U.S. Rep Chet Edwards (D-Waco), member of the House Appropriations Committee and Chair of the House Military Construction and Veterans Affairs Appropriations Subcommittee, slammed the Veterans of Foreign Wars’ (VFW) discredited attack on Health Care Reform as a “betrayal” of American veterans in a Congressional hearing as a VFW witness refused to defend his own national commander’s “betrayal” remarks.
The line of attack against health care reform pushed by Thomas J. Tradewell Sr., national commander of the Veterans of Foreign Wars’ (VFW) and a political opponent of health care reform, has been buried by a mountain of criticism as the VFW’s political credibility has been in free fall since Thomas J. Tradewell penned his screed over the weekend that that Health Care Reform harms Tricare and betrays veterans.
Edwards who voted No on Health Care Reform and Rep Sam Farr (D-CA) fairly humiliated the VFW’s Eric Hilleman (deputy director-VFW National Legislative Service) in Congressional testimony Tuesday appearing as a witness before the hearing of the House Appropriations Committee.
Hilleman repeatedly refused to defend Tradewell’s “betrayal” remarks, stating to the Committee in his sworn testimony that “(t)here is clear demonstration that this Congress and the administration has put forward an incredible effort on behalf of America’s veterans” in direct questioning on Tradewell’sremarks, and refering the Committee to the “the commander (Tradewell) on his own actions” and “remarks.”
A remarkable exchange among Chairman Edwards, the VFW’s Hilleman and Rep Sam Farr (CA) is below. Looks like Thomas J. Tradewell Sr. has been thrown under the bus and then backed over. The only question is how quickly the VFW will push out the discredited Tradewell.
Transcript of hearing, House Appropriations Committee. Dialog between Chairman Edwards and VFW’s Eric Hilleman.
Pgs. 97-109. Excerpt below
Mr. Edwards. Thank you, Mr. Kelley.
Gentlemen, I am going to begin my comments and questions with you. In my opinion—and I think it can be backed up by facts—in the last 3 years that I have chaired this subcommittee and Democrats have been a majority in the House, we have increased funding for veterans by more funding levels by higher amount, probably by a huge magnitude, in fact, than any other 3-year period in Congress. Would that be your understanding, as well?
Mr. Hilleman. Mr. Chairman, I have not done the math, but the attention that I have seen paid by this Congress and the previous Congress to veterans issues and veterans funding, in my 4 years withthe VFW, seems to rival the historical memory of many who have been with the organization 20-plus years.
Mr. Edwards. Has the leadership of this Congress worked with the VFW in those accomplishments, which I will list—some of which I will specifically list in a moment?
Mr. Hilleman. Absolutely.
Mr. Edwards. So you have been included in that process over the last 3 years?
Mr. Hilleman. Yes, sir.
Mr. Edwards. In no way has VFW been excluded? In fact, to the contrary, this speaker—this congressional leadership has brought the VFW in, I believe, on a regular basis, multiple times a year, to meet with the leadership. Did you ever have that kind of meeting once, twice, 3 times a year with the congressional leadership and 5, 10, 15 members of the leadership on veterans issues in any previous Congress?
Mr. Hilleman. Again, this goes back to my historical memory of 4 years, sir. So my impression of the 108thCongress, it was not nearly as engaged with the veterans community.
Mr. Edwards. In fact, when the—and let me preface these remarks. In my 3 years of chairing this subcommittee and working with the independent budget group and other veterans service organizations, we worked religiously and consistently on a bipartisan basis.
But let me say, as I look back at the last 3 years and the congressional leadership, these were some of the accomplishments that we have accomplished together. The $23.1 billion increase in the V.A.’s discretionary budget, that is a 60 percent increase in the baseline. And I do not think there—perhaps even in any decade in American history that would match that increase in the V.A. baseline.
A 55 percent increase in the Veterans Health Administration, resulting in over 3,300 new doctors, 14,000 new nurses, 145 new community-based outpatient clinics, and 92 vet centers.
The first time since 1979, we through this subcommittee increased the travel reimbursement to veterans from 11 cents a mile to 41.5 cents a mile. The first time since the Bush administration froze enrollment, income thresholds for Priority 8 veterans, we increased that by 10 percent last year.
We more than doubled the amount provided for the homeless grant and per diem program. We added 8,300 new claims processors, more than the Bush administration ever asked for, and we plussed up the Obama administration request last year. Thank goodness we did it, given the massive increase in the number of the veterans filing for claims.
In addition to all this in our subcommittee, through the Congress and other committees, we passed the new G.I. Bill, providing $63 billion over the next 10 years for tuition assistance for our veterans. We increased V.A. research that had been frozen for a number of years by 28 percent.
We provided funding for a new polytraumacenter, the fifthone and the only one in the southwestern part of the United States, and we provided, working with the VFW and other veteran service organizations, we provided advanced appropriations for the first time in V.A. history for three medical accounts.
Is there anything in that record of accomplishment, Mr. Hilleman, that would suggest to you that anyone in the present congressional leadership would ever want to betray America’s veterans?
Mr. Hilleman. Mr. Chairman, for the record, sir—
Mr. Edwards. Yes?
Mr. Hilleman. —I would ask that the discussion about any statements that the organization has been made be taken up withour leadership. I know our commander-in-chief would be happy to speak with you. I know our executive director, Mr. Bob Wallace, would also be happy to.
Mr. Edwards. I would welcome that. I have tried to call Mr. Wallace, going back to Sunday. But the letter is on record, so let’s discuss some things on record, and then I will look forward to additional discussion.
Mr. Hilleman. Yes, sir.
Mr. Edwards. Is there anything in the record of accomplishment that I just listed, of which the VFW has been a part and a partner, has there been anything that suggested that at any point anyone in the congressional leadership in this House, based on this record, would have had the intention of ever betraying America’s veterans?
Mr. Hilleman. Speaking on behalf of VFW, sir, again, I urge you to speak with our leadership. Personally, sir, I do not see where the characterization could be based.
Mr. Edwards. Well, let me just say this, since you are the representative of the VFW here today. If Mr. Wallace was here, your national commander was here, I would be happy to have this discussion with him.
But let me just say that, first, for the record, I voted no on the health care bill, and there are people of good faith within the Democratic caucus who voted yes or no, and I have no intention in this meeting of getting into a discussion of the details of the health care bill.
But I will be frank. I was—as someone who opposed the bill for reasons that reflect the values of my district, I was surprised and disappointed that the national commander of VFW, an organization with whom this congressional leadership has worked so closely over the last 3 years, I think in an unprecedented way, in terms of our increased commitment of funding for veterans benefits and services, that a letter would come out on the day of that vote saying that the congressional leadership has betrayed America’s veterans.
And for the record, let me say, to my knowledge—and please correct me if I am mistaken—no other veterans organization of the dozens and dozens of tremendous veterans organizations that represent their members so very well, none of the others came out with a position opposing the bill itself. In fact, there were some veterans organizations that came out and supported it.
I would like to ask you—I would like to ask you, the concern of VFW about the health care bill, as I understand it, was not that there was anything directly in that bill intended to hurt veterans. In fact, as someone who voted against the bill, one could well argue that many of the millions of veterans—out of the millions of veterans who do not have access to V.A. health care, with only 8 million being enrolled out of 23 million, one could argue that this new bill could actually provide health insurance to hundreds of thousands of veterans that do not have it. But let’s put that aside for a moment.
I want to be sure I understand the VFW’s position. Your concern is that—not that there was anything written in the bill to intentionally harm veterans, but that the minimum standard that is set for health insurance programs might at some future date, by some future unnamed person in the executive branch, might possibly be defined as saying TRICARE or V.A. health care programs do not meet that minimum standard? Is that a correct summary of the VFW’s concern about that?
Mr. Hilleman. Mr. Chairman, if I might, the VFW’sopposition and concern with the national health care bill is rooted in the fact that TRICARE was not perceived to be a protected entity in the health care bill, as well as certain programs under V.A.
I believe there are three programs—
Mr. Edwards. And by protected, you mean that at some future date, some future person in the executive branch might possibly interpret minimum standards as not having been met by TRICARE or V.A. programs, is that correct?
Mr. Hilleman. That V.A. or TRICARE would not meet the minimum standards for health—
Mr. Edwards. So there was nothing in that bill that was specifically going—there was nothing, no specific provision that said we are going to exclude veterans, harm veterans, not support veterans, or reduce commitment to veterans? There was no specific provision there you were concerned about, is that correct?
Mr. Hilleman. Sir, the specific provision that the VFW was concerned about was on page 333 of the bill. There was defined programs within the Senate healthcare bill that outlined care for—it was one program in TRICARE. I do not believe it was both TRICARE and TRICARE Prime. And then there was another one that referred to Chapter 17 of Title 38, which did not—and it said—the language said veterans.
It did not specifically state spina bifida patients, children, dependents of Agent Orange exposure veterans, and the other two was some vocational programs, and the other one was CHAMPVA, sir.
Mr. Edwards. So the VFW, like several other VSOs, wanted to take the extra step to ensure that these programs at some future date might not be determined as not meeting minimum standards. Is that correct?
Mr. Hilleman. The VFW is repeatedly concerned that V.A., all V.A. users and all TRICARE users, are qualified and properly cared for under the health care proposal.
Mr. Edwards. The same concern expressed by several other veterans organizations, legitimate concern. I want to be sure—whether I supported the bill or not, I want to be sure it doesn’t adversely hurt veterans. But you are the only veterans organization that came out and said the congressional leadership betrayed America’s veterans.
Before the national commander wrote that letter and publicly made it available on the day of the vote, did the commander know that the day before that Chairman Skelton, who I do not think—I hope would never be accused of betraying America’s veterans—actually sponsored a bill on the House floor—
Mr. Hilleman. Sir—
Mr. Edwards. —to try to address most, if not all of that—
Mr. Hilleman. Sir, we did actually do a press release on that Friday, sir, to that effect, supporting and applauding Chairman Skelton for his work in protecting TRICARE in the bill.
Mr. Edwards. So when the congressional leadership—so, basically, what I am hearing—you do not have any reason to believe, given the track record of the last 3 years, that anybody in the congressional leadership would try to purposely betray America’s veterans? But there was a technical question about a hypothetical case that, you know, might happen in the future, and the VFW and other veterans groups expressed a legitimate interest in wanting to clarify that, right?
Mr. Hilleman. Yes, sir. The VFW would have liked to have seen clarity on this.
Mr. Edwards. Did the national commander call the congressional leadership, speaker’s office, for example, before putting out that letter to see if there was any intentional effort to betray America’s veterans and if there wasn’t a way to deal with what I see as a technicality that was unintentional, and only if one assumed bad decisions, there is nothing in that bill that directed bad decisions to be made that would harm veterans.
It was assumed that there might be a possibility, and if there is maybe a possibility TRICARE could be affected, we ought to correct that and see it. But given that there is no evidence that anyone wanted to betray veterans, but evidence to the contrary over the past 3 years, did the commander call the speaker’s office before he wrote that letter, just to see if the speaker was aware of this problem and it could be resolved?
Mr. Hilleman. I would refer you to the commander for his remarks on that, sir.
Mr. Edwards. Okay. So you cannot say one way or the other whether he or the VFW made any effort to reach the speaker and correct what by all fair accounts would have been a technical question about the bill, not a question about the scope or the otherwise broad nature of the bill, a technical question about a hypothetical problem that might occur?
Mr. Hilleman. Again, sir, I would refer you to the commander on his own actions and the executive leadership of the organization to answer that question.
Mr. Edwards. Okay. Well, then I won’t ask you then whether that was an appropriate use of language in referencing people who have worked closely with the VFW in a historic manner to accomplish those that had never been accomplished in any period of congresses past during a 3-year time period.
Would you ask Mr. Wallace and the commander if they would call me—
Mr. Hilleman. Yes, sir, absolutely.
Mr. Edwards. —at my office tomorrow?
Mr. Hilleman. Absolutely.
Mr. Edwards. We can have further discussion of this.
Mr. Hilleman. Absolutely.
Mr. Edwards. Okay. But for the record, you have no reason to believe and the VFW would not have suggested that anyone in the leadership would want to hurt America’s veterans, given the track record of the last 3 years of working closely with you?
Mr. Hilleman. No, sir. There is clear demonstration that this Congress and the administration has put forward an incredible effort on behalf of America’s veterans.
Mr. Edwards. Mr. Farr?
Mr. [Rep Sam Farr (CA). Thank you, Mr. Chairman. I echo your concerns even more so. I voted for the bill. And I think your use of that language of betrayal is embarrassing to the VFW. You did disservice to your members. I think you owe this leadership an apology.
Since Chet has become chair of this committee, there is no veterans appropriations committee in history that has done more for veterans than this committee. And this committee is a function of the leadership of our side of the aisle. And as you just said—and we heard time and time again—including John Wilson, right here at the end, saying that the president’s budget is a very strong and wonderful—you know, very in the right place.
I have been working for veterans’ health care since I got into Congress. And I have never heard one complaint nor a legal opinion that this bill would do anything but help veterans. You are going to rise the tide for health care in America. It is going to help everybody.
And veterans alone, they have got families that cannot get access to health care, they are now going to get it. And because of a technicality that was a hypothetical, to go to that and say we have been betrayed, is pathetic. You know, I would hope that the membership would really question the leadership of the VFW on this, because I am certainly going to question it at home. And I hope you will—I would like to see a letter of apology.
Mr. Hilleman. I understand, sir.
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