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Mr. Chairman, my name is Chuck Burns. I am the National Service Director for AMVETS, the American Veterans of WW II, Korea and Vietnam. We appreciate the opportunity to present our views on Persian Gulf claims processing and the proposed legislation on limiting the Department of Veterans Affairs liability for compensating and treating veterans with smoking-related diseases. Neither' AMVETS, nor myself, have received any federal grants or contracts during FY 97 or in the previous two fiscal years.

I. PERSIAN GULF CLAIMS PROCESSING

Chairman Quinn, much has been written and said criticizing VA's handling of Persian Gulf Illness claims, some justified, some not. Widely circulated rumors emanating from VA concerning additional administrative changes in the processing of Persian Gulf claims only throw more sand in the gears of the claims adjudication process.

We see the major areas of difficulty as follows:

1. 2.

Proper development of the claimed issues at the VA Regional Office;
Providing adequate VA staff to develop, rate and adjudicate the Persian Gulf
veterans' claims at the Area Processing Offices (APO's);
Lack of diagnosis.

3.

Much of the burden for improper claim development can be laid directly at the feet of VA. Since VA began processing Persian Gulf Illness claims, they have sent out three change of procedure letters, causing innumerable delays in claims processing. There are cases out there that are four and five years old, now in the process of a third development. It is my understanding that a fourth development letter may soon be forthcoming.

Looking at the Phoenix, Arizona APO, there are six VA personnel assigned to develop, rate and adjudicate nearly 1,400 pending claims and they are receiving, on average, 100 new claims per month. With new development letters constantly coming over the transom from VA Central Office, this backlog will only get worse. If VA would supply additional trained personnel to the four APO's, rather than sending the cases back to the regional office for processing, they would save not only money and time, but also the expertise that has been developed at the APO's which is not readily available at the Regional Offices.

Persian Gulf Illness or Syndrome is a catch-all term that does not have an assignable diagnostic code under current regulations. Lack of such a code can also be blamed for causing some of the delays in processing these Persian Gulf Illness claims. We would suggest that an already existing code could be utilized to expedite the processing of these claims -- 8881-8100 (Undiagnosed illness manifested by fatigue and headaches).

In sum, AMVETS strongly urges VA to make every effort to keep centralized processing at the APO's because the expertise lies there to properly process these claims. Returning the claim to the various Regional Offices, while it may put the paperwork closer to the claimant, deprives that claimant of the knowledge base in the Area Processing Office, knowledge which has accumulated over the past several years and which cannot be transferred to the Regional Office in a one day training session. VA should properly staff the APO's to speed up the claims process and give the Persian Gulf veteran the best adjudication of his claim possible.

II. PROPOSED LEGISLATION TO LIMIT THE VETERANS ADMINISTRATION'S LIABILITY FOR COMPENSATING AND TREATING YETERANS WITH SMOKING-RELATED DISEASES.

Mr. Chairman, while AMVETS does not currently have a governing resolution on this matter, and has not seen a copy of the proposed legislation, we would like to offer some views on the issue.

When VA's General Counsel issued her opinion on VA liability, we, like everyone else, were stunned at the potential dollar cost to VA should these claims be adjudicated. If one considers that there are some 27 million veterans in this country and that even if only one-half to one-quarter of that number successfully filed a smoking-related illness claim, the potential cost to VA over the next twenty to thirty years could well reach into the billions of dollars. This is unacceptable.

Much has been said about VA's and the Department of Defense's culpability in smoking by service men and women everything from free cigarettes in C-rations to "smoking circles" in boot camp to free cigarettes for patients in VA hospitals following WW II and Korea. It has been further mentioned that because cigarette packaging prior to January 1, 1966 did not contain "Warning Labels" that the veterans have a right to file a claim. While we believe that is common sense turned upside down, we would like to offer an opinion as to how VA and DoD could work together to mitigate the potential monetary damage to each of these agencies.

Since the major tobacco companies in this country are presently in negotiations with several states to indemnify them for the dollar losses they have suffered while caring for citizens with smoking-related illnesses, DoD and VA could jointly appeal to the tobacco companies, using whatever legal means necessary, to set up a trust fund to pay the veterans claims for smoking-related illnesses as well as any hospitalization resulting from these illnesses. The trust would be administered by a third party and would be established for thirty years. Only those veterans who served on active duty prior to the date that warning labels were put on cigarette packaging would be eligible to file claims. Claims of second-hand smoking related illnesses would be disallowed.

DoD and VA would have to be partners in this effort because DoD was the "agent" for the tobacco companies in distributing the product by whatever means it did and VA is the agency charged with caring for the veterans who became sick from ingesting this product.

Obviously, we would like to see other remedies to this problem, namely a reversal of the General Counsel's opinion, but that notwithstanding, we would urge VA to explore the option presented here.

Mr. Chairman, thank you and the Committee for the opportunity to present AMVETS' views on these two topics. This concludes my testimony and I would look forward to answering any questions you or the Members of the Committee might have.

BIO OF CHUCK BURNS, AMVETS NATIONAL SERVICE DIRECTOR

Chuck Burns assumed the duties of AMVETS National Service Director in April of this year. Prior to joining AMVETS, Mr. Burns served as Assistant Legislative Director for The American Legion National Headquarters here in Washington. He is a decorated Marine Corps, Vietnam veteran, having served his country as a helicopter machine gunner/crew chief during one tour in Vietnam.

Mr. Burns brings more than twenty years' public affairs experience to the National Service Director's position. He founded his own public affairs firm in New Orleans in the early 1980's, representing the Charity Hospital system, among other clients, before the State Legislature. On moving to Washington some ten years ago, he joined the public affairs/public relations firm of Burson-Marsteller where he represented several of the country's largest health care companies as well as a veterans service organization.

He is a graduate of the University of Notre Dame with a B.A. in Government and International Relations.

NCOA

Non Commissioned Officers Association of the United States of America

225 N. Washington Street • Alexandria, Virginia 22314 • Telephone (703) 549-0311

STATEMENT OF

LARRY D. RHEA

DEPUTY DIRECTOR OF LEGISLATIVE AFFAIRS

BEFORE THE

SUBCOMMITTEE ON BENEFITS

COMMITTEE ON VETERANS AFFAIRS

U.S. HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES

ON THE

PROCESSING OF PERSIAN GULF WAR CLAIMS

AND

VA LIABILITY RE SMOKING-RELATED DISEASES

MAY 14, 1997

Chartered by the United States Congress

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