by Melanie Brunson
Annual Congressional Testimony
Dale Stamper testified on March 3 during a joint hearing of the U.S. House and Senate Committees on Veterans Affairs. His statement for the Congressional Record included descriptions of his personal experiences in dealing with staff at his local Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Medical Center. He used them as examples of the challenges facing VA as well as the essential services that the Department’s health care system can and does provide.
Dale urged members of Congress to take action on legislation that would assist catastrophically disabled veterans in need of blind rehabilitation with the cost of travel to and from rehabilitation centers. He also petitioned for additional funding for research into the diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of combat-related eye injuries and for VA to make websites and services more accessible to individuals with disabilities.
In addition to BVA, seven other Veterans Service Organizations (VSOs) testified at this hearing: AMVETS, Gold Star Wives, Military Order of the Purple Heart, the National Guard Association of the United States, Paralyzed Veterans of America, Vietnam Veterans of America, and Wounded Warrior Project. Dale was the first of the eight panelists to testify.
Prior to commencement of hearing, left to right, Wade Davis, Al Avina, and Melanie Brunson share a lighter moment while guide dogs Katy and Sparta also take a breather.
Several witnesses made statements about the need to restore veterans’ trust in VA. During a short question and answer period at the end of the hearing, Chairman of the House Committee Jeff Miller (R-FL-1) indicated that he would like to know what each of the witnesses believed must be done in order to restore such trust. He asked each organization to formulate and submit additional comment within five business days in answer to that question.
With my suggestions, Dale wrote the following statement and we submitted it on BVA’s behalf on March 9. I believe that the recounting of his experience captures not only the essence of our testimony but the sentiments of other organizations and individual veterans throughout the country. His narrative is as follows:
We have all heard stories about veterans who suffered needlessly because they could not get appointments for medical care or other services in a timely manner, or were denied care altogether. Therefore, I will not spend time documenting the abuses. However, I will use a personal incident to illustrate what we at BVA believe to be the keys to restoring trust in VA services.
Recently I went to Spokane’s Mann-Grandstaff Medical Center for an oncology appointment. When I approached the check-in desk and gave my name, I was told by the clerk at the desk to “use the kiosk” to check in. Since I was being guided by my guide dog, it should have been obvious to that clerk that using that kiosk, with its touch screen, was going to be impossible for me.
I was faced with a dilemma: Should I argue with her? Obviously I couldn’t do what she said was required. How would I explain the situation? Fortunately, I have been in the system for more than 48 years and have learned to roll with such incidents. I was able to find a solution and get checked in. Then, later, when I had an opportunity, I would bring this incident to the attention of the proper authorities in hopes of bringing about future change in how veterans are greeted upon entering the facility.
I recount this incident because it illustrates one of the largest and most daunting barriers veterans face when attempting to access the VA: the impersonal lack of concern on the part of VA employees. First impressions are generally the most lasting, and a veteran’s first contact with VA is most critical. For example, when a young Operation Iraqi Freedom veteran with PTSD receives the kind of treatment I described above during his/her first visit (it happens all too often), he or she may well not return.
In fact, during a recent discussion about the question of trust with a group of young veterans, most of the comments about VA were negative. One female veteran of Operation Desert Storm said that such lack of trust will not be acceptable to the younger veterans. It is clear that the culture must change to create within employees an understanding that their first priority is to make certain that veterans receive the care and services they have earned and deserve. The following steps must be taken in order to bring about the necessary cultural changes:
- An expectation that service to veterans is top priority must be clearly communicated by and to all levels of the Department of Veterans Affairs.
- Staff members at all levels must be held accountable for their attitudes and actions.
- Employees who provide direct service should be provided with sensitivity training so that they will be equipped to assist veterans as needed and treat them in an appropriate manner.
There is a slogan that is displayed in many VA Medical Centers that states: “The cost of freedom is seen here.” If that is a true sentiment, it should be reflected in the treatment our young heroes receive. Staff at all levels should treat our veterans with respect and dignity. If staff members do not meet this standard, VA should remove them and replace them with people who wish to serve our nation’s veterans.
McDonald Speaks Out about Modernizing Appeals Process
Worthy of mention is a statement released by VA Secretary Bob McDonald in early February shortly after the Obama administration’s Fiscal Year 2017 budget request for the Department was unveiled.
The statement announced plans for reforming the “complicated and ineffective” VA appeals process and recognized the current budget request of $156 million, $46 million more than last year, as a down payment toward that effort.
“Our budget proposes legislation to simplify the appeals process that will enable VA to provide most veterans with an appeals decision within one year by 2021,” the statement read. “The appeals process we have in current law is failing veterans—and taxpayers too.”
The statement also referred to a previous hearing on VA’s transformation strategy in which the Secretary made clear that VA would need the help of Congress and Veterans Service Organization partners such as BVA in legislating a fair, streamlined, and comprehensive process for new appeals, as well as in providing much-needed resources for the current pending inventory of appeals.
“Veterans deserve an appeals process that is simple, timely, fair, and transparent, and one that preserves their rights,” he wrote. “We look forward to working with the Congress, Veterans Service Organizations, our state and federal partners, and other key stakeholders to accomplish this important goal for veterans and for American taxpayers.”
COLA Act of 2015
Every year in the fall BVA National Headquarters receives a number of calls and emails from Association members regarding the Cost-of-Living-Adjustment (COLA) for the upcoming year. COLAs, based on legislation enacted in 1973, provide that Social Security and Supplemental Security Income benefits keep pace with inflation.
COLAs for veterans’ compensation are not always the same as they are for social security compensation. H.R. 677, the American Heroes COLA Act of 2015, passed the House of Representatives on February 9. The legislation would affect many of our blinded veterans by making their annual cost of living allowances automatic. Veterans receiving VA compensation would receive, each year, the same COLA as social security recipients. H.R. 677 amends Title 38 of the U.S. Code to cover rates of disability compensation for veterans with service-connected disabilities and the rates of dependency and indemnity compensation for survivors of certain service-connected disabled veterans.
H.R. 677 was introduced by Representative Ralph Abraham (R-LA-5). A companion bill is yet to be introduced in the Senate.
Chairman Miller Announces Retirement
Eight-term Representative Jeff Miller, Chairman of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs since 2011, formally announced just one week following our testimony that he would not be seeking re-election this fall.
Representative Jeff Miller greets Dale Stamper just moments before he lowers the House Committee gavel signaling the beginning of the hearing. Proceedings took place in the historic Caucus Room of the Cannon House Office Building.
Chairman Miller has spent much of his Congressional career advocating for veterans. He served as a Committee member for ten years prior to assuming his role as Chairman. The Committee is responsible for authorization and oversight of VA, the second largest department in the federal government with more than 340,000 employees and a budget of more than $160 billion. He has also served simultaneously on the House Armed Services Committee.
Chairman Miller has been especially persistent in demanding that VA become more accountable, beginning with the Office of the Secretary on down to the grassroots levels of caring for America’s veterans. He reportedly considered the possibility of running for Senator Marco Rubio’s Senate seat last year, but bowed out of the crowded primary after other Republican lawmakers entered the race.