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Submission For The Record of Michael Tokarz, American Legion, Poughkeepsie, NY, Legislative Council Member

Mr. Chairman and Members of the Committee:

Thank you for this opportunity to express my views as a member of the American Legion Legislative Council from New York, a veteran, and a constituent in the 19th Congressional District of New York.

The American Legion believes Priorities are for treatment not access. All veterans deserve access to the Veterans Administration system based on their service alone. Compensation and transition should follow a parallel course to the healthcare treatment of veterans. They should not be set as a prerequisite to health care. The “timeliness of access” is critical. The VA established its own acceptable access standard for primary care at 30 days, but to most Americans with private health care plans – 30 days would be unacceptable. Actual time frames by the VA’s own admission average over 100 days depending on case complexities and jurisdiction in which they are filed. Unfortunately, the continued disparity between demand for services and available resources continues to cause delays in the delivery of health care. This is with the restrictions on enrollment of Category 8 veterans still in place. The current global war on terror has placed even more demands on the VA health care system to meet its obligation to the men and women of the armed forces – past, present, and future. As a grateful nation welcomes with opened arms this new generation of wartime veterans, veterans of previous conflicts and the Cold War are being denied enrollment and, therefore, access to their health care system of choice.

The restriction of enrollment for Priority 8 veterans creates another “access gap” for recently separated veterans who did not serve in a combat setting. Some recently separated veterans must wait until their VA disability claims are approved in order to enroll. For others, unless they are economically indigent, they are prohibited from enrolling. Those recently separated veterans that successfully transition may very well never be eligible to enroll at all. None of these situations are very welcoming messages to the men and women currently serving in the nation’s armed forces or those considering enlisting in the military. The American Legion believes all veterans are entitled to VA healthcare regardless of disability, rating, or economics.

The backlog in VA cases is nothing new. Recommendations from Veterans Service Organizations and the VA’s own internal reviews called for additional staffing and training to reduce the backlog and number of appeals. Concern over adequate staffing in Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA) to handle its demanding workload was addressed by VA’s Office of the Inspector General (IG) in a report released in May of 2005 (Report No.05-00765-137, dated May 19, 2005). The IG specifically recommended, “in view of growing demand, the need for quality and timely decisions, and the ongoing training requirements, reevaluate human resources and ensure that the VBA field organization is adequately staffed and equipped to meet mission requirements.”

The mission continues to grow yet staffing is stagnant and a majority of Viet Nam era workers with the experience necessary for the demands being placed on the system are now reaching retirement. The loss of experience in this critical time can only slow down adjudications. Instead of reviewing how well the additional staffing recommended in 2005 could be reducing the backlog of new cases and appeals, we are again presenting testimony on the need for that additional staffing. With the estimated time for a Claim adjudicator to become fully trained and functional at approximately 24 months it is apparent that even an influx of new hires by the VA will not do enough in the near future to help the thousands of veterans whose lives are now in this bureaucratic limbo.

Families, Veteran Service Organizations, religious institutions and friends now make up much of the support network for veterans that should be in the VA system. The stresses placed on these veterans and their families have become a national disgrace. Compensation must wait, but the mortgage or rent must be met, spouses and children still get sick and need care outside of the VA, transportation and energy costs still go up, every challenge that the average American must face burdens these veterans while coping with a disability or transitioning back to the fullest possible employment. It is our belief that doctors, nurses and professional care givers are what veterans deserve to see in the VA system and anything that comes between them should be kept to the absolute minimum.

The American Legion is reviewing the recommendations of the Wounded Warrior Commission and looks forward to the recommendations of the Veterans Disability Benefits Commission and the Commission on the Future of Veterans. Changes are needed and it is the American Legion’s hope that the best ideas from each of these Commissions can be tailored into meaningful reform of the treatment and compensation of America’s veterans. I thank the Chairman and Committee for their pursuit of the best answers to these staggering problems and look forward to working with you to fulfill the promise of complete heath care and full transition for all veterans.