About that Daily Caller hit piece on The American Legion
[NOTE: Picture above is of Roscoe Butler appearing before the Congress in March of last year when the author asks where we were.]
Every once in a while an article gets sent to me that is so stupid that I don’t even comment on it because of the general absurdity and ignorance of the writer. Occasionally though the article is so utterly moronic that it actually requires a response.
So it is with this piece of idiocy put out yesterday by The Daily Caller, titled The VFW And American Legion’s Veterans Affairs Conflict Of Interest. It’s not just that it is poorly written and researched (which it is) but it advocates answers that already exist, and woefully ignores the obvious answers to questions it poses but apparently didn’t bother to ask about. For instance, one would have thought that in doing a piece on the “conflict of interest” the reporter, Senior Economics Fellow Joanne Butler might have done even the rudimentary step of picking up the phone and asking The American Legion what they thought, what with them being the ostensible target of this idiotic hit piece.
So let’s start in the beginning. She begins thusly:
With Father’s Day approaching and VA Secretary Eric Shinseki’s resignation last week, I am reminded of a promise my late Dad (WWII vet, bronze star medalist) demanded I make when I was in 8th grade: That I never send him to a VA hospital. I expect if my Dad were here today, he’d be calling me to say ‘see, I told you.’ My question: where were the American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars when the problems began to bubble up last year and earlier this year?
Where were we? We were visiting the hospitals, testifying on Capitol Hill, and banging on every door imaginable to figure out why the VA allowed these people to continue their employment, despite NUMEROUS IG reports that said that they were gaming the system. I could go through hundreds of the reports we filed (you can peruse them on our website under our sub heading of “System Worth Saving.” I can’t even begin to tell you how many times we’ve testified on these issues. The fact that Ms. Butler didn’t go on the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee website and the House Veterans Affairs Committee website to see all the times we’ve testified on this issue is simply baffling to me.
For the sake of brevity, let me just show ONE such time, as listing them all would take longer than any of us have, this from March of last year:
The American Legion testified at a March 14 congressional hearing that examined how long America’s veterans have to wait for their scheduled appointments at Department of Veterans Affairs medical facilities. Roscoe Butler, national field representative for the Legion’s Veterans Affairs & Rehabilitation Division, presented the testimony before the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs’ Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations.
Through its System Worth Saving (SWS) program, the Legion has been acutely aware of wait time problems for a decade. In 2003, the first SWS report noted that – out of more than 300,000 veterans waiting for health-care appointments – more than half had been waiting more than eight months. At one VA medical center in the southeastern U.S., about 14,000 veterans had waited longer than six months for their appointments.
Again, this is just one testimony. We’ve probably testified on the same issue 40 times.
But take a step back and look at this whole thing holistically. Congress has also been well aware of what is happening. And last week they held a hearing that went until past midnight that I covered. It was the most brutal hearing ever. But what was the topic of the hearing? It wasn’t wait times, it was why the VA refused to respond to subpoena’s for information. Congress couldn’t do anything either for the simple reason that the VA was refusing to give up all the information needed to access the situation and develop a comprehensive strategy to address it. Now I ask you, if Congress, with subpoena power isn’t able to get the information, how exactly is The American Legion supposed to do that? All we can do is identify anecdotally all the problems, and then pound on the table and demand they get fixed. We’ve been doing that since at least 2003 when I was one of the staff members sitting in front of the microphone in those hearings and doing the pounding myself.
But the truly shameful part of this article is what comes next:
Why would the service organizations be cautious in criticizing the VA? It’s because a little-known but major function of the American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars is helping veterans or their families file for benefits and representing claimants in the VA appeals process. And while by law they cannot charge for helping someone file a claim, they can charge for representational services if the claim is denied and appealed.
Federal law also puts a “reasonable” fee arrangement at twenty percent of past due benefits (benefits the claimant would have received if a positive outcome had resulted at the first step in the decision process).
Any rational person reading that would be led to believe that our representation of veterans is some sort of cash cow, upon which rests our entire economic future. It seems curious that she doesn’t cite the actual numbers. For instance, how much money did the Legion receive last year in the “reasonable free arrangement” scheme which underpins our entire financial future?
Absolutely nothing. Zero. Nada. Nil. Zilch. Not a single penny. The American Legion does not charge for any of its representation, either at the Regional Office level (where claims begin) nor at the Board of Veterans Appeals.
I happen to know this because before I was a writer, before I attended law school, before I testified on Capitol Hill on the very issues she claims we are ignoring, I represented claimants before the Board of Veterans Appeals. So let me state this as bluntly as possible, if any employee of The American Legion tried to get any fee, even one authorized in the law, his first step would be our Human Resources division, and his second would be the front door step where he would have all his belongings waiting for him in a cardboard box. We do not do it.
In fact, we even represent people who are not members of The American Legion, and I never once asked any of my clients at the BVA to join. We do it to help veterans, not as some sort of stream of income. Right from jump street this poorly researched article props up a straw man that simply does not exist in the real world.
The only charges I know of come when a veteran is denied at the Board of Veterans Appeals in Washington, DC, and then decides to take his case to the US Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims. But it isn’t Legion personnel who do those claims, it is generally lawyers, or groups like the National Veterans Legal Services Program which the Legion has an existing relationship with. Failing at the BVA, veterans who use The American Legion as their representation are invited to go to NVLSP and continue the fight if they wish to do so. And the NVLSP doesn’t charge, so none of the money ever comes back to us. (NVLSP represents claimaints pro bono.)
There’s a similar dynamic between the VA and veterans’ service organizations, which have a vested interest (fee payments) in not rocking the VA boat. These organizations must have a good working relationship with the VA benefits decision-makers if their clients are to win. Would this relationship be jeopardized if the Legion or VFW shifted into attack-dog mode over problems at VA hospitals?
First off, as explained, we have no “vested interest” in the form of “fee payments” and second of all, why use a hypothetical when The Legion has been out front calling for Shinseki, Allison Hickey and Dr. Petzel to be fired? That alone absolutely demolishes the faulty logic of this entire paragraph. How could we be more in “attack-dog mode” that we are now? We have an entire section of our website devoted to “Dying in Line” which lists all the failures of the VA.
Nevertheless, if I was the head of the Legion or VFW, I would be embarrassed that it took a VA inspector general report to reveal the problems on the ground at the Phoenix hospital.
Well, so would everyone else. The problem is that it didn’t take an inspector general report to tell us that, we’ve been saying for years. Why should we be embarrassed for something we're been screaming from the mountaintops for a decade? It took an IG report before Ms. Butler and her friends in the media took an interest in the story. This may come as a shock, but we don’t have the ability to just call up CNN and appear in 20 minutes. The media chooses what issues it wants to cover, and until CNN uncovered the secret wait lists, it wasn’t an issue that rose to their level of awareness.
On Monday I will finish discussing this piece in the Daily Caller, and address the three recommendations of Ms. Butler on how to fix the VA. I don’t want to ruin the surprise, but all three of them are either not accurate (there is no litmus test for veterans status for VA Secretary, and The Legion is banned by our Congressional Charter from suggesting anyone for any political position, including Secretary), violates the Constitution as it exists right now (Secretaries of Cabinet level executive Departments work for the President) or already exist (Veterans Benefits and Veterans Health are two different departments within VA.)
This piece should go right down the memory hole immediately, and Ms. Butler should apologize to the National Commander and all of us who work claims for free. Our only recompense comes from our salaries, and our joy and satisfaction come from aiding our brothers and sisters in arms in getting the benefits they earned through honorable military service.