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Murray: New VA Secretary Must Fight for Best Interests of Veterans

Dec 06 2007

Senator Patty Murray's Opening Statement

Video - Watch the hearing

Chairman Akaka, thank you for holding today’s hearing.  

Mr. Chairman, this is a critical time in the VA’s history.  With our troops fighting overseas and more veterans being created every day, we are facing unprecedented challenges as we try to provide the level of care all of our heroes have earned. Too many leaders at the VA have done the agency – and our veterans – a disservice.  Too many have been apologists for failed Administration policies, rather than strong advocates for our veterans. 

Our veterans earned the benefits the VA is supposed to provide them.  But they have been faced with long waiting times to see a doctor, bureaucratic ineptitude, a VA claims backlog of months and sometimes years, and much, much more. We shouldn’t dwell on the mistakes of the past, but we need to learn from those mistakes.  We have an opportunity now to do that as we decide who will be the next Secretary of the VA. 

Whether to confirm General James Peake may be the most important decision we make on veterans issues in the next year. As I often say, no matter how Americans feel about the war in Iraq, they want to make sure we are providing for our veterans and their families. I stand ready and willing to work with any Secretary who is committed to truly fighting for the best interests of veterans.  

Is Peake the Secretary Veterans Deserve?

So, Mr. Chairman, I look forward to hearing from General Peake today. 

General Peake has had a distinguished career and an impressive history of service to his country. For most of his nearly 40 years in the military, he has been devoted to improving medical care for our wounded servicemen and women, including a stint as Army Surgeon General. 

He has also held numerous positions within the Army, including commanding general of the Madigan Army Medical Center in my home state of Washington. But a strong resume is not enough.   

We need a leader at the VA who has the fortitude, the backbone, and the courage to stand up to the Administration, to be honest and upfront about our veterans’ current and future needs, and to get us on the right course to caring for these heroes who risked their lives for our country. Today, I hope we’ll find that General Peake is the VA Secretary that our veterans deserve.  

Challenges Facing the VA

Mr. Chairman, our VA system is uniquely positioned to recognize and treat the specialized injuries, medical conditions, and mental health challenges caused by combat and military missions. Our local VA doctors and nurses are some of the most caring and compassionate people around. I know they are dedicated to giving our veterans the best care possible.  

Before I go any further, I want to show you a button that leaders from our local VA were wearing at a listening session I held last week in Yakima, Washington. But our service members deserve better than what they have been getting from the Administration and VA leadership in Washington, D.C., in recent years.   

Congress has Taken Some Important Steps


Congress has taken some important steps to fix some of the problems.  Yet we still have huge challenges. For example, thanks to recent advances in battlefield medicine, our troops are surviving many injuries that would have been fatal in earlier conflicts.  Some of those advances were overseen by General Peake. However, many more of our service members are coming home with devastating and debilitating wounds, creating new challenges for the VA.  

Claims Processing

One of our biggest challenges is to ensure that veterans aren’t waiting months or even years for compensation. As of earlier this year, the VA had as many as 600,000 disability compensation claims waiting to be answered.   

I heard from several veterans in my home state last week who say they are at the end of their patience fighting for disability claims. We know the claims system is old and antiquated and needs to be fixed.  Both the Dole-Shalala Commission and the Veterans Disabilities Benefits Commission have studied the issue and recommended changes.   

In many ways, their suggestions are similar – but there are key differences. General Peake, if you are confirmed, you will have to work with this Congress to address those differences and reform the benefits system aggressively and fairly.  

Mental Health

I’m also particularly concerned about the challenges we face as we try to meet the mental health needs of our returning service members. According to the VA, a third of all Iraq veterans enrolled in the system have sought treatment for a mental health problem.  That’s an astounding statistic.  But it’s also probably too low.  

Many aren’t seeking care because of the stigma surrounding treatment or because they fear that a mental health diagnosis will hurt their military or civilian careers. We know that as troops are deployed overseas for their third, fourth, or even fifth tours of duty, the risk of suffering from PTSD and other mental health conditions increases. 

Just a few weeks ago, CBS News reported on one tragic result of not treating mental health conditions.  CBS found that veterans are twice as likely to commit suicide as other Americans.

Perhaps most disturbing was that the risk is the highest among 20 to 24 year-olds – as high as four times that of non-veterans. The VA has taken steps to address this tragic situation – and Congress has taken steps as well – but more needs to be done. 

The VA – and the Defense Department – must focus their efforts on fighting the stigma of mental health treatment, and improve screening, outreach, and care. Finally, thousands of our service members will suffer from Traumatic Brain Injury, the signature injury of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  This means many of our veterans will have more subtle injuries that will hurt their ability to work and communicate with their families and friends. There’s still so much we don’t know.  It’s critical that we continue to research how to identify, prevent and treat TBI, so we can better care for our veterans suffering from this devastating injury. 

Conclusion


Mr. Chairman, General Peake has already answered a number of questions from us, and I look forward to hearing more from him today. We need a secretary who is willing to roll up his sleeves and get to work. We can’t wait even another year to target and fix the challenges I talked about today.