Two days ago, on September 27th, Murray spoke in detail about a recent Government Accountability (GAO) report that pointed to stunning failures by the VA. (See Murray's 9/27 speech)
Earlier today, U.S. Senator Larry Craig (R-ID) spoke on the Senate floor about Murray's earlier remarks. (See Senator Craig's statement)
In response, Murray delivered the following speech today.
The full text of Murray's remarks follow:
Mr. President, I rise to discuss how we're doing in caring for America's veterans. With our country at war, with 1.5 million Americans who have served in the Global War on Terror, and with many of them coming home in need of care – it is a critical question.
Last week, we got a shocking report from the Government Accountability Office, which found that the VA has misled Congress about its failure to plan for our veterans.
My Speech on Tuesday
Based on that report and other research, I came here to the Senate floor two days ago and shared my concerns with the full Senate. I said that the Bush Administration has not been honest with us about its failures to plan for the needs of our veterans, and that we still have a lot of work to do to get back on track. And I warned that -- three and half years into this war – the Bush Administration still does not have a plan to meet the needs of all the veterans who will be coming home.
In my speech on Tuesday, I said that Congress needs to provide real oversight of the Bush Administration so that we can ensure our veterans get the care they have earned. For those who want to see my full remarks and all the evidence I cited, you can watch or read my speech on my website at http://murray.senate.gov
The Senator from Idaho
This morning, the Senator from Idaho came here to the Senate floor and spoke with great passion about our veterans. The distinguished chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee took issue with some of the things I said in my remarks here on Tuesday.
Mr. President, I respect the Senator from Idaho. I appreciate his leadership of our committee, and I'm pleased to provide more information before the full Senate. I want everyone to know that the Senator from Idaho and I have worked together on veterans issues.
I want to point out that when the VA finally admitted that it was facing a $3 billion shortfall – the Chairman was first to stand beside me and find the funding to fix the problem. And I thank him for that.
Areas of Agreement
I'm proud to say that the Senator from Idaho and I agree on many points. We both agree that the VA provides excellent healthcare. When I was in college during the Vietnam War, I interned at the VA hospital in Seattle. I saw first-hand how dedicated and talented VA employees are.
Today, that ethic of service and commitment to quality beats in the heart of every VA employee. I'm proud of the progress we've made helping the VA become a model for effective, high quality healthcare.
The Senator from Idaho and I also both agree that we have increased VA funding. It's been an uphill battle – and the facts tell me that we're not prepared for the many veterans coming home – but we both agree that we have increased veterans funding. I might point out that we in Congress provided those increases in spite of years of inadequate budget requests from the White House.
We agree that the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee works in a bipartisan fashion under the lea dership of Senator Craig and Ranking Member Akaka. As I've said many times on this floor – taking care of our veterans is not a Democratic issue or a Republican issue. It's an American issue, and we all need to be part of the solution.
And finally, I couldn't agree more with the Senator from Idaho that we should focus on the facts. Those facts should guide our budgets and our policy decisions. If the facts say everything is fine, that's great. But when the facts say there are problems, we need to hear those facts, and we need to respond based on the facts.
GAO Report Found the VA Misled Us
That's why the GAO report is such a bombshell. Professional, independent government investigators found that the Bush Administration has not told us the facts about its budget and planning problems.
Think about that -- if the people we rely on for the facts are not telling us the truth, we've got a real problem. If they're hiding the truth, we won't be able to provide veterans with the services they need. And one of the answers has to be more oversight and more accountability, so we can get to the truth.
Let me turn to the three main points that are relevant here:
- First, the Bush Administration does not have a real plan to meet the needs of our Iraqi War veterans – and that failure is impacting the care we provide all veterans.
- Second, the Bush Administration misled this Congress and it is still not providing us with up-to-date, timely information.
- And third, we in Congress need to provide real oversight and demand real accountability -- or our veterans are gonna fall behind.
The Bush Administration has No Plan To Serve Iraq & Afghanistan War Veterans
Mr. President, I'm very concerned that the Bush Administration still does not have a plan to meet the needs of our returning service members. And to prove that I want to point to three sets of figures hat come from the VA itself.
No Plan Example #1 – VA Underestimated Demand by 68 Percent for FY 2006
The first piece of evidence concerns the number of veterans the VA expected to treat this year.
For FY 2006, the VA planned to take care of about 110,000 veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan. 110,000. How many are they actually treating? 185,000. So in this fiscal year – that is just about to end -- the VA underestimated demand by 68 percent. And that's just for those veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. If the VA had an accurate plan, they wouldn’t have been so far off.
No Plan Example # 2 – VA Projects FEWER Iraq War Veterans Will Enroll in FY 2007
Let's go to the second piece of evidence that shows the VA has no plan. As I said, this year we're treating 185,000 veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan. How many will we treat next year? The VA estimates that it will only be 109,000 Iraq and Afghanistan veterans. We're treating 185,000 today, but the VA thinks that number is going to down dramatically next year.
Given what we know about our continued involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, that simply defies logic. And you have to wonder how the VA ever came up with those figures in the first place. It's projection for next year is even lower than it's projection for this year. Where are they getting these numbers? Why are they so wrong?
Those are the questions we in Congress need to be asking. If the VA really thinks that next year we'll have fewer veterans seeking care, it clearly has no plan to deal with those who will be coming home.
No Plan Example #3 – We're Already Spending More than the VA Projected
Let me turn to the third piece of evidence that shows the VA has no plan to deal with Iraq War veterans. In July, the VA told us it will need $1 billion each year for the next 10 years to care for veterans from Iraq.
But the fact is -- for this year alone – we've already spending MORE than $1 billion. They've given us a ten-year estimate, and they're already wrong in the very first year. And the lion's share of veterans have not separated from the Pentagon yet, so it's a safe bet that demand for VA services will go up and that will require more funding.
So the VA is already wrong in the figures it provided us just a few months ago. That's because they don't have a plan.
- The fact that they predicted 110,000 enrolled Iraq War veterans this year – and they're already serving 185,000 shows they don't have a plan.
- The fact that they think demand for care will drop next year shows that they don’t have a plan.
- And the fact that we're already spending more than they said we would need for Iraq war vets shows they don't have a plan.
Mr. President, this is unacceptable. If we tolerate it, then we are not doing our jobs here in Congress. They don't have a plan, and we better have some oversight and accountability before more veterans end up getting hurt.
GAO Report Found that the Bush Administration Misled Us
Next Mr. President, I want to turn to the facts of the GAO report that I requested. This report -- prepared by independent, credible government investigators -- tells us what's really happening. All of us care about the facts and we all care about getting this right, and that's why we should all take this report to heart. Unless we learn from our mistakes, we're never going to do any better for America's veterans.
GAO's 4 Findings
In that spirit, I want to focus on four findings. First, the GAO found that the VA knew it had serious problems with its budget, but failed to notify us in Congress. Even worse, it misled us.
The report suggests that the VA could still be sending us inaccurate information in its quarterly reports.
Second, the GAO found that the VA was basing its budgets on "unrealistic assumptions, errors in estimation, and insufficient data."
Third, the Pentagon failed to give the VA up-to-date information about how many service members would be coming down the pipeline into the VA.
Finally, the GAO found that the VA did not adequately plan for the impact of service members from Iraq and Afghanistan.
VA Misled Congress
For me, I think one of the most disturbing findings is that the VA kept assuring us in Congress that everything was fine – while inside the VA it was clear that shortfalls were growing.
The VA became aware it would have problems in October 2004 – but didn't admit those problems until June of 2005. Veterans were telling me of long lines and delays in care.
For months, I tried to give the VA more money, but the Administration fought me every step of the way. And who paid the price for the VA's deceptions? America's veterans, and that's just wrong.
Timeline of VA Deceptions
Let me walk through some of the deceptions found in the report. It shows a very troubling gap between what the VA knew and what the VA told us.
According to the GAO report, starting back in October 2004, the VA knew money was tight. It anticipated serious budget challenges, and created a "Budget Challenges" working group.
Two months later, in December 2004, the budget group made internal recommendations to deal with the shortfall. It suggested delaying new initiatives and shifting around funding.
Two months later, in February 2005, the Bush Administration released its budget proposal for 2006.
The GAO found that budget was based on "unrealistic assumptions, errors in estimation and insufficient data."
A week later at a hearing – on February 15th, 2005, I asked the VA Secretary if the President's budget was sufficient. He told me, "I have many of the same concerns, and I end up being satisfied that we can get the job done with this budget."
Mr. President, let's remember what was happening back at that time. I was hearing from veterans that they were facing delays in care and that the VA system was stretched to capacity. But the VA continued to say everything was fine.
On March 8th, Secretary Nicholson told a House committee that the president's FY 2006 budget, quote "gives VA what it needs."
I was hearing a much different story as I spoke with veterans around the country. That's why on March 10th, I offered an amendment in the Senate Budget Committee to increase veterans funding by 3% so we could hire more doctors and provide faster care to veterans. Unfortunately, Republicans said no.
That same month, the VA's internal monthly reports showed that demand for healthcare was exceeding projections. That was another warning sign that the VA should have shared with us, but it didn't.
On March 16th, Senator Akaka and I offered an amendment here on the Senate floor to increase veterans funding by $2.85 billion. Once again, Republicans said no.
The next month, on April 5th, Secretary Nicholson wrote to Senator Hutchison saying – "I can assure you that the VA does not need emergency supplemental funds in FY 2005."
A week later, on April 12th, I offered two amendments on the Senate floor to boost veterans funding. First, I asked the Senate to agree that the lack of veterans funding was an emergency and that we had to fix. Republicans said no.
Then I asked the Senate to agree that supporting our veterans was a priority. Again, Republican said no. As a result, veterans didn't get the funding they needed, and the deception continued.
On June 9th, I asked Secretary Nicholson at a hearing if he had enough funding to deal with the mental health challenges of veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. He assured me the VA was fine.
So for six months we had happy talk that everything was fine with the VA. Then, in June – just two weeks after the Secretary's latest assurance -- the truth finally came out. On June 23rd, the VA revealed a massive shortfall of $3 billion.
I went to work my colleagues, and we came up with the funding. But we could have solved that problem much earlier and saved veterans the delays they experienced.
By misleading us, the Bush Administration hurt America's veterans. We could have provided the money when it was needed. We could have been hiring the doctors and nurses we needed. We could have been buying the medical equipment that was needed. And we could have helped keep thousands of veterans off waiting lists for care.
Here's the bottom line: The Bush Administration knew about a problem back in October 2004.
They saw it getting worse, but they kept assuring us everything was fine. They worked to defeat my amendments to provide funding, and they didn't come clean until June 2005. That is unacceptable.
Veterans Deserve Answers
I think America’s veterans deserve real answers. This report shows that the VA was not telling Congress the truth and was fighting those of us who were trying to help. We need to bring Secretary Nicholson before the Veterans' Affairs Committee so we can get some real answers. We need to ensure the VA does not repeat the same mistakes of the past two years. We owe that to our current and future veterans who sacrifice so much for us.
Phony Savings for 4 Years
We need an explanation of why the VA misled us about so-called "management efficiencies." The GAO found those alleged savings were nothing but hot air. This report clearly shows the Bush Administration misrepresented the truth to us for four fiscal years, through four budgets, and four appropriations cycles about these bogus savings. And when they could not make these efficiencies a reality, they took the funds from veterans' healthcare. That is unacceptable.
The VA is Still Not Telling the Truth
The report also suggests that even in its latest quarterly reports to us – the VA is slow to report and does not provide key information we required – such as the time required for veterans to get their first appointment.
Pentagon Failed to Provide Updated Information
Mr. President, the GAO report also says that the Department of Defense failed to provide the VA up-to-date information on how many service members would be separating from service and seeking care at the VA. That is really frustrating to me because I've been asking every general who comes up here if they're doing enough to ensure a smooth transition from the Pentagon to the VA.
In fact, on February 16th of last year, I questioned Secretary Rumsfeld directly. I got him to agree that caring for veterans is part of the cost of war – but he had no real answer when I asked why his request for the war did not include funding for veterans.
VA Failed to Plan
Finally, the GAO report verifies that the VA failed to plan for the impact of the veterans coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan.
Rebuttal of Comments Raised by the Senator From Idaho
Mr. President, I'd like to take a moment to respond in detail to some of the points my colleague from Idaho raised. He is a very dedicated and hard-working advocate for America's veterans.
At times, we may disagree on policy, but it is never personal. And it is my highest hope that whatever policy disagreements we may have will result in better service for America's veterans.
Best Care Yes, But It's Inaccessible
The Senator from Idaho said that VA healthcare is the best care in the world. And I certainly agree as I said earlier. But too often, veterans are barred from that receiving that care and are put on waiting lists.
For example in the VA Service Network that covers Alaska, Oregon, my home state of Washington and Senator Craig’s home state of Idaho, the VA states that there are over 10,000 veterans on waiting lists for their initial appointments. There are thousands more waiting for specialty care. Veterans in need are told to wait months before they can see a doctor.
In fact -- of the 21 regional Service Networks -- the region that covers both Washington and Idaho is the worst at getting veterans primary and specialty care appointments within 30 days of the date requested. That data comes straight out of the VA’s own quarterly budget reports. It is not my interpretation.
So great care is important, but making sure veterans can actually get timely access to that care is equally important. And that's an area where the VA is falling short.
Quarterly Reports Are Late and Out-of-Date
The Senator from Idaho pointed out that we required the VA to submit quarterly reports on budget execution. He says we've received three such reports this year. That's accurate. But what the Chairman did not say is what the GAO found. From page 5 – and I quote –
"However VA's reports have not included some of the measures that would assist Congress in its oversight, such as measures of patient workload that would capture the costlines of patient care, and the time required for new patients to be scheduled for their first healthcare appointment. Moreover, while VA has 12 months to execute its budget, it did not submit its first two quarterly reports to Congress until nearly 2 months after the end of each quarter, using patient workload data that were as much as 3 months old at the time of submission."
That is the GAO telling us that the VA's information was late and outdated. We need to demand better.
False Standard of Care
Let me comment on another statement by the Senator from Idaho. He said that we've had great success in delivering service to veterans. Then he said this –"it doesn't mean that every veteran got exactly what they wanted the moment they asked for it."
Mr. President, that's never been the standard. The question is this - Can veterans who need help get it when they need it?
The evidence I've seen suggests we've got a long way to go. On Tuesday, I shared with the Senate the story of a soldier in Virginia who is back from serving our country in Iraq. He can't sleep at night so he called the VA for an appointment. They told him he'd have to wait 75 days to see a doctor. That is unacceptable. Ensuring that veterans get timely care – especially for mental health services – is a dire need.
Again, don't take my word for it. Remember what a VA undersecretary said in medical journal recently – that mental health care services are "virtually inaccessible" because of long waiting lines. So when we use a reasonable standard, it's clear we are falling far short of what our veterans deserve.
VA Funding – The Full Story
Mr. President, Senator Craig said that during the last 6 years, the Administration and Congress has increased VA funding by 70% percent. But let me remind him that every step of way Congress had to fight the Administration for those increases.
I know that we are putting more funding into the VA than we have historically. I have worked with my colleagues to fight for that funding. But let me remind my colleague from Idaho that we still have thousands of veterans waiting for primary and secondary care – or not being allowed to access care at all.
The funding that this Congress has provided for the VA still does not provide enough to ensure that every veteran who is eligible can access care. The VA takes what Congress appropriates and then limits which veterans can access care to make the care the VA provides fit within the budget box Congress provides.
Time and again, proposals for increased fees and copays are presented to discourage veterans from accessing VA care. I am happy to say we have fought off this Administration's efforts to put those increased fees and copays in place. But - at the same time -- the Administration has limited access to the VA for Priority 7 and 8 veterans.
The VA admitted that fees and copays within its fiscal year 2007 budget would discourage 200,000 enrolled veterans from accessing care, and another 1.1 million from enrolling at all. This is wrong. We need a real budget based on the real needs. Not one based on limited access and discouraging veterans from seeking the care they were promised.
Oversight – Some, but Not Enough
The Senator from Idaho wanted to be very clear that he had called hearings and exercised oversight. I agree. He did. I was one of the people who pushed for those hearings. I was at those hearing. I demanded answers at those hearings.
And one thing is clear – those efforts were not enough. We are still not getting straight answers from the VA. We are still getting out-of-date information. We still do not have a plan from the VA to care for the veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan.
So yes, there were hearings – I think we'd all agree that after a $3 billion error that hurt our veterans there better be hearings – but they were not enough. And we need more oversight and more accountability if we're going to make sure veterans don ot get hurt again.
I Spoke Out When the Facts Emerged
The Senator from Idaho asked - why now? Why am I calling for more oversight now? Because the GAO just released its report. I didn't tell the GAO how long to take in its investigation. When it had the facts, it released them, and I spoke up immediately. In fact, I think the Senator from Idaho will remember the morning the GAO released its report I shared the results with our Veterans Affairs Committee at a public hearing.
I thought everyone on the committee needed to know immediately that government investigators found the VA had not told us about the problems it knew about and that the VA is providing quarterly reports that are late and based on old information. Simply put, I spoke out when we got the facts.
I would add that if anyone believes that my remarks on Tuesday are the first time I've stood up and spoke out for our veterans -- they just haven't had their eyes open over the past few years. And I would remind my colleagues that there is no moratorium on speaking out for our veterans. Whenever we learn facts that affect America's veterans, I'm going to share them, and I'm not going to stop speaking out until we in Congress do the right thing.
We'll Be Back
Furthermore, unless we change the path we're on, we'll be talking about this issue next September, the September after that, and every month in between. This is not going away.
So Mr. President, we in the Senate debate a lot of issues – none more significant than the issue of going to war. Mr. President, we are at war, and this body has a responsibility to meet our obligations in prosecuting that war – that includes taking care of our veterans. Today, we are not meeting that obligation. That's not just my opinion. It's the only conclusion a reasonable person could draw from the GAO report. And however inconvenient that may be – that is a fact.
Mr. President, I repeat my conclusion from my remarks here on Tuesday. Veterans deserve better, and this Senate and America can do better.