Appeal to Leadership to Preserve, Advance the Five-Year Plan


On April 17, 2012, senior leadership of the nation’s Military and Veteran Service Organizations attended a meeting with Rep. Jeff Miller (R-FL), Chairman of the House of Representatives Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, to discuss the prospect of cuts to the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) budget if the agency is not completely exempted from sequestration.

The Congress is required to make significant spending cuts across the board to reduce the federal budget deficit under sequestration beginning January 2013 if it is unable to approve those reductions through the regular budget process. There is increasing speculation that is not likely in this presidential election year.

There are many who believe the VA is essentially exempt from sequestration, based on a 2010 amendment to the 1985 Gramm-Rudman law that exempts “all programs administered by the [VA].”  But another section of the current law contains language that allows up to a 2.0% decrease in certain VA budget authorities – including funding for programs of the Veterans Health Administration (VHA). VA homeless veteran assistance programs are funded by VHA.

The House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs petitioned the Administration to resolve the issue by clarifying the law to exempt VA from sequestration through the Office of Management and Budget (OMB). OMB released its ruling on April 24, stating VA health programs are completely exempt from sequestration.

While that process ran its course, Rep. Miller filed H.R. 3895, a bill to amend the Balanced Budget and Emergency Deficit Control Act of 1985. The bill simply states what many believe was the clear intent of the 2010 amendment to Gramm-Rudman – that all programs of the VA are exempt from sequestration. As of April 24, H.R. 3895 has 38 cosponsors from both sides of the aisle. A companion bill has been filed in the U.S. Senate by Sen. Jon Tester (D-MT).

This may be viewed by some as a technical glitch in the legislative process that can be easily resolved.

Yet, it is no small matter. A 2.0% reduction in the VHA budget would mean the loss of billions of dollars for a medical system already strained by the influx of combat veterans from two wars, critical expansion of services to women veterans, significant increases in demand for mental health and rehabilitative services, and the vital resources needed to ensure the success of VA Secretary Eric Shinseki’s Five-Year Plan to End Veteran Homelessness.

Despite the OMB ruling, the ambiguity in the law remains. The need to eliminate the confusing text in the Balanced Budget and Emergency Deficit Control Act still exists.

Both the House and Senate, and the administration of President Barack Obama, deserve high praise for their service on behalf of the nation’s military service members and veterans. As serious as this issue is, we believe it is perhaps the easiest challenge our leadership will face in continuing to build upon the proud, bipartisan legacy entrusted to them by the American people.

Other Veteran Bills of Note

Increasingly, as the number of homeless veterans in Point-in-Time estimates declines, attention must be focused on preventive strategies. There are a couple of significant bills pending before Congress that clearly herald that evolution. The Enhanced Veteran Healthcare Experience Act of 2011, H.R. 3723, filed by Rep. Bobby Schilling (R-IL), addresses one of the recommendations of service providers attending the National Symposium on the Needs of Young Veterans, hosted by AMVETS  in Chicago in 2006.

The National Coalition for Homeless Veterans (NCHV) served as a subject matter expert on homeless veteran assistance programs during the four-day event, and served as the recorder for the sessions on homelessness. One of the most frequently mentioned obstacles to providing quality primary, mental and rehabilitative health services to young veterans and their families was the limitations of the VA fee-basis system.

Providers uniformly hailed the overall quality of VA health care, but said the current system places a significant burden on young and low-income veteran families in many communities without VA health facilities and rural areas. Often veterans needed to travel long distances to apply for benefits, had to wait for authorizations, and were unable to access critical mental health services.

Their recommendation was to establish a contract program between VA and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) that would identify community health providers that meet VA quality health care standards in areas that are underserved by VA, or in areas where VA facilities are over-burdened, and remove the burden on individual veterans. Providers mentioned this as a priority for combat veterans (mental health services), wounded warriors (long-term rehabilitative supports), and low-income veterans.

Access to quality health care is one of the four critical focuses of the Five-Year Plan to End Veteran Homelessness – along with housing, income security and prevention. It is not difficult to imagine how the Department of Defense (DoD) could magnify the benefits of such a contract program by issuing health care eligibility cards to separating service members returning to those underserved communities.

Automatic enrollment of veterans returning from combat into the VA health care system has been discussed for years, and H.R. 1460, filed by Rep. Bill Owens (D-NY), would make enrollment mandatory. This is an important measure for two reasons: It would enable our nation to build a more comprehensive and responsive record of health care services required by these veterans; and it would likely increase the participation of combat veterans – earlier and in greater numbers – in health programs designed to facilitate smoother transitions back into civilian life.

Both of these measures may need more work on the development end, but few could reasonably argue against the merits of the proposals. The VA and DoD are working to strengthen the support systems in place to foster seamless transition, with homelessness prevention one of the prime objectives. We will be following these bills closely.

We look forward to seeing you at the 2012 NCHV Annual Conference, May 30 to June 1, at the Grand Hyatt Washington. This year’s program will celebrate the remarkable progress we have seen in the Five-Year Plan to End Veteran Homelessness, while focusing on the emerging issues and strategies to accomplish our collective mission.

We’ll see you soon …

John Driscoll
NCHV President and CEO