(WASHINGTON, DC) -- In the wake of a Bush Administration announcement that the Veterans Administration has a $1 billion shortfall, Senator Patty Murray today expressed her disappointment and swiftly moved to introduce emergency legislation to fix the problem.
Murray, who has attempted to add funding for veterans care to the budget process three times this year, today once again introduced an emergency supplemental appropriations bill that would allow the VA to meet its obligations to veterans.
The administration announcement comes after repeated assurances that the VA had more than enough money to make it through the fiscal year. During the debate on the FY2006 Budget and Emergency Supplemental Appropriations bill, Nicholson and other Republican leaders claimed that the VA did not face a crisis.
In April, VA Secretary Jim Nicholson wrote a letter in which he declared, "I can assure you that VA does not need emergency supplemental funds in FY 2005 to continue to provide the timely, quality service that is always our goal." Under question by Senator Murray two weeks ago in the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, Nicholson once again repeated his claim that the VA had the money it needs.
Senator Murray's remarks at today's press conference and the April letter from Secretary Nicholson follow:
At a press conference today, Senator Murray said:
|Caring for the veterans who have sacrificed for our freedom is the duty of a grateful nation. These brave men and women made a solemn promise to protect our country.
Our reciprocal promise is to take care of them when they return home from their missions. That is why I find today's admission by the VA that they will need an estimated $1 billion more in emergency funding just to get through fiscal year 2005 appalling, but not surprising.
Unfortunately, this Administration has been unwilling to make the sacrifices necessary to fulfill the promises we have made to our veterans. Throughout the budget and supplemental appropriations processes, I fought to increase funding to care for our nation’s veterans. I used my position on the Budget Committee, the Appropriations Committee, and the Veterans' Affairs Committee to get adequate funding for our veterans. I also introduced an amendment to the Supplemental bill to provide for our troops by assuring access to quality health care services and benefits when they return home. I took these measures because I have long believed that caring for our veterans is a fundamental cost of war. Each time, my efforts failed on party-line votes.
Secretary Nicholson and others fought my amendment claiming the funding was not needed. In an April 5th letter to Chairman Hutchison, the Secretary wrote, quote:
“I can assure you that VA does not need emergency supplemental funds in FY2005 to continue to provide timely, quality service that is always our goal.” End quote.
Even two weeks ago, under direct questioning, Secretary Nicholson did not indicate a need for emergency FY 2005 funding for the VA. Now, less than 3 months after his letter, the Secretary is saying we are short more than $1 billion for veterans' funding. When I was fighting to get my veterans' healthcare amendment passed a few months ago, I warned my colleagues that what was an emergency would become a crisis if we did not work together to address the problem. With VA's announcement today, that emergency has indeed become a crisis.
I very much regret that it has come to this. But now is the time to come together and provide the needed dollars so that our veterans have the quality, accessible care they need and deserve. I will work with anyone and everyone to keep this commitment to our veterans and our current service men and women. Taking care of our veterans is a fundamental cost of war – and this is a problem we can not postpone or sweep under the rug.
The bottom line is that too many of our veterans are going without the care they need, they deserve, and they have earned as part of their service. With new veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan every day, this problem only promises to get worse. When adjusted for inflation, the VA is spending 25 percent less per patient than it did in fiscal year 2000. This is having a big impact on patients – and on VA healthcare personnel. Veterans are having to wait three years for surgery. In my home state of Washington – at the VA’s American Lake facility – 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, forcing the VA hospitals to leave vacant positions unfilled.
Every indication is that we simply do not have enough funding for our current services, and the VA seems unable to handle the increased number of veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan while still providing high levels of service to other veterans. This is not right. It is not what veterans were promised. That's why, today, I introduced legislation to provide emergency supplemental funding for the VA.
It is identical to the amendment that I offered to the Emergency Supplemental in April to provide $1.98 billion to fully fund our veterans’ health care needs. Though that amendment was rejected three times – twice in committee and once on the Senate floor – on party-line votes, I am confident that my colleagues will see their way clear to support this critical funding in light of today's highly disappointing and saddening announcement from the VA.
My bill 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. It does this by: providing $525 million for mental health care for returning veterans as many need help with post traumatic stress disorder; providing $610 million for our newest veterans so they do not have to compete with existing veterans for health care; and providing $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. Under my bill, each of the 21 regional veterans' health networks 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.
I urge the Administration to submit a supplemental request and fulfill the promise to our nation’s veterans. Caring for our veterans is not a Republican or Democratic issue, it’s an American issue. As we head into the 4th of July recess, I call on Congress and the Administration to work with me to do the most patriotic thing we can do – fulfill our promise to care for America’s veterans.
Before I close, I would like to say that I intend to work with my colleagues to get to the bottom of this issue. I don't know how we got into this situation of such an enormous shortfall in VA funding. But I intend to find out. This shortfall results from either deliberate misdirection or gross incompetence by this Administration and the Department of Veterans Affairs. Just two months ago they vehemently argued against the need for more money, raising loud, consistent objections to my efforts on the Budget and the Emergency Supplemental. Two months later, they're one billion dollars short. That's outrageous. These are questions that must – and will – be dealt with.
April letter from Secretary Nicholson:
|THE SECRETARY OF VETERANS AFFAIRS
April 5, 2005
Hon. Kay Bailey Hutchison
Subcommittee on Military Construction and Veterans
Affairs, Committee on Appropriations
Dear Madam Chairman:
Before I begin the main purpose of this letter, I want to take this opportunity to thank you for the consideration and interest you have shown VA through your leadership in this year's appropriation hearing and many other endeavors on behalf of our veterans. I very much appreciate your proactive involvement and commitment to providing for those who have served this country with such dedication.
I write to you today to address certain issues regarding VA's FY 2005 fiscal situation. I know some have said that VA must have emergency supplemental funds to continue providing the services for which veterans depend on us--timely health care and delivery of benefits. Whenever trends indicate the need for refocusing priorities, VA's leaders ensure prudent use of reserve funding for these purposes. That is just simply part of good management. It does not, however, indicate a ``dire emergency''. I can assure you that VA does not need emergency supplemental funds in FY 2005 to continue to provide the timely, quality service that is always our goal. We will, as always, continue to monitor workload and resources to be sure we have a sustainable balance. But certainly for the remainder of this year, I do not foresee any challenges that are not solvable within our own management decision capability.
I look forward to continuing to work with you as we strive to provide the very best service possible for those veterans who depend on us the most. Thank you again for your leadership in this important area.
R. James Nicholson