Congressional Record Statement of Senator Daniel K. Akaka
Mr. President, as chairman of the Committee on Veterans' Affairs I have tried to advance two pieces of legislation--the Veterans' Traumatic Brain Injury and Other Health Programs Improvement Act of 2007 and S. 1315, the Veterans Benefits Enhancement Act of 2007.
Once again, Members on the other side are objecting to moving forward with these bills--they are setting up a procedural roadblock. These bills deserve to be heard and debated and discussed, and I welcome that, but Republicans will not allow that to happen. Let me make that point again--we are only asking for debate. Not for the immediate passage of the bills that the Senate simply pass the bills as reported by the committee. Surely it is not too much to ask that the Senate be allowed to do its business.
Earlier today, the former ranking member of the committee, Senator LARRY CRAIG, made the latest objection for himself and for the Republican leadership.
This is new territory for a VA bill. When Senator CRAIG was chairman of the committee, he and I negotiated on a variety of legislative initiatives leading up to our markup but could not reach agreement on a number of matters. At the markup, I offered amendments on a number of the issues about which I had strong feelings. I did not, however, continue to pursue those matters on the floor. And I most assuredly did not do anything to block Senate consideration of the legislation that I had sought to amend. In fact, as ranking member, I worked with then-chairman CRAIG to gain passage of the legislation by unanimous consent.
There is much in S. 1233, the committee's omnibus VA health bill, that needs to be enacted, like an increase in the reimbursement rate for veterans who must travel long distances for VA care, and vital provisions to help veterans from becoming homeless. Never, in my memory, have we let a disagreement on one provision stand in the way of passing a legislative package, especially at such a critical time.
Senator CRAIG feels most strongly about allowing middle-income veterans to enroll for VA health care. In 2003, the Bush administration shut the doors to these veterans , and since that time, hundreds of thousands of veterans have been turned away. I want to be clear that these veterans are not asking for a free ride. Indeed, they will be required to make copayments for their care. What they are asking for is entry into the system. We estimate that 1.3 million veterans want this opportunity. And some in this body are standing in their way.
Many veterans have been denied VA health care under the current ban. Take, for example, California, where over 22,500 veterans have been denied enrollment; or Texas, where 23,800 have been denied access since 2003. This phenomenon is not limited to the larger States--17,000 veterans in Pennsylvania; 12,300 in Illinois; 36,000 in Florida; and over 14,000 in North Carolina have all been denied VA health care.
Also, I want to clarify that we are not talking about allowing veterans with ``upper-income'' entry into VA care. While the administration, and some of my colleagues, characterize Priority 8 veterans as ``higher-income,'' that is not necessarily the case. The current income eligibility threshold for VA health care is under $28,000 a year--which can hardly be classified as a ``high-income'' salary. In my home State of Hawaii, where the cost of living is one of the Nation's highest, the average salary for a veteran who has been denied is $39,300 a year.
It is not just in Hawaii, but in many other States as well. For example, in South Carolina, the threshold is $31,650 a year; in North Carolina, $32,000 a year is considered low-income. These are not meaningless numbers--the dollar values represent the hard work of veterans who have served honorably and are now earning well below the median income for their area.
No, these are not poor veterans . But one devastating illness without health care coverage, and make no mistake about it, they will be impoverished.
Many of these veterans do not have any other form of health insurance. A recent study conducted by researchers at Harvard University found that nearly 1.8 million veterans are uninsured. This suggests that there are veterans in Priority 8 who are stuck in the middle between not making enough money to afford their own private insurance and making too much to qualify for VA care. No veteran who served their country honorably should be denied care when they need it because they were fortunate enough not to have been wounded in combat.
I also urge Members to read the text of the contested provision relating to Category 8 veterans . If the Secretary of Veterans Affairs sees opening up enrollment as too much of a financial burden, the Secretary could simply publish a decision in the Federal Register to again block these veterans . Congress is not seeking to overstep the Secretary's authority to determine who can come through VA's doors.
Finally, Senator Craig calls the inclusion of enrollment for middle-income veterans , a ``last minute'' addition. I say with a smile, that while time does seem to stand still in the Senate, I would remind my colleague that the bill enabling full enrollment was introduced last April, it was the subject of a hearing last May, and was marked up by the committee in June. This is not something that can be characterized as a ``last-minute'' change.
Now I turn briefly to address concerns raised about S. 1315, the committee's omnibus veterans benefits legislation. The proposed Veterans' Benefits Enhancement Act of 2007 is a comprehensive bill that includes benefits for a broad constituency of servicemembers and veterans , particularly those who are service-disabled. Provisions in this bill would also improve benefits for World War II Filipino veterans , virtually all of whom are now in their 80s or 90s.
While not providing Filipino veterans living outside the United States with benefits identical to those provided to veterans living in the United States, I am satisfied that the provisions in S. 1315 are equitable and should be adopted. It is important to note that S. 1315 would fix a historical wrong.
Filipino veterans served under the command of the United States military during World War II. They were considered by the Veterans' Administration, the predecessor of the Department of Veterans Affairs , to be veterans of the United States military, naval and air service until that status was revoked by the Rescission Acts of 1946. Therefore, as a matter of fundamental fairness and justice, Filipino veterans' benefits should be similar to those of other veterans .
Those who oppose the pension provision in S. 1315 argue that the pension that would be provided through this legislation is too high. However, pension benefits are designed to allow wartime veterans and their survivors to live in dignity--above the poverty level. I am satisfied that the levels of pension designated in this bill would allow these veterans to live with such dignity, while finally giving them the recognition that they so richly deserve.
I urge my colleagues on the other side of the aisle to take a good look at the facts surrounding the provisions contained in both S. 1233 and S. 1315 that some on the other side are objecting to, and to realize that opposing these bills on the current basis provided effectively denies valuable and meaningful benefits to our Nation's veterans .
In closing, I again stress that all we are seeking is a time agreement that will allow for debate. For those who believe that there are provisions in these two bills that should not be approved by the Senate, offer amendments, debate the merits, let the Senate vote. That is the least we can do as we seek to meet the needs of our Nation's veterans .
Mr. President, I yield the floor and suggest the absence of a quorum.
December 12, 2007