|“This Administration decided to fund this war and all of its implications through supplemental requests, yet President’s budget does not provide even one dollar for a very important cost of war, and that is the care of our heroes when they return home. With a new generation of combat veterans deployed around the world, the federal government must meet its obligations to our veterans rather than look away in favor of other priorities.”|
|– U.S. Senator Patty Murray|
PURPOSE: To provide $71.434 billion in VA Health Care funding for FY2006.
This is an increase of $2.85 billion above the Chairman’s mark.
The Murray Amendment also:
- Rejects the President’s proposal to cut funding to State veterans’ homes
- Eliminates the means-test for veterans to enroll for VA care
- Provides for much-needed mental health services
- Rejects the President’s proposal to drive veterans away from the VA with annual user fees and increased prescription drug costs.
In rejecting the amendment during the Budget Committee Markup, Senate Republicans made several claims that simply don't pass muster.
CLAIM: "Veterans Health Care Spending is Up 63 %"
FACT: The number of Veterans receiving care has increased 88% and medical inflation has increased 92%. Funding continues to fall far short of the need.
CLAIM: The VA Hasn't Spent $500 Million
FACT: The VA builds a $500 million cushion into its budget for a rainy day fund and has never touched this funding. Republican claiming excess funding aren't touch with the realty on the ground.
CLAIM: "This Budget Increases VA Spending by Nearly $1 Billion"
FACT: When you look at the numbers, the increase in medical care is less than $80 million. That's an increase of less than one half of 1% for veterans health care at a time of war
Mr. President, at this hour veterans in my home state of Washington -- and throughout the country -- are waiting for the healthcare they were promised.
They're facing understaffed and overcrowded VA hospitals and clinics. They're dealing with paperwork and red tape. And they aren't getting the service they were promised.
At this hour, veterans from World War II, Korea, Vietnam and other conflicts are waiting for appointments to see a doctor. They're waiting for prescription drugs. They're waiting for help with post-traumatic stress disorder. And while they are waiting – new veterans are coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan – and they need health care too.
Every day the system is getting more and more crowded, the waiting lists are growing longer, and we've got to do something about it. These brave men and women were there for us. Now we've got to be there for them. They answered our country's call. Now we've got to do our part.
That's why I'm on the Senate floor today with Senator Akaka offering an amendment to increase funding for veterans healthcare by $2.85 billion.
I am here today with a simple message. Congress needs to keep our promise to America's veterans. We need to honor their service and sacrifice. And we need to fund healthcare now.
I've received many letters from veterans throughout my state – with this simple plea:
Keep our promise to America's veterans. Fund healthcare now.
We've Got Work To Do
And let me just say we've got a lot of work to do.
If we follow the budget that President Bush proposed last month, we will – force veterans out the VA system, force veterans out of nursing homes, force veterans to pay more fees and co-payments, and force veterans to wait even longer for the care they have earned.
As the daughter of a disabled World War II veteran, as the first woman in history to serve on the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, and as the voice of more than 700,000 brave veterans in Washington state, I will not let that happen.
We've Heard Excuses
I've been fighting for veterans funding for many years. In fact, just last week in the Budget Committee, I offered an amendment to boost funding for VA healthcare. And do you know what some Senators told me?
They said – We've already increased veterans funding plenty – so we don't need another dime for veterans healthcare.
We'll they're wrong. That's not what the veterans in my home state are telling me.
This Vote is a Test
I want every Senator to know that how you vote on this amendment is a test of how committed you are to helping America's veterans. With this vote, we're going to find out – Who's serious about helping our veterans and who's just talking. With this vote, every Senator will have to announce publicly – whether they're making life better for veterans or whether they're making excuses.
I'm here to say – do the right thing – support this amendment and "keep the promise" to those who have served.
Different Approaches: Bush, Senate, Murray/Akaka
For those veterans who are following this debate, let me just recap where things stand.
This month Congress is deciding how much money to spend on priorities like veterans healthcare. So far, we've only had two choices.
One is to follow President Bush's approach. He offered a budget that will impose higher fees and co-payments on many veterans. It will lock the doors of the VA to thousands of veterans. It's no wonder that veterans organizations from coast to coast have denounced that budget proposal. So last week, the Senate Budget Committee worked on its own budget proposal. I serve on that committee, and I was part of that debate.
The Republican proposal got rid of some of the onerous fees in the President's budget, but they refused to increase veterans funding to meet the needs. I tried to improve their bill with the Murray Veterans Healthcare Amendment, but Republicans blocked my funding and passed their inadequate budget on a party-line vote.
Now that flawed budget is here on the Senate floor, and we've got one more chance to make it right. That's why I'm here offering this amendment with Senator Akaka.
Our amendment says – Let's fund veterans healthcare based on the real needs.
The VSO's Told Us What Veterans Need
And we know what the needs are because over the past few weeks, the nation's largest veterans service organizations came before the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee – on which I serve. Leaders from AMVETS, the Disabled Veterans of America, Paralyzed Veterans of America and the Veterans of Foreign Wars, all told us what they need. They're not asking for special treatment – just what they were promised in exchange for serving our country.
They told us that veterans are not getting the help they need. They told us what would happen if we adopted the President's budget.
For me, veterans health care is a very personal issue. My father served in World War II and returned as a disabled veteran. During the Vietnam War, I interned in the Seattle VA hospital.
I know first-hand the scars and wounds that burden our veterans when they come back home. During the Gulf War, when our soldiers were coming home with Gulf War Syndrome, I brought the VA Secretary out to Washington state so he could hear from the veterans I was hearing from. And over the past two years, when President Bush tried to close the doors at three VA hospitals in Washington state, I worked with veterans and community leaders from across the state to keep those facilities open.
I continue to press the VA to open new community clinics in North Central Washington and in Whatcom County – to help serve veterans who today have little access to VA services.
Every Year There's a Budget Fight over Veterans
When it comes to the VA's health care budget, it has been a battle every year to get the funding we need. Every year, the President has proposed a small number for veterans healthcare, and every year -- we in Congress -- have stepped in to protect our veterans.
I've been convinced for a long time that we need to move VA health care out of the annual budget process. That's why I've sponsored legislation to make VA healthcare funding "mandatory" so it's always there -- no matter what type of budget games are going on.
But the Republican majority has blocked that common-sense proposal every year – so the fight goes on.
FY 2006 – The President's Proposal
This year's debate started on February 2nd, when the President unveiled his budget proposal. The Veterans of Foreign Wars looked at his proposal and said – "If the President's budget were approved, waiting times for basic health care appointments would again skyrocket, returning us to the era of the six-month waiting period."
That's what the commander-in-chief of the Veterans of Foreign Wars said about the President's budget.
The President's budget would force more than 2 million veterans to pay a $250 annual fee just to get VA healthcare. In my book if you served our country, you've already paid your dues. It's insulting to nickel-and-dime America's veterans.
The President's plan would also double the co-payments for prescription drugs for thousands of veterans. It would slash research into prosthetics by $9 million. The President's budget would eliminate thousands of state-run nursing home beds.
In my home state, 300 veterans who honorably served their country would lose their place in a state nursing home. That's 300 Washington families being asked to shoulder a new burden. That's just wrong. The President's budget would cut the VA workforce by more than 3,000 people – while a there's a backlog of more than 700,000 claims. That just doesn't make any sense.
We've got a huge backlog of claims – with new claims coming in every day -- and now there will be fewer staff to process it. That's wrong.
The President’s budget would also continue to ban some veterans from coming to the VA for care.
So far, under this flawed policy, nearly 200,000 veterans have been turned away – including more than 3,100 veterans in Washington. That's what the President has proposed. So I've been working to fix that. But I've got to tell you it's been frustrating.
No one in this Administration is willing to say how we're going to take care of our newest veterans when we've got waiting lists for existing veterans.
I've Pressed for Answers
I asked the President's Budget Director on February 9th – Where's the money in your budget to take care of our newest veterans and our existing veterans?
I didn't get an answer, so on February 15th I asked the Veterans Secretary. I didn't get an answer from him – so the next day -- I asked the Defense Secretary. I didn't get an answer, so I offered an amendment in the Senate Budget Committee last week.
My veterans amendment was defeated on a party-line vote of 10-12. So I'm here on the Senate floor with a similar amendment, and now every Senator is going to have to go on the record either for or against our veterans.
Refuting False Claims
During this debate, you're going to hear Senators say that "we've raised veterans funding plenty."
Other Senators are going to suggest that we're meeting the needs today. I'm going to refute those claims line-by-line. But let me say this first – When veterans tell me they're being left behind, and then a politician tells me everything is fine – I'm going to believe the veteran every time.
With that said, let's look at some of the claims the other side will make.
CLAIM: "Veterans Health Care Spending is Up 63 %"
One of the arguments you'll hear from opponents is that appropriations for veterans medical care grew by 63 percent from FY 1995 to FY 2004.
That figure claim is inaccurate because it leaves out three critical facts. First, the number of veterans served has gone up dramatically over that same period of time -- as this chart shows.
During those same years, the number of unique veterans getting care from the VA has increased by 88 percent. So it's nice that funding has gone up, but it's nowhere close to meeting the number of veterans who are getting care at the VA.
Second, the Republican claim is inaccurate because it ignores the impact of medical inflation. As the chart shows -- over the same time frame -- medical inflation has shot up 92 percent. So the increases we've had so far have not even kept up with medical inflation. So it's great that veterans funding has increased over the years – but it hasn't even kept up with inflation. There's another problem with this Republican excuse.
Every day new veterans are coming back home and seeking care at the VA. If the number of veterans was going to be stable in the coming years, it would be one thing, but we know the number of veterans will keep growing as soldiers come home from Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom. Washington state has sent thousands of brave men and women to Iraq and Afghanistan over the past few years. And now, a large group is returning home – including nearly 4,000 members of the National Guard.
This is the next generation of veterans. Congress needs to provide more funding if we're going to keep up with the growing needs. So we're going to hear some opponents claim that – veterans funding has gone up by 63 percent so veterans don't need another dime.
When they make that claim, we need to remind them that – The number of veterans in the VA system has gone up 88 percent Medical inflation has shot up 92 percent and we're creating new veterans every day who need a strong, stable VA to care for them.
CLAIM: The VA Hasn't Spent $500 Million
Here's another excuse we'll hear from opponents. They'll say that the VA is sitting on nearly $500 million. VA officials here in Washington, D.C. may be holding funds back to see what next year may bring. But that doesn’t mean that the funds are not needed at VA hospitals and clinics. VA’s health networks are already experiencing shortfalls. As a result, the Committee has heard that outpatient clinics have stopped seeing even the poorest of patients – sending them hundreds of miles away to other facilities.
In fact, I'm hearing from veterans leaders in my region that the VA is not moving forward with new clinics in Whatcom County and in North Central Washington because all those dollars are needed for medical care for existing veterans.
So if the VA is sitting on funds we appropriated, I want those dollars moved out to help veterans as we intended. It is not an excuse to block this amendment.
CLAIM: "This Budget Increases VA Spending by Nearly $1 Billion"
Mr. President, we may also hear opponents claim that this budget increases veterans funding by about $900 million. But when you look at the numbers, the increase in medical care is less than $80 million.
I have a chart that was produced by the Majority staff of the Veterans Committee that I'd like to insert into the RECORD after my remarks.
CLAIM: "We Don't Know How the Appropriations Committee Will Spend This Money"
We've also heard some opponents say that we shouldn't provide another dime in the budget for veterans healthcare because we don't know how the Appropriations Committee will spend that money.
Mr. President, I serve on the Veterans Affairs Committee and I serve on the Veterans Appropriations Subcommittee. If the Senate passes this amendment, then the Appropriations Committee will have explicit instructions that this money is to be spent on veterans healthcare.
And because I serve on all of the committees involved – Appropriations and Veterans Affairs – I will be there -- at every turn -- to remind my colleagues of the promise we make.
Helping Veterans Makes America Secure
Mr. President, this is also about making sure our military is strong today. How we treat our veterans affects our ability to recruit the men and women we need to serve in our armed forces.
That's nothing new – it's been true since the very founding of our country. On this chart, I've placed a quote from George Washington in 1789.
Washington said, "The willingness with which our young people are likely to serve in any war, no matter how justified, shall be directly proportional as to how they perceive the Veterans of earlier wars were treated and appreciated by their country."
We have an opportunity today – with this Amendment – to do right by our veterans and to keep our country strong. This amendment will help us meet the growing needs and will ensure we keep the promise to those who have answered our country's call to service. They were there for us when we needed them, and we need to be there for them.
With this amendment, every Senator will have to decide if they're voting for veterans – or against them.
I urge every Senator to do the right thing and vote for the Murray/Akaka Amendment.