On April 14, a day that dawned grey and rainy across the greater Washington, D.C., metro area, four members of Congress—two Republicans and two Democrats, one each from the House and Senate—introduced the Toxic Exposure Research Act of 2015.
This bill—S.901 and H.R.1769—is bipartisan and bicameral. It is the culmination of cooperation between VVA and Sens. Jerry Moran (R-Kans.) and Dick Blumenthal (D-Conn.), and Reps. Dan Benishek (R-Mich.) and Mike Honda (D-Calif.)—and their energetic and committed staffs.
This legislation will create a national center for research on the diagnosis and treatment of health conditions in the descendants of men and women exposed to toxic substances during their military service. It seeks to determine if there is any link between a veteran’s exposure and reported medical maladies in their progeny. Research will be overseen by a thirteen-member board of advisors, who will report to the Secretary of Veterans Affairs and Congress.
S.901 and H.R.1769 are supported by most of the key veterans service organizations, including the VFW and the American Legion. Both had representatives join VVA National President John Rowan during a press event in the Russell Senate Office Building. Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America and Veterans and Military Families for Progress also had representatives in attendance.
“It’s bad enough that veterans have had to bear the cross of exposure to toxic agents during our military service, ” Rowan said in a sentiment echoed by each of the elected officials in their pointed remarks. “It is worse to see our children and grandchildren afflicted with health conditions we suspect may have derived from our exposure, and to think we are the cause of their hurt and pain.
“Today, however, we see real light at the end of a long, grim tunnel. The members of VVA and our families cannot thank you enough, ” he told the legislators, for having introduced what might be “the most important piece of legislation veterans have seen since the passage of the Agent Orange Act of 1991.”
The American Legion’s Ed Lilley endorsed this legislation because “it is so important, and it’s huge.” The VFW’s Alex Morosky offered his organization’s strong support for the swift passage of the bill in Congress, saying that “toxic wounds should be treated just as seriously as the physical or mental wounds of war.”
“We raised our right hand and swore to uphold the Constitution of the United States, ” Rowan said, “but our children and our grandchildren didn’t raise their right hands, and too many of them may very well have been victimized by our service.”
“I never thought I’d see this day, ” said former VVA Agent Orange Committee Chair George Claxton. To this, Sen. Blumenthal, whom his colleague, Sen. Moran, dubbed the “godfather” of this legislation, replied, “It’s not about the burden of proof; it’s about the truth. This bill should have passionate bipartisan support.”
Now, with bill numbers in hand, it is time for each of us to reach out to our Members of Congress. Ask them not only to support this much-needed legislation but also to co-sponsor it. Tell them that the newest generation of veterans should not have to wait as long as we have to get the government to do the right thing for our offspring.
21 TO 5?
Two decades ago, when the Department of Veterans Affairs transformed itself to meet the increasing needs of the veterans it serves, Veterans Integrated Service Networks (VISNs) were born. And a whole new layer of bureaucracy that was supposed to oversee improved service delivery and accountability was created, inserting this layer of bureaucrats between the VA’s central office in Washington, D.C., and VA medical centers across the country.
That layer of bureaucracy hasn’t exactly garnered plaudits for speeding up service delivery or increasing accountability. But it did provide employment for hundreds of mid-level and senior service employees.
Now, in the latest attempt to improve efficiencies in a federal department that some in Congress believe is out of control, VA Secretary Bob McDonald has determined that twenty-one layers are too much, too ineffective, and too bureaucratic. The plan now is to reduce this to five new regions.
This new order will have no line authority, rendering it little more than a paper tiger. Nor will the VISNs go away. They will remain; for how long is anyone’s guess.
Why only five regions? Why not ten, which would conform to already existing federal boundaries? When asked about this by VVA’s executive director for policy and government affairs, no one could offer an adequate answer.
Whether or not this is a good idea and a viable tool for transparency and improved service delivery and accountability remains to be seen. However, we remain skeptical. Without line authority, just what will this newly wrought layer of bureaucracy accomplish?
The VA ought to have shared its collective thinking with the VSOs and received input from us before embarking on this plan. Unlike contractors, we don’t cost much, and we often bring salient, viable ideas and concepts to the table.
MORE VA “NEW MATH”
At the end of 2014, there were some 150 VA medical centers, along with more than 800 community-based outpatient clinics. In a stunningly incomprehensible example of VA new math, in March a VA document surfaced noting that the department is now blessed with 167 medical centers. None of us could quite figure out how this came to pass.
This latest game with numbers distracts from the bottom line: how to best provide quality health care and treatment by enough competent clinicians to an increasing number of veterans. The real problem, it seems to us, is not with the overall structure of the VA. Rather, what is really needed are more clinicians.
It’s been called “the Denver debacle, ” “an astounding financial disaster, ” and “the biggest construction failure in VA history.” It is, just about every member of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee and the No. 2 official in the Department of Veterans Affairs agreed, “a mess.”And a monument to woefully poor planning.
“It” is the $1.1 billion cost overrun on the new VA hospital for Denver and its metro area, a classic example of how not to manage a government construction project. What started out as a modest $328 million facility that was supposed to have been completed more than a year ago is, after many years, many design alterations, and multiple tiffs with the lead contractor, only 50 percent complete.
At an extremely well-attended two-and-a-half-hour hearing in mid-April, VA Deputy Secretary Sloan Gibson apologized to Congress, to veterans, and to taxpayers for the mistakes made by VA managers charged with overseeing the construction of hospital centers in Denver—and in Las Vegas, Orlando, and New Orleans. He offered “an explanation, not an excuse” for an ongoing situation that is, he said, “totally unacceptable, that will not happen again, at least not on my watch.”
When asked by Rep. Tim Huelskamp (R-Kans.), “Where’s the accountability?” Gibson replied, “There was none.”
To those Members who seemed eager for names onto which to attach blame, the deputy secretary said that “all of those who made poor decisions are no longer with the VA.” All, that is, except one individual who was removed from his post and given a demotion.
Some on the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee lingered on the past. “It is beyond my comprehension how we got to this point, ” Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-Col.) said. “I’ve watched this fiasco unfold over the past six years, ” said Rep. Phil Roe (R-Tenn.). Others, such as Mark Takano (D-Calif.), were prospective in their outlook, seeking what he called “a new structure of accountability.”
All who were present agreed that the Denver facility must be built. But, intoned a visibly angry Rep. Tim Walz (D-Minn.), “I want to know damn well” where every dollar goes.
But where will the more than $800 million come from? From bonuses withheld from senior execs, as proposed by Rep. Mike Coffman (R-Colo.)? From the $5 billion appropriated by Congress in last year’s Choice Act to hire clinicians and other staff, and to pay for relatively minor construction and repair projects? Or perhaps from a fresh appropriation for some $830 million designated to complete what will be the most expensive medical facility in the recent history in the United States, as
Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas) and other Democrats put it? O’Rourke also expressed the desire for a sitdown with Gibson and VA construction honchos to seek “alternative creative solutions” for Denver and for other construction projects.
To avoid situations like this in the future and to avoid extravagancies like a $100 million atrium that is part of the design for the Denver hospital, Gibson said, the VA needs “constructability engagement early on.” And for major construction projects the construction manager should be the Army Corps of Engineers, whose director of military programs, Lloyd C. Caldwell, also testified at the hearing.
On perhaps the only happy note at the hearing, the medical center in Orlando, which is some $362 million over budget, is set to open officially May 26. To this, Ranking Member Corinne Brown (D-Fla.) smiled. That’s because she is about to see the fruits of twenty-five years of agitating for a new facility in Orlando finally come to pass.
C-123 FIGHT CONTINUES
For several years, a group of pilots, crew members, and nurses, just about all of them Reservists, fought for the VA to recognize that they, too, had been directly exposed to Agent Orange. During 1972-82 they worked on and flew aboard C-123s that had been used for spraying herbicides in Vietnam. These planes were never decontaminated and contained significant residue.
Despite significant evidence produced by these veterans, including tests and reports by the Air Force, the VA was adamant. While the evidence was clear to everyone else, the VA still maintained there was no evidence. Once a comprehensive report from the independent Institute of Medicine (IOM) of the National Academies of Sciences (NAS) was released, the junk science promulgated by the VA and Alvin Young was discredited.
At that point, the VA suddenly, after years of this struggle, decided that the exposed Reservists were not really veterans, and therefore were not eligible for medical care or benefits. They claimed that the Secretary did not have the authority to declare these approximately 2, 100 personnel disabled veterans. The C-123 Association, led by Maj. Wes Carter, VVA, Reserve Officers Association (ROA), and others, maintain that the Secretary does in fact have this authority, and cited several clear precedents.
Bipartisan groups of Senators and Representatives have written to the Secretary in support of VVA’s position.
VVA National President John Rowan and others have contacted VA Secretary Bob McDonald urging that he do the right thing, and do it now. VVA’s firm position is that it’s high time the VA gets off its high horse and does the right thing by these veterans.