Congressional Record Statement of Senator Daniel K. Akaka
Mr. President, next week our nation will observe Memorial Day, an occasion in which we honor the men and women who gave the country what President Lincoln called “the last, full measure of devotion” – their very lives. President Lincoln uttered those now timeless words at a ceremony honoring thousands of Civil War troops who fell in a battle surrounding a small town called Gettysburg. To this day, his words reflect, with unparalleled clarity, the heroic sacrifices that made, and have kept, this country safe and free. This Memorial Day we once again honor those men and women.
But how do we properly honor those who gave their lives while in military service? Lincoln answered that question – we honor them by dedicating ourselves to the cause for which they gave themselves. We honor those who died by ensuring, in Lincoln’s words, that they “shall not have died in vain.” We carry on, we remember them, and we remember to tend to their comrades who live among us still, and to the families they left behind.
The Senate’s role in that important task, to honor veterans and their family members with the care and benefits they have earned, falls in part to the Committee on Veterans’ Affairs. I have had the honor of serving on that Committee for 20 years now, most recently as its Chairman. In that capacity, I am pleased to report on the progress Congress has made since last Memorial Day.
Last Memorial Day, Congress had good reason to be proud when looking back at recent gains for veterans and their families. Since 2007, we have passed historic appropriations bills to properly fund VA, following years of drastic underfunding. We passed the most substantive GI Bill since World War II, which has already been put to use by hundreds of thousands of Americans. And we made wide-ranging reforms to the Department of Veterans Affairs – overhauling its mental health care, suicide prevention, and enhancing cooperation and collaboration between the Departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs.
This Memorial Day, we can be proud of having done even more to help VA adapt to the needs of today’s veterans and their families. I will focus on two of the most significant bills – one which reformed the broken funding process for veterans’ health care, and other which charts a new course for VA, where the needs of women veterans and family caregivers receive special attention.
When I became Chairman of the Committee, the VA health care system had endured chronic underfunding, leading to health care rationing and budget shortfalls. While we succeeded in restoring VA’s budget funding to appropriate levels, we still had not addressed the underlying funding process – a one-year-at-a-time appropriations process that lead to funding delays in 20 of the last 23 years. To fix this broken system, I introduced the Veterans Health Care Budget Reform and Transparency Act. This bill was designed to take process of advance appropriations – funding a program one-year ahead of the regular appropriations process – and apply it to the nation’s largest health care system.
At this time last year, that legislation was still pending in Congress. Since then, our colleagues overwhelmingly chose to support this legislation, and the President signed it into law. This change will be felt in every State of the Union. At the one thousand-plus points of care run by VA, administrators will know what their budget will be, for the current year and for the year to come. The six million veterans who are projected to seek VA care will not have to worry about whether their local VA clinic will have to go months without a proper budget, as they did in the past.
We now turn to the important task of overseeing the implementation of the new law, and standing by should VA or the Administration ask for appropriate funding. We are currently working on the first budget with advance appropriations under the new authority, and I have been pleased with what has been a smooth transition.
At this point last year, many other veterans’ initiatives were pending – for veterans in rural areas, for the caregivers of wounded warriors, and for women veterans – to name a few. All of these proposals, along with others, were wrapped into one important package – the Caregivers and Veterans Omnibus Health Services Act. While this was a bipartisan bill from the beginning, its passage was far from assured. Isolated Members of Congress sought to block the bill at several stages, citing fears of cost and change. Resolute that it would be change for the better, and that its cost is in fact a cost of war, the supporters of this bill prevailed last month when President Obama’s signature made it law.
This new law’s many provisions were reviewed by this body reviewed before we voted for them, so I will not again go into all of the details. Instead, I will highlight just a few of the changes in the new law:
For the families caring for wounded warriors, it brings an unprecedented permanent program to train, certify, and financially support them. With this important change, VA recognizes that the families of disabled veterans should be treated as partners, not ignored.
For growing number of women veterans who served our nation honorably, it brings changes to help VA adapt to their needs. These include an authorization for VA to provide health care for a woman veteran's newborn child for up to one week; a mandate for VA to implement a pilot program to provide child care and adjustment care to women veterans; and a requirement that VA train mental health providers to treat military sexual trauma.
For veterans in rural areas, the new law brings programs and reforms to break down barriers between them and the care they deserve. To name a few, these include travel reimbursements for veterans treated at VA facilities; grants for veterans service organization transporting veterans from remote areas; an expansion of telehealth options for veterans; and provisions promoting collaboration with community organizations and providers such as the Indian Health Services.
The bill makes other important changes, from eliminating copayments for catastrophically disabled veterans, to strengthening VA’s ability to recruit and retain first-class health care professionals. These valuable changes and others are now law, thanks to the support of Congress and the President.
As I noted at the outset, these measures, which demonstrate Congress’s gratitude to our troops abroad and veterans at home, are the best way we can honor those gave their lives in service to their country. While much remains to be done, but as we pause this Memorial Day, we can recall the significant changes over the past year.
I close by expressing once more my gratitude to the patriots who are with us in the flesh and in spirit, and to the nation and the national ideals that unite us all. Thank you, Mr. President.
May 27, 2010