2014 Mid-Winter Highlights

DAV Launches Operation: Keep the Promise

Commander Testifies on Need for Advance Appropriations

Waving signs and chanting, “Keep the promise!” in front of the Capitol, hundreds of DAV’s dedicated leaders and supporters punctuated the 2014 Mid-Winter Conference with an exclamation point. The final full day of the annual event became a national day of action, focusing on DAV’s top legislative priority with what was dubbed “Operation: Keep the Promise.”

While hundreds of veterans from around the county converged on the nation’s capital on Feb. 25, millions around the country learned about advance appropriations, told their friends online and called on Congress to make the proposed legislation a reality.

Those in Washington rallied on the Capitol grounds and met with lawmakers before National Commander Joseph W. Johnston testified before a special joint hearing of the Senate and House Committees on Veterans’ Affairs.

Throughout the daylong Operation: Keep the Promise, supporters from around the nation placed more than 10,000 calls and emails to their Senators and Representatives and, through social media, reached more than 11.5 million people who all urged Congress to pass advance funding for all veterans benefits, programs and services.

The goal of the national day of action was to call upon Congress to pass the Putting Veterans Funding First Act (H.R. 813, S. 932), which would shield the Department of Veterans Affairs from Washington’s near-perpetual budget gridlock.

“Now that the smoke has cleared, we still have work to do to get this legislation up for a vote and passed,” said National Adjutant Marc Burgess. “In Washington, budget  delays and continuing resolutions have become a common theme, often threatening or directly affecting our veterans and their families.”

DAV members filled to capacity the historic Cannon Caucus Room on Capitol Hill as Johnston spoke of the greatest challenges facing veterans today.

“We believe Congress should expand the advance appropriations umbrella to protect VA’s remaining accounts,” Johnston told the joint panel. “For example, although VA medical appropriations may provide assurance that a new outpatient clinic can open without delays, the fact that VA’s information technology funding is still provided through the stymied regular appropriations process means that computers or other IT systems, such as radiology and laboratory equipment, on which health care crucially relies, might not be provided until Congress acts, delaying the clinic opening by weeks or even months.”

During last October’s government shutdown, critical services for veterans were delayed, disrupted and, in some instances, suspended, creating hardship and needless
worry for America’s injured and ill veterans and their families.

House Veterans’ Affairs  Committee Chairman Jeff Miller, R-Fla., left, welcomes National Adjutant Marc Burgess, right, and National Commander Joseph W. Johnston to DAV’s legislative presentation.
House Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller, R-Fla., left, welcomes National Adjutant Marc Burgess, right, and National Commander Joseph W. Johnston to DAV’s legislative presentation.

Work stopped on more than 250,000 veterans disability claims awaiting appeals, burials at national cemeteries were scaled back, and vital medical and prosthetic research projects were suspended. Had the shutdown continued for just a few more days, mandatory obligations of the government, including disability compensation
and pension payments to veterans and their survivors, would have stopped. More than 4 million wounded, injured, ill or poor veterans rely on these payments—for some, it’s their primary or only source of income.

“We should never again put a disabled veteran or his or her family in such a situation,” Johnston testified. “This is why DAV’s Operation: Keep the Promise intends to make advance appropriations for all VA accounts, including its mandatory disability payments to veterans, our highest legislative priority in 2014.”

Passage of the Putting Veterans Funding First Act would enable the VA to plan for key investments in information technology, claims processing and construction projects. It would also give Congress greater oversight on multi-year funding proposals—which is what veterans and their families need and deserve.

The Commander’s argument was a convincing one. Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., chairman of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee was quoted in USA Today as saying: “Advanced funding works. I think it’s important that we do a two-year funding cycle or advanced funding cycle where we don’t end up with an extremely hot political issue  should Congress not be able to do its job, as we haven’t on an annual basis.”

“It is not widely known, but during the last shutdown, we were seven, 10 days away from not being able to send out checks to disabled veterans,” Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chair Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., told the newspaper.

Johnston pointed out that advance appropriations cost the government nothing and have worked remarkably well for the Veterans Health Administration ever since it became law after DAV’s efforts in 2009.

“DAV must now continue the momentum of Operation: Keep the Promise to make sure this is not a one-time rallying cry, but rather a daily guidepost for employees and members alike,” said Burgess.

Johnston brought forward several other important issues, including the ongoing reform of the VA’s claims process, noting measurable progress. He also spoke of the need for providing benefits equally to all veterans and specifically pointed out the discrepancies in what is offered for caregivers of veterans post-9/11 versus veterans of other eras.

“As the House and Senate address the major challenges facing our nation, we urge you to continue focusing on the unfinished work of reforming the veterans’ benefits claims processing system,” Johnston testified. “For DAV and many other veterans organizations, ensuring that wounded, injured and ill veterans and their dependents and survivors receive all the benefits they have earned, without undue delay, remains an important legislative priority for 2014.”

Calling progress in reducing the claims backlog “good news,” the Commander cited the steady increase throughout the year in the accuracy of claims produced. According to the VA’s Systematic Technical Accuracy Review teams, accuracy rates rose to 89.6 percent by the end of 2013. “Although this figure remains far from the
98-percent accuracy goal put forward by the Secretary, it is a significant improvement,” he said.

“While the progress is real, we continue to have some concerns about a recent trend toward less openness and transparency from the Veterans Benefits Administration
over the past year, which could hinder its ability to successfully complete the transformation. It is essential that VBA work in an open, transparent and collaborative manner with both Congress and VSOs in order to continue receiving the support and assistance needed to complete this transformation,” Johnston said. “Just as important, without proper and transparent data and metrics, neither Congress nor VSO stakeholders can gain the information necessary to provide constructive feedback that could help improve VBA’s claims processing system.”

As DAV Commanders have testified in the past, Johnston expressed strong concerns that some of the benefits Congress enacted are exclusive to veterans of recent  service in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“While we understand that these are special circumstances that may require legislative consideration to ease transition challenges from military to civilian life, DAV represents wartime veterans of all ages and all periods of wartime service,” he testified. “We remain dismayed that previous generations cannot take advantage of a number of these new improvements enacted into law, and we ask your Committees to reconsider the trend to exclude older veterans from the new and expanded benefits you have awarded to younger veterans, especially the stipend and extensive health care benefits for veterans’ family caregivers under Public Law 111-163. I defy anyone to tell me that the struggles of a family caregiver of a severely disabled veteran from World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War or Persian Gulf War are easier and less burdensome than those of a caregiver of a similar veteran of wars in Afghanistan or Iraq. They all struggle; they all suffer.”

The Commanders and Adjutants Association, which hosts the conference, welcomed VA Secretary Eric K. Shinseki to the first session. Shinseki spoke about the ongoing transition, particularly within the VBA.

“No veteran should have to wait to receive earned benefits,” he told the attendees. “The claims backlog is a decades-old problem, and we are committed to eliminating it—not reducing it, not better managing it, but eliminating it in 2015. No claim over 125 days and our work done at 98-percent accuracy. We’ve said all along it would take time to solve this correctly, and we are not going to leave this for another Secretary or President to wrestle. The President wants this fixed, and we are on track to eliminate the backlog in 2015.”

Shinseki also said the VA remains focused on ending homelessness among veterans, noting progress in this area, which has been a priority for him since taking the helm.

“Historically, homelessness increases during periods of economic downturn. We’ve had five years of slowed economic growth, and remarkably, we have broken that historical curve for homeless veterans. Instead of growth, we’ve produced a 24-percent decline since 2010,” he said. “Over the next two years, we must find, engage
and rescue every one of the 57,895 estimated homeless veterans living on the streets and prevent those at-risk veterans from falling into homelessness. Together, we
can do this, and those veterans are counting on us.”

For the first time as leader of DAV, Burgess also addressed the opening session. “Although I have attended many in the past, this is my first as National Adjutant, and I cannot express how honored I am to be here in this role representing the most devoted advocates for ill and injured veterans,” he said. “Year after year, DAV builds on
its storied past and renews its unmatched commitment to service. We continue to be successful today in large part due to the strong foundation laid by the dedicated
leaders throughout DAV’s history.”

Burgess spoke about the aggressive legislative campaign kicking off and let everyone know they are needed. “It is not just the talented individuals that make DAV and our
mission a success,” he said. “It is the combined, dedicated efforts of veterans helping veterans that set us apart.”

“This was one of the best-attended Mid-Winter Conferences on record,” said Chad Richmond, President of the Commanders and Adjutants Association. “Not only was there excellent information for all who attended, there was an unmistakable energy at the rally, and it was an honor to be there in front of the Capitol. It was thrilling to go to the National Commander’s testimony and hear over and over again from members of the House and Senate that we had their attention.”

 

The 2015 Mid-Winter Conference is scheduled for Feb. 22-25, 2015, at the Crystal Gateway Marriot in Arlington, Va.