Veterans groups lash out over Sen. Burr's letter

New York TimesMay 27, 2014 

U.S. Sen. Richard Burr, R-NC

— An “open letter” from Republican Sen. Richard Burr of Winston-Salem to the nation’s veterans in which he castigates the leadership of veterans organizations has prompted a brutal exchange of words over the Memorial Day weekend, including a promise from the Veterans of Foreign Wars that its “hat in hand” approach to Congress will turn more combative.

The burgeoning controversy over delayed access to care at Department of Veterans Affairs hospitals has always contained risks for Republicans pushing the issue.

The logical conclusions of the push would be either a politically difficult effort to privatize veterans’ health care or to supply substantially more money to a system burdened by veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, an option veterans groups have demanded but Republican leaders have resisted.

The letter from Burr, the ranking Republican on the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee – and the groups’ responses – pushed that conflict into the open.

Burr, angry that only the American Legion has called for the resignation of Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki, accused the groups of being “more interested in defending the status quo within the VA, protecting their relationships with the agency, and securing access to the secretary and his inner circle,” than helping members.

The Veterans of Foreign Wars, the Disabled American Veterans and the Paralyzed Veterans of America hit back hard.

“For years, the VFW has come to Congress with hat in hand, and for years we’ve heard the same old story,” the heads of the veterans groups wrote to Burr. “You can be assured, Senator, that you’ve done a superb job showing us the error in our ways. You can also be assured that in the future, we will spend a substantial percentage of our time seeking to inform our members and our constituents of the repeated failure to act by our elected officials.”

To that sentiment, the national president and the executive director of the Paralyzed Veterans of America added, “Perhaps you should have shared with all veterans in your ‘open’ letter that you cared so much about their health care that you were not actually present during the testimony that the VSO representatives provided, and you did not ask a single question.” VSO stands for “veterans service organizations.”

“Regrettably, Sen. Burr shows no interest in pursuing policy solutions, preferring instead to launch cheap political attacks on the integrity of leaders of veterans organizations that do not agree with him,” wrote Joseph Johnston, the national commander of the Disabled American Veterans.

Burr said in a statement to CQ Roll Call on Sunday that his letter outraged the groups more than the scandal engulfing the Veterans Affairs.

“The VSOs’ response is a rousing defense of the status quo at VA,” Burr said. “It’s clear that my open letter to America’s veterans has outraged some VSOs more than the scandals at VA – I believe their testimony stands on its own.”

Larger battle growing?

Burr – along with other senior Republicans such as Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, the No. 2 Republican in the Senate – has called on Shinseki to resign, a demand echoed by the American Legion but not by other veterans groups or by Speaker John Boehner of Ohio. Boehner on Thursday said he was “getting a little closer” to demanding that the former four-star general step down.

But beneath the fight over Shinseki’s future is a potentially larger war over the Veterans Affairs hospital system itself.

Over the weekend, the Obama administration said it would allow more veterans to get access to care through private health facilities to ease the backlog at the VA’s 152 medical centers and 900 community care facilities.

Republican lawmakers in the House and the Senate are pushing further. Rep. Jeff Miller of Florida, the chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, said on Friday that he would introduce legislation to give any veteran unable to obtain a VA appointment within 30 days the option to go outside the system at the department’s expense.

“Now is the time for immediate action,” he said.

But veterans groups are leery, and they maintain that the VA’s services for spinal cord injury, blindness, amputations and other trauma cannot be matched by private facilities. Over the past two to three years, Veterans Affairs has had a net gain of 1.5 million patients, 200,000 of them with post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injuries, said Sen. Bernard Sanders, I-Vt., the chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee.

Strained relations

Carl Blake, the national legislative director of the Paralyzed Veterans of America, testified this month before the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee that “insufficient staffing, and by extension, insufficient capacity is ultimately a reflection of insufficient resources that this administration and previous administrations have requested.”

Joseph Violante, the legislative director of the Disabled American Veterans, said at the same hearing, “Simply giving a veteran a plastic card and wishing them good luck in the private sector is no substitute for a fully coordinated system of health care.”

Those sentiments prompted Burr’s Memorial Day weekend blast. Relations between Senate Republicans have been strained since February, when Republicans blocked a vote on broad veterans legislation, written by Sanders, that would have bolstered health and dental care, authorized 27 new clinics and medical facilities, bolstered veterans education programs, and dealt with veterans who suffered sexual trauma while in the military.

Republicans complained that Democratic leaders were not allowing them to amend the bill, especially with bolstered sanctions on Iran. But at heart is a budget fight. Republican leaders say that Veterans Affairs has the money it needs, but that it is plagued by inefficiency and poor management.

Burr spared the American Legion, saying, “It is clear that the Legion has been listening to its membership.”

He then all but called for a purge of the other veterans groups.

“I fear that change within the VA will not be possible unless and until these organizations also reconsider their role, as well as the nature of their relationship with the VA,” he wrote.

‘The worst of politics’

The responses were unusually personal. Bill Lawson, the national president of the paralyzed veterans group, and Homer S. Townsend Jr., the executive director, criticized Burr for supporting the filibuster of the veterans bill in February and said that “every member of Congress should be embarrassed” by the senator’s letter.

“Only a politician would be so bold as to believe he or she knows better what veterans want and need than actual veterans themselves,” they wrote. “You clearly represent the worst of politics in this country.”

William Thien, the commander in chief of the VFW, and John Hamilton, the adjutant general, called Burr’s letter a “monumental cheap shot” and “clearly one of the most dishonorable and grossly inappropriate acts that we’ve witnessed in more than 40 years of involvement with the veterans community.”

The VFW letter pointed to a staff with more than 47 combat deployments in Vietnam, Somalia, Iraq and Afghanistan; four Purple Hearts; 16 Air Medals; Bronze Stars and other honors.

“I suggest you compare the more than exorbitant amount of days off you receive, including virtually the whole month of August, two weeks around Easter/Passover, and certainly not a single five-day workweek, to the oftentimes long, arduous hours they put forth every week of the year,” the letter said.

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