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Murray Calls on Senate to Do the Right Thing: Pay for the Cost of Veterans’ Healthcare

Apr 12 2005

Murray Amendment would avoid VA “train wreck” by providing $2 billion to pay for veterans’ healthcare

Update: Vote Fails

Video | Audio | Amendment Summary

(WASHINGTON, D.C.) – United States Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) today offered her amendment to the $80 billion supplemental funding bill for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Murray Amendment would provide $2 billion in funding for a critical cost of war -- healthcare for America’s veterans, including those returning home from Operations Enduring and Iraqi Freedom.

Washington state has sent thousands of brave men and women to serve in Iraq and Afghanistan and now, a large group is returning home – including nearly 4,000 members of the National Guard.

“I am very concerned that when all of these new veterans come home and need medical care they're going to be pushed into a VA system that doesn't have the medical staff, facilities, or funding to take care of them,” Murray said in her floor speech. “There is a train wreck coming in veterans’ healthcare, and I'm offering an amendment to deal with this emergency now – before it turns into a crisis.”

Murray, who recently traveled to Iraq and Kuwait to meet with soldiers from Washington state, said that the soldiers she met were all concerned about access to healthcare for themselves and their families upon their return home. Murray, who has supported every funding measure for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will support the emergency supplemental, but wants the Senate to fund the cost of veterans’ healthcare as an integral cost of war.

Murray’s amendment would enable the VA to absorb the influx of new veterans and reverse critical budget shortfalls, while still maintaining the quality of care for current veterans. Murray’s amendment does this by:

  1. Providing $525 million for mental health care for returning veterans. Many need help with post traumatic stress disorder;

  2. Providing $610 million for our newest veterans – so they do not have to compete with existing veterans for health care; and

  3. Provides $40 million for every veterans regional network – so they can open new clinics and meet local needs. Today, most VA networks face a $40 million shortfall that hurts our veterans.

“As Americans, we made a promise to those who joined our military that we will take care of them when they come home,” Murray said. “It's a promise that all of us have to work together to keep, and that's why I'm on the Senate floor today. This is not a Democratic issue. It's not a Republican issue. It's an American issue. And I'm willing to work with anyone to make sure all of our veterans get the healthcare they were promised.”

The full text of Murray’s speech, as delivered on the Senate floor, follows:

Mr. President, today in Iraq and Afghanistan our men and women in uniform are making great sacrifices to serve our country.

Last month, I met with some of them in Baghdad and Kuwait, and we can be proud of their service. Each person I met with was a dedicated professional who was putting their duty above their personal well being.

But I am very concerned that when all of these new veterans come home and need medical care they're going to be pushed into a VA system that doesn't have the medical staff, facilities, or funding to take care of them.

There is a train wreck coming in veterans healthcare, and I'm offering an amendment to deal with this emergency now – before it turns into a crisis.

Today the VA healthcare system is overcrowded, under-funded, and understaffed. It is struggling to deal with existing veterans and I fear what will happen when tens of thousands of new veterans are added to this already-strained system.

As Americans, we made a promise to those who joined our military that we will take care of them when they come home. It's a promise that all of us have to work together to keep, and that's why I'm on the Senate floor today.

This is not a Democratic issue. It's not a Republican issue. It's an American issue. And I'm willing to work with anyone to make sure all of our veterans get the healthcare they were promised.

I appreciate the leadership of many Senators – especially Senator Craig – who chairs the Senate Veterans Affairs committee on which I serve. I also want to thank Senator Hutchinson of Texas, who chairs the committee that funds veterans care. I appreciate these colleagues’ commitment to our veterans. I look forward to working with them and many others to make sure we are doing everything we need to do to prepare for the influx so many new veterans.

With Senator Akaka and others, I'm offering a veterans healthcare amendment to the Emergency Supplemental. Our amendment recognizes that caring for our veterans is part of the cost of war.

Our amendment does three things. First, it makes sure that all soldiers who will need healthcare when they return home from Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom can get that healthcare. To do that, this amendment provides $610 million.

Second, it provides funding for the mental health care of our newest veterans. Specifically, it provides $525 million for expanded mental health services – including $150 million to treat Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Third, the amendment helps address the shortfalls that are crippling our regional VA networks. It provides $40 million to each and every VISN -- Veterans’ Integrated Service Network.

This chart shows the 21 regional health networks. Each region will receive $40 million to spend on its priorities. For some areas, that will mean erasing big deficits. In others, it will help them hire more medical staff. In other parts of the country, they'll use it to buy medical equipment.

That flexible funding will allow each region to prepare their staff and facilities for our newest veterans. It will put a total of $840 million where local communities need it most.

In short, this amendment will ensure we can handle the health care needs of all of the veterans who will seek care after serving our country in Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom.

The total cost of the amendment is $1.98 billion, and let me explain how we arrived at that figure. First, we looked at the number of new veterans who will turn to the VA for care. We multiplied that by the average cost per patient. To that we added the cost of reversing the deficits facing our VA hospitals, and the cost of meeting increased mental healthcare needs.

Some Senators may wonder if this is the appropriate vehicle to fund veterans’ healthcare so let me say a word about that. I would have preferred to fund this critical need in the regular budget process – and I tried to do that several times last month in the Budget Committee, and here on the Senate floor with Senator Akaka.

Unfortunately, our amendments were voted down. But the need is not going away. The shortfalls are only going to get worse. So if we're not going to take care of our veterans from Iraq in the regular budget, then we need to take care of them in the bill that funds our war efforts.

Mr. President, this is the appropriate bill because the veterans’ healthcare train wreck is an emergency, and because caring for our veterans is part of the cost of war. As I've been talking about this amendment and discussing it with veterans, I've been very pleased by the support it's received so far.

This amendment is supported by: the Veterans of Foreign Wars, AMVETS, Disabled American Veterans, Paralyzed Veterans of America, and the VA workers who care for our veterans – represented by the American Federation of Government Employees, AFL-CIO. I want to thank these organizations and their members for supporting the amendment and reaching out their Senators to call for its passage.

Before I go any further, I want to note that veteran's healthcare is a very personal issue for me. My father was a disabled World War II veteran. When I was in college, I interned in a VA hospital in Seattle during the Vietnam War. And I became the first woman to serve on the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee. The VA provides some of the best care, research, and treatment anywhere. VA employees have a unique understanding of the challenges our veterans face. And their dedication is unmatched. Like them, I want to make sure that this system works for every veteran of every war, and every generation.

Today I want to share some specific examples -- from throughout the country -- that illustrate the emergency in veterans healthcare today. These examples don't come from me. They come from people who know our VA facilities first-hand. A few days ago, I posted a form on my website – at – where veterans and their advocates can share their stories and examples with me.

I've been heartened with the things people have shared so far, and I want to invite other veterans to share their stories with me and with their own Senators. For anyone who thinks this is not an emergency or that it doesn't merit emergency funding, I invite you to listen closely. I'm going to be talking about different places, but the overall problem is the same everywhere.

For years, VA funding has not kept up with the growing demand for care and the rising cost of care. So VA networks around the country have held off making improvements. When a doctor or nurse left, they weren't replaced. When equipment needed to be purchased, it was put on hold. When a clinic needed to be opened, it was held in limbo. When there wasn't enough money in the operating budget, they started taking from the capital budget.

Now all those years of chronic under-funding are coming back to roost at the worst possible time. Just as we're about to have a major influx of new veterans – our VA facilities are facing deficits, staff shortages and inadequate facilities. Let me give you some of the examples that have been shared with me.

In Alaska, as of yesterday, they are starting a waiting list for non-emergency care for all new Priority 7 veterans who are not enrolled in VA primary care – that means these people can't get an appointment to see a doctor.

In Colorado, the Eastern Colorado Health Care System is $7.25 million short this year.

In California, last year, the VA Hospital in Los Angeles closed its psychiatric emergency room.

In Florida, the VISN 8 facilities were facing a $150 million deficit earlier this year. One facility -- the West Palm Beach Medical Center -- has a deficit of $6 million.

In Idaho, at the VA in Boise they've resorted to hiring freezes.

In Kentucky, veterans at the Louisville hospital who are having a type of bladder examination have to lie on a broken table because there's not money to replace that broken equipment.

In Maine, the Togus VA has a $12 million deficit.

In Minnesota, at the Minneapolis VA they've got a $7 million shortfall. They have one of the VA's four sites for dealing with veterans with complex, multiple injuries. But they're not hiring any more staff for that specialized center because of the deficit.

And as all of us who have visited our returning soldiers up at Walter Reed or Bethesda know, many, many more of them are returning with just these sorts of injuries.

In Missouri, at the Kansas City VA Medical Center – they've got a $10 million operating deficit. I'm also told that in Missouri there aren't enough doctors and providers to see all the veterans. So if a veteran is less than 50 percent service-connected disabled, they're put on a waiting list.

In South Dakota, they're expecting to be $7 million in the red by the end of this fiscal year. The VA is proposing to save $2 million by not filling staff vacancies. I'm told that they need 58 new beds and that some bed frames are held together with duct tape and wire. But – because of the deficit – they're not buying new beds. I'm also told that the Black Hills Health Care System is $3 million in the whole. They've had to use the capital budget to pay staff and other expenses.

In Texas, at the Temple, Texas VA, nurses in inpatient care are working 16 hour days-- several times a week -- because there isn't enough staff. We know that nurses providing direct care should only be working 12 hour days because longer shifts can lead to medical errors and unsafe care.

In Virginia, as of January, I understand that Virginia had a budget shortfall of $14.5 million.

And in my home state of Washington – we've got problems too. In Tacoma, at the American Lake VA – you can only get an appointment if you are 50 percent or more service-connected disabled. In the Puget Sound – as of January -- there was an $11 million deficit. So at the Seattle and American Lake VA they are leaving vacant positions unfilled. There are about 16 new vacancies every month – and those positions will remain empty. They hope to reduce the workforce by 160 full time equivalents by the end of this fiscal year.

This is having a big impact on patients. For example, as of this month, the next appointment at the Seattle VA Urology Clinic isn't available until August. I can tell you that conditions like this are breaking the hearts of our VA personnel. They are frustrated at seeing so many veterans not get the care they have earned because Congress is not providing the money.

I share these examples not to criticize or cast blame. We've got problems like this in my state as well, as I've detailed. I share them because we need to look at what’s happening and realize that our VA system is not prepared to handle a new generation of veterans.

All of these examples – from more than a dozen states – point to one conclusion. The VA is having trouble taking care of the patients it has today. It is certainly not prepared to handle a new influx of veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan. Many of these VA centers are in the hole for millions of dollars. They are not in a position to begin expanding care to meet the growing need. They can't do it alone – so we've got to step in and help them out.

Before I close, I want to address one claim that we may hear during this debate. Some Senators have suggested that the VA doesn’t need any additional funding because it has a reserve of $500 million. I was troubled by the idea that the VA may have extra money it's not using – while so many communities are struggling.

So at a hearing last week of the Veterans Affairs Committee, I got to the bottom of it.

At our hearing on April 7th, I asked the Acting Undersecretary for Veterans Healthcare, Dr. Jonathan Perlin, about it. I asked Dr. Perlin, "Is there a $500 million reserve?"

Dr. Perlin replied "No . . . I don’t know where that might have been suggested, but there is no $500 million reserve that is sitting there for future projects.” I share that with my colleagues to set the record straight.

The VA is not sitting on any type of reserve that it can use for medical care and that answer comes straight from the man who runs the program nationwide. We've got VA centers that are struggling in every part of the country. They can't deal with the caseload they have today. How in the world are they going to deal with all the new veterans who are coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan?

We cannot "kick this can" down the road any longer. It's an emergency today, and if we don't deal with it now, it's going to be a crisis tomorrow.

This is not a partisan issue. It's an American issue. I'm willing to work with anyone who wants to make sure our country is prepared to care for all the new veterans who will be coming home soon. They were there for us. Now we need to be there for them.

I urge my colleagues to support the Veterans Health Amendment.

If you're concerned about this, perhaps I mentioned your state, or you've heard from your own veterans, let's talk about it. Let's find a way to make it work. Because no matter what party we are in, we are Americans first.

And we all have an obligation – as President Lincoln said – "to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan."

We need to pass the Veterans Health Amendment, and keep the promise to America's veterans.