AMVETS NATIONAL COMMANDER EXCERPTS ON MANDATORY VA FUNDING - BEFORE Joint Session of the Committees on Veterans' Affairs (U.S. Senate and U.S. House of Representatives)

Statement of AMVETS National Commander William A. Boettcher Before a Joint Session of the Committees on Veterans' Affairs (U.S. Senate and U.S. House of Representatives)
Thursday, April 14, 2005
President Bush said at Arlington National Cemetery, ?We owe our veterans the life we know today. They command the respect of the American people, and they have our everlasting gratitude.?

It is true, after all, that our veterans have not only guaranteed the peace in Europe for more than 60 years, but they have also preserved it for us here at home.
it is the veteran who defended our national security, who risked life and limb to serve thousands of miles away from loved ones, and who sacrificed daily to protect the lives of innocent men, women and children.
Mr. Chairman, at an earlier time in our history, our most revered Founding Father George Washington gave an eloquent warning, ?The willingness with which our young people are likely to serve in any war, no matter how justified, shall be directly proportional to how they perceive the veterans of earlier wars were treated and appreciated by their nation.?
In a more recent speech, President Ronald Reagan echoed the wisdom of our first president?s remarks when in signing legislation that established the Department of Veterans Affairs he said, ?America?s debt to those who would fight for her defense doesn?t end the day the uniform comes off. For the security of our nation, it must not end.?
At a time with troops on the ground are protecting our security and defending our cherished freedoms, AMVETS is concerned that leaders in Congress are set to test the wisdom of these great leaders.
As recently as last year, AMVETS was told that the fiscal year 2005 budget approved by Congress was adequate. Simply stated: not true. If one asks VA, officials there will inform you that their equipment and maintenance accounts are being raided and transferred to healthcare operations accounts to help cover the current shortfall. News reports make the same case. From across the country, reports provide clear evidence that VA is straining and failing to make ends meet.
AMVETS cannot believe that this astonishing situation is something the American people would support. We know that Americans are blessed to be citizens of this great nation, not just when times are good, but at all times. Together, we are part of something special, endowed by our creator in a great experiment to prove to the world that representative democracy is not only the most effective form of government, but also the only moral government. Generations of us have fought to build a better nation and we won?t sit idly by and forget the debt we owe these heroic men and valiant women.
Veterans are told that VA health care costs too much. This is the reason that some in Congress have decided the lives and health of certain veterans do not matter. Frankly, that kind of thinking can get America into trouble. You cannot recruit future military if the word gets out that America does not keep the promises made to those who served her. With troops on the ground defending American interests across the globe, keeping faith is not only the prudent thing to do; it?s the right thing to do.
Keeping faith with veterans requires that adequate resources be in place to provide for the benefits and services veterans earned through their military service. Attending to this obligation is one the highest priorities in the nation. It ranks with our national defense and homeland security requirements.
The Office of Management and Budget and the Congressional Budget Office may not buy that story, and there may even be some folks on the Hill that feel the same way. But the majority of Americans remain grateful and appreciative of the sacrifices veterans made for them. And they recognize that the expense of veterans earned benefits is a cost of war.
As for those who say veterans are clogging the VA healthcare system, no one at AMVETS would knowingly stand in the way of a disabled, sick military comrade seeking medical treatment at VA any more than they would deny being a citizen of this great country. We are American Veterans, and we are organized to help, not hinder.
In complete candor, I cannot tell you that in these past months, or under the present circumstances, we are comfortable with the direction taken by our congressional or executive leadership.
For instance, undersecretary of defense for personnel readiness David Chu told the WALL STREET JOURNAL that updated veteran and retiree benefits were damaging national security. Secretary Chu said that earned benefits ?have gotten to where they are hurtful. They are taking away from the nation?s ability to defend itself.? Mr. Chairmen, Chu?s comments are hard to swallow. Simply stated, the brave men and women veterans of this great country are not the enemy of national security.
What we see and hear disturbs us, because we do not see that this direction points the way toward improved services. For instance, we observe that Congress failed to include additional VA funding in the recently approved emergency supplemental. VA, for its part, tells veterans not to worry, because the shortfall will not deprive any veteran of department service. But department policy continues to close the door to nearly 300,000 veterans, unable to this service due to a lack of resources. And as outlined earlier, hiring is frozen, equipment replacements are not being made, and maintenance is being delayed.
Even in a time of war, veterans are being told, ?the cupboard is bare.? It is clear, however, to members of AMVETS that if congressional leadership cannot arrange priorities within a $2.6 trillion budget to meet the benefits veterans earned and richly deserve, something is wrong with the priorities being selected.
In reading last year?s appropriations, we see that there is enough money to spend on Ground Hog Day, the Rock and Roll Museum, the Paper Industry Hall of Fame and more than 13,000 thousand other lesser priority, non-veteran pet projects. Even the extraordinarily wealthy Professional Golfers Association received money?$2 million for the First Tee program. And Congress earmarked funds for the GRAMMY Foundation, a wing of the music recording industry and an organization composed of millionaire singers, producers and executives. While individually each of these earmarks may account for only a small fraction of federal spending, the total cost to taxpayers for these projects in fiscal year 2005 is $27.3 billion?a 19 percent increase over the previous year. To paraphrase Senator Dirksen, ?a million here and a million there and pretty soon you?re talking about real money.?
And incredibly, there is more. Congress last year approved a four-year $1 billion program to pay the medical care costs of treating illegal immigrants. What signal is being sent here, when budget priorities allow health care for illegal immigrants to trump care for veterans?
We have faith in our leaders, but we are not blind. Before we start tapping veterans programs and services, let us make certain that we have selected our most important programs over our less important ones. The priority given health care for illegal immigrants is a stark reminder that this budget proposal is bad news for the nation?s veterans, especially when our courageous troops are engaged in battle overseas.
AMVETS would like to see VA begin the process of restoring Priority 8 access, which could be started by enrolling those veterans who can identify their private- or public-health insurers and making certain that VA is eligible for medical reimbursement. The secretary has this discretionary authority under statute and, for our friends who hinge veterans? access to their ability to pay for it, this type of enrollment would ensure that third-party payers would be maximized to the fullest extent.
To augment direct appropriations, which are clearly needed, AMVETS also supports Medicare subvention as a way to enhance funding of VA health care. Medicare subvention could prove beneficial to veterans and the government. For veterans who have paid into Medicare throughout their working lives, VA subvention would mean greater access to care. And for the government, there would be savings, since nearly 60 percent of enrolled veterans are Medicare-eligible and, according to VA, Medicare services can be delivered less expensively than in the private sector.
Mr. Chairman, one of our greatest presidents once said, ?It is common sense to take a method and try it. If it fails, admit it frankly and try another, but above all try something.? It is time to take President Franklin Delano Roosevelt?s advice. It is time to try something different. AMVETS asks you to recognize that the current system of funding veterans health care is broken. It simply doesn?t work. Too many sick and disabled veterans either cannot enroll in the system or wait too long for care.
AMVETS calls on Congress to replace the current discretionary funding process with assured funding for veterans health care. Assured funding of VA health care would provide a comprehensive solution to the current funding problem. Once healthcare funding matches the actual average cost of care for the veterans enrolled in the system, with annual indexing for inflation, VA can truly fulfill its mission.
Mr. Chairman, until assured funding is in place, AMVETS calls on the Congress to provide an adequate level of discretionary resources necessary to care for America?s veterans.
In this regard, we recommend an increase of $3.4 billion over last year?s VA medical-care spending. This amount would ensure that the medical treatment and care-taking of our veterans would be answered with timely medical treatment, not delay of care. AMVETS?together with the Disabled American Veterans, the Paralyzed Veterans of America and the Veterans of Foreign Wars?makes this recommendation in our 19th annual publication of The Independent Budget.
Some will say we can?t afford it; it costs too much. We believe the IB is a balanced and responsible analysis of VA?s funding requirements, and that the price is not too great for the value received.
Another of our top priorities is to see the Department of Defense and the Department of Veterans Affairs work as a team to provide proper and seamless care for our soldiers and veterans. No veteran leaving military service should fall through the bureaucratic cracks. Both departments should improve the system for handing over responsibility from DoD to VA for the continuance of medical care to those leaving service. The hand-off should include a detailed history of care provided, including mental health services, and an assessment of what each patient may require in the future.
Here, I would like to make special mention of the tremendous contribution the National Guard and Reserves have made to the defense of our nation. Clearly the mission of the Reserve Components has changed as they account for increasingly more of our national defense and homeland security responsibilities.
Without these Americans who make up the Guard and Reserve team, our nation?s military capability would be seriously diminished. The increased reliance on these citizen-soldiers and their performance on active duty demonstrate that if force becomes necessary, they are ready.
On the other hand, this reliance places a lot of pressure, not only on those who serve, but also on employers and families. With operational tempos increasing significantly in all areas of competency, it is essential that our national government?s commitment to these volunteers and their families keep pace.
As such, Congress needs to realistically understand the changes that have occurred in the use of the Reserve Components and continue its efforts to upgrade and update protections and benefits for those called away from family, home and employment to active duty.
While the past Congress has done a good job in reauthorizing and revitalizing training, education and jobs programs, I encourage you to continue close oversight of the Transition Assistance Program and related programs to ensure an appropriate balance of aid and effective assistance for our returning troops, including those in the Guard and Reserves.
In addition, AMVETS supports legislation to protect the reemployment rights and benefits of guardsmen and reservists who voluntarily leave employment to serve in the Armed Forces.
When mobilized, these citizen soldiers have enough to worry about. The last thing they need to be concerned about is the situation their families face in leaving their private-sector health plan and entering a military one. Indeed, for family members of those deployed for long durations, the challenge of maintaining continuity of health care for spouse and dependents can be daunting. We cannot afford to take their military service for granted or let it go unnoticed. We can help and we should.
Among other initiatives, AMVETS continues to support the overhaul of a disability-claims process in dire need of attention. Quality, timely decisions should be our aim. Today, it takes too long to settle a claim. The error rate remains too high. And veterans continue to face delays that effectively deny appropriate, legitimate compensation for disabilities resulting from military service.
Despite the job retired U.S. Navy Vice Admiral Daniel L. Cooper is doing, the workload of the Veterans Benefits Administration continues to increase. As of mid-March, VBA had more than 500,000 compensation and pension claims pending decision, an increase of nearly 35,000 from this time last year. In addition, nearly 20 percent of these pending claims have been in the hands of VA more than 180 days.
The challenges, which have historically plagued this system, are not insurmountable, but making progress requires a stronger budget than the one proposed by the administration. Failure to fully fund the department?s requirements will fail veterans seeking resolution to their claims to secure compensation for injury or illness received during military service.
The AMVETS membership also supports increasing the response to help our severely wounded soldiers returning home from the field of battle. We recognize the benefits of the Disabled Soldier Support System (DS3), introduced by the Army to provide disabled soldiers and their families with a system of advocacy to assist their transition back to civilian life, but the current program is understaffed and underfunded. Congress needs to legislate reprogramming authority for adequate staffing of the DS3 program.
These soldiers have lost a limb, been blinded or lost an eye, suffered a disabling brain injury, or disfiguring burns or wounds. They have served their country without question honorably and bravely, and they deserve our help now as they strive to put their lives back together.

The members of AMVETS also urge Congress to exempt as eligibility criterion for all federal programs disability compensation, pension payments and Dependency and Indemnity Compensation Benefits (DIC). An elderly veteran should not be barred from senior assisted living because he receives a small pittance of pension. A veteran?s old-age pension should not push an individual over the allowable financial threshold for admittance to an assistance program available to others who never served in the military.
Finally, we urge Congress to maintain the federal supply schedule for pharmaceuticals to ensure VA continues to receive maximum discount in drug purchases. A number of recently introduced bills threaten the department?s purchase program and would, if approved, adversely affect its cost for pharmaceuticals and veterans? co-payments.
Mr. Chairman, great decisions and challenges await us in the months ahead. The membership of AMVETS looks forward to working with you to establish a clear policy of national recognition for those who serve.
We have much to do, but we are encouraged in knowing that our work will help determine the future of our nation and that of millions of others around the world who love freedom.