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(WASHINGTON, D.C.) – U.S. Senator Patty Murray (D-Wash.) today slammed a budget proposal by President Bush that treats our nation’s veterans as “non-essential priorities.” In a speech on the floor of the U.S. Senate, Murray – a key member of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee – promised to fight the cuts and provide veterans in Washington state and across the country with the care and benefits they deserve.

Senator Murray’s floor speech follows:

“Mr. President, one week ago we walked across the Capitol to hear President Bush outline his priorities for the nation during the State of the Union address. On that night, President Bush told all of us that the document reflecting his priorities – his Fiscal Year 2006 budget – "…substantially reduces or eliminates more than 150 government programs that are not getting results, or duplicate current efforts, or do not fulfill essential priorities."

Less than a week after delivering that address the President unveiled a budget that defines exactly what he sees as those “non-essential priorities”:

  • students
  • ports and borders
  • accessible health care
  • nuclear waste cleanup

In addition, the budget has not one dollar – that's right Mr. President, not one single dollar – for the two top priorities that the President talked about that night. Social Security transition costs and making the tax cuts permanent are ignored in this budget. It's a camouflage budget meant to hide the truth from American families.

What the President should know is that families in Washington state and across the country are concerned about the security of their jobs, their communities, and access to affordable health care and quality education. Unfortunately, rather than inspiring confidence, the President’s budget leaves too many Americans questioning the future. On issue after issue, this budget falls short of what our communities need to move forward.

But what I'd like to focus on here this morning is this budget's impact on one group we absolutely must take care of: our nation's veterans.

We have no greater obligation as elected officials than to take care of those who have taken care of us. Unfortunately, I fear this Administration is failing in this most important responsibility. Unfortunately, after asking thousands of soldiers to serve us overseas, this Administration is not making their health care and well-being a priority when they cease being soldiers and become veterans.

Access to first-class care should be a reality for all veterans – especially while our nation is at war. The President’s budget may have a few small steps in the right direction, but sadly, he does not go far enough to meet the needs of all veterans. If this budget – and its misguided proposals – were enacted, it would devastate VA health care.

Payroll and inflation increases for doctors, nurses, and medications cost more than $1 billion, but the President has proposed to give VA only half of what is needed. To make up for this shortfall, the budget forces more than 2 million “middle-income” veterans to pay more than double for their needed medications and to pay a $250 enrollment fee.

In addition, the President’s budget actually continues to ban some veterans from coming to the VA for care. So far, under this flawed policy, 192,260 veterans have been turned away across the country, including more than 3,000 Washington state veterans. This sends the wrong message to our troops overseas. They need to know that we are there for them when they return home.

The budget also destroys the relationship between VA and the States. Following the Civil War, VA has supported the cost of veterans residing in State VA Nursing Homes. Yet, this budget calls on States to cover the entire cost of care for many veterans in these cost-effective nursing homes.

To make this budget add up, the President calls for $590 million in unspecified “efficiencies.” Thousands of nurses and other providers would be cut. Thousands of nursing home beds would be shuttered. And more than a million veterans could no longer afford to come to VA for care.

But you don't only have to take my word for it. Listen to the head of the VFW, who addressed this issue in yesterday's Congress Daily:

John Furgess, who heads the Veterans of Foreign Wars, said the administration's proposed $880 million increase in veterans' health care only amounts to an increase of about $100 million because the budget proposes that veterans shoulder a $250 enrollment fee and an increased co-pay on prescription drugs, in addition to nursing home cuts.

"Part of the federal government's deficit will be balanced on the backs of military veterans, because it's clear that the proper funding of veterans' health care and other programs is not an administration priority," Furgess said.

And there's more. Before the budget was even sent to Congress, I read this in the New York Times:

Richard B. Fuller, legislative director of the Paralyzed Veterans of America, said: "The proposed increase in health spending is not sufficient at a time when the number of patients is increasing and there has been a huge increase in health care costs. It will not cover the need. The enrollment fee is a health care tax, designed to raise revenue and to discourage people from enrolling."

The story went on to say that there are already some hospitals with waiting lists for Iraqi veterans.

"In Michigan, for example, thousands of veterans are on waiting lists for medical services, and some reservists returning from Iraq say they have been unable to obtain the care they were promised. A veterans’ clinic in Pontiac, Mich., put a limit on new enrollment. Cutbacks at a veterans’ hospital in Altoona, Pa., are forcing some veterans to seek treatment elsewhere."

And yesterday, in an editorial titled "Penalizing veterans," the Boston Globe said:

"IT IS a sign of how desperate the Bush administration is to protect tax cuts for the wealthy while also trying to reduce runaway deficits that it would call for veterans to pay more for their health benefits. Congress should reject this proposal out of hand and put enough money into veterans' health care to end the inexcusable waiting lists at many veterans' facilities."

Mr. President, as you can see, I am not alone in my concern for this budget's impact on veterans. Unfortunately, the widespread outrage at this budget is not limited to its impact on veterans.

I could speak for hours more on this budget's harmful effects on other programs like healthcare, education and nuclear waste clean up. As a member of the Budget Committee, I raised some of these concerns with the director of the Office of Management and Budget yesterday. I was disappointed with O-M-B Director Bolten's responses to questions on Energy policy, veterans, and other issues before the Budget Committee yesterday. I hope that Treasury Secretary Snow has more answers for the Committee this morning.

But a more detailed critique of these cuts will have to wait for another day. Today, all I have time for is this budget's harsh impact on veterans.

Apparently, President Bush believes that veterans are a "non-essential priority." That's an insult to them, and an insult to their service and sacrifice. I know that I, along with many of my colleagues, will not stand for this assault on our veterans. They deserve better.”