Yesterday, the "Veterans Choice of Representation Act" (S.2694) became law. And from my point of view, it's about time. As a CPA with over three decades in public practice, it is quite clear to me the benefit to be enjoyed by all veterans when there are professionals trained in reading and deciphering our laws, the United States Code (USC) and the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR), who are allowed to represent us when we disagree with the findings of the VA. This legislation, commonly referred to as the "Attorneys for Veterans," was hotly contested by the Disabled American Veterans (DAV). As part of their flight, they were able to get the 109th Congress to introduce repealer legislation (HR1318). Fortunately for all of us, that legislation never got out of Committee; so the law stands. When I wrote my column last week, it was still quite possible that the DAV would try to "throw a monkey wrench" into the works. As that appears not to be the case, what I want to devote the rest of this week's column to are a few of the "areas" that attorney representation just might help to change. The bulk of this information was taken from the Pensacola Florida news Journal as reported by Larry Scott at his VA Watchdog Dot Org website. Following that are some comments, also by Larry Scott, concerning what he and others perceive as a "big part" of the cause of the problem that all of us veterans face. Then, a little about what occurred in 1996 that seems to be one of the problems major causes.
Don't Ask Disabled Vets to Keep Making Sacrifices
When it comes to judging how this nation treats wounded military veterans, a key place to look is at those who are disabled in service to their country. Veterans who sacrificed their physical or mental health for their country should not be asked to then sacrifice their quality of life for the rest of their lives because their government "ignores" their needs.
Today, thousands of veterans are coming home with serious disabilities from combat in Iraq and Afghanistan. Unfortunately, many are not being adequately cared for. It can be expensive care, because a young veteran can live a complete lifetime with disabilities that diminish their quality of life, and especially their ability to earn a living.
A recent congressional study concluded compensation for young veterans with serious disabilities is condemning them to a lifetime of substandard earnings. Basic VA disability payments do not recognize and compensate veterans for diminished quality of life and earnings loss. The study found that veterans younger than 45, left 100-percent disabled or unemployable, are under compensated by a substantial margin.
The problem is worse for veterans suffering from mental disorders, such as post-traumatic stress syndrome, which can be as debilitating as a physical wound.
It has a profound impact on the quality of life not just of these wounded veterans, but of their families as well. Yes, those who serve in our armed forces are volunteers. But they join expecting that their country will take care of them if they are disabled in combat. This nation owes a substantial debt to veterans who sacrifice their minds and bodies in combat and return with lifelong disabilities. It might be costly, but it is a debt that must be paid.
Certain Congress Members Continue to Press What Appears to Be an Anti-Veteran Agenda
After the 2006 election, Rep. Steve Buyer (IN) found himself no longer the Chairman of the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs. He stayed on the Committee with the title of Ranking Minority Member. Buyer continues to press an agenda that claims the VA's "core constituency" is ONLY "disabled and indigent" veterans. Where did he get this? He made it up. And, he uses this claim to pit veteran against veteran by saying that if veterans outside his self-proclaimed "core constituency" receive VA care, then care for other veterans will be endangered. Buyer's insistence on this point was brought about, in part, by a Committee hearing looking into the possibility of allowing enrollment of Priority Group 8 veterans once again.
Priority Group 8 vets were barred from enrollment in the VA in January of 2003. The reason: Money! The VA claimed they couldn't afford to take care of all qualified veterans. There is a simple solution for this: Properly fund the VA. Then all qualified veterans will be able to get the benefits they have earned. But, Buyer seems not willing to address the issue of proper and full funding for VA healthcare.
About Priority Group 8 and 1996
Since January 2003, nearly 400,000 veterans have been denied enrollment in the VA health system because they have no service-connected disabilities and have incomes that exceed a VA means test, the same one used to screen for federal housing assistance.
The decision to suspend enrollment in VA healthcare for these "Priority Group 8" veterans was explained four years ago as necessary to ensure continued access to VA care for higher priority veterans - those with service disabilities, low incomes or special needs. Whether Congress should force the administration to reopen the VA system to new Group 8 enrollees was the topic of a contentious hearing, on June 20, of the House Veterans Affairs Committee.
The timing might seem questionable given how veterans physically and mentally wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan are a rising challenge for VA medical staffs and resources. But the treatment of Priority 8 veterans is tied to the election promises of "full funding" for VA health care. Also, it's an issue guaranteed to light off partisan fireworks on which so many lawmakers today seem to thrive.
For many years, veterans who were not disabled or indigent could gain access to VA facilities only on a case-by-case and space available basis. It was the Veterans' Health Care Eligibility Act of 1996 that directed VA to build many more clinics and establish an enrollment system based on seven and later eight priority groups.
Suddenly, starting in 1999, VA healthcare was opened to any veteran. Over the next three years, the proportion of higher-income, non-disabled veterans enrolled the VA system climbed to 30 percent. By 2003, then VA Secretary Anthony Principi decided the flood of Group 8 veterans was endangering the system's ability to care for higher priority veterans. He used his authority under the 1996 law to suspend new Group 8 enrollments. Those already enrolled were unaffected. Group 8 veterans remain 27 percent of all VA care enrollees.
Representative Bob Filner (CA), committee chairman, said the current situation represents "unacceptable" rationing of care, noting that veterans without disabilities are denied enrollment if incomes rise above, in many cases, as little as $27,790. He tied the need to reopen VA care for any veteran, to sacrifices being made in the current conflicts.
"Any planned military surge must be accompanied by a surge for health care for veterans. We must be prepared to serve those that have served us - and we are not prepared at this time," Filner said. Others argue that wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are making the opening of VA healthcare to all veterans more difficult given the rising strain on staff and resources.
Representative Steve Buyer (IN), the committee former chairman, said the VA needs to do more for disabled veterans and those in financial need rather than "open the gates" for a "surge" of Group 8 veterans. The VA estimates that 1.7 million new Group 8 veterans would enroll, if given the chance, and 600,000 would seek VA care. The added cost to VA over the next 10 years would be $33 billion.
Filner shot back that Buyer and his colleagues are all too willing to "support a surge when it comes to military action but cannot have a 'surge,' in your words, when it comes to treating our veterans."
A Final Thought
As I've quoted here before, President George Washington stated, "The willingness with which our young people are likely to serve in any war, no matter how justified, shall be directly proportionate to how they perceive the veterans of earlier wars were treated and appreciated by their country."
--- Regards, Walt Schmidt