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Witness Testimony of Mr. John Rowan, Vietnam Veterans of America, National President

Good morning, Mr. Chairman, Mr. Buyer, and members of this committee.  On behalf of the families and members of Vietnam Veterans of America (VVA), I thank you for the invitation to testify on an issue of significant importance to us – and to thousands of eligible veterans who are now denied access to the VA health care system.

It is VVA’s unwavering position that the VA health care system should be re-opened to Priority 8 veterans.  The decision to close the system to new Priority 8s in January of 2003 was supposed to be a temporary palliative for a system that was hemorrhaging, a system that was unable to provide, VA officials argued, high-quality health care for an influx of new Priority 8s.  But temporary quickly morphed into permanent – and we now wonder if this was the intent of the Administration at the time – because no VA planning document we’ve seen since accounts for new Priority 8s entering the system.

Who are these veterans?  They are, as you know, individuals who have an income in excess of just under $27,000 a year, are not afflicted with a service-connected disability, and agree to make a co-payment for their health care and prescription drugs.  They are also veterans who are unaware that they have a condition associated with their military service; when this malady flares up, they may be facing imminent poverty.  Their banishment from the system not only hurts those who would choose the VA for their health care needs, it also hurts the VA:  Priority 8 and 7 veterans account for some 40 percent of third-party collections.

A little history is instructive.

Back in 1996, when Congress passed the Veterans Health Care Eligibility Reform Act, the VA was able to implement major cornerstones of its plan to reform the manner in which it provided health care.  The rationale behind this initiative was to ensure a patient base that would support the infrastructure needed to develop a modern, integrated health care system.  This the VA has accomplished, and in the process has transformed a mediocre, inefficient system into a national model that has won praise and plaudits.

However, the law – Public Law 104-262 – gave the Secretary of Veterans Affairs the authority and the responsibility to determine eligibility for enrollment based on available resources in any given fiscal year.  Although the law did not mandate a level of funding or a standard of care, it did establish an annual enrollment process and categorized veterans into “priority groups” to manage enrollment.

On January 17, 2003, the Secretary made the decision to “temporarily” suspend Priority 8 veterans from enrolling.  While this decision may be reconsidered on an annual basis, every budget proposal from the Administration since has omitted funding for Priority 8 veterans not previously enrolled and has attempted to discourage use by and enrollment of those “higher income” veterans.

Priority 8 veterans are, for the most part, working- and middle-class Americans without compensable disabilities incurred during their military service.  In its budget proposal for the current fiscal year, the VA estimated that some 1.1 million of these “higher income” veterans would be discouraged from using their health care system because of an enrollment fee and increased co-pays for prescription drugs.  Thankfully, you in Congress have not let this scheme get much beyond the proposal phase.

Still, it has been estimated that in excess of a quarter of a million veterans who would be classified as Priority 8s have been barred from enrolling in the system since January 2003.

Readmitting those Priority 8s who might choose to enroll in the VA health care system if given the opportunity is yet another reason to hold hearings and move to pass Congressman Hare’s assured funding bill, H.R. 2514.  Because, no matter how you cut it, the bottom line is funding.  And there should be enough funding in a compassionate nation that respects the service and sacrifice made by those who don the uniform to give this more than lip service.  We can, and we should, accommodate Priority 8s who opt to use the VA’s health care system.

We strongly urge that you truly honor the commitment we as a nation have made that honors our veterans. Of course, we recognize that the bottom line is funding – the funding Congress provides – to enable the VA to accommodate those Priority 8 veterans who want to avail themselves of the VA’s health care services.  We recognize the realities of “pay-go.”  But we hope you will recognize the inherent justice in reopening the VA health care system to those who have earned the right to utilize it. 

Thank you for considering these comments.  We would be pleased to answer any questions you might have.