An e-mail from Jim Whittington stating his reactions to recent TRICARE Town Meetings in Mississippi has prompted this article. Jim says the views he expressed are his own and should not to be construed as being the views of U.S. Rep. Ronnie Shows (D-MS), or his legislative assistant Phil Alperson, or anyone else. Rep. Shows coordinated the overall effort.

Why do I think I am qualified to add my 2-cents worth on this issue when I wasn't even there? For one thing, Jim's comments parallel some of my own experiences during many such grass roots meetings over the years, including the annual retiree symposiums hosted by the military. I tend to believe Jim – a victim of the system, who has worked so long and hard at trying to fight through the Washington fog to right the wrongs.

Also, from 1993 to 1999, I visited Washington one or more times each year to interview House and Senate military committee members, VA chiefs, the Secretary of Defense, and various other movers and shakers responsible for laws, regulations, and administration of military retirees and other veterans. Visiting with these people eyeball-to-eyeball provides a different perspective than secondhand newspaper and TV reports, or even their own press releases.

So, you can take my personal comments here for whatever you think they are worth. My use of the word congress generally refers to both houses.

In one respect, the Mississippi events were an exception to most such meetings – a congressional representative and his staff were involved. My experience has been that the folks who can actually DO SOMETHING about the problem seldom attend. The norm is that most featured speakers, regardless of rank or stature, can only explain the rules – sometimes not very well – but have little or no clout in problem solving.

Here are some of Jim's statements (paraphrased by me), with my own thoughts added:

JW: “My thanks to Congressman Ronnie Shows, Phil Alperson and the staff that coordinated this project. They were taking notes and listening. Hopefully, this will be translated into something meaningful and passed to other members of Congress.”
BV: Fortunately, Rep. Shows and his staff understand the retiree's problems (thanks to their serious interest in the matter, and to the efforts of people like Jim, Floyd Sears, Fred Gray, and others in the Mississippi Grass Roots contingent) and have introduced bills and gained support of other members of congress for positive results.

JW: “The TRICARE contractors provide the same bogus we-don't- have-a-problem-with-TRICARE information at these meetings that you find on the Web. So just imagine the erroneous assumptions made by members of congressional committees who receive this misinformation at briefings.”
BV: Congress won't know the real truth unless retirees tell them about their actual experiences of problems being ignored.

JW: “Just because some official says certain clinics and doctors accept TRICARE STANDARD patients (perhaps for the sake of making the numbers look good) does not make it fact. Get real. Check it out yourself to learn the truth. And tell Congress about it if it is not right.”
BV: Who are we to believe: the victims or the falsifiers?

JW: “Some of the uniformed personnel involved with TRICARE told me privately, 'We DO have problems with TRICARE, but we can only carry out policy, not make it. Only Congress can do that. Keep doing what the Grass Roots Group is doing'.”
BV: Translation: People in the lower echelons merely follow orders. If Congress is not aware of the problems, the Contractors aren't going to tell them. Who does that leave? Look in the mirror for the answer.

JW: “Some Civilians also told me off the record, 'Sure we have TRICARE problems, but we try to implement changes as they occur within the scope of the Contract'.”
BV: And who is the only entity that can change the scope of the contract? Congress.

Jim made other points in his letter, but the crux of all this is that meetings seldom solve problems. Only congress can solve the retirees' problems, and only individual effort on the part of retirees can make congress aware of what needs changing.

Meetings are good for renewing old acquaintances and complaining to each other about what “someone” ought to do to solve the problems. Meetings are good for focusing on common problems that affect attendees, and for trying to inspire, cajole, or shame the attendees into group participation that will emphasize need for a solution.

Meetings are better that attract speakers who have the authority to get something done about the problems. Attendees want solutions, at best – or satisfactory answers to their questions, at least.

Meetings are okay, but individual effort is better – i.e., contacting your congressional representatives in person, by telephone, by hand-written letter (never a form letter), by e-mail, or other means. This gives you the satisfaction of knowing for sure that someone in authority is now aware of the problem. It even does something worthwhile for those fellow retirees who will not assist in the fight for their promised benefits.

Each of us has a personal agenda. We military retirees have ours, folks in congress have theirs, and our president has his, ad infinitum. What is important to each of us may differ, depending on how it affects us personally, and what motivates us. So it is easy to get carried away, both in our zeal for our own agenda, and our lack of understanding of the agendas of others.

Therefore, HOW we approach the matter of contacting congress is as important as DOING IT. Certainly it must be without animosity. These are busy folks with a lot of people pinging on them. Don't put the mouth in motion before the brain is engaged. Make sure you know the facts, can verify reliable sources, and are able to discuss issues briefly, calmly, and clearly.

It would also help if you familiarize yourself with the basic steps to get a bill through congress (available at several congressional websites). Knowing what your representatives must go through in this process will give you a more realistic view of what can and can't be done. Therefore, do your home work.

Once he or she is interested in your cause, it takes a lot of time and effort on their part - sometimes successful, sometimes not – and yours is just one of many causes they must consider. Don't alienate them – cultivate them.