Monday, May 7, 2007

Nicholson Must Go

Chanting “Nicholson must go!” dozens of Filipino WW II veterans and supporters marched in front of the US Veterans Administration office at Fort Miley in this city, demanding that US Secretary of Veterans Affairs Jim Nicholson resign from his post immediately.

“Nicholson is now the biggest obstacle to passage of the Filipino Veterans Equity Bill,” said Eric Lachica, Executive Director of the American Coalition for Filipino Veterans (ACFV).
In a nationwide teleconference held on May 6, members of the ACFV, representing 4,000 Filipino veterans and supporters throughout the US, voted unanimously to call for Nicholson’s resignation.

“Enough is enough, Nicholson has to go,” said Amador Montero, 88, commander of the U.S. Filipino War Veterans based in Seattle, Washington. Montero was echoed by Jose Nuega, 81, president of the Association of Filipino American Veterans and Families, Inc. in Sacramento, California.

“Nicholson does not deserve to be VA secretary for what he has done,” said Artemio Caleda, 83, president of the Hawaii U.S. Filipino War Veterans Association. “We will convey our position to Senator Daniel Akaka.” Caleda said that his group met with Senator Akaka’s district director in Honolulu to discuss their call for Nicholson’s resignation. Akaka is the current chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee.

The Filipino veterans’ denunciation of Secretary Nicholson was caused by his opposition to the Filipino Veterans Equity Bill. At the April 11 Senate Veterans Affairs Committee hearing on the Senate Filipino Veterans Equity Bill (S. 57) sponsored by Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii), Nicholson directed his Deputy Undersecretary for Benefits, Ronald R. Aument, to testify that the VA was opposed to the bill because the benefit costs would be about "$510 million in the first year and more than $4 billion over ten years."

At that Senate hearing, Sen. Larry Craig (R-Wyoming) acknowledged the significant contributions of Filipino veterans, stating that “victory in the Pacific would not have been assured without their help.” He said the question is: “62 years after World War II, has the United States government met its obligation to Filipino veterans who fought under U.S. command during the war?”

”When distinguished veterans of this Senate and of that war - such as Senators Inouye and Akaka - put their name to legislation which suggests we have not met our obligation,” Craig said, “that is an alert to all of us here that something is amiss. That, in fact, we can and should do better for Filipino veterans.”

But “the price tag of S. 57 is extremely large, almost $1 billion over ten years by some estimates,” he said. “The Congress's budget rules require us to find offsets for any new spending. During a time of war and fiscal restraint, how will the costs of S. 57 be met?”

Craig referred to the estimate provided by Rep. Bob Filner (D-CA), chair of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, who has asked for an appropriation of $900-M over ten (10) years or $90-M a year to finance the Filipino Veterans Equity Bill (HR 760).

The FilVets bill can be funded at an even lower amount, however. American veterans currently receive $911 a month from the US Veterans Administration (VA) for their non-service connected disability pension. Those American veterans receiving this full pension would not otherwise be entitled to receive $623 a month in federal Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and $200 a month in veterans’ subsidy from the state of California.

Most Filipino WW II vets in California do not receive the full $623 a month in SSI because the federal government deducts $100 (5,000 pesos) which Filipino veterans receive from the Philippine Veterans Administration Office (PVAO). The $523 a month they receive from SSI, together with the California state supplemental income of $200 a month, provide Filipino veterans in California with $723 a month.

To equal the $911 a month that they would have otherwise received as American veterans but for the Rescission Act of 1946 (which rescinded US military benefits promised to Filipino soldiers under US command), all they would need from the Filipino Veterans Equity Bill would be an average of $200 more a month.

As approximately 4,000 of the 5,000 surviving Filipino WW II veterans live in California, this would amount to $9.6-M a year for them. The 1,000 veterans living outside California would be entitled to $400 a month equal their American veteran counterparts. Their total would be $4.8-M.

If the bill were to pass this year, it would go into effect next year. By then, there may only about 10,000 Filipino veterans in the Philippines who would be eligible to receive this monthly benefit as many of the “recognized” veterans in the Philippines do not have their names officially listed at the US Army office in St. Louis, Missouri. At $200-M a month for the estimated 10,000 vets in the Philippines, the total would be $24-M. Adding the 4,000 vets in California ($9.6-M), 1,000 outside California ($4.8-M) and 10,000 in the Philippines ($24-M), the total package would be $38.4 million a year.

The difference in the estimates of Nicholson’s DVA and the ACFV is critical in light of the concurrent resolution on the budget for fiscal years 2008 which the US House passed on March 29, 2007. Under Section 209 (“Reserve Fund for Equitable Benefits for Filipino Veterans of World War II”), the House decreed that any increase in benefits for Filipino veterans would only be appropriated if it does not “increase the deficit.”

This means that congressional supporters of the Filipino Veterans Equity Bill will have to find a source for the funds to be allocated for the Filipino veterans that would not “increase the deficit,” a formidable task considering that veteran groups from other eras are also heavily competing for funds from the same VA budget.

The task is even more formidable in light of recent disclosures that the Department of Veterans Affairs suffered a $1-billion shortfall because it “miscalculated” the health care costs of veterans returning from combat in Iraq and Afghanistan. This shortfall has exacerbated the health care problems of American veterans, highlighted by the recent scandal of neglect at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center.

Secretary Nicholson’s response to the embarrassing disclosures of scandals in his watch was to reward the VA senior officials responsible for them with “hefty bonuses.”

According to a report by the Associated Press (AP), Nicholson authorized the payment of $3.8 M in bonuses at the end of 2006, which AP learned was “the most lucrative in the federal government.”

“Among those receiving payments were a deputy assistant
secretary and several regional directors who crafted the VA's flawed budget for 2005 based on misleading accounting. They received performance payments up to $33,000 each, a figure equal to about 20 percent of their annual salaries,” the AP report stated.

"Awards should be determined according to performance," said Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, "I am concerned by this generous pat on the back for those who failed to ensure that their budget requests accurately reflected VA's needs."

Nicholson was appointed by US President George W. Bush in January of 2005 to replace VA Secretary Anthony J. Principi, who had been an ardent supporter of the Filipino WW II veterans and was the keynote speaker at the First Global Filipino Networking Convention in San Francisco in August of 2002.

Before his appointment, Nicholson served as national chair of the Republican National Committee (RNC). Before that, he was a real estate attorney and developer in Denver, Colorado, who was active in the Republican Party politics. His cabinet appointment was widely viewed as his reward for being a “loyal Bushie.”

Filipino WW II veterans are urging their supporters throughout the US to write or email VA Secretary Jim Nicholson to urge him to resign. Inquiries or letters urging Nicholson’s resignation can be sent to Perhaps President Bush can reappoint Principi to his old post.

Despite Nicholson’s staunch opposition, however, the Filipino veterans are still hopeful that they can pass the Filipino Veterans Equity Bill in the US Congress this year. “With the support of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and House Veterans Affairs Committee Chair Bob Filner, together with their Senate counterparts, Majority Leader Harry Reid and Senator Daniel Akaka and the emerging consensus of a majority of Democrats and Republicans in the US Congress, we will get it passed this year,” said ACFV Director Lachica.

Most of the surviving veterans are already in their 80s, dying at an exponential rate. Any further delay will make passage a sham.

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