in service to our country
and our way of life is a continuation of the costs of war. Far too often,
our government forgets this very important fact.
No one would cut off or reduce funding to pay for needed munitions or
equipment for our men and women while they are engaged in war, protecting
our cherished freedoms. There is no doubt that such action would result in
severe, adverse consequences to our troops. Yet, veterans’ benefits and
health care delivery programs are continually under funded. The result, sick
and disabled veterans are denied the timely, quality benefits and services
they have earned. We cannot continue to ask men and women to fight our wars
and then fail to provide them the means to restore their lives when they
When the guns fall silent and the terrorists are neutralized, will we forget
about the brave men and women who, at great sacrifice to themselves, brought
us peace? I can guarantee that the DAV will not forget their sacrifice. We
will be there for them in their time of need, as we have been for other
generations of veterans since 1920.
But what of our government’s responsibility to them?
Unfortunately, the harsh reality is that this nation’s public policy towards
veterans continues to be little more than broken promises and false
expectations. Much more must be done for our nation’s sick and disabled
veterans. Our government must make an investment in VA programs to ensure
that our nation’s service-connected disabled veterans and their families
receive, in a timely manner, the benefits and services promised them.
In our nation of vast riches and resources, it is a sad commentary that
their needs have gone unheeded for far too long. It is the dedication and
devotion of America’s veterans.
These brave men and women—represented by the men and women who sit before
you today—have served our country and protected our freedoms with honor and
pride while in uniform. The white crosses and forgotten monuments that mark
battlefields both far and near are symbolic of their sacrifices. Many who
served and sacrificed still bear the scars of those battles in defense of
our liberty. Our nation owes them so very much.
In that regard, Messrs. Chairmen, I am proud to report that America’s
disabled veterans will soon have a long-overdue memorial honoring their
service and sacrifice in our nation’s capital, about two blocks west of the
Capitol, and across from the U.S. Botanic Garden. The National Capital
Planning Commission gave final approval to the site late last year.
And, when built, this shrine will provide a reminder of war’s human costs
and will serve as a lasting tribute to the men and women whose sacrifices
have guaranteed our rights as a free and democratic society.
The past sacrifices made by the men and women seated before you today and
others like them represent only a small portion of their commitment to our
great nation and their fellow veterans.
Many of these men and women continue to serve by unselfishly volunteering
their valuable time to assist America’s sick and disabled veterans in VA
facilities around the nation. Between October 1, 2000, and September 30,
2001, these men and women of the DAV and the DAV Auxiliary provided more
than 2.5 million hours of critical service to veterans, saving taxpayers
almost $39 million in employee costs.
Our dedicated and resourceful volunteers are out there all across the nation
lending care and support to sick and disabled veterans and their families.
There are more than 10,000 DAV and Auxiliary volunteers today. Sadly, that
number is growing smaller as our volunteers age.
At the DAV National Convention last July, I announced an exciting new effort
to recruit new volunteers for the DAV Voluntary Services Program. The reason
is we need to begin rebuilding our corps of volunteers with younger people
to take the place of our aging volunteers. We are doing that with two
programs, the National Commander’s Volunteer Recruitment Initiative and the
National Commander’s Youth Volunteer Scholarship (NCYVS).
My goal is to increase the DAV’s corps of volunteers by 10 percent above the
current level, or 820 new DAV volunteers. At the same time, I have asked the
DAV Auxiliary to increase its volunteer force by 10 percent as well.
Together we hope to build a corps of more than 11,000 volunteers.
On January 15, 2002, joined by Secretary of Veterans Affairs Anthony J.
Principi, we started with a kickoff ceremony at the VA medical center in San
Diego, California. Beginning this month, DAV departments and chapters
launched their own vigorous efforts to recruit new volunteers on the local
level in support of this initiative.
I hope to boost our DAV Voluntary Services Program by 1,000 people. We would
increase our total volunteer contributions by 235,000 hours. An easy goal,
but critical for those who need our help.
Additionally, to encourage our young people to get involved in volunteer
work to assist sick and disabled veterans in local communities, we created
the NCYVS program to honor outstanding young volunteers who are active
participants in the VA Voluntary Service program. The annual scholarships
are awarded to deserving young men and women who have generously donated
their time and compassion to sick and disabled veterans in their
communities. A generous donation from Ford Motor Company last year allowed
us to expand the number of scholarships we award. The DAV is deeply
appreciative of Ford Motor Company for helping us recognize the thousands of
hours these outstanding students have donated to care for and comfort
Through this program, DAV is able to offer 12 valuable scholarships to
worthy recipients. The first place award includes a $15,000 scholarship and
an expense paid trip to DAV’s National Convention with the winner’s
parent(s)/guardian(s) to accept the award. The second place scholarship is
$10,000. There are two $7,500 scholarships for third place and eight $5,000
scholarships for fourth place recipients.
In addition to our volunteers, the DAV also employs 190 Hospital Service
Coordinators at VA facilities around the country to assist our nation’s sick
and disabled veterans and their families. The DAV transportation program
provides essential transportation to and from VA health care facilities to
those veterans who could not otherwise access needed medical care. As of
September 30, 2001, DAV volunteer drivers transported more than a half
million veterans almost 27 million miles to and from VA medical appointments
during a 12-month period. From its inception in 1987, the DAV’s National
Transportation Network logged in more than 250 million miles and transported
6.5 million veterans to VA health care facilities. Since our transportation
program began in 1987, DAV has donated 1,108 vans to VA medical facilities
at a cost of more than $22 million. This June, DAV will donate an additional
86 vans at a cost of $2 million.
Additionally, in what can only be described as a true partnership between
the DAV and the corporate world for the benefit of our nation’s sick and
disabled veterans, the Ford Motor Company has donated the use of 67 vans to
VA medical centers since 1996 for the transportation of sick and disabled
veterans. In addition, Ford Motor Company has also donated 12 vans for use
in the DAV Homeless Veterans Initiative.
Messrs. Chairmen, we are extremely proud of the volunteer services we
provide to our nation to assist it in fulfilling its mission to sick and
Since its inception in 1920, the DAV has been dedicated to one, single
purpose: building better lives for our nation’s disabled veterans and their
families. During the past 81 years, the DAV has never wavered in its
commitment to serve our nation’s service-connected disabled veterans, their
dependents and survivors.
In fulfilling our mandate of service to America’s service-connected disabled
veterans and their families, the DAV employs a corps of 246 National Service
Officers (NSOs), located throughout the country. Between July 1, 2000 and
June 30, 2001, these men and women, all wartime service-connected disabled
veterans, represented almost a quarter of a million veterans and their
families in their claims for VA benefits, obtaining for them more than $1.8
billion in new and retroactive benefits.
In our continuing quest to ensure that future generations of America’s
service-connected disabled veterans and their families receive professional
representation in filing claims for benefits and services from the federal
government, the DAV continues to hire and professionally train recently
discharged men and women to provide this vital service.
In striving to even more effectively meet veterans’ needs and ensure they
receive the benefits our grateful nation has authorized for them, DAV opened
two new National Service Offices in Orlando and West Palm Beach, Florida,
and we inaugurated two new programs in 2001 to enhance and expand benefits
counseling and claims representation services to veterans. The first of the
two programs involves outreach to members of the Armed Forces at the
location and time of their separation from active service. The second
involves services to veterans in the communities where they live.
For benefits counseling and assistance in filing initial claims, the DAV has
hired and specially trained 24 Transition Service Officers (TSOs) who
provide these services at military separation centers, under the direct
supervision of DAV National Service Officers. This initiative corresponds to
goals in the strategic plans of both VA and the DAV. By accepting and
deciding compensation claims at separation centers where the service medical
records and examination facilities are readily available, VA’s strategic
plan envisions better, more prompt service to veterans in a way that is also
more efficient and effective for VA. This enhancement in assistance to those
seeking veterans’ benefits will contribute to the DAV’s strategic goal of
maintaining its preeminent position as a provider of professional service to
Since March 2001, DAV TSOs have conducted 744 briefing presentations for
29,232 transitioning servicemembers. During that same time frame, our TSOs
conducted 14,689 personal interviews and filed more than 14,000 claims for
The DAV’s new Mobile Service Office (MSO) program is part of the same goal.
By taking its service offices on the road to rural America and assisting
veterans where they live, the DAV will increase accessibility to the
benefits our nation provides for veterans. The DAV has initially put 12 of
these specially equipped MSOs on tour to make stops in communities across
the breadth of the country. Between March and July 2001, our MSOs have
traveled more than 200,000 miles while visiting 667 cities and towns. We
have interviewed 18,593 veterans and other potential claimants. We accepted
new powers of attorney to represent 7,027 claimants, and we completed 16,732
applications for benefits. This program promises to be very successful. Next
month, our MSOs will be back on the road assisting veterans and their
families. In June of 2001, the DAV Department of Florida purchased an MSO
for its service program.
Following the attack on our nation on September 11, the DAV dispatched one
of our MSOs to the World Trade Center disaster site to distribute nearly
5,000 comfort kits, 1,000 flag pins, and other patriotic items to
firefighters, police, and emergency rescue workers. Another DAV MSO rolled
into Washington D.C. to provide all assistance possible to the victims of
the Pentagon attack. During a three-day period, our NSOs distributed 300
flag pins, and other patriotic items to the family members of victims,
active duty servicemembers, and other agency volunteers.
In addition, the DAV assists veterans and their families through disaster
relief grants and a variety of other ways. In New York City, our National
Service Officers, unable to return to their office immediately following the
attack on our nation, began volunteering their time at Giants Stadium, the
Javits Center, and the ruins of the World Trade Center. On September 21,
2001, the DAV established an office at the Family Relief Center on Pier 94
with a host of other agencies. From this location, and with the assistance
of the FBI, New York Fire and Police Departments, and the companies located
in the World Trade Center, we identified veterans and their families who
were victims of the attack to provide whatever assistance possible. The DAV
has issued 250 disaster relief grants and provided claims assistance to
veterans and their families who fell prey to the cowardly attacks on the
World Trade Center.
Through the efforts of several individuals, we set up at the Pentagon Family
Assistance Center at the Sheraton Crystal City in Arlington, Virginia. The
DAV issued 100 disaster relief grants to veterans and their families.
Additionally, our NSOs made personal visits to those veterans who remained
hospitalized from injuries sustained during the Pentagon attack, assisted
them with their claims, and presented them with disaster relief grants and
patriotic items. The DAV continues to be actively involved in meeting the
needs of veterans and their families devastated by the heinous terrorist
Our disaster relief efforts in New York and Washington allowed those
veterans or their families affected by the attacks to receive their
$1,000.00 disaster relief grants immediately, without having to wait or
hassle with red tape restrictions. I am proud to state that our efforts had
an immediate, positive impact on the lives of those effected and were
greatly appreciated. In fact, the Secretary of the Navy and the Chief of
Naval Operations recently acknowledged our efforts at the Pentagon with a
plaque and letter expressing their gratitude.
Another issue that has received our support and assistance is that of
homeless veterans. DAV’s Homeless Veterans Initiative, established to help
homeless veterans break the cycle of poverty and isolation, and move from
the streets to self-sufficiency, has helped us focus attention on the needs
of homeless veterans. Many of our departments and chapters are actively
involved in homeless veterans programs in their communities. Since 1989,
homeless veterans program and projects have benefited from the $1.2 million
in grants that have been provided through the DAV Charitable Service Trust.
The homeless veterans legislation passed last session is greatly appreciated
and will do much to combat the serious problem of homelessness among the
The above-mentioned items represent but a few of the many services and
programs DAV offers to veterans and their families. We are extremely proud
of all that we do to help build better lives for disabled veterans, their
dependents and survivors.
As you can see, Messrs. Chairmen, the DAV devotes its resources to the most
needed and meaningful services for our nation’s disabled veterans. These
services aid veterans directly and support and augment VA programs. Of
course, we are only able to accomplish these benevolent tasks because of
strong support from a generous American public and selfless dedication of
our members, who often volunteer despite their advanced age and their own
painful and debilitating disabilities. Many of our supporters and volunteers
are from what Tom Brokaw has described as “America’s Greatest Generation,”
but the rest exhibit those same admirable, steadfast qualities of character
and devotion to the welfare of others. They all deserve our respect and
Yes, our commitment to America’s service-connected disabled veterans and
their families is unwavering.
Naturally, our ability to work for the betterment of disabled veterans and
serve them on such a large scale gives us a deep sense of pride and
accomplishment, but let us not forget that benefits and services for
veterans remain primarily the responsibility of our government. The citizens
and government of a country that sends its sons and daughters to defend its
homeland and fight its wars have a strong moral obligation to repay them for
bearing this heavy burden. Our indebtedness to veterans is more important
than any other part of our national debt because, without their sacrifices
and bravery, we would not exist as a nation. Therefore, just as it is
imperative that a nation maintain a strong national defense, a nation must
ensure that veterans’ programs, like national defense, are and remain a top
While we can never fully repay those who have stood in the nation’s defense,
a grateful nation has established a system to provide benefits and health
care services to veterans as a measure of restitution for their personal
sacrifices and as a way for all citizens to share the costs of war and
Unfortunately, disabled veterans continue to pay more than their fair share
of that burden. And the system designed to provide them with the benefits
and health care services earned in service to our country needs fixing.
Today, we are at a crossroads in veterans’ affairs. Delivery of health care
is undergoing a radical transformation. Modernizing and reforming the
delivery of veterans’ health care in ways that best serve them is made all
the more difficult because of their advanced age and, due to their
disabilities, they are in poorer health than the civilian population.
Yet their access to needed health care is severely hampered by new mandates
coupled with an insufficient budget. This will undoubtedly result in further
rationed health care and longer delays. VISN directors will have no choice
but to close beds, consolidate services, and reduce the number of full-time
employees. This pressure on the system will especially hurt sick and
service-connected disabled veterans and affect their access to timely health
Furthermore, without the proper resources, VA cannot effectively fulfill its
“fourth mission,” to function as a backup to the Department of Defense
during a time of conflict and to the Federal Emergency Management Agency
during a national emergency. It makes good fiscal sense to keep this system
functioning well, especially now while our nation is at war.
Also of critical concern to the DAV is the delivery of claims benefits,
which has received attention at all levels of government. Despite its
efforts, the VA has been unable to overcome its quality and thus its
timeliness problems. In addition to strong leadership and accountability in
the Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA) and the Compensation and Pension
Service, the VA must have highly skilled personnel to make up for the
unwarranted past reductions in claims adjudicators, to meet increased
workload demands, to provide essential training, to ensure quality, and to
achieve and maintain satisfactory timeliness in claims processing.
The VBA continues to struggle with its serious and long-standing problems in
processing benefit claims. Secretary of Veterans Affairs Principi has
pledged to make fixing this problem one of his highest priorities and
foremost goals. His determination and good intentions alone are not enough,
however. He needs the full support of Congress.
One root cause of the current situation is federal budgets over several
successive years that failed to provide adequate resources. As a
consequence, the VA was forced to reduce staffing levels in the face of
increasing workloads and demands on the system. The ensuing emphasis on
production resulted in even poorer quality than already existed. These
pervasive quality problems required work to be redone, which put added
strain on an already overburdened system.
Large claims backlogs and protracted claims processing times pressure VA
into focusing on production quantity at the expense of quality. This has
created a vicious cycle. The push for faster decisions to reduce the backlog
becomes self-defeating because so much of the work must be redone to correct
errors and the backlogs and waiting times become even worse. To break free
of this vicious cycle, VA must focus first on the root causes of its claims
backlog. VA must have well-trained employees who are capable of properly
applying the law in veterans’ claims. VA must change its culture so that
lawful, accurate claims decisions are the first goal. VA must have quality
control reviews of each employee’s work product, and VA must have the will
and the processes in place to make adjudicators and management truly
accountable for accurate claims decisions. Only then can VA begin to
effectively and efficiently reduce its large inventory of pending claims and
the long delays veterans experience in obtaining disability benefits.
To address the root causes in this manner, VA must have strong, decisive
management that is determined to tackle the difficult problems first.
Sufficient resources are key to this effort. In the short term, VA still
needs to increase its staffing for its claims processing system. VA must
have substantial numbers of staff to train new employees, retrain existing
employees, and conduct regular quality reviews of individual adjudicators,
without neglecting or reducing work on pending claims.
With the primary focus on overcoming the root causes, VA can also begin to
implement the changes recommended in the October 2001 report of the VA
Claims Processing Task Force. The changes will add to the efficiency of the
system and aid in making it function better once VA begins to attain some
stability in the claims processing environment. It is important not to be
misled by arguments that VA suddenly has the ability to overcome its
longstanding problems by simple process changes alone, that additional
resources are unnecessary. Those are merely convenient arguments for an
inadequate budget, seized upon opportunistically because increased VA
staffing in recent years has not remedied the problems. Increase staffing
alone has not resolved VA’s systemic deficiencies because VA has not firmly
resolved to correct the root causes. Sufficient resources and serious
reforms are both necessary.
Assistance from these two Veterans’ Affairs Committees is essential. You can
work to ensure VA has the resources it needs to meet this enormous
challenge, and you can intensify your oversight role to ensure VA management
stays on course in implementing real and meaningful reforms.
Finally, major policy positions of the DAV in the framework of our national
legislative program are derived from resolutions adopted by the delegates to
our annual National Conventions. Since our first National Convention in
1921, the DAV’s annual legislative program has served to guide our advocacy
for disabled veterans in accordance with the will of our members. Our 2002
mandates cover a broad spectrum of VA programs and services and have been
made available to your committees and to individual members of your staffs.
Promoting meaningful, reasonable, and responsible public policy for veterans
has always been at the heart of who we are and what we do. Our will and
commitment come from the grass roots, nurtured in the fertile ground of
veterans’ sacrifices and strengthened by the vitality of our membership.
With the realization that we shall have the opportunity to more fully
address those resolutions during hearings before your committees and
personally with your staffs, I shall only briefly comment upon a few of them
in my testimony.
What we communicate to you here today echoes the hopes and desires, and in
some areas, the despair, of disabled veterans, who appeal to the conscience
of the nation to do what is right and just. We call on the members of these
Support legislation to remove the prohibition against concurrent receipt of
military longevity retirement pay and VA disability compensation.
Support an expansion of POW presumptions.
Support a change in the payment of certain accrued benefits upon death of a
beneficiary. If a beneficiary is entitled to a retroactive award of benefits
but dies before disbursement can be made, only benefits for the last two
years of the retroactive entitlement period can be paid to survivors. The
surviving spouse or children, who suffered economic deprivation for an
extended period because of an erroneous VA decision, would be barred from
receipt of a substantial portion of the benefits the veteran would have
received if he or she had lived longer. The Government’s errors and delays
should not serve as the means to reduce its obligation to sick and disabled
veterans, who may die before VA can correctly dispose of their claims.
Support legislation to allow all veterans to recover amounts withheld as tax
on disability severance pay. Currently, a three-year statute of limitations
bars many veterans from recovering the non-taxable money withheld by the
Internal Revenue Service.
Support legislation to repeal the prohibition against service connection for
Support additional increases in grants for automobiles or other conveyances
available to certain disabled veterans and provide for automatic annual
adjustments based on the increase in the cost of living. When this program
was originally created in 1946, the law set the allowance at an amount
sufficient to pay the full cost of a lower-priced new automobile. With
subsequent cost-of-living increases, Congress sought to provide 85 percent
of the average cost of a new automobile, and later 80 percent. Because of a
lack of regular adjustments to keep pace with increased costs, the value of
the automobile allowance has substantially eroded through the years.
Currently, the $9,000 automobile allowance represents only about a third of
the average cost of automobiles in the year 2002.
Restore protections against unwarranted awards of veterans’ benefits to
third parties in divorce actions by prohibiting courts from directly
ordering payments of such benefits to third parties, other than dependent
Ensure that timely quality health care services are provided to wartime
service-connected disabled veterans.
Support legislation to provide service-connected veterans priority within
the VA health care system.
Support the repeal of co-payments for medical care and prescriptions
provided by the VA.
Support equal medical services and benefits for women veterans.
Oppose requiring retired military servicemembers to choose between VA or DoD
health care services.
Extend eligibility for Veterans’ Mortgage Life Insurance to
service-connected veterans rated permanently and totally disabled.
Provide an additional increase in the specially adapted housing grant and
automatic annual adjustments based on increases in the cost of living.
Increase the face value of Service Disabled Veterans’ Insurance.
Provide educational benefits for dependents of service-connected veterans
rated 80 percent or more disabled.
Extend commissary and exchange privileges to service-connected disabled
Extend space-available air travel aboard military aircraft to 100 percent
service-connected disabled veterans.
Support the fullest possible accounting of our POW/MIAs from all wars.
As you can see, our work for veterans continues to involve many issues and
many challenges. As I observed earlier, we are at a crossroads in veterans’
affairs. There is no reason why what is in front of us cannot be much better
than what is behind us. Our nation’s history of meeting our obligations to
veterans has fallen short not only of its highest ideals but also of its
capabilities. We simply have not always kept veterans at the top of the list
of national priorities. Our government can longer excuse its failure to
provide veterans the benefits and services they rightfully deserve by saying
it cannot afford to fully honor its promises. We have the means to meet
those obligations. Now our nation must demonstrate it has the will to do so.
Though we can be proud that we have accomplished much for veterans in the
past, much remains to be done. In the work we do, we have no room for
complacency. When it comes to justice for disabled veterans, we cannot be
timid in our advocacy. These committees and the DAV, working together with
mutual cooperation, must battle for what is best for veterans. Veterans have
every right to expect their government to do justice toward them. We call
upon you, the members of these committees, to educate and appeal to your
colleagues about the priorities of veterans’ needs.
I hope that I have demonstrated that America’s veterans, rather than being
satisfied to rest on their laurels, continue to stand ready to actively and
unselfishly be involved in their communities and across the nation to assist
our government in meeting the needs of service-connected disabled veterans,
their dependents and survivors.
In considering the message I have brought you today on behalf of disabled
veterans and in your work on veterans’ issues in the future, I ask that you,
as I do, remain mindful that the freedoms and prosperity enjoyed by the
citizens of our nation has been paid for with the lives and health of many
brave Americans. The only thing they ask in return for their sacrifices and
their service is for this great nation to honor its sacred contract with
America’s veterans. We must, therefore, honor and care for those who
distinguished themselves in defense of freedom—whatever the cost. They
deserve nothing less.
Messrs. Chairmen, this completes my testimony. I hope that the committees
recognize that my testimony comes from one who not only cares for the
well-being of his fellow veterans and our nation, but also one who deeply
appreciates the men and women who volunteer their time to care for our
nation’s veterans and their families.
Thank you for all that your committees have done and for all that you will
do for veterans in the future. Thank you also for allowing me the
opportunity to appear before you on behalf of the Disabled American Veterans
to share our proud record of service to our great nation, to discuss our
concerns about the state of the VA’s benefits and health care delivery
systems, and to outline our agenda for this session of Congress.
May God bless those men and women who have been placed in harm’s way in our
War on Terror and their families. And, may God bless America.