MESSRS. CHAIRMEN AND MEMBERS OF THE VETERANS’ AFFAIRS COMMITTEES:
On behalf of the more than 1.4 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 wartime
service-connected disabled veterans, their families and survivors.
Before I discuss the critical issues facing disabled veterans, I
congratulate you, Senator Specter, on your election as Chairman of the
Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee, and you, Senator Graham, on your
election as the Ranking Democrat on this Committee. I also congratulate
returning Chairman and Ranking Democrat of the House Veterans' Affairs
Committee, Representatives Chris Smith and Lane Evans, respectively.
Also, let me convey the thanks and the sincere appreciation of the DAV for
the support your Committees have given us. During the second session of the
107th Congress, the members of these committees worked hard, returning after
elections to pass legislation that was important to disabled veterans, and
we are especially grateful for your efforts.
Last year, legislation enacted into law to provide new or enhanced benefits
and services to disabled veterans and their families addressed many DAV
legislative goals. These measures included:
- * authorization for
special monthly compensation for the loss of 25 percent or more of breast
tissue for women veterans who have service-connected mastectomies or who
have received radiation treatment of breast tissue
- * clarification of
judicial review standards applied by the Court of Appeals for Veterans
- * expansion of the
jurisdiction of the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit over
decisions of the Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims
- * authorizing the award
of Equal Access to Justice fees for nonattorney representatives practicing
before the Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims
- * allowing the Department
of Veterans Affairs (VA) to contract with outside scientific experts to
study veterans' exposure to acoustic trauma during military service
- * continuation of
Veterans' Mortgage Life Insurance coverage beyond the age of 70 for
- * retention of CHAMPVA
benefits for remarried surviving spouses 55 years or older
- * Combat Disabled Special
Compensation for military longevity retirees
- * the Jobs for Veterans
- * the Veterans'
Compensation Cost-of-Living Adjustment Act of 2002
- These new or enhanced
benefits and services will improve the lives of disabled veterans and
their families. Again, we are very grateful for your efforts.
Although not passed in the
107th Congress, DAV is extremely grateful to Representatives Smith and Evans
for their courageous action to introduce legislation to guarantee funding
for VA health care to ensure that veterans have timely access to necessary
health care provided by VA. Thank you for your heroic action on behalf of
the men and women of the DAV. I will discuss this significant legislation in
more detail later.
Messrs. Chairmen, today, another generation of young American men and women
have been placed in harm’s way to protect our way of life. Tens of thousands
more have been leaving the comforts of home and their families to deploy to
the Persian Gulf region in the event of war with Iraq.
We must help our nation give those veterans who may become disabled as a
result of hostilities the tools they need to restore their lives, because
they are our heroes. We can morally do no less.
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. Unfortunately, our finest and best young Americans
will be the price of war. Let us make sure we are prepared to care for them
when they need us the most.
Let us not overlook that caring for those disabled in service to our country
and in the defense of our way of life is a continuation of the costs of war.
Far too often, our government fails to remember this very critical fact. Let
us be mindful that a young man or woman injured in the War on Terror will
need the services of VA well into 2050, long after the guns fall silent and
the memories of this war have faded from the minds of most Americans.
Messrs. Chairmen, I would be remiss in my duties as National Commander of
this great organization if I did not take a few minutes to provide some
insight into the DAV—who we are and what we do—particularly for the benefit
of the new members of your Committees. I am extremely proud of what we stand
for and what we have accomplished through the dedicated efforts of our
members, some who serve as our corps of volunteers, those who serve as
National Service Officers (NSOs), and those in leadership roles at all
levels of the DAV.
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 83 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 238 NSOs, located
throughout the country in 71 DAV National Service Offices. All our services
are provided free of charge to any veteran, his or her dependents or
survivors. Between July 1, 2001 and June 30, 2002, 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 $2.4 billion in new and retroactive benefits.
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 NSOs. 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.
During 2002, DAV TSOs conducted 1,411 briefing presentations for 45,734
transitioning servicemembers. During that same time frame, our TSOs
conducted 24,035 personal interviews and filed more than 18,616 claims for
The DAV's Mobile Service Office (MSO) program is part of the same goal. By
taking our service offices to rural America and assisting veterans where
they live, the DAV is improving accessibility to the benefits our nation
provides for veterans. The DAV initially put 12 of these specially equipped
MSOs on tour to make stops in communities across the breadth of the country.
Currently, DAV maintains ten MSOs, while our Departments of Florida and
Missouri each have one unit for use exclusively in their state. During 2002,
our ten MSOs traveled more than 75,000 miles while visiting 257 cities and
towns. We interviewed 12,260 veterans and other potential claimants,
accepted new powers of attorney to represent 4,451 claimants, and we
completed 11,616 applications for benefits. This program has proved to be
Messrs. Chairmen, the men and women seated before you today are
representative of the millions of brave men and women who have served our
nation and protected our freedoms with honor and pride. Our nation owes them
so very much. Yet, they ask for so very little.
Many of these men and women continue to serve our country by unselfishly
volunteering their valuable time to support their comrades—America’s sick
and disabled veterans—in VA facilities throughout the nation. Between
October 1, 2001, and September 30, 2002, 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 $40 million in employee costs.
Our dedicated and resourceful volunteers are out there around the nation
lending care and support to sick and disabled veterans and their families.
There are more than 10,500 DAV and Auxiliary volunteers today.
Unfortunately, that number is growing smaller as our volunteers age.
To encourage our young people to get involved in volunteer work to assist
sick and disabled veterans in local communities, my predecessor created the
National Commander’s Youth Volunteer Scholarship (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 shown compassion to
sick and disabled veterans in their communities.
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 183 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 crucial transportation to and from VA health care facilities to
those veterans who could not otherwise access required medical care. As of
October 31, 2002, DAV volunteer drivers transported 635,113 veterans more
than 23 million miles to and from VA medical appointments during a 12-month
period. From its inception in 1987, the DAV’s National Transportation
Network has logged in more than 278 million miles and transported 7.3
million veterans to VA health care facilities. Since our transportation
program began, DAV has donated 1,194 vans to VA medical facilities at a cost
of more than $24 million. This May, DAV will donate another 212 vans, valued
at $5 million, to the VA. In addition, since 1996, Ford Motor Company has
donated 79 vans for use with our transportation and homeless veterans
Messrs. Chairmen, we are extremely proud of the volunteer services DAV
provides to our nation to support it in fulfilling its duty to sick and
disabled veterans. DAV’s 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 profound sense of satisfaction
and achievement, but let us not forget that benefits and services for
veterans remain first and foremost the responsibility of our government. The
citizens and government of a country that sends its young sons and daughters
to defend its homeland and fight its wars have a strong moral obligation to
repay them for bearing this weighty burden. Our indebtedness to veterans is
more significant 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 essential that a nation maintain a strong national defense, a
nation must ensure that veterans programs, like national defense, are and
remain a top priority.
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
As I stated earlier, a young man or woman injured in the War on Terror will
need the services of VA well into the middle of this century. That disabled
veteran will be able to rely on receiving VA disability compensation,
because these payments are guaranteed under a mandatory spending program.
This is not true with regard to services that may be needed from the VA
health care system, however. Currently, there is no guarantee that a sick or
disabled veteran can receive timely medical care from the VA. Each year,
veterans must battle for adequate funding to operate the VA health care
system. However, each year, VA receives insufficient funding to care for
those veterans seeking to access its health care system. Every year, VA is
required to do more with less, and more and more veterans, including our
most severely disabled combat veterans, must wait longer to receive
necessary health care services.
According to VA, the number of veterans using its health care system has
drastically risen over the years, increasing from 2.7 million in 1995 to 4.5
million in 2002. During that same time period, VA health care employee
levels decreased from 205,000 to 183,700. More than six and a half million
veterans were enrolled in the VA health care system last year. More than
200,600 veterans currently are waiting six months or longer for care. As a
result of the increased demands and insufficient funding levels for health
care, VA has now reached capacity at many health care facilities, closed
enrollment to new patients at many hospitals and clinics, and temporarily
suspended enrollment of new Priority Group 8 veterans.
Because of their extraordinary sacrifices and contributions in preserving
our cherished freedoms and way of life, veterans have earned the right to VA
health care as a continuing cost of national defense and security. The
Health Care Eligibility Reform Act of 1996 authorized eligible veterans
access to VA health care and brought us closer to meeting our moral
obligation as a nation to care for veterans and generously provide them the
benefits and health care they rightfully deserve.
In the mid-1990s, DAV partnered with nine other organizations to form the
Partnership for Veterans Health Care Reform. At that time, the ten
organizations, representing more than nine million veterans, petitioned
Congress to reinvent veterans’ health care. We noted that "Byzantine
eligibility rules" created haphazard access to care—some veterans received
care through expensive inpatient services but were denied more efficient
outpatient and preventive care. It was further noted that a VA study
indicated over 40 percent of inpatient treatment was "non-acute" and could
be more efficiently and cost effectively provided in alternative settings.
In 1991, the Commission on the Future Structure of Veterans Health Care
reported that, "there are imbalances across the country in VA’s delivery of
health care services. They are due to eligibility rules&hellips;, the
variable range of services…and the distribution of VA resources.&hellips;"
The report contained a profile of general eligibility, which demonstrated
the confusing tapestry of complex eligibility rules at that time.
As a solution to the eligibility and delivery of care problems, the
Partnership suggested that VA needed to offer a basic benefit package
providing a full continuum of care to veterans who were currently eligible:
service-connected disabled, low-income nonservice-connected disabled, and
special category veterans. We recommended that higher income
nonservice-connected disabled veterans should be permitted to choose VA
health care by utilizing their own insurance, including Medicare.
The Partnership for Veterans Health Care Reform also discussed another
problem, chronic under funding of the VA health care system. We noted that
discretionary funding for VA health care failed to keep pace with medical
inflation and the changing needs of the veteran population. Further, as a
result of the chronic under funding of the system, VA was forced to ration
care, deny services to eligible veterans, restrict needed medical treatment,
and forego the modernization of facilities and the purchase of necessary
state-of-the-art medical equipment.
At that time, the solution seemed rather obvious to us: "guaranteed
funding." We recommended that funding must be guaranteed for the provision
of a comprehensive benefit package to all eligible veterans who choose VA.
The Partnership asked Congress to make VA health care accounts
non-discretionary and set an at risk-adjusted capitated rate that reimbursed
VA adequately for care provided.
Congress passed the Health Care Eligibility Reform Act of 1996, which
authorized all veterans access to VA health care. However, within the law,
Congress provided that the Secretary “shall” furnish hospital care and
medical services to Priority Groups 1-6 and "may" furnish services to other
veterans, but only to the extent Congress provided money to cover the costs
of health care in advance through appropriations. Thus, the funding under
the Federal budget for VA health care is "discretionary." Therefore, because
the level of funding to cover the costs of treating veterans is not
guaranteed, and is repeatedly insufficient, VA is forced to ration medical
Recently, the necessity to ration health care has grown to be so severe that
VA was forced to promulgate a rule to provide priority health care to
veterans with disabilities rated 50 percent or higher and for veterans
seeking treatment for a service-connected disability. Although the
regulation was immediately effective, VA only implemented priority health
care for veterans rated 50 percent or higher. Additionally, due to budget
shortfalls and an over-burdened health care system, VA was forced to
temporarily suspend enrollment of some veterans in Priority Group 8 in
Almost ten years after eligibility reform, DAV and other veterans’
organizations continue to petition Congress for meaningful action to ensure
that VA has sufficient funding to care for those veterans who come to VA for
their medical care needs. Guaranteed funding for VA health care is a viable
solution to the current crisis in VA health care and is supported by all the
major veterans service organizations.
Although crisis is a strong word, a word that is often abused, in the case
of the VA health care system, use of the term is fully justified.
Unfortunately, the crisis in VA health care is not new. Due to perennially
inadequate health care budgets and increased demand, the crisis at VA has
been exacerbated, and the health care system can no longer meet the needs of
our nation’s service-connected disabled veterans or other sick veterans. To
guarantee the viability of the VA health care system for current and future
service-connected disabled veterans, it is imperative that our government
provide an adequate health care budget to enable VA to serve the needs of
disabled and sick veterans nationwide. To meet those needs, it is imperative
that the funding for the VA health care system be guaranteed and that all
service-connected disabled veterans and other enrolled veterans be able to
access the system in a timely manner to receive the quality health care they
have earned. By including all veterans currently eligible and enrolled for
care in a guaranteed funding proposal, the system and the specialized
programs VA developed to improve the health and well being of our nation's
service-connected disabled veterans will be protected now and into the
future. To exclude a large segment of currently eligible and enrolled
veterans from a guaranteed funding source could undermine VA’s ability to
provide a full continuum of care and specialty care to veterans in the
As I noted earlier, VA reports that it has reached capacity at many health
care facilities around the country and has more than 200,600 veterans who
must wait six months or longer for medical care. DAV is especially concerned
about how this has hindered timely access to quality health care for our
nation’s service-connected veterans, including those most severely disabled.
We believe guaranteed funding for VA health care is a reasonable solution to
address this problem and meet the growing backlog for care. Guaranteed
funding will stop the severe rationing of health care that is typical of
today’s veterans health care system.
Guaranteeing veterans health care funding would also eliminate the
year-to-year uncertainty surrounding discretionary funding levels, which
have prevented VA from being able to adequately plan for and meet the
increased demand associated with the growing number of veterans seeking
treatment. We believe it is disingenuous for our government to promise
health care to veterans, especially service-connected disabled veterans, and
then to make it unattainable because of inadequate funding. Rationed health
care is no way to honor America’s obligation to the brave men and women who
have so honorably served our nation and continue to carry the physical and
mental scars of that service.
Messrs. Chairmen, guaranteed health care funding for VA would not create an
individual entitlement for veterans to health care, nor would it change VA’s
current mission. It would not change the setting in which VA provides
medical care, the existing eligibility criteria for Priority Groups 1
through 8 or the medical benefits package as defined in law. Only the
funding source and how these funds are provided for VA health care would
change under a guaranteed funding proposal. Having a sufficient number of
veterans in the health care system is critical to maintaining the capability
of the veterans health care system and sustaining it into the future, when
those injured in the War on Terror will still need VA health care.
I encourage all members of these Committees to support current legislation
to guarantee funding for VA health care. In the Senate, the legislation is
S. 50, the Veterans Health Care Funding Guarantee Act of 2003. DAV members
will be contacting their elected officials again to support this vital
legislation. I hope we can count on the members of the Veterans’ Affairs
Committees to actively support our efforts to pass this legislation this
It is extremely regrettable that Congress failed to timely provide an
increased VA health care budget for fiscal year (FY) 2003, which began on
October 1, 2002. It is frustrating to observe that, into the second quarter
of FY 2003, the spending level for VA health care was at the same inadequate
level as appropriated in FY 2002, which was not only less than these
Committees recommended, but also less than recommended in the Congressional
Budget Resolution. To put this in perspective, 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 in FY 2002 did not even
fund the mandated wage increase for VA’s employees. Further complicating
this situation is the fact that cost-of-living adjustments became effective
at the first of this year, increasing VA salary costs.
How can anyone reasonably expect VA to timely supply necessary health care
services to veterans under these conditions?
When the 108th Congress convened in January 2003, during the Senate
appropriations debate, it was proposed that the FY 2003 VA health care
spending levels be reduced. At one point, in order to increase spending for
some priority programs, a 2.9 percent across-the-board cut was proposed.
This cut equates to a $700 million reduction in the VA health care program.
At the end of the process, funding for VA health care was exempted from
across-the-board cuts of approximately .6 percent.
Without adequate resources, VA cannot meet the increasing demands for
medical care. The VA cannot be expected to provide necessary and timely,
quality health care services to disabled veterans. However, disabled
veterans have earned the right to timely, quality health care—our country
owes us no less.
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.
Congress and the Administration have an obligation to provide adequate
appropriations to meet the needs of veterans. While it is the
Administration’s recommendations that begin the budget debate, Congress
ultimately sets the spending priorities. Unfortunately, veterans have not
been a priority for either a majority of Congress or the Administration.
Lately, there has been a great deal of “passing of the buck” from one end of
Pennsylvania Avenue to the other when it comes to taking responsibility for
the crisis in VA health care. If the Administration or VA is not blaming
Congress for the health care crisis, they are laying it at the feet of
veterans, claiming that too many veterans are attempting to use the system,
especially Priority Group 7 veterans. While there has been much focus on
lower priority veterans and the fact that they are burdening the system, the
truth is that they account for about 8 percent of the overall costs of
appropriated dollars—less than $1,900 per user.
On the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, some in Congress place the blame on
the Administration, claiming that its proposed spending levels for VA health
care are inadequate. While this is most certainly true, Congress sets the
spending priorities for our government and its programs and is not obligated
to follow the Administration’s misplaced priorities.
Messrs. Chairmen, over the last several years, your Committees have
acknowledged the inadequacies of the Administration’s budget proposals for
VA and have recommended substantial increases for VA health care funding in
your Views and Estimates. For the most part, the budget resolutions,
particularly the Senate resolution, have closely mirrored the
recommendations of the Independent Budget. Unfortunately, after House and
Senate budget conferees work out the differences, the budget resolution is
usually much less than the Senate proposal. Furthermore, actual
appropriations for VA health care almost always fall below the
recommendation of the congressional budget resolution.
Others in Congress, similar to VA and the Administration, blame open
enrollment and Priority Group 7 veterans for the imbalance in demand versus
resources. From where I sit, Messrs. Chairmen, it is time to stop pointing
fingers and passing blame for the crisis in VA health care.
Now is the time for decisive action. Now is the time to tackle the crisis
that is preventing disabled and sick veterans from receiving timely health
care services. It is not necessary to study the problem. We do not need yet
another commission or another task force to attempt to enlighten us about
what we already know, what we have known for years.
The problem is quite obvious. The demand for VA health care has greatly
surpassed the resources available to VA. The solution is equally
straightforward. The best solution, really the only equitable solution,
would be to provide VA with the resources necessary to match the demand for
The alternative, and much less desirable choice, would be to lessen the
demand for health care services by terminating enrollment and disenrolling
lower priority veterans. Congress has given the Secretary of Veterans
Affairs the authority to manage the enrollment system to ensure that quality
health care services are provided in a timely manner. However, for political
reasons, the Secretary has been prevented from making those tough decisions
in the past. And, the recent announcement by Secretary of Veterans Affairs
Anthony J. Principi that VA was temporarily suspending enrollment of certain
Priority Group 8 veterans, has met with resistance from some members of
Messrs. Chairmen, we, the members of the DAV, seated before you today, and
throughout this great nation, call upon you, as we did ten years ago, to
enact guaranteed funding for VA health care to make certain that our medical
needs are met, in a timely manner, now and in the future.
Your support of guaranteed funding for veterans health care would
demonstrate your commitment to the men and women appearing before you today
and the more than six million veterans who have enrolled for VA health care.
Again, I ask your active support of this critical legislation.
Also of critical concern to the DAV is the delivery of claims benefits.
Although this subject has been eclipsed due to the severe crisis in veterans
health care, despite its best efforts to streamline and improve the claims
adjudication process, the VA has been unable to completely conquer its
quality and timeliness problems. The time it takes for VA to accurately
process claims is still too long.
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 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 adjudicating 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.
With the primary focus on overcoming the root causes, VA can continue 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. While we are encouraged by
the reported improvements in decreasing the number of backlogged claims and
processing times, we hope these improvements have not been accomplished at
the expense of quality. Sufficient resources and serious reforms are both
necessary to ensure quality, timely decisions.
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.
Unfortunately, in the last Congress, most disabled military retirees were
again denied the enactment of legislation to remove the prohibition against
the concurrent receipt of VA disability compensation and military longevity
retired pay. Of the more than 500,000 disabled military retirees affected by
this prohibition, only about 35,000 will benefit from the Combat Disabled
Special Compensation passed by Congress last year. This injustice has
continued notwithstanding the fact that the vast majority of the members of
Congress have cosponsored legislation to eliminate this travesty of justice.
Further, while both Congress and the Administration have placed high
importance on stimulating our economy, neither has seized the opportunity to
stimulate the economy by removing the prohibition on concurrent receipt.
What better method 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. Not only will our government be placing money in the hands of
individuals who will deposit it back into the economy, it will also increase
tax revenues, since military retirement pay is taxable. Additionally, this
would help stimulate state and local economies, especially in those areas of
the country with a high concentration of military retirees, usually near
military bases, which areas are now being economically devastated by the
deployment overseas of tens of thousands of active duty military personnel.
Correct an injustice, increase tax revenues, and stimulate local, state, and
federal economies—it simply makes sense to do it.
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 a member of the House Veterans' Affairs Committee,
Representative Michael Bilirakis, who has again introduced H.R. 303.
It is with deep sadness that I recall the passing last year of a great
American hero, a combat-disabled Marine Corps veteran of the Vietnam War, a
fiery advocate for the rights of all veterans, especially those disabled in
service to their country, and for their families, and a true friend to the
members of DAV, to whom he dedicated the majority of his adult life. Former
Secretary for Veterans Affairs, Jesse Brown, will long be remembered by the
veterans’ community, whom he so cherished, and who cherished him so very
much. It is with great satisfaction that I note that we are working with
Representative Danny K. Davis of Illinois to rename Westside VA medical
facility in Chicago after Jesse Brown.
Messrs. Chairmen, with the support of the veterans' community and VA to
rename Westside after Jesse Brown, I know we can count on the members of
these Committees to quickly pass this notable, worthy legislation as a
It is with a profound sense of pride that I note another fitting tribute. As
a result of DAV's collaboration with philanthropist Mrs. Lois Pope to form
the Disabled Veterans’ LIFE Memorial Foundation, plans are moving forward to
construct the American Veterans Disabled for Life Memorial in Washington,
D.C. With generous private donations, planning for the memorial is moving
rapidly ahead. We are excited about the site for this memorial, a short
distance from our nation's Capitol, across from the Botanic Gardens. We
strongly believe that this memorial, dedicated to the men and women disabled
while serving our nation in uniform, will have a profound effect, not only
on those it will honor, but also upon those who have benefited from the
sacrifices of those being honored. Especially during this time of crisis,
the War on Terror and the tragic events of September 11, 2001, the American
Veterans Disabled for Life Memorial will serve to enhance our national well
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 joining
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 principal advocates within Congress for our nation’s
veterans, we call upon you to supply the critical leadership necessary to
make certain 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 sincere 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.
Major policy positions of the DAV are derived from resolutions adopted by
the delegates to our annual National Convention. The DAV’s annual
legislative agenda has served to guide our advocacy for disabled veterans in
accordance with the will of our members. Our 2003 mandates cover a broad
spectrum of VA programs and services and have been made available to your
Committees and to members of your staffs. Since we were founded in 1920,
promoting meaningful, reasonable, and responsible public policy for veterans
has been at the heart of who we are and what we do. Our will and commitment
come from the grass roots, nurtured in the fruitful soil of veterans’
sacrifices and strengthened by the vitality of our membership.
With the understanding that we shall have the occasion to more fully focus
on those resolutions during hearings before your Committees and personally
with your staffs, I shall only briefly comment upon a few of them in my
What we convey to you today echoes the hopes and desires, and in some
instances, the despair, of disabled veterans, who appeal to the conscience
of the nation to do what is right and just. Therefore, we call on the
members of these Committees to:
- * Support a change in the
payment of certain accrued benefits upon death of a beneficiary.
Currently, if a beneficiary is entitled to a retroactive award of benefits
but dies before a determination is 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. Recently, in Bonny vs. Principi, the Court of Appeals for Veterans
Claims struck down the two-year restriction in cases where entitlement to
a retroactive award for benefits has been established, but the amount due
the beneficiary remains unpaid at the time of death.
- * 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.
- * Increase the face value
of Service Disabled Veterans’ Insurance (SDVI). The current $10,000
maximum for life insurance for veterans was first established in 1917,
when most annual salaries were considerably less than $10,000. The maximum
protection available under SDVI should be increased to at least $50,000 to
provide adequately for the needs of our survivors.
- * Authorize VA to revise
its premium schedule for SDVI to reflect current mortality tables. Premium
rates are still based on mortality tables from 1941, thereby costing
disabled veterans more for government life insurance than is available on
the commercial market.
- * Support meaningful
cost-of-living adjustments (COLAs) for VA disability compensation by using
the Labor Department’s Employment Cost Index, used for civil servants and
military COLAs, instead of the Social Security Administration COLAs. This
year, the proposal for civil servants and the military was a 4.1 percent
increase, while disability compensation received only a 1.4 percent COLA.
- * Support the repeal of
co-payments for medical care and prescriptions provided by the VA.
- * Support equal medical
services and benefits for women veterans.
- * Provide an additional
increase in the specially adapted housing grant and automatic annual
adjustments based on increases in the cost of living.
- * Support an expansion of
- * 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
- * Support legislation to
repeal the prohibition against service connection for smoking-related
- * 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 children.
- * Extend eligibility for
Veterans’ Mortgage Life Insurance to service-connected veterans rated
permanently and totally disabled.
- * Provide educational
benefits for dependents of service-connected veterans rated 80 percent or
- * Extend commissary and
exchange privileges to service-connected disabled veterans.
- * Extend space-available
air travel aboard military aircraft to 100 percent service-connected
- * Support the fullest
possible accounting of our POW/MIAs from all wars.
Although we can be proud of
the accomplishments made on behalf of 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 wartime disabled veterans. Veterans have every
right to expect their government to treat them fairly. We call upon you, the
members of these Committees, to educate your colleagues about the priorities
of disabled veterans.
Messrs. Chairmen, the veterans of this country appreciate the strong
advocacy provided by Secretary Principi. While his efforts on behalf of our
nation’s service-connected disabled veterans and other veterans are well
known within the veterans’ community, it was gratifying to see in the
January 25, 2003 issue of the National Journal that Secretary Principi
received an overall grade of A- in performance of his duties as Secretary of
Veterans Affairs. I congratulate Secretary Principi on the high marks he
received in conducting business on behalf of our nation’s veterans. DAV
looks forward to his continued advocacy and support during the second half
of this Administration.
Messrs. Chairmen, veterans around the country paid close attention to this
year’s State of the Union address. With the United States engaged in the War
on Terror, and with the possible expansion of that war, both here and
abroad, veterans listened with great interest to the address of President
George W. Bush and what he might say about the current crisis in VA health
care—a health care system that will serve as backup for the Department of
Defense. Unfortunately, while there was no mention of veterans in this
address, it was heartening to observe that the longest standing ovation came
when the President acknowledged the military: “You believe in America, and
America believes in you.”
It was also encouraging to hear the President address the issue of
volunteerism and call upon the American people to get involved in volunteer
programs and share their compassion with other less fortunate individuals.
As I stated earlier, DAV members and their families are already involved in
volunteering their time to assist sick and disabled veterans who are
hospitalized at VA facilities. I am extremely proud of their service to
hospitalized veterans. I encourage other citizens to show their compassion
for our hospitalized comrades and volunteer their time at VA medical
facilities across our nation.
Finally, it was disappointing to hear the President address the crisis in
health care only from the perspective of Medicare. As you recall, the
President said, “Our second goal is high quality, affordable health [care]
for all Americans….Health care reform must begin with Medicare. Medicare is
the binding commitment of a caring society. We must renew that commitment…My
budget will commit an additional $400 billion over the next decade to reform
and strengthen Medicare.”
Messrs. Chairmen, we are here today to affirm that VA health care is also a
binding commitment of a grateful nation. It is extremely important for our
government to focus its attention on the crisis in VA health care as it
addresses high-quality, affordable health care for all Americans.
I have discussed, at length, our solution to the crisis in VA health care
and I would encourage these Committees to move forward with legislation to
guarantee funding for VA health care.
I hope that I have demonstrated that America’s veterans, rather than being
content to rest on their laurels, continue to stand ready to
enthusiastically and unselfishly be involved in their communities and across
the nation to support our government in meeting the needs of
service-connected disabled veterans, their dependents and survivors.
Messrs. Chairmen, as you and the members of your Committees consider the
message I have delivered to you today on behalf of disabled veterans, and,
as you work on veterans’ issues in the future, I ask that you, as I do,
remember that the freedoms and prosperity enjoyed by the citizens of our
nation have been paid for with the lives and physical and mental well-being
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.
Thank you for granting me the opportunity to appear before you on behalf of
our nation’s disabled veterans to share DAV’s proud record of service to
veterans and our country, to discuss our concerns about the state of the VA,
and to outline our agenda for the 108th Congress.
May God bless America and the young men and women who now stand in harm’s
way protecting our country and the free world against the terrorists who
would destroy all that we hold sacred. And may our government never forget
its moral obligation to our nation’s wartime disabled veterans.