Veterans' Advocate AMVETS Denied By Senate Veterans' Affairs

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AMVETS, a major veteran advocacy voice, was omitted from today's Senate hearing on Veterans' Health Care.

AMVETS (American Veterans) responded today to Senator Bernie Sanders, Chairman of the Senate Committee on Veterans' Affairs, for their omission from today's Veterans' Health Care hearing. AMVETS is one of four members of the Independent Budget and a major voice for the health and welfare of nearly 23 million American veterans.

The VSO panel followed Secretary Eric Shinseki's testimony today over delays at Veterans Affairs hospitals in Phoenix and elsewhere, and the alleged deaths of at least 40 veterans who were awaiting VA care.

"I am writing to express the strongest sense of indignation at AMVETS having been excluded from testifying at today’s Veterans' Health Care Assessment hearing," wrote Diane Zumatto, AMVETS Legislative Director. "This seemingly purposeful exclusion can only be interpreted as a slap in the face to all American veterans."

AMVETS is one of the oldest and most respected, congressionally chartered, veteran service organizations in the country, as well as one of the authors of the Independent Budget (IB). "It strikes me as very odd that each of the other three IB partners (VFW, PVA & DAV) were asked to provide public testimony on this very important topic, but not AMVETS," said Zumatto. "Of those asked to testify at today’s hearing, none, to my knowledge, share the unique combination of experience, both military and health care, that Stewart Hickey, AMVETS’ National Executive Director, would have been able to contribute," added Zumatto.

“I am not only a veteran, use VA health care, am a VSO member of the IB, but also have eleven years of prior experience in management of public health, so I would have thought that is the type of perspective that would be needed in this situation,” said Hickey.

Over the past two years, while others have repeatedly clamored for the resignation of Secretary Shinseki, AMVETS has staunchly offered him its support. "This is not to say that AMVETS is not aware of systemic problems with the VA system, but that we do not believe that replacing the Secretary is the answer to those problems," said Hickey. Hickey added that AMVETS supports Secretary Shinseki and is confident that appropriate action will be taken once the facts are known from the investigation.

Hickey said the value, "voice" and veterans' subject matter expertise AMVETS has comes from a several decades-long partnership with VA as well as collaboration with other VSOs. Among the values cited by Hickey is AMVETS' "go-to" expertise partnership with VA to train National Service Officers to help veterans obtain the benefits they earned, especially Gulf War, Iraq and Afghanistan veterans facing the challenges of toxic wounds, post-traumatic stress, and other health issues. According to Hickey, Gulf War veterans are particularly exasperated by the lack of support shown to them by the VA.

“I read it and listen to it every day,” Hickey said. “I hear the stories of veterans suffering and losing hope. They feel they have been abandoned by the VA, abandoned by the very government they served. The perception is that the VA is acting like corporate insurance companies, trying to cut expenses by limiting how many claims are filed.” In 2011 VA reported only 20,069 Gulf War Illness presumptive claims had been approved at the time of VA’s report with a staggering 16,725 that were denied. Compounding things, more than 250,000 Gulf War veterans are suffering from the effects of Gulf War Illness, showing just how difficult it is for an ill Gulf War veteran to have their claim for benefits approved.

Zumatto said AMVETS and its members are just as concerned about the problems rampant within the VA health care system as any of the other organizations which were asked to participate today, some of whom do not share as long a history of service and advocacy on behalf of American veterans as AMVETS. "While AMVETS has not always offered our support for some of your legislative proposals, I am hopeful that that had no bearing on the decision to exclude our organization from this hearing," said Zumatto in the letter addressed to Sanders.

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Dave Gai
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