Legion holds press conference to push for VA appeals modernization
Let me start with a quote from National Commander Schmidt:
“Modernizing VA's archaic appeals process is of the utmost priority. Over the past year, The American Legion has engaged in discussions with VA leadership, VSO's, and private attorneys to improve the claims and appeals process,” said The American Legion National Commander Charles E. Schmidt. “Please tell Congress you expect both parties to work together responsibly to pass legislation which includes a simple and fair appeals process that provides veterans and their families their earned benefits in a timely manner.”
That sets the framework for the rest of this. Yesterday the American Legion, joined by a host of other Veterans Service Organizations and Members of Congress held a press conference, which you should watch. I would suggest you fast forward the video to about 6 and a half minutes, as before that it is just dead air and the screen you see when you start this video:
So yesterday VA Secretary McDonald testified before the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee hearing on the Commission on Care Report and he had a lot to say. Rather than regurgitate all of it, I am going to link to passsages from a bunch of news stories on it.
Stars and Stripes: VA secretary says ideologues, corporations behind push for more private care
“Let’s face it, privatization would put more money into the pockets of people running health care corporations,” McDonald said in testimony to the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee. “It’s in their interest, so of course it makes sense to them, even if it’s not what veterans need or want.”
McDonald continued: “Then there’s the ideologues” who deal with the privatization issue only in the “simplest, laziest, theoretical terms. Government bad, private sector good. That’s as far as the thinking goes.”
Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert McDonald told Senate lawmakers Wednesday that Congress' inaction threatens to undermine the department's reform efforts.
During testimony before the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, McDonald said that VA embraces 15 of 18 proposals set forth by a congressional advisory panel and wants to create a health care system that incorporates public facilities and private health networks to treat veterans.
"We’ve made tremendous progress with Veterans Choice," McDonald said, referring to the program created in 2014 to provide care to veterans who can't get an appointment within 30 days or who live more than 40 miles from a VA facility. "There are about a million veterans who rely on the Choice program. There about 5,000 veterans who only use the Choice program, which is a strikingly low, small number that demonstrates most veterans want a hybrid.”
Meanwhile, over in the House of Representatives, more was going on.
Military Times: Lawmaker wants to force Congress to use VA health care
An Ohio congressman wants to force all Capitol Hill lawmakers and their staff to receive health care from the Department of Veterans Affairs to ensure they have incentive to improve the system.
But the top Democrat on the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee is blasting the idea as little more than a publicity stunt.
On Tuesday, Rep. Warren Davidson, R-Ohio, introduced his “Lead by Example” act, which would require all members of Congress and several thousand staffers to enroll in VA medical care “instead of under the Federal Health Benefits Program or other health care exchanges.”
“Providing our veterans with the highest quality care is a bipartisan issue, one which nearly all the presidential candidates ran on,” he said in a statement. “Overhauling the VA is no easy task and will require consistent and intentional Congressional oversight for years to come. My bill will ensure members of Congress have stakes in improving the failing program.”
House lawmakers want to know whether Veterans Affairs officials are using employee settlement policies to dismiss problem staffers instead of punishing them and push aside whistleblowers rather than address their allegations.
“In an effort to make the disciplinary process more convenient, VA often agrees to pay out thousands of taxpayer-funded dollars both to the employee and their legal representation, as well as other benefits for the employee to simply just go away,” said House Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller, R-Fla., during a hearing Wednesday.
“I wonder what type of message VA is sending to other good employees when they allow bad employees to settle for thousands of dollars, just because it would be too expensive or embarrassing to litigate.”
House Republicans on Wednesday passed a controversial Veterans Affairs reform bill that would make it easier to fire department workers despite concerns of prominent Democrats that the changes would do little to provide better services.
The measure also includes an overhaul of the department’s benefits appeals process, a provision that veterans groups have fervently lobbied for and White House officials have praised. But that’s likely not enough to get bipartisan support to move the measure in the Senate.
And the reason there might not be support is:
Democrats in that chamber have also expressed concerns about the constitutionality of the proposal. White House officials this week asked for the appeals reform aspects to be moved as a separate, stand alone bill, apart from the problematic firing rules...
Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., ranking member of the House veterans committee, said it will remove critical federal employee protections and hurt the VA workforce.
“The majority (party) continues to treat the constitutional rights of VA employees as inconvenient obstacles to evade instead of fundamental civil service objections to uphold,” he said. “We can pass (this law), but we will be right back here a year from now when the law is deemed unconstitutional.”
That was the problem earlier this year, when VA leaders announced they would no longer enforce accountability laws passed by Congress two years ago because of Department of Justice concerns over their constitutional viability.
The White House also sent out an email explaining their position on the bill:
Most significantly, certain provisions compress the time period within which VA employees would receive notice and an opportunity to be heard on charges against them before the Secretary of VA may take disciplinary action, including removal, and provide an expedited appeal process in which the disciplinary action would be automatically affirmed if the reviewing agency failed to rule within a certain number of days. We would welcome the opportunity to work with the Congress to address these due process concerns and other potential constitutional concerns raised by the bill.
So, there's the news as of this morning. Stay on top of it by reading updates here, and be sure to contact your Members of Congress at 202-224-3121.
The Appeals Modernization act of 2016 is an important step toward the exact type of good stewardship the Committee on Veterans Affairs is charged with producing. This legislation streamlines a complicated and legally burdensome process, while preserving and actually increasing the rights of claimants, and doing so in a manner that will ultimately save taxpayer dollars which is a rare and noble accomplishment. This effort represents combined work between Congressional staff, the Department of Veterans Affairs, and the Veteran Service Organizations who serve our veterans every day. We are proud of the work we have done here and of the product that we have produced.
In addition, we have developed an intelligent and comprehensive plan for addressing the existing inventory of appeals that is logical, reasonable, and continues to serve veteran’s best interests. You can read about the mechanical details of this plan in the links above and from HR 5083 which contains the same language because Chairman Miller never held a hearing on HR 5620 because the langugage was identicle.
The American Legion strongly urges both committees, and the full House and Senate to pass this measure, and get this bill signed into law before we run out of time in this administration.