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Government Affairs, May/June 2022 -   -  

How to Handle Proposed Legislation That
We Send to You

There are many pieces of legislation that deal with issues affecting vet erans. We know that it is impossible for one person to track all these bills. In order for VVA members to be able to manage the bills, they must focus on those that are the most critical to them in their state. So you need to have more than one individual in your chapter and state council monitoring key legislation. There must be a system so that timely information can be passed on in a timely manner. We at national can help you, but it is important for you at the chapter and state level to have a system in which the information that we distribute is used in a timely manner and passed on to the membership.

It is vital that you contact your senators and representatives and ask them for their support on legislation. We can provide you with a one-pager that is easy to digest and summarizes the key points. However, you must be able to understand the issue well enough to inform chapter members so that they can also contact their senators and representatives. The goal that we are aiming for is to have a network of members capable of rallying others to contact Congress on any given piece of legislation on a moment’s notice.

Here are the bills that we want you to focus on now.

H .R. 3967, The Honoring Our PACT Act

On March 3 H.R. 3967, the Honoring our PACT Act, passed the House of Representatives, 256-174. On March 29 the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee hosted a hearing on the bill. From the Vietnam War to the present day, members of the U.S. military have been exposed to toxic substances, both at home and abroad, which have killed many more than our enemy. For years, our government has hidden the ill effects of these toxicants from those who were exposed. Moreover, for years, the VA has denied their resulting claims.

H.R 3967, introduced by Rep. Mark Takano (D-Calif.), when enacted into law, will provide veterans with much-needed tools to address the health consequences of their toxic exposures during military service: the acknowledgement of exposure, health care, research, resources, and more.

The bill, when it becomes law, would:

  • Concede exposure to burn pits and toxic environments
  • Provide health care based on toxic exposures
  • Add 24 burn pit and toxic exposure-related diseases
  • Add hypertension as a presumptive disease associated with Agent Orange exposure
  • Provide a framework for establishing presumptive diseases in the future
  • Expand radiation-risk activities to include veterans who participated in radiation cleanup at Enewetak Atoll and Palomares, Spain
  • Include Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Guam, American Samoa, and Johnston Atoll as conceded locations for Agent Orange Exposure
  • Require registries for veterans who served at Ft. McClellan and for those exposed to PFAS chemicals

Exposures to toxic chemicals are among the workplace hazards for members of the military, whether serving in the U.S. or during a deployment across the globe. We need to make it right for the more than 3.5 million veterans who suffer from the long-term effects of exposure to these toxicants, which, in many instances, are equally lethal to wounds inflicted by shrapnel and bullets.

VVA fully supports H.R. 3967. This comprehensive bipartisan legislation is designed to remove the many hurdles veterans face when submitting claims for health conditions due to exposures during their military service. Too many veterans wait years to see those claims successfully processed and dispersed, and some even die waiting for the adjudication of their claims.

We urge Sens. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) and Jerry Moran (R-Kans.), the chair and ranking member of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, to honor Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y)’s promise to have  a vote on this bill and move it out of committee and onto the Senate floor for a vote and passage by Memorial Day.

H.R. 1972, S.810, Fair Care for Vietnam Veterans Act of 2021

For more than a decade VVA has sought legislation to restore presumptive Agent Orange exposure status for members of the armed forces who served in the Vietnam War.

VA has delayed progress toward that goal by ignoring its own research studies in 2016 and 2018, denying veterans’ eligi bility to receive compensation for hypertension associated with their service. Illnesses associated with exposure to defoliants like dioxin and other toxic substances are part of the legacy of all modern warfare.

At the request of former VA Secretary Eric Shinseki, Veterans Health Administration scientists finalized their research in November 2016 on the association between herbicide exposure and high blood pressure among 4,000 U.S. Army Chemical Corps veterans, finding a link between service-related occupational exposure to herbicides and high blood pressure (hypertension) risk.

In his testimony before the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee on March 10, 2021, Karl Kelsey, a Professor of Epidemiology, Pathology, and Laboratory Medicine at Brown University, discussed research findings reported in 2018 that indicated sufficient evidence of exposure associated with hypertension and monoclonal gammopathy of undetermined significance.

Reps. Josh Harder (D-Calif.) and Pete Stauber (R-Minn.) introduced H.R. 1972—bipartisan, bicameral legislation—to restore equity to all Vietnam veterans exposed to Agent Orange, and Sen. Tester introduced a companion bill, S.810. This bill would add hypertension and monoclonal gammopathy of unspecified significance as presumptive diseases resulting from Agent Orange expo sure, allowing hundreds of thousands of veterans to gain access to VA benefits and health care.

Vietnam veterans have waited far too long for access to health care and other benefits they earned by serving our nation. We ask Congress and the President to take immediate action and direct the VA Secretary to focus on the facts and follow VA’s own  data by adding hypertension to the list of service-connected health conditions for Vietnam veterans based on exposure to Agent Orange and other herbicides.

VVA fully supports passage of H.R. 3967 and the companion bill, S. 810, and we need your support to enact these bills into law. Take action. Go to www.votervoice.net/mobile/VVA/Home  

VA Program of Comprehensive Assistance for Family Caregivers Denial Rates

The Program of Comprehensive Assistance for Family Caregivers (PCAFC) provides a wide range of benefits, including monthly stipends, reimbursement for travel costs, medical coverage, training, counseling, and respite-care caregivers for veterans who were severely injured during their service. Since implementation, the program has helped thousands.

With the passage of the VA MISSION Act in 2018 (P.L. 115-182), many changes were made to the already-established PCAFC. Vietnam Veterans of America applauded the long-overdue expansion of access to caregiver benefits, as they provide an opportunity for enhanced quality of life for Vietnam veterans and their families. However, the Veterans Health Administration has reported that many older, sicker veterans have been denied access to the PCAFC program because they do not meet the VHA’s new eligibility requirements.

On October 1, 2020, the VA’s final rule took effect, expanding PCAFC access for veterans who served prior to May 7, 1975. In addition to expanding access, the VA’s final rule changed PCAFC program qualification requirements, which resulted in an inordinate number of program application rejections.

The VA’s rejection rate of caregiver applicants is too high, averaging above 70 percent. This is a clear indication that Caregiver program admission standards are unreasonable. Inconsistency in denial rates among the VISNs varies significantly. This shows that there is no consistent application of the VA’s current program participation standards.

However, if the VA does not know its own standard for program participation, how can veterans and their caregivers? To fix the problem, the VA must first stop its Caregiver Legacy Assessments until Secretary McDonough has honored his commitment to Congress to change the regulatory requirements.

VVA has heard from frustrated members, and when we ask them to contact their member of Congress for help, their response is that nobody in Congress is listening. This rings true: If Congress had been listening to veterans, it could have stopped the bleeding months ago when the VA issued its September 30, 2021, press release in which it indicated that it would be reassessing 19,500 VA PCAFC legacy participants, 6,700 of whom would be removed from the program.

If the VA fails to make adequate regulatory changes, as VVA stated in our March 23 testimony before the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, this will result in grave financial harm for participants who are removed from the program, in addition to wasted time, money, and resources spent processing denials as the program expands to cover veterans of all eras beginning in October.

VA Halts Caregivers Legacy Assessment until Further Notice

The VA Secretary took action on VVA’s recommendation to cease and desist its Caregiver Legacy Assessments until Secy. McDonough has honored his commitment to Congress to change the regulatory requirements. On April 8 Dr. Colleen M. Richard son, the VA Executive Director of the Caregiver Support Program, issued the following statement:  

“Discharges and revocations of Legacy Participants, Legacy Applicants, and their Family Caregivers in the Program of Comprehensive Assistance for Family Caregivers (PCAFC) based on clinical eligibility and level or tier reductions have been suspended until further notice.”

The VA Secretary stated in his testimony before a House Subcommittee on the VA’s FY2023 budget request that all caregiver stipends will continue until April 2023, during the re-evaluation of the program, and the third and final stage of caregivers expansion will occur October 1, 2022.

If you are a caregiver of a veteran enrolled in the PCAFC program and have been denied and received a letter from the VA indicating that you qualify to file an appeal because of the decision in the Beaudette v. McDonough, Opinion Number 12-4961, please contact your patient advocate at your local VAMC. Do not try to file an appeal on your own.

If you would like to apply for the PCAFC program, go to https://www.va.gov/family-member-benefits/comprehensive-assistance-for-family-caregivers/

The Asset & Infrastructure Review Commission

The VA has released its Asset and Infrastructure Review (AIR) Commission recommendations. Under the MISSION Act, P.L. 115-182, the commission must submit its report to the White House by January 31, 2023. Should the President choose to accept the report, Congress will have one opportunity to vote against the final set of recommendations before they go into effect. Neither the President nor Congress has the option of choosing which part of the final report to accept.

VVA is looking closely at the market assessment report, which is proposing to close three major medical centers and more than 170 other outpatient health facilities. This will be offset by construction of 255 new health care and community living facilities. The VA believes these changes will ensure that 200,000 more veterans live within 30 minutes of basic medical care. In addition, 370,000 more veterans will have less than an hour’s drive to reach specialty clinics.

However, the AIR Commission may not meet the January 2023 deadline because the law calls for nine commissioners to be confirmed by the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee. Only eight have been nominated, and one may have to withdraw due to a conflict of interest. In addition, the GAO issued the following report on the VA Market Assessment titled, “Incomplete Information Hinders Usefulness of Market Assessments for VA Facility Realignment.”

In an effort to get ahead of this report and to ensure that VVA members clearly understand what is at stake, we would like to share your input with Congress. After all, veterans have the right to have a say in how the proposed AIR Commission will affect accessing care and treatment at their local VHA facilities. Send your input to Sharon Hodge, Director for Policy and Government Affairs, at Shodge@vva.org by May 31.

President Biden’s 2022 Proposed AIR Commissioners

Patrick Murphy, the first Iraq War veteran to serve in Congress as well as the former Secretary of the Army, was nominated to chair the commission. Jonathan Woodson, former Assistant Secretary of Defense for Health Affairs, would be the vice chair. The other nominees are William Carl Blake, Executive Director for Paralyzed Veterans of America; Michael Blecker, Executive Director for Swords to Plowshares; Christine Hill, Republican Staff Director for the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs and former Executive Vice President of the Wounded Warrior Project; Rear Adm. Joyce Johnson, former Coast Guard Director of Health and Safety; Retired Army Col. Lucretia McClenney, member of the Military Officers Association of America Board of Directors; and José Ramos, Vice President of Government and Community Relations for the Wounded Warrior Project.




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