Under the Bush Administration’s stewardship, veterans’ health care has been under-funded, vital Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) programs have suffered under poor leadership and mismanagement, and the necessary steps have not been taken to ensure that the VA is prepared to meet the needs of servicemembers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.
Since Democrats gained control of the Senate, we have taken significant steps to begin to reverse six years of the Bush Administration’s failed policies and broken promises to our nation’s veterans. Under Democratic leadership, the Senate has filled in critical funding shortfalls for the VA and taken significant action to enhance VA health care services, improve veterans’ access to critical benefits, and decrease waiting times and bureaucratic obstacles facing veterans at the VA. Senate Democrats recognize and appreciate the sacrifices of our troops and their families and we are committed to continuing to work to fulfill our country’s obligation to veterans.
This year, Senate Democrats provided the largest increase in veterans’ spending in the history of the United States. In the Fiscal Year 2008 Military Construction and Veterans Affairs (VA) Appropriations bill, Democrats advanced a $3.7 billion increase above the President’s budget request for the VA, including a $2.6 billion increase for veterans’ health care and medical research. This investment truly reflects our commitment to ensure that veterans get the care and benefits they deserve.
Ensuring That the VA Has Adequate Resources to Meet the Needs of Our Nation’s Veterans
The Department of Veterans Affairs faced critical budget shortfalls in Fiscal Years 2005 and 2006, largely due to the Bush Administration’s failure to budget for the growing needs of veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. According to the Government Accountability Office (GAO) flaws in the Administration’s budget formulation – “unrealistic assumptions, errors in estimation, and insufficient data” – contributed to the President’s requests for additional funding, including a $975 million supplemental appropriation request in June 2005 and a $1.977 billion budget amendment in July 2005. (GAO-06-958, 9/20/06)
In spite of these findings, the Bush Administration has continued its practice of underestimating the demand for VA services from veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. According to Senate committee reports, the Administration’s budget projections underestimated the number of veterans who would access the VA health care system by 100,000 patients, or nearly 100 percent, in its Fiscal Year 2007 budget proposal and by 50,000 patients in its Fiscal Year 2008 budget proposal. (Senator Murray, Press Release, 9/29/06; Appropriations Committee Minority Staff, 3/29/07; Veterans’ Affairs Committee Majority Staff, 2/05/07)
The Democratic Majority has worked to reverse the Bush record of shortchanging the needs of our veterans. Under Democratic leadership, the Senate has successfully filled in critical funding gaps left open by the Administration to ensure that the VA can meet the needs of all of our nation’s veterans, including servicemembers returning from the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan.
· Senate Democrats passed a Revised Continuing Appropriations Resolution for Fiscal Year 2007 that filled in a $3.5 billion funding shortfall for veterans’ health care left behind by Republicans. Under the joint funding resolution, Senate Democrats provided a total of $32 billion for VA medical care, which is an increase of $3.5 billion over Fiscal Year 2006 levels, and the funding level approved by the Republican-passed Continuing Resolution during the last Congress. These funds are vital for improving mental health services, enhancing inpatient and outpatient care for veterans, and also allowing the VA to better address its backlog of pending benefits claims.
· Senate Democrats secured nearly $1.8 billion in additional funding for veterans’ health care, veterans’ benefits, and VA construction needs in the 2007 supplemental appropriations bill. The 2007 emergency supplemental bill allocated nearly $1.8 billion in emergency funds to the VA, not requested by the President, to accommodate the increasing number of new veterans returning home from Iraq and Afghanistan, improve mental health programs and readjustment counseling services, and fund new polytrauma centers for the severely injured. The bill also provided funds to ensure that VA health care facilities are maintained at the highest level.
· Under Democratic leadership, the Senate provided a $3.7 billion increase for VA medical services, veterans’ benefits, and VA construction and maintenance for Fiscal Year 2008. The Fiscal Year 2008 Military Construction and Veterans Affairs (VA) Appropriations billwould provide $43 billion to the VA, which is $3.7 billion above the President’s request and $6.5 billion over last year’s funding level. The bill includes additional funds for veterans’ health care, veterans’ benefits and VA construction needs. The bill represents the largest increase in funding for veterans’ health care in the history of the United States. It would provide approximately 98 percent of the Independent Budget’s (IB) recommendation of the funds needed to care for our veterans. The IB is a comprehensive budget and policy document created by Veterans Service Organizations.
Providing First-Rate Care to Veterans
Maintaining top-notch VA medical facilities. As the mistreatment of wounded soldiers at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center has highlighted, the Bush Administration has failed to provide adequate funding or exercise the leadership necessary to ensure quality care to our nation’s veterans. Earlier this year, a series of investigations, Congressional hearings, and media reports uncovered deplorable conditions, substandard medical care, and significant bureaucratic obstacles at many of our nation’s military and veterans’ health care facilities. In March, a Department of Veterans Affairs review found more than 1,000 reports of substandard conditions at the 1,400 hospitals and veterans care facilities investigated. (Washington Post, 3/22/07)
Senate Democrats moved swiftly to address this crisis. The Fiscal Year 2007 emergency supplemental bill provided $45 million for the VA medical facilities account to upgrade the polytrauma network system and $550 million to fund non-recurring maintenance needs identified by the VA. The bill also included $290 million for minor construction for VA-identified needs as well as $36 million for construction needs for the new polytrauma residential programs. In the Fiscal Year 2008 Military Construction and Veterans Affairs (VA) Appropriations bill, Senate Democrats provided an additional $1 billion above the President’s budget request for minor construction and non-recurring maintenance of VA hospitals and clinics to ensure that VA facilities do not fall to the same neglect experienced at Walter Reed.
Caring for wounded warriors. The Dignified Treatment of Wounded Warriors Act (S.1606), establishes a comprehensive policy on the treatment and management of wounded warriors in order to facilitate and improve their care, rehabilitation, and provide for seamless transition from the Department of Defense to the Department of Veterans Affairs, and transition from military service to civilian life. Provisions in this legislation will:
· Enhance care by requiring the DoD and VA develop a comprehensive policy by January 1, 2008, on the care, management, and transition of wounded service members from the military to VA or civilian life;
· Require the DOD and VA Interagency Program Office to develop and implement a joint electronic health record;
· Improve the disability evaluation system by requiring consistent disability ratings between the VA and DoD and requiring pilot programs to improve the evaluation system;
· Establish centers of excellence for diagnosis, treatment, and rehabilitation of TBI and PTSD;
· Authorize of $50 million for improved prevention, diagnosis, treatment, and rehabilitation initiatives for Traumatic Brian Injury (TBI) and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD);
· Enhance disability severance pay and benefits;
· Improve support and outreach to servicemembers and their families by authorizing military and VA health care providers to provide urgent and emergency medical care and counseling to family members; and
· Require the Secretary of Defense to establish standards for housing for military out-patients and for military hospitals and clinics and specialty medical care facilities.
Enhancing mental health care. As the Department of Defense Task Force on Mental Health reported in June, the military’s mental health care system lacks the resources and trained professionals necessary to meet the mental health care needs of our troops. With a growing number of servicemembers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and other mental health conditions, Senate Democrats are continuing to lead the effort to ensure these veterans get the care they need.
· Improving polytrauma care and treatment of Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Senate Democrats have led the charge to bolster funding for programs for treating TBI and PTSD. The Democratic-controlled Senate provided $52.8 million for polytrauma programs, $100 million for enhancements to mental health services, and $10 million for blind rehabilitation programs (often associated with TBI). In the Fiscal Year 2008 Military Construction and Veterans Affairs (VA) Appropriations bill, Democrats included an additional $1.8 billion in funding for the VA medical services account for polytrauma care and improved mental health services.
· Strengthening suicide prevention initiatives. According to DoD, suicide rates in the Army are the highest they have been since the Vietnam War. Today, the suicide rate for Iraq war veterans is 35 percent higher than that of the general population. Democrats led the effort to advance a bipartisan initiative to address this growing problem. H.R.327,the Joshua Omvig Veterans Suicide Prevention Act of 2007,would significantly improve mental health services for returning war veterans. Specifically, the measure would ensure 24-hour access to mental health care for veterans at risk for suicide; provide suicide prevention education for VA staff and medical personnel caring for veterans; create a family education program to address the mental health needs of veterans, and implement a veterans peer support program to program to augment mental health services and suicide prevention efforts.
Reducing Bureaucratic Delays and Red-Tape at the VA
Ensuring timely processing of benefits claims for veterans. Under Democratic leadership, the Senate has moved to alleviate the current strain on the system and ensure that the VA has the capacity to meet the future needs of veterans. In the Fiscal Year 2008 Military Construction and Veterans Affairs (VA) Appropriations bill, the Democratic-led Senate included $131 million in additional funding for the Veterans Benefits Administration to hire at least 500 additional claims processors to reduce the backlog of VA benefits claims. The bill also included $24.2 million for the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims, which reviews from veterans who were denied benefits. Additionally, the Fiscal Year 2007 emergency supplemental advanced by Senate Democrats provided $60.75 million for expenses related to hiring and training additional disability claims processors.
There currently is a backlog of more than 400,000 disability claims at the Veterans Benefits Administration, with more than one quarter (26 percent) of these claims pending for more than 180 days. According to the VA, it takes an average of six months (182 days) to process a claim for benefits. With an increasing number of veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, experts warn that the current strain on the system is likely to grow significantly in the coming years.
Providing Housing to Homeless Veterans
Under Democratic leadership, the Senate passed the Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, and Related Agencies Appropriations Bill for Fiscal Year 2008, which provides $75 million for the Veterans Affairs Supported Housing Program. The program, a new incremental voucher program not requested by President Bush, would be funded jointly with the Department of Veterans Affairs to provide Section 8 vouchers to homeless veterans. These funds would help an estimated 7,500 homeless veterans find housing.