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Senate candidate campaigns in Augusta on veteran benefits, health care

U.S. Senate candidate Michelle Nunn said Wednesday during a campaign visit in Augusta that providing quality health care and restoring retirement benefits to area veterans are among her top priorities.

The two issues dominated a roundtable discussion the Atlanta businesswoman and daughter of former Sen. Sam Nunn hosted at Ryan’s restaurant on Peach Orchard Road.

More than 20 veterans attended the meeting and expressed frustration with Congress for cutting military retirement benefits last year as part of a budget deal.

Even though the Senate voted last week to restore military retirement benefits, the veterans said they feared their cost-of-living adjustments could be targeted next since the House of Representatives identified the funds as an area it could trim to increase the federal government’s borrowing authority.

“Many veterans in the community don’t understand why their benefits had to be sacrificed,” Dr. Deborah Fisher, a 21-year Army veteran said in the opening remarks. “These are long-term benefits that veterans have looked forward to all their lives. Cutting them was a really big blow.”

The Senate reduction of military pension benefits – which, according to the Congressional Research Service, would strip a typical military enlisted person of about $69,000 in lifetime retirement benefits – is expected to cost about $6 billion.

Nunn said the move, however, was necessary as Congress made a promise to honor and protect its veterans through such funds.

“Our veterans have committed to us and they have put everything on the line and we need to fulfill and restore those benefits,” she said.

The promise to restore military retirement benefits is the foundation of a broader veteran platform on which Nunn said she plans to base her campaign.

Other highlights of her platform include providing tax credits to businesses that hire veterans, making in-state tuition available to current and former service members and integrating databases in the departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs to transfer health records seamlessly.

Nunn said she also is closely following the ongoing investigation of the Charlie Norwood Veterans Affairs Medical Center, in which three cancer patients died as a result of the hospital delaying endoscopies for 5,000 veterans.

“Ensuring quality health care is at the top of the list,” she said. “We can and must do better by our veterans to let them continue to thrive and give back.”

Nunn said proposals in Congress could restore transparency and culpability to the VA, but not everyone agrees with her, though.

The Senior Executives Association this week strongly opposed the VA Accountability and Management Act introduced recently by Rep. Jeff Miller, the chairman of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs.

The group said it is concerned the bill, which would allow VA Secretary Eric Shinseki to fire or demote upper-level management, would subject staff to a “trial by media” that pressures political appointees to remove them.

Carol Bonosaro, the president of Senior Executives Association, said the federal government already has civil protections in place to provide due process for employees.

“Not only is this bill a solution in search of a problem, it is unfair and does not further the goal that we all share to ensure the highest quality care for our nation’s veterans,” she said.

In a statement to The Augusta Chronicle on Wednesday, Miller described the Senior Executives Association’s defense of the status quo as “sad” and argued the current disciplinary standard has not worked in the wake of 31 preventable veteran deaths at VA medical centers nationwide.

No one has been fired or demoted for the department’s lapses in care, he said.

“Until department leaders take steps to ensure VA employees and executives are disciplined rather than rewarded for their incompetence, it is simply illogical to think VA’s many problems will subside,” Miller said.

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