American Legion Post 44 Adjutant Jim Stanko, of rural Steamboat Springs, made his ninth trip to Washington D.C. in February to lobby Congress on behalf of military veterans and returned feeling reassured that a key congressional committee is in sync with some of veterans’ most important issues.
Among other goals they shared, Stanko and his fellow Legion members were intent on persuading legislators serving on the House Veterans' Affairs Committee to restore funding to a program that is especially important in sparsely populated rural areas, such as the Western Slope of Colorado. Most military veterans in this region live hours away by automobile from Veterans Administration hospitals — the closest to Steamboat is in Grand Junction.
Stanko and members of the delegation are concerned that funding for the Choice Program, which allows veterans to see private physicians under certain circumstances is due to lapse in August.
Stanko, who serves as vice chairman of the American Legion's National Veterans Affairs and Rehabilitation Commission, said the Choice Program enables vets to be covered by the Veterans Administration to see a local doctor when they are told they will have to wait 30 days to see a VA doctor or when they live more than 40 miles from the nearest VA facility.
Stanko said his delegation was impressed with the determination of Republicans and Democrats alike on the House Committee on Veterans Affairs — of which Rep. Mike Coffman (R-CO-6) is a member — to address problems with the VA.
“I was really encouraged,” Stanko said, both with the number of congressmen who attended the hearing and their level of commitment.
Since the trip to Washington, the house committee on March 8 approved bills to extend and expand the Choice Program, as well as a bill to provide for more accountability of VA managers. The proposed legislation goes next the full House of Representative for passage. Similar bills are working their way through the Senate.
Stanko was a member of a national delegation, including 12 Coloradans, that went to Washington in the last week of February.
He said he was also pleasantly surprised that President Donald Trump’s choice to lead the Veterans Affairs administration, Secretary David Shulkin, is strongly opposed to privatizing health care for veterans, something then president-elect Trump was reportedly leaning toward in late December.
“The American Legion, period, on a national level, disagrees with privatizing veteran’s care,” Stanko said. “Very surprisingly, the new secretary of Veterans Affairs is opposed to it, as well. That was one of our messages. This is one of the places we, as a veterans’ organization, will buck the administration.”
Stanko said he was mildly disappointed that, as a recognized Democrat, he was assigned to call only on Democratic Congress members from Colorado. As a result, he wasn’t able to speak with Republican Rep. Scott Tipton, who represents Colorado’s 3rd District, which includes Routt and Moffat counties.
“I would have liked to call on Tipton,” Stanko said. As it was, his group met with Rep. Jared Polis (CO-2) and Ed Perlmutter (CO-7). Colorado Sen. Michael Bennett and U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette (CO-1), who have met with the group in the past, were not available this time.
Stanko is a Vietnam-era Army veteran who was stationed in Germany. In his role with the Veteran's Affairs and Rehabilitation Committee, he met with newly appointed Undersecretary of Veterans Affairs Scott Blackburn and the VA’s assistant secretary for congressional and legislative affairs, Christopher O’Connor, to learn of changes at the administration.
Content originally published by Steamboat Today on March 15, 2017.