INDIANAPOLIS – At the Indiana Statehouse there are bills to give property tax breaks and hunting permits to veterans.
Jim Bauerle, a volunteer lobbyist for the Military Veterans Coalition of Indiana, says all the bills that were introduced to help veterans are important. But he says lawmakers aren’t taking them seriously enough. Photo by Alec Gray, TheStatehouseFile.com
There’s legislation to pay for specialized treatment for soldiers who come home suffering from post-traumatic stress.
And there are proposals to help the children of disabled veterans go to college.
“All of them are important,” said Jim Bauerle, a volunteer lobbyist for the Military Veterans Coalition of Indiana.
In all, there were some four dozen bills related to veterans introduced during the 2015 session of the Indiana General Assembly. Today, with just more than a week left until lawmakers go home for the year, there are just a handful still alive.
The disparity has created a clash between veteran advocates and key legislators – with veterans going on the offense to try to get their priority bills passed.
TOO MANY BILLS
Rep. Randy Frye, R-Greensburg, said legislators are doing the best they can to help veterans, but said they need to decide which pieces of legislation are most important, especially if the bills have a fiscal impact.
It’s a message he’s shared before. Frye said he met with veterans’ organizations throughout the summer and urged them to pair some bills together and be detailed about what they wanted to accomplish.
“I suggested they concentrate on four or five” bills, Frye said. “They filed 48.”
That’s important, Frye said, because every year, more than 1,000 bills are filed and the majority are killed during the legislative process. Frye said it is difficult to consider and pass so many bills from one special interest group.
“I don’t think there’s anyway we can hear 48 bills for one organization. That’s just not realistic,” Frye said. “There are just too many bills.”
He also said that many of the veteran-specific bills were killed due to their fiscal impact.
“Sometimes there simply just isn’t enough money to go around for everything that folks want,” Frye said.
But Jason Emery, an Iraq veteran, said lawmakers should focus on the individuals who need help, not the money.
“How do you put a price on leaving a man behind in battle or leaving a man behind back here. It’s the same thing,” Emery said. “When they put money into it that just really hurts us.”
Veterans’ advocates have said lawmakers have forgotten or don’t care about veterans, but Frye said legislators want to do everything they can for them.
“All of us, every legislator that I know, wants to do everything humanly possible to help our veterans, to recognize their service to our country, and to reward that,” Frye said. “But we do have constraints and those constraints include funding.”
WORKING THE SYSTEM
Click and zoom to see the graphic larger.
While the Statehouse hallways are filled with highly paid, highly experienced lobbyists, the men and women who advocate for former soldiers tend to be volunteers – veterans who learn the legislative and political system as they struggle through it.
Consider a Ways and Means Committee meeting in which those volunteers were trying to convince skeptical lawmakers to spend money on a controversial therapy for veterans with PTSD.
They wanted lawmakers to amend funding for hyperbaric oxygen therapy into a bill, sponsored by Rep. David Frizzell, R-Indianapolis, that dealt with a spinal cord and brain injury fund unrelated to veterans.
At issue was how much the hyperbaric therapy would cost – and how much it would take from the $4 million in the bill.
Bauerle went to the podium and begin presenting his prepared remarks. After listening for a few minutes, Ways & Means Chairman Tim Brown interrupted.
“Can you bring it around to the fiscal impact of this bill please,” Brown said.
“Yes sir,” Bauerle replied. He then shuffled through his notes and explained that as veterans, not lobbyists, they needed the legislators help to amend the bill to provide veterans with programs that will help them.
He explained that the Department of Veterans Affairs was not helping with the problem and that the federal government would likely reimburse the state for the funds because of the state’s standing.
Bauerle proposed some suggestions for a pilot program. After several minutes, he finally got around to the fiscal impact.
“It would prove once and for all that veterans can be helped in our state,” Bauerle said. “That would be the fiscal impact and the reason why we bring this to this assembled body.”
Brown tried again: “How much do you think the fiscal impact would be?” he asked.
“Sir, the cost of currently using Medicare rates in Indiana, I’ve checked with three hospitals in Indiana,” Bauerle responded.
“I’m not asking about Medicare rates,” Brown said. “How much do you think the fiscal will be?”
“The fiscal impact for a trial that we’re asking for would be $2 million.”
So, Brown said, that’s all the money the bill would be available under the bill.
“I’m very sympathetic and obviously, Mr. Chairman, we welcome, once we get this started, we would welcome veterans to come,” Frizzell said. “Now, their part of it, yes it would wipe out the fund unless we add more money through appropriation.”
Brown turned back to Bauerle. “Is there no medical based research that shows this is effective long term?” Brown asked. Bauerle began to talk, but was cut off by Brown who asked his question again.
The disagreements continued until Brown said, “Also, didn’t you come to my office and state this was an issue you weren’t going to bring forward this year because the Indiana State Department of Health was not going to support it?”
“That is a true statement and afterwards I recanted that request,” Bauerle said.
Brown then thanked Bauerle and the discussion was done. So was the proposed amendment.
Members of the Military Veterans Coalition of Indiana gather for a meeting in March to talk about their strategies for passing bills at the General Assembly. Photo by Alec Gray, TheStatehouseFile.com
What the volunteer lobbyists lack in experience, they try to make up for in organization and energy. Leaders of the veterans groups say they’ve been working together with a unified voice to try to convince lawmakers to do more than just what they call “whoop-de-do” legislation, which includes things that veterans say are common sense, such as veteran employment preference and National Guard financial aid.
But leaders say while those issues are important, there are other bills that really matter and can change lives.
The Military Veteran Coalition of Indiana is a group that meets to discuss strategies on how to deal with situations at the legislative level and promote veteran issues.
At a meeting in March, the coalition discussed how veterans have become a group that lawmakers like to be seen with, but don’t actually want to support.
Ron Martin, who advocates at the Statehouse for the coalition alongside Bauerle, said veterans are sick of just being in pictures.
Politicians “stand along the highway to wave the flags, but that’s all,” Martin said.
HIGH PRIORITY BILLS KILLED
The veterans proposed a bill earlier in the session dealing with a Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy pilot program. House Bill 1615 would have allowed the veterans’ recovery program and fund to provide treatment to veterans with PTSD and other severe brain injuries.
Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy would be one of the treatments used. HBOT has not been FDA approved for treating brain injuries and is therefore not covered by a soldier’s federal health plan.
However, many veterans who have been through the program say it has changed their lives.
Jason Emery, an Iraq veteran, plays a song he wrote called The Killing Floor that says war should be a last resort.. Photo by Alec Gray, TheStatehouseFile.com
Emery, a Greenfield resident, was wounded during his time serving in Iraq. Upon returning home, he developed PTSD, which he said he didn’t realize was a problem initially and led to changes in his behavior.
He then learned the Rocky Mountain Hyperbaric Association for Brain Injuries in Colorado had a program that allows veterans to come to their facilities and houses and feeds them during the time of their treatment. Nothing like that is available in Indiana.
“It should not have to be that hard for any family to get the treatment they need for these soldiers. They’re our first line of defense and we’re not taking care of them,” said his mother, Brenda Berry.
Julie Stapleton is the medical director for the Rocky Mountain Hyperbaric Association for Brain Injuries and she believes the treatment is better than taking pills alone.
“I’ve seen a lot of treatments come and go and I think overall this is the one treatment that I’ve seen that actually is therapeutic. It actually treats the symptoms. Medications manage the symptoms, they do not cure,” Stapleton said in a video posted on the association’s website.
The association’s president, Eddie Gomez, said in the video, that the therapy should be accompanied by other treatments as well.
“Hyperbaric oxygen therapy is definitely a treatment you want to do with other therapies. It’s not the end all. The psychological counseling definitely has to be in there,” Gomez said.
Emery wants veterans in Indiana to receive similar treatment – without making the trip to Colorado. That’s why he testified in favor of HB 1615 earlier. But the bill never made it out of committee and the later attempt to amend similar language into another bill failed too.
That wasn’t the only high-priority veterans bill that died this year.
SB 424 would make the state women’s veteran coordinator a permanent position that must be filled. The law currently makes the position optional.
Lisa Wilken, who volunteers as an advocate for female veterans, said lawmakers don’t understand that the position is needed by women veterans who want someone to fight for their gender-specific issues.
“Unfortunately the losers in this situation could be the women veterans in the state of Indiana,” Wilken said.
This year, Frye, who chairs the committee decided not to hear the bill after hearing and supporting it last year.
“The reason that we’re not hearing the bill is because I don’t think it’s necessary,” Frye said.
Frye said lawmakers have dealt with the issue and the position is filled, so there is no need to hear it again, but Wilken said it the issue is about whether or not the position is permanent.
“If you support the legislation and you support the position always being there, then why not go ahead and complete the legislation and make this a truly permanent position here in Indiana,” Wilken said.
She said veterans do not want special treatment, they just want the opportunity to have their bills heard and to be voted on based on their merit.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Throughout the process, the majority of veterans bills have been killed, especially those that had money attached to them.
Senate Appropriations Chairman Luke Kenley, R-Noblesville, killed several of them in his committee early in the session. And so when he was pushed later about including the provisions in the state budget, he pointed back to those bills. “I think that shows my intention and their persistence.”
Veteran advocates said that the lawmakers have forgotten about veterans and don’t care about their issues. Lawmakers said they care about veterans, but sometimes they simply ask for too much and that there is not enough money to go around.
At the end of the day, both groups continue to disagree about how high on the priority list veterans issues should be.
“We want our list to be shorter,” Martin said. “You gotta pass a few bills and it will be shorter.”
Alec Gray is a reporter for TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.