The 110th Congress has been particularly generous to the newest crop of veterans: After a high-pressure lobbying effort, lawmakers this year approved a sweeping update to the GI bill. The new law mandates that the government pick up the full cost of public college for veterans returning from active duty since 9/11.
Now veterans advocacy groups have trained their sights on the next Congress.
With widespread fiscal woes, an economy in crisis and taxpayers already picking up a multibillion-dollar federal bailout tab, the lobbying organizations say they are ramping up efforts to make sure Veterans Affairs Department programs get full funding for vets, especially in health care. And, they stress, that includes all veterans from aging World War II combatants to those returning from recent wars in Iraq or Afghanistan.
Im sure were going to have a fight on our hands, said Doug Vollmer, associate executive director for government relations at Paralyzed Veterans of America. In light of the economic rescue plan, or bailout, that is going to put a strain on available discretionary spending.
For years, veterans lobbying groups have pushed for the VAs medical funding to be considered a mandatory cost like Medicare or Social Security but those efforts have fallen flat on Capitol Hill.
So now the groups say they are working together to press for the VAs health care budget to be approved a year in advance, something known as advanced appropriations.
Whats been happening the past several years is the VA has gotten very good increases with respect to medical care, but unfortunately the money is arriving consistently late, explained Dennis Cullinan, national legislative director with Veterans of Foreign Wars. What were proposing is that the VA get it a year in advance.
Advanced appropriations is also at the top of the agenda for the Disabled American Veterans. The groups national legislative director, Joe Violante, said it would help the VA plan its medical programs to better serve vets.
It helps them to plan for the future because right now they cant do any planning when they need to, because they dont know what their budget for the new year is going to be, Violante said. It doesnt give them sufficient time to hire doctors, nurses, clinicians. What were hoping is advanced appropriations would provide VA with a sufficient, timely, predicable budget.
DAV also is among several veterans advocacy groups that are trying to step up the screening and treatment for mental disorders, such as post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injuries.
The American Legion is also among the groups lobbying for VA funding increases and to reduce a backlog in disability claims, said the groups legislative director, Steve Robertson.
Right now, theres this tremendous backlog, Robertson said. It takes a really long time to get your initial claim ... and appeals take an extremely long time.
He added that the average citizen assumes that veterans are being taken care of, but many slip through the cracks.
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., right, hugs Harold Schaitberger, General President of the International Association of Fire Fighters, after the Congressman spoke at the IAFF's Legislative Conference General Session at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill, March 9, 2015. The day featured addresses by members of Congress and Vice President Joe Biden.