Is VA scandal making it worse for vets?


Advocacy groups for veterans are worried that the controversy surrounding the agency will prevent their causes from getting a serious look.

Lawmakers are furious over reports that dozens of veterans died as a result of secret waiting lists at VA hospitals around the country.

Groups say those reports must be investigated and solved, but worry it will also forestall progress on stopping veteran suicides, helping veterans get jobs and making sure the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) is adequately funded.

One thing that many veterans groups are pushing for is increased funding for the Veterans Affairs Administration. The groups want Congress to set aside money to fund the VA beyond the next fiscal year, but they say the controversy surrounding the administration is making it an uphill climb.

“With what’s going on at VA right now, the chances are very steep to make it happen,” said Joe Violante, the national legislative director at Disabled American Veterans (DAV).

There is legislation in the House and Senate to extend advance budget funds for the VA, but advocates aren’t holding out much hope they will move anytime soon.

They say some lawmakers will want to hold back on the advance funding to punish the Veterans Affairs administration for its mismanagement. But they warn this will hurt veterans.

“Unfortunately, they think they're punishing the VA by not providing the advanced appropriations, but they're actually punishing the veterans the department serves,” Violante said.

Winning the appropriations, says Violante and other activists, would make it easier for the VA to process benefits and medical claims.

Another group, the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans Association (IAVA), is making reducing suicides by veterans its main cause for 2014. The VA estimates that about 22 veterans commit suicide every day.

The organization is pushing hard to get Congress to pass the Suicide Prevention for America's Veterans Act (SAV Act) introduced by Sen. John Walsh (D-Mont.). In a recent one-week lobbing blitz, the group brought former service members to Capitol Hill to hold more than 100 meetings with lawmakers.

Lauren Augustine, a legislative associate for the group, hopes that all the attention focused on the VA will help encourage lawmakers to push legislation addressing suicides forward.

“The suicide issue needs to be addressed, and we haven't come across a lawmaker who opposes that,” she said.

“There is lots of momentum building up behind this legislation and we're hoping to get it done before the lame-duck session when that momentum weakens,” she said.

Groups trying to help military veterans get jobs are also worried the VA controversy will be a distraction.

American Veterans (AMVETS) is backing legislation called the Veterans and Service Members Employment Rights and Housing Act, which would forbid employers from discriminating against veterans because of their military service.

The organization says that former soldiers can be seen as a liability because of a stereotype that they may have a stress disorder or brain injury.

“There is a not uncommon perception of veterans as ‘ticking time bombs’, ‘unstable and dangerous’ or ‘damaged goods,’ ” Diane Zumatto, the national legislative director of AMVETS, wrote in a paper about the issue.

“As we have more and more veterans coming back looking for jobs, it's going to be more important going forward,” she told The Hill.

Though AMVETS is working furiously to add co-sponsors in the House and Senate, Zumatto says, “If it's not a hot-button item, it's probably not going to happen.”