WWII Memorial Just the Tip of Administration's Record with Vets
WASHINGTON -- As the government shut down this week, the question of just how much of the suspension of operations was necessary and how much was choreographed optics was summarized with the closure of the World War II Memorial to visiting Honor Flight vets.
Members of Congress there to meet their home-state delegations helped get their constituents past park police, lawmakers scrambled to get national parks reopened as one of the first of many piecemeal appropriations bills, and another emergency measure aimed to keep benefits flowing to veterans through the shutdown also hit the floor.
But the White House veto threats that followed those efforts simply underscored a longstanding administration pattern in regard to those who have served their country.
On the eve of the shutdown President Obama signed the unanimously approved bill to keep active-duty military members paid throughout the government's troubles.
Concerned Veterans for America organizing committee member Jessie Jane Duff, a retired gunnery sergeant who served 20 years on active duty in the Marine Corps, told PJM it "would have been political suicide" for Obama to refuse to sign that bill. In disregarding the same for veterans, "maybe it will be" political suicide.
"Veterans tend to be both parties; it's just not the area you want to go into and use as your sacrificial cow," Duff said.
On Thursday, House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) demanded that National Parks Service director Jonathan Jarvis explain to his panel the justification for the decision to close open-air monuments.
“Information presented to the Committee suggested budget adjustments resulting in obvious hardship or displeasure for the public were chosen in lieu of more prudent measures," Issa wrote to Jarvis. "Specifically, the Committee received information that proposed budget adjustments submitted by an NPS official in the field to deal with sequestration impacts were rejected by NPS superiors in favor of cuts that would be more visible and disruptive.”
The House Natural Resources Committee sent out a flashback reminder today noting that open-air memorials along the National Mall were not closed to visitors by President Clinton during the 1995 shutdown. The committee Republicans even dug up a 1995 photo showing a sign at the Lincoln Memorial noting visitor services were closed, but guests still strolled through the non-barricaded monument.
The committee's leaders also noted this week that the NPS let the Occupy movement camp out in McPherson Square for months, causing thousands of dollars in damage through their illegal camping, yet erected barricades to keep Word War II veterans from a daytime visit to their memorial.
Natural Resources has warned Jarvis to keep documents on all of the shutdown decisions so that they're available for their own upcoming investigation.
“The Obama administration’s closing of these sites is not something they are required to do, it’s something they are choosing to do," Committee Chairman Doc Hastings (R-Wash.) said on the House floor this week. "The Obama administration wants the effects of this government shutdown to be as painful as possible, so they are going out of their way to make it so.”
The effects of government policies for veterans have already been painful, though, shutdown or not.
Last month, PJM reported that the VA medical facility on the island of St. Thomas has been without a doctor for almost a month -- one of the more extreme examples of doctor shortages that have been experienced across the system.
Vets have been waiting far longer for processing of their claims -- a problem for which the administration has been under fire for some time yet has just been inching toward a salve.
Veterans Affairs staff have been working 20 hours of overtime a week to push the number of backlogged claims -- pending for more than 125 days -- under 500,000, working toward the goal of clearing the backlog by 2015.
Duff noted that the backlog was caused by a VA unprepared to handle claims for previously unrecognized conditions: post-traumatic stress disorder, Agent Orange and Desert Storm syndrome.
"It's great that they opened up recognition but they did nothing to ensure they could handle the mass introduction of claims," she said.
In 2011 alone, 20,000 veterans died waiting for their claims to be processed.
And there's also concern that the VA is quickly pounding out claims decisions without adequate investigation simply to clear the backlog of unprocessed claims. In the appeals process sit 250,000 claims with an average processing time of 1,200 days.
"It's a very severe problem," Duff said.
Obama bragged about his administration's commitment to veterans at the Disabled American Veterans convention in August. "Since I took office, we’ve made historic investments in our veterans," he said.
"I made it clear that your veteran’s benefits are exempt from this year’s sequester. I've made that clear," Obama continued. "But I want to tell you going forward the best way to protect the VA care you have earned is to get rid of this sequester altogether."
As the government shutdown went into effect Tuesday, so did another long-planned reduction in healthcare coverage for veterans in select areas of the country.
Starting Oct. 1, 2013, the Pentagon reduced the number of Prime Service Areas (PSAs) where it offers the TRICARE Prime managed care option to retirees and their family members. This change affects about 171,000 military retired beneficiaries in 41 states who were enrolled in TRICARE Prime, but not active-duty service members and their families.
TRICARE Prime services are now offered only to those living within 40 miles of a Military Treatment Facility as a result of the incoming contractor, United Healthcare, not covering the services.
News of the controversial move leaked last October but a formal announcement was delayed until after Election Day, angering lawmakers in affected regions.
“I am very troubled by these changes and am concerned that these alterations are not being made in a transparent manner,” Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.) wrote to Dr. Jonathan Woodson, assistant secretary of Defense for Health Affairs, back then.
Despite Obama's veto threat to this week's attempt at VA funding, the bill to continue appropriations for veterans benefits handily passed Thursday by 259-157 -- with 35 Democratic defections in support of the measure and detractors on the left angry that they felt they were boxed into a corner to go on record voting against vets.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) rejected a unanimous consent request by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) on the Veterans Affairs bill, killing the funding before it could reach the president's desk.
As the clock to a shutdown wound down on Monday night, though, Senate Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) introduced a bill to keep disability compensation and pension payments going to veterans in the event of the shutdown. “Losing these payments could have a devastating impact, especially on severely wounded veterans who are unable to work and depend on the VA checks,” Sanders said.
With six bipartisan co-sponsors, the bill clearly intended as an emergency measure was shuffled over to the Appropriations Committee to sit there.
With so much at stake for vets, Concerned Veterans for America launched a three-week, cross-country bus tour this month to bring together like-minded vets and advance causes such as the injustice of the claims backlog.
Duff called this week's efforts by Democrats to stop emergency VA appropriations inexcusable "because all of this could have been funded very easily."
"It's very demonstrative of the lack of respect that this administration seems to have for veterans," she added.