One year ago, the Washington Post published the first in a series of articles documenting cases of neglect at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. Reports of wounded service members being denied proper treatment and enduring substandard and often deplorable living conditions at the Center’s outpatient facility raised widespread concern about the quality of care at Walter Reed and at other Department of Defense (DOD) and Veterans Administration (VA) medical facilities across the country. The scandal prompted several Congressional hearings and investigations led by the VA and a special bipartisan panel known as the President’s Commission on Care for America’s Returning Wounded Warriors – all of which confirmed the failures at Walter Reed and found similar cases of neglect at VA hospitals and clinics nationwide.
In the subsequent weeks and months, Democrats took the lead to address the problems uncovered at Walter Reed and took decisive action to provide the VA and DOD with the resources they needed to ensure proper facility maintenance, first-rate medical treatment, and timely service for all of our nation’s wounded veterans. Over the past year, Democrats secured emergency funding to fill in gaps left behind by the Bush Administration, advanced landmark legislation on the treatment and management of wounded warriors, and passed the largest budget in the history of our country for the Department of Veterans Affairs.
By contrast, the Bush Administration has failed to grasp the lessons of Walter Reed. Its record of poor leadership, mismanagement, and underfunding has continued despite the unprecedented challenges facing the VA. Earlier this month, the President unveiled his Fiscal Year 2009 budget, once again proposing to shortchange critical health care programs for veterans. The budget underestimates the cost of medical care, calls for significant cuts in funding for construction and maintenance at VA medical facilities, grants to states to support long-term care programs, and reduces key oversight functions.
Democrats Have Led Initiatives To Ensure First-Rate Care For Our Veterans
Senate Democrats have secured billions in additional funding to better care for our nation’s veterans:
· 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. (P.L. 110-5)
· Democrats secured nearly $1.8 billion in additional funding for veterans’ health care, veterans’ benefits, and VA construction needs in the 2007 emergency supplemental appropriations bill. (P.L. 100-28)
· 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. (P.L. 100-161)
Senate Democrats have provided funds to maintain top-notch VA and DOD medical facilities. Senate Democrats led the effort to provide $3 billion in Fiscal Year 2007 emergency funding for military health care – $1.9 billion above the amount the President requested – to address shortfalls in care at Walter Reed and make critical investments in military hospital improvements. Democrats also secured $550 million in emergency Fiscal Year 2007 funding for non-recurring maintenance needs identified by the VA as well as $290 million for minor construction for VA-identified needs. Further, under Democratic leadership, the Senate provided an additional $397 million in Fiscal Year 2008 funding above the President’s budget request for the construction and maintenance of VA hospitals and clinics to ensure that VA facilities do not experience the same neglect that has existed at Walter Reed. (P.L. 110-28; P.L. 110-161)
Senate Democrats advanced landmark legislation to ensure first-rate care for wounded warriors. Democrats led the effort to passthe Dignified Treatment of Wounded Warriors Act, whichestablishes 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. (S.1606, included in the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2008, P.L. 110-181)
Democrats have worked to enhance mental health care for our service members and veterans. Senate Democrats provided $900 million in emergency Fiscal Year 2007 funding for brain trauma injury (BTI) and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) treatment and research, to ensure that our military’s mental health care system has the resources and trained professionals to meet the mental health care needs of our service members. Democrats also included an additional $1.9 billion in Fiscal Year 2008 funding for the VA medical services account for polytrauma care and improved mental health services. Further, Senate Democrats advanced a bipartisan initiative to strengthen suicide prevention initiatives – The Joshua Omvig Veterans Suicide Prevention Act of 2007 – to significantly improve mental health services for returning war veterans. (P.L. 110-28; P.L. 110-161; P.L. 110-110)
The Bush Administration Has Not Learned The Lessons Of Walter Reed
The Bush budget would cut funds for the construction, renovation, and upgrade of VA medical facilities and infrastructure. The Administration’s budget would reduce funding for both Major and Minor Construction accounts by $487.5 million and $301 million respectively, from last year’s funding level, to provide a total of $911 million in Fiscal Year 2009 funding for VA Major and Minor Construction. These cuts come despite the need for significant upgrades in the VA’s critical infrastructure, including its medical care facilities.
The Bush budget would nearly halve funding for long-term care facilities. The President’s proposal would cut funding for State Home grants by $80 million, to provide a total of just $85 million in funding for Fiscal Year 2009. These grants provide vital funds to states that are building long-term care facilities, which is an area in need of additional investments, given the growing demand for such care from veterans.
Underestimate the needs of veterans from Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) and Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF). The President’s request includes just $216 million more than Fiscal Year 2008 levels to provide for the care of Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans, a level that is projected to fall significantly short of real demand. According to the VA’s data, 299,585 Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans had accessed VA health care through the end of Fiscal Year 2007. The President’s budget is based on the assumption that 333,275 OEF/OIF veterans will access VA care in Fiscal 2009, which means that it assumes that just 33,690 new OEF/OIF veterans would seek VA services over two years – Fiscal Years 2008 and 2009. These projections are significantly out of step with trends from previous years, including the VA’s own Health Care Utilization Report that shows that 37 percent of OEF/OIF veterans seek VA health care after separating from service. More realistic projections based on VA trend data, as estimated by the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee Majority staff, suggest that at least double the number of new veterans projected by the Administration will seek VA services through Fiscal Year 2009.
The Bush budget would flatline funding for certain benefits and incentive programs for VA health care workers. Although the VA anticipates that it will face a shortfall of health care personnel in the coming years, the Bush budget fails to take action to improve recruitment and retention programs. The President’s proposal generally maintains Fiscal Year 2008 funding levels for education assistance, debt reduction, and scholarship programs at a time when additional investments should be made in these key areas.
The Bush budget would significantly cut funding for the VA’s Office of the Inspector General (IG). The President’s budget proposal includes a $4 million cut for the IG, at a time when oversight of the Department is critically important. The IG conducts regular assessments of each of the VA’s health care facilities, reports on timely issues such as traumatic brain injury care, and uncovers waste, fraud, and abuse within the VA system.