Mr. President, I rise today to introduce a bill that would make sweeping changes to the way the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) delivers health care and benefits to our nation's veterans. S. 13 would, among other things, guarantee full funding for VA health care, provide for full concurrent receipt, enhance mental health care services, and ease the transition from military service to civilian life.
This bill would mean that the 115,000 veterans who choose to make Hawaii their home would be assured the services they have earned. The nearly 18,000 veterans who avail themselves of VA health care in Honolulu, Hawaii, Kauai, and Maui would not have to worry if resources for doctors and nurses will materialize next year. And because so many of our reservists and guardsmen are being deployed for the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, this bill will help ensure they get the care they need upon their return.
Every year the President sends forward his budget proposal to Congress, and every year we go through the same battles to get VA health care the money it needs to adequately serve its veteran patients. The time has come to approach this process more rationally. This legislation would ensure full funding for VA health care by simply changing the way funds are allocated. To be perfectly clear, this bill merely shifts money already being allocated over to a more reliable mechanism.
The American Legion, the Disabled American Veterans, and the Veterans of Foreign Wars support this approach to fully fund the veterans health care system. These three organizations ? representing more than 7 million military veterans ? rightly believe that veterans have earned the right to VA medical care through their ?extraordinary sacrifices and service to this nation.?
We have seen huge numbers of veterans seeking VA care for the first time. I, for one, believe this is a good thing. Others rationalize that as we are at war, we must cut back on VA care. I simply do not understand this logic. We are at war, and therefore we must do everything we can to show our military that VA health care will be there for all veterans who served. To accomplish this goal, we must change the way VA health care is funded.
Although we have continued to make progress on eliminating the long-standing injustice that has affected our disabled retired veteran's retirement pay, we still have work to do. S. 13 will correct this unfairness by allowing all disabled military retirees to collect both their full military retired and VA disability pay concurrently.
Most military retirees who have a service-connected disability are not permitted to collect both their retirement and disability benefits concurrently. Military retired pay is the promised reward for 20 or more years of uniformed service and is based on length of service. VA disability compensation is unrelated to length of service and is intended to compensate a veteran for a service-connected loss of function.
In order to continue to recruit and retain quality soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines, we must pay attention not only to the present, but also to the future. George Washington said, ?The willingness with which our young people are likely to serve in any war, no matter how justified, shall be directly proportional to how they perceive the Veterans of earlier wars were treated and appreciated by their nation.? Our disabled military retirees deserve to receive the retirement pay that they earned and be compensated for their service-connected disabilities. Our young people will wear the uniforms of our Armed Forces only if they believe that their service is appreciated and compensated accordingly.
Along those lines, S. 13 also seeks to ensure that veterans and returning servicemembers can receive the mental health care they might need as a result of their service. The legislation requires that VA employ at least one psychiatrist and treatment team at each medical center that does not currently have one. This legislation would also mandate that VA carry out a community outreach program to let Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom veterans know about the services available to them at VA.
Why is good VA mental health care so important? Because so often battle wounds do not manifest in physical illness, but in quiet and equally debilitating mental illness. These wounds are revealed as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder with effects that linger and symptoms that can be brought on years after combat.
While hypertension and heart disease afflict vast numbers of veterans, mental illness is not far behind. It might surprise some of my colleagues to know that cancer and depression affect roughly the same number of veterans. But is VA reaching and treating all veterans who need care? This remains very much an open question.
This legislation also seeks to improve access to needed prescription drugs. Many veterans have expressed their desire to bring prescriptions from their Medicare doctors to VA pharmacies to get them filled. Current VA policy requires that nearly all veterans see a VA doctor before such prescriptions are issued. This doesn't make sense.
The Department's Inspector General testified that VA could see savings of $1 billion year if veterans were allowed to bring their outside prescriptions, because it would obviate the need for VA to re-diagnose patients and then re-issue prescriptions that have already been written. S. 13 would allow these veterans to get their prescriptions filled by VA at prices that are far better than in the private sector.
This legislation also seeks to help veterans with their education. S. 13 would exclude MGIB benefits from computation as income when calculating campus based aid, such as Perkins Loans. This draws the distinction between a benefit that has been earned, and paid for, by the veterans, and other types of income. This allows the individual applying for financial aid to subtract $1,200 from the expected family contribution for one year. This $1,200 represents the money that the individual paid to participate in the MGIB program.
S. 13 also offers an opportunity for enrollment in the MGIB education program for servicemembers who participated in or were eligible to participate in the post-Vietnam era educational assistance program, known as VEAP. This bill would create a one-year window and requires the individual to pay $2,700, which was the VEAP contribution.
Last year, Congress extended the period of eligibility for education benefits for survivors of servicemembers who were killed during active duty. We would like to further extend this delimiting date for veterans and other dependents. The 10-year period of eligibility would not begin to toll until they began to use the benefit, rather than when they became eligible for the benefit.
Overall, this is a bill to spur dialogue started on the issues that are truly important to our nation's veterans. We all need to work harder towards the goal of seeing that the promises made to the men and women who are serving today are met; that their sacrifices were not in vain.