Veterans’ Lobby Feels Bailout Heat

Posted October 8, 2008 at 10:54am

The 110th Congress has been particularly generous to the newest crop of veterans: After a high-pressure lobbying effort, lawmakers this year approved a sweeping update to the GI bill. The new law mandates that the government pick up the full cost of public college for veterans returning from active duty since 9/11.

Now veterans advocacy groups have trained their sights on the next Congress.

With widespread fiscal woes, an economy in crisis and taxpayers already picking up a multibillion-dollar federal bailout tab, the lobbying organizations say they are ramping up efforts to make sure Veterans Affairs Department programs get full funding for vets, especially in health care. And, they stress, that includes all veterans — from aging World War II combatants to those returning from recent wars in Iraq or Afghanistan.

“I’m sure we’re going to have a fight on our hands,” said Doug Vollmer, associate executive director for government relations at Paralyzed Veterans of America. “In light of the economic rescue plan, or bailout, that is going to put a strain on available discretionary spending.”

For years, veterans lobbying groups have pushed for the VA’s medical funding to be considered a mandatory cost — like Medicare or Social Security — but those efforts have fallen flat on Capitol Hill.

So now the groups say they are working together to press for the VA’s health care budget to be approved a year in advance, something known as advanced appropriations.

“What’s been happening the past several years is the VA has gotten very good increases with respect to medical care, but unfortunately the money is arriving consistently late,” explained Dennis Cullinan, national legislative director with Veterans of Foreign Wars. “What we’re proposing is that the VA get it a year in advance.”

Advanced appropriations is also at the top of the agenda for the Disabled American Veterans. The group’s national legislative director, Joe Violante, said it would help the VA plan its medical programs to better serve vets.

“It helps them to plan for the future because right now they can’t do any planning when they need to, because they don’t know what their budget for the new year is going to be,” Violante said. “It doesn’t give them sufficient time to hire doctors, nurses, clinicians. What we’re hoping is advanced appropriations would provide VA with a sufficient, timely, predicable budget.”

DAV also is among several veterans advocacy groups that are trying to step up the screening and treatment for mental disorders, such as post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injuries.

The American Legion is also among the groups lobbying for VA funding increases and to reduce a backlog in disability claims, said the group’s legislative director, Steve Robertson.

“Right now, there’s this tremendous backlog,” Robertson said. “It takes a really long time to get your initial claim … and appeals take an extremely long time.”

He added that the average citizen “assumes that veterans are being taken care of,” but many slip through the cracks.

“I get a lot of phone calls. Some person will call me up and say, ‘Uncle Harry is a World War II vet, and now he has dementia and needs to go into a veterans home,’” said Robertson, an Air Force veteran. “There’s a waiting list. Do we have enough long-term housing for everybody that needs it? The answer is no. … We have been asking for additional money to build more state veterans homes. It’s a constant battle, and it keeps me gainfully employed.”

Robertson added that if a group like his wasn’t around to fight on behalf of veterans benefits, those benefits “could very easily disappear.”

Some veterans groups fight for very specific types of wounded warriors. Tom Zampieri, director of government relations for the Blinded Veterans Association, said his group is trying to make sure that vision-related treatment in the VA system is the best.

“It’s an issue that seems to stay below the radar screen,” especially with the big veterans groups that are focused on overall funding issues, Zampieri said.

Yet, “with returning Iraq and Afghanistan wounded service members with eye injuries or battle eye trauma, this has been one of those things that gets overshadowed by the huge amount of publicity on [traumatic brain injury] and PTSD.”

Zampieri said his group is working to secure Congressional funding for top-of-the line vision centers at VA facilities.

“It’s pretty frustrating,” Zampieri concedes. “So we’ve spoken to various Members of Congress, that we would appreciate some oversight and hearings.”

All the groups want to see a secure electronic transfer of records from the Department of Defense to the Department of Veterans Affairs — something the groups say currently doesn’t happen and that forces ex-military members to wait for hard-copy records to be sent from the DOD to the VA.

Even though the groups scored a big victory this Congress with the GI bill, veterans organizations say they plan to continue to advocate on the issue as the federal government implements the new benefits.

Vanessa Williamson, policy director for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, called the GI bill this year a “landmark victory.”

But, she said, the work isn’t done. “We need to keep an eye on implementation,” she said of the bill, which provides $60 billion for veterans education. “There are small legislative fixes that need to take place.”

Like many of the other veterans groups, IAVA also plans to focus next year on advanced appropriations and more mental health screening and treatment for veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. “We’re really hoping to see some improvements,” she said.