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Murray Questions VA Secretary about "Unacceptable" Budget

Feb 13 2008

One week before Murray brings Secretary Peake to Walla Walla, she asks for answers on lack of construction dollars and suicide prevention efforts

(WASHINGTON, D.C.) – U.S. Senator Patty Murray, a senior member of the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee, today questioned VA Secretary James Peake about the President's deficit of dollars when it comes to caring for our nation's veterans.   

Peake appeared before Murray's committee today to defend the President's VA budget and will accompany her to the Walla Walla VA Facility in Washington state next week. 

"We know all too well what happens when the VA gets shortchanged.  The men and women who have served us end up paying the biggest price," Murray said.  "Our veterans are our heroes, and they deserve the best we can give them.  I believe we can do a lot better than this budget."

In asking Peake about what the VA is doing to reach out to struggling veterans who may not know about VA resources available to them, Murray referenced a VA study that found that Guard or Reserve members accounted for 53 percent of the veteran suicides from 2001, when the war in Afghanistan began, through the end of 2005.  The study was made public yesterday in an Associated Press story. 

Over 10,200 Washington state reserve forces have served in Iraq and Afghanistan to date. 

"These statistics raise serious concerns for me because I know that members of the National Guard and Reserve oftentimes don’t think of themselves as veterans, and as a result, do not seek VA services," Murray said in pushing Peake to increase outreach to all veterans. 

Peake explained that the VA has sent out letters to try and reach out to new veterans and said that an effort was being made to reach out to families because they are often the first to see a change in their loved one's behavior. 

Murray encouraged further outreach and investment in mental health within the VA's budget.

"A letter from the VA doesn't mean much to a veteran in a remote community somewhere," she said. 

Murray also expressed concern that the President’s budget cuts funding for construction by nearly 50 percent.  

The President's budget ranks the VA facilities most in need of construction funds within his budget document – including projects in Seattle, Walla Walla and American Lake – but it then fails to fund anything below the top three projects (none of which are in Washington state).

"It doesn't make sense for the President to be cutting construction funding at the same time that the list of needed repairs and expanded facilities is stacking up," Murray said.  

Murray will bring Secretary Peake to the Walla Walla VA next Tuesday, February 19th, to impress upon him the importance of the facility.

Video of today's hearing will be available on the Committee's website later today: http://veterans.senate.gov/public/

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Senator Murray's opening statement at today's hearing follows:

"Chairman Akaka and Senator Burr, thank you for holding today’s hearing to examine the President’s proposed VA Budget for fiscal year 2009.  And thanks to the representatives from the veterans’ service organizations, who put so much work into crafting the Independent Budget, and who are here to testify about the resources our veterans really need.

I would also like to extend a warm welcome to Secretary Peake, who is here for his first Senate hearing as Secretary of the VA.  I’m very much looking forward to your trip to the Walla Walla VA Medical Center next week.  I know you’ll be as impressed as I am by the entire community’s commitment to veterans.  And I was very glad you were able to accept my offer to come out and visit so soon after taking over at the VA.

Secretary Peake, many veterans – and many members of this committee – have placed a tremendous amount of faith in your ability to rise to the unprecedented challenges facing the VA today.  We have an opportunity to change course at the VA.  But we must do it quickly, and we must get it right.  As they say at VISN 20, “business as usual” is not an option.  

Secretary Peake, Congress and our veterans are counting on you, and your first test arrived on February 4th with the release of the President’s budget.  Given your short time on the job, I recognize that you didn’t play a large role in creating the document, but you do have the unenviable job of defending it. 

Problems with the President’s Proposed VA budget

Mr. Secretary, I say “unenviable” because at this point, I find this budget unacceptable for a number of reasons – starting with my fear that it would close the VA’s door to thousands of our nation’s veterans.

1. It Would Close the VA’s Door to Thousands of Veterans

The President’s budget includes new fees and increased co-pays that I believe will discourage many veterans from accessing the VA – even as our veterans are turning to the VA in larger numbers than ever before.

The VA doesn’t discuss the likely impact of this policy proposal in this year’s budget submission.  But in previous budgets, the Administration has estimated that these fees and co-pays would result in nearly 200,000 veterans leaving the system, and more than 1 million veterans choosing not to enroll. 

I’m also extremely disappointed that this budget continues to bar Priority 8 veterans from enrolling in the VA healthcare system.  It is estimated that more than 1.5 million veterans have already been turned away from the VA since the Priority 8 ban was put into effect in 2003, and many more have been deterred from seeking care.

I’ve made it clear over the last several years that I believe that denying or discouraging veterans from seeking care from the VA system because of their income is morally wrong.  And I believe it will also make it harder to maintain a strong voluntary military. 

2. It Underfunds Medical Care and Cuts Research

Next, while the President’s budget request does increase funding for VA medical care by $2 billion, it appears that this level won’t meet the real needs of veterans once medical inflation and other factors are considered.  The Independent Budget estimates that the true cost of VA medical care is $1.6 billion more than the President’s request.

I worry that underfunding medical care will prevent the VA from being able to provide timely and high-quality health care to the veterans it serves.  And given the Administration’s involvement in covering up previous shortfalls in VA funding, I think this Committee has a good reason to be concerned about a future shortfall.  

Along the same line, I’m also troubled that the President is proposing an 8 percent cut for VA medical and prosthetic research.  As we all know, one of the signature injuries of the war in Iraq is Traumatic Brain Injury.  But there is still a great deal we don’t know about the condition.  Cutting funding for research seems like the wrong thing to do as we attempt to better understand the injuries our veterans are experiencing.

3. It Cuts Construction

Third, I am incredibly concerned that the President’s budget proposes cutting funding for major and minor construction by nearly 50 percent – at a time when the list of needed repairs and expanded facilities is stacking up.  The Administration’s own budget documents detail the numerous projects that won’t receive funding this year. 

4. It Cuts the IG Budget

Finally, I object to the President’s proposed funding cut to the VA Inspector General.  I’m concerned about doing anything that might hinder the IG’s ability to be an effective watchdog over this incredibly complex system – at the very time we’re trying to encourage effective oversight.

Closing

Secretary Peake, when I voted for your confirmation in December, I said that while we shouldn’t dwell on the mistakes of the past, we must learn from them.  But I’m afraid that this budget is evidence that the Administration isn’t learning.

In his State of the Union address this year, President Bush said he was dedicated to providing for our nation’s veterans.  But at a time when thousands of new veterans are entering the VA system with serious medical needs as a result of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Administration is underestimating the cost of medical care, and it is cutting funding for construction and medical and prosthetic research.

And at a time when older veterans are seeking care in record numbers, the President is proposing fees and co-pays that will shut the door to thousands of patients.

We know all too well what happens when the VA gets shortchanged.  The men and women who have served us end up paying the biggest price.  Our veterans are our heroes, and they deserve the best we can give them.  I believe we can do a lot better than this budget.

So, Secretary Peake, I have a number of questions for you, and I’m looking forward to your answers.   Thank you, Mr. Chairman.