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[The written statement of William J. Rogers, National Commander, The American Legion follows:]
PREPARED STATEMENT OF WILLIAM J. ROGERS, NATIONAL COMMANDER, THE
AMERICAN LEGION, BEFORE THE COMMITTEE ON VETERANS' AFFAIRS, UNITED STATES SENATE, TUESDAY, FEBRUARY 22, 1977
Mr. Chairman and Members of the Committee: The American Legion is most grateful for this opportunity given me, as its national commander, to present to the committee, matters relating to veterans affairs, that we believe will come to the attention of Congress during the present session. With the committee's permission, I shall proceed to the matters of substance.
VETERANS ADMINISTRATION FISCAL YEAR 1978 BUDGET Prior to completing his term of office, President Ford, in accordance with existing law, submitted to Congress his proposed budget for fiscal year 1978. As of this writing, President Carter has yet to send to Congress any Budget modifications he may intend to recommend.
The American Legion is in the process of studying the Budget proposals for the Veterans Administration. Appropriation requests for fiscal year 1978, total $18.414 billion. We can offer several observations at this point, and subject to future budget modifications suggested by the new administration.
Employment levels for VA are projected at 215,732, an increase over last year's level of 3,353, of which 3,488 are for medical care. We commend this increase in the medical care allocation, but we also draw attention to a projected decrease in employees totaling 571 for Veterans Services and for Compensation, Pension and Education. Based on continuing work loads, as we understand them, we question whether an employee decrease at this time will continue to guarantee prompt and efficient service to veterans in these important areas of activity. Our initial reaction to this proposed reduction is that employee decreases be deferred pending experience, especially in the education program during fiscal year 1978.
We are pleased with the projected increase in the requested appropriation for medical care. We are especially mindful of the increase of $27.6 million in construction funds. In our judgment, it is critical to the future of the veterans medical care program that the renovation and replacement of aging and outdated facilities, within the VA system, go forward steadily. Construction funds for two hospitals are included in the new budget, and plans are underway for the replacement of 6 additional hospitals, as well as continuing improvements in existing facilities. We trust that Congress will view these plans favorably. They have the full support of The American Legion.
The proposed budget includes a number of legislative proposals put forth by the outgoing administration. We will comment on three of them.
The budget includes again, a proposal for the elimination with what is termed "duplicate burial benefits." The use of this terminology is a distortion. The burial benefits provided for veterans, are a gratuity, intended to insure that every veteran will be buried with dignity and respect. This is an honor surely due to those who have defended the nation in its Armed Forces. The Social Security death benefit, is an earned benefit, paid for by every citizen who pays Social Security taxes. It is wrong to refer to these as "duplicate benefits," and we hope that Congress will not look with favor on a proposal of this kind.
The outgoing administration also proposed a return from 10 to 8 years in the period of eligibility for the education program. The 10-year period was provided by Public Law 93–337, which The American Legion supported. We see no reason whatever to regress from the present delimiting period for this benefit. The 10year period now provided is fair and reasonable, and eligible veterans should be able to complete their education within that period of time. We hope that Congress will not entertain legislative proposals along these lines, and that the new administration will not pursue such legislative goals.
The budget also includes a legislative proposal to authorize an amount of $3.750 million, to enable the Federal Government to share with the states the cost of establishing and maintaining State veterans' cemeteries. This is a proposal The American Legion supports. The need for veterans' cemeteries exceeds the ability of the Federal Government to meet it entirely. So far, 3 States have commenced a program along these lines, and we hope other States will follow suit. The goal is to provide a suitable place of honor for the interment of the Nation's veterans. National cemeteries, and State veterans' cemeteries can be the focal point for patriotic commemoration by succeeding generations of Americans of those who have defended the Nation in time of war and armed conflict. This country is built upon the sacrifices of those, who, since the time of the American Revolution, have responded to the call to arms, to defend it against its enemies. It is important to our heritage that the commitment and the sacrifices of all those who have served shall never be forgotten.
VETERANS' ADMINISTRATION MEDICAL CARE PROGRAM
It is not possible to submit to this committee, a statement of this kind, without making a special reference to the VA medical care program. The American Legion is pleased that the proposed budget includes necessary increases in fund allocations for this program. We continue to believe that the VA medical care program is the finest single health care delivery system functioning in the world today. It represents a national commitment to the welfare of American veterans that represents better than anything else could, the value the American people place on the services of those who have been members of the Armed Forces.
The triad of treatment, teaching and research that comprise the principal elements of the VA medical care program, together form a medical care system that offers to veterans the best possible hope for health care as and when they need it. The primary responsibility of the VA system continues to be the care of those who have been injured or disabled as a result of their service. Today that responsibility is being met. And its adjunct is first class medical care for all those who, by reason of health needs, or their economic condition, have to look to the VA for assistance.
We believe that Congress views the importance of this incomparable health care program as an irrevocable commitment to the nation's veterans. Its maintenance at its present level of excellence requires constant attention, and provision of adequate funding. We look to Congress to provide the oversight and the funding, and to this end we pledge our full support.
NATIONAL HEALTH INSURANCE
The American Legion continues to observe with close attention the national debate on national health insurance. The legislative vehicle to provide such insurance will not be the responsibility of this committee. The members, however, will participate in the Congressional decisions on whether there shall be a national health insurance program, and what form it will take.
We are mindful that the new administration is committed to a national health insurance program, and we anticipate that legislation to achieve
will be proposed to this Congress, either during the present session, or the next.
The basic decision as to whether the American people shall now have national health insurance is not the business of The American Legion. The impact of such a program on the VA medical care system for veterans, is however, very much the business of our organization. Through special committees, we have studied this matter for a period of several years. It is our conclusion that there will, in fact, be a measurable effect by national health insurance on the VA system. Our goal is that such effect shall not be adverse to the best interests of veterans.
To insure the achievement of this goal, we shall, at the proper time and place. submit to Congress, certain recommendations, for which we solicit the support of the Members of this Committee.
Briefly, it will be our request that legislation to effect national health insurance shall include among its basic provisions :
1. Recognition of the VA medical care program as a Federal deliverer of health services exclusively for the Nation's veterans;
2. That the VA system, as it is now constituted in the VA Department of Medicine and Surgery, shall continue to be so maintained ; and
3. That a veteran who exercises his option to seek needed medical care from the VA, shall not be required, on any statement of inability to ray, to include therein, consideration of any benefits to which he may be entitled under a national health insurance program.
The objective of these legislative requests is to insure that veterans will be able to continue to exercise the option to choose VA medical care, in a system that is designed and maintained for them and is responsive to their particular needs.
We earnestly hope for the support of all of the members of this committee for the inclusion of these protective provisions in a national health insurance program.
NATIONAL CEMETERY SYSTEM
One of the significant congressional achievements in the post-war period, has been the establishment of the National Cemetery System within the Veterans' Administration.
This is a legislative goal of The American Legion that has been substantially achieved, with resulting benefits to veterans. A great proportion of veterans entertain a desire to find their final rest in a place of honor, in company with their comrades in arms. The establishment of the National Cemetery System, and its present expansion and development does much to make the fulfillment of this desire achievable.
With reference to major legislative matters requiring attention within the veterans benefits program during fiscal year 1978, we believe the most important is the need for a reform of the veterans death and disability pension program. We take this opportunity to again point out that the present program is not adequate to the needs of those it is designed to serve. These are mainly those who have become permanently and totally disabled by reason of illness or age, and the dependent survivors of those who have died.
For several years past, we have petitioned Congress for legislative reform of this program to make it responsive to the needs of eligible beneficiaries. That reform has not yet been accomplished, and I can tell you, that the greatest volume of correspondence received at our headquarters is from older veterans, and from widows who, in increasing numbers find themselves in desperate financial need, with no hope of relief from any of the Federal programs that are intended to help them, including the veterans pension program.
The pension legislation that we are proposing again this year, includes the following elements that would :
1. assure a level of income above the national measure of poverty ;
2. prevent veterans and widows from having to turn to welfare agencies for financial assistance;
3. treat similarly circumstanced pensioners equally;
5. guarantee regular increases in pension which fully account for increases in the cost of living. I do not believe it is necessary for me to expand on these goals in this statement. When this committee is ready to consider the legislation we are proposing to achieve the goals, we will be prepared to support them at length.
The ultimate goal, however, that we ask the committee to keep before it, is that all of the nation's veterans, and their dependents and survivors shall be afforded the opportunity to finish their lives in dignity, and reasonable comfort, without having to depend upon the mercies of the public welfare. We believe this is what the American people want for their veterans, and it is thus the responsibility of Congress to provide it.
DISABILITY COMPENSATION AND DEPENDENCY AND INDEMNITY COMPENSATION The continuing responsibility of Congress to look to the needs of those who have been injured and disabled in service, and of the survivors of those who have died in, or as a result of service, must constantly be kept in view.
Historically, Congress has been responsive to these needs, and it is our sincere belief that Congress should be commended for its concern for these most deserving classes of beneficiaries.
The 94th Congress made necessary adjustments in compensation and dependency and indemnity compensation rates in response to inflationary pressures. The point is, however, that those inflationary pressures continue, and the disabled veterans and survivors have nowhere else to look but to Congress, to protect
them economically from the consequences of the inflation that persists in our national economy.
It is our request that this committee shall, in due course, review the compensation and DIC tables, in relation to the economic indexes, and propose necessary adjustments. The American Legion will support this committee effort, and we rely on the full Congress to enact needed legislation when it is developed by the committee.
The four new national cemeteries that are now being established, and the additional ones that are projected will relieve a growing need, in a Nation that now has nearly 30 million veterans, whose ages span the twentieth century. We recommend to Congress consideration of an additional national cemetery, as soon as possible, in the Midwest, possibly in the Michigan, Indiana, Ohio region. We continue to receive requests for consideration of national cemeteries through American Legion organizations in other parts of the country, and as the need for them becomes apparent, we shall submit further recommendations.
Additionally, as mentioned earlier in this statement, joint funding of State veterans' cemeteries will help to alleviate the need for more cemetery space for the Nation's veterans.
JOBS FOR VETERANS
It is important for me, before concluding this statement, to address the continuing problem of jobs for veterans. No returning serviceman is truly rehabilitated until he has achieved a satisfactory position in the economic structure of the nation—that is, until he is gainfully and steadily employed.
The unemployment rate among veterans continues to be distressingly high. In January, with a national unemployment rate of 7.9 percent, the rate was 8.6 percent for young male veterans in the 20–34 age group, which includes most of the veterans of the Vietnam era. In the youngest veterans group, those between 20–24, the unemployment rate was 18.3 percent, compared to 12.5 percent for nonveterans of the same age. The disabled and black unemployed veterans are the hardest hit.
We are pleased to note that the new administration has announced that the plight of these unemployed veterans is one of its highest priorities. We await positive action to alleviate their problem.
It must be said that in our judgment, the Department of Labor, to this point, has not measured up to its responsibilities with reference to unemployment among veterans. It has failed to implement remedial legislation, until prodded to do so by concerned members of Congress and veterans organizations. The latest legislation intended to help unemployed veterans, Public Law 94-502, created the position of Deputy Assistant Secretary of Labor for Veterans Employment. In view of the unsatisfactory record of the Department of Labor in fulfilling legislative mandates, The American Legion still advocates the establishment of a full Assistant Secretary of Labor, with the authority to effectively carry out and coordinate veterans employment matters, with a Veterans Employment Service as a separate agency within the Department of Labor.
Among other objectives we seek, to improve the veterans unemployment rate, is a recommendation that priority employment service for veterans provided in State employment offices, be limited to wartime veterans only. This is because the veterans of the Vietnam era specifically are having the hardest time in the job market.
Compared with earlier training programs under the Manpower Development and Training Act of 1972, veterans have been fairing badly in programs under the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA). We urge corrective legislation to provide that 35 percent of all new public service jobs and training slots be filled by veterans. And since efforts have been unsuccessful to have the Department of Labor either define veterans organizations as "community based organizations,” and, therefore, eligible for membership on CETA planning councils, or listed separately as organizations to be included, we seek legislation to amend CETA to ensure that veteran organizations will have a voice at the local level on employment and training programs that are federally financed.
Essentially, it must be said, that positive action is necessary, now from Congress and the executive branch, to achieve an immediate impact on the excessively high unemployment rate among veterans, and particularly among Vietnam era veterans.
JUDICIAL REVIEW OF DECISIONS OF THE ADMINISTRATOR OF VETERANS AFFAIRS
Measures have been introduced to amend title 38, United States Code, to provide for the judicial review of the administrative decisions of the Administrator of Veterans Affairs.
Except as to suits arising from contracts of government life insurance and matters arising under the veterans home loan provisions, section 211(a) of title 38 of such code provides that the decisions of the Administrator on any question of law or fact under any law administrated by the Veterans Administration providing benefits for veterans and their dependents or survivor shall be final and conclusive, and no other official or any court of the United States shall have power or jurisdiction to review any such decision by an action in the nature of mandamus or otherwise.
Section (b) adds that the Administrator may require the opinion of the Attorney General on any question of law arising in the administration of the Veterans Administration.
Judicial review of the Administrator's decisions has been the subject of Congressional consideration in the past, and properly so, as the ultimate decision is a question of policy to be resolved by the Congress. The argument in favor of such legislation generally arises from a feeling that a veteran or his dependent, dissatisfied with the administrative determination, should have available recourse to judicial consideration of the claim. The fact that the Congress has consistently barred all judicial review of the decisions of the Administrator in other than contractual matters since 1924, demonstrates its views that considerations in opposition thereto, are more compelling. As recently as 1970, in view of the increased judicial encroachment upon the finality of these decisions, the Congress firmly and unequivocally reaffirmed its intent that the Administrator's decisions be final when it added to section 211(a) the concluding words “by an action in the nature of mandamus or otherwise."
Based on our many years of presenting appellate issues to boards of original jurisdiction in VA regional offices, to the chief benefits director and the chief medical director for administrative review of lower decisions, and to the Board of Veterans Appeal for appellate review, it is the opinion of The American Legion that the Veterans Administration is guided by a sincere desire to serve the best interest of veterans.
If The American Legion was convinced that an advantage to veterans or their beneficiaries or survivors could be derived from a judicial review of the Administrator's decisions, we would recommend or support such legislation.
But we are not convinced and we do not believe that there would be any advantage to veterans or their dependents or survivors as a class if judicial review of the Administrator's decisions was authorized.
There are a number of other matters of importance to veterans that should engage the attention of Congress this year. The American Legion awaits opportunity to present them. In this statement I have confined myself to those that are at or near the top of our priority list of goals.
The American Legion continues to rely upon Congress, as it has through the years, to respond to the needs of veterans, as it becomes aware of them. The bond between Congress and the Nation's veterans, extends throughout our history, and the responsiveness of Congress has resulted in the most comprehensive program of veterans benefits that any nation has provided to its war veterans. For that fact The American Legion is most grateful, and we look forward to a continuing dialogue with the new Congress, in the interest of all veterans.
Once again, we thank the members of the committee for this opportunity.
RESOLUTIONS THAT REQUIRE LEGISLATIVE ACTION POLICY
A. THE AMERICAN LEGION POLICY ON NATIONAL HEALTH INSURANCE
1976 Convention Resolution No. 139 (MA) seeks to provide that any National Health Insurance bill enacted by Congress should include the following: (1) that the medical care programs operated by the Veterans' Administration is recognized as one providing health care services exclusively for veterans, and it shall continue to be so maintained and operated, (2) that a veteran applying for medical care from the Veterans' Administration, to which he is otherwise entitled, and who, in accordance with existing law and regulations is required to state his inability to pay for his own care, shall not be required to consider, in