Congressional Record Floor Statement of Senator Daniel K. Akaka
Mr. President, I have come to the floor today to discuss an important veterans' bill. Before I do so, I wish to express my great sadness about the horrible tragedy yesterday at Fort Hood. My thoughts and prayers are with those wounded, the families of those killed, and to all the soldiers and civilians defending our great nation at Fort Hood.
As chairman of the Senate Committee on Veterans' Affairs , I take my responsibility to the Nation's veterans very seriously. We are an active committee and are working hard to make improvements in VA care and benefits.
I am delighted to note that the President signed the Veterans Health Care Budget Reform and Transparency Act of 2009 into law last month. This measure will provide timely and predictable funding for the veterans health care system. I am grateful to all who worked on this, including the committee's ranking member, and the Veterans Service Organizations, that made this one of their priorities.
Despite this success, we, as a committee, have not been able to achieve action on S. 1963, the proposed Caregiver and Veterans Health Services Act of 2009. This vitally important veterans' health bill is being held up by a single Senator. Each day that this measure is delayed, means that vital benefits for veterans are delayed. This is a bipartisan bill, the provisions of which were reported by the committee as S. 801 and S. 252, with the full support of our ranking member, Senator Burr.
This bill is supported by many veterans' organizations, including the American Legion, the Veterans of Foreign Wars, the Disabled American Veterans , the Paralyzed Veterans of America, and the Wounded Warrior Project.
Various other advocates support this bill, as well, including the Nurses Organization of Veterans Affairs , the Brain Injury Association of America, the American Academy of Ophthalmology, the American Association of Colleges of Nursing, and many others.
By blocking S. 1963, this single senator is denying veterans many benefits and services.
One of the key benefits is caregiver assistance for our most seriously wounded veterans .
The committee continues to hear about family members who quit their jobs, go through their savings, and lose their health insurance, as they stay home to care for their wounded family members.
For those family members who manage to keep their jobs, their employers, including many small businesses already struggling in these economic times, lose money from absenteeism and declining productivity.
The toll on the caregivers, who try to do it all, can be measured in higher rates of depression, and poor health as they struggle to care for these wounded warriors, an obligation that ultimately belongs to the government.
This legislation fulfills VA's obligation to care for the nation's wounded veterans, by providing their caregivers with counseling, support, and a living stipend.
The measure also provides health care to the family caregivers of injured veterans . These caregivers deserve our support and assistance.
As a representative of the Wounded Warrior project said in testimony before the committee, "The time has surely come to create a robust, nationwide wounded warrior family caregiver program to address the urgent needs of these family members.'' S. 1963 creates such a program.
By blocking S. 1963, this Senator is also blocking benefits specifically for women veterans . This bill, and Senator Murray has been a leader on this, would do a number of things, such as increase funding for mental health care for women who suffered military sexual trauma, and for medical services for newborn children.
With the help of Senator Tester, this bill also would improve access to care in rural areas. States which have an especially high number of veterans living in rural areas, such as Montana, Nevada, Wyoming, Florida, Arizona, Arkansas, Virginia, Idaho, Oklahoma, and New Mexico, would benefit greatly from these programs.
The bill also attacks another problem, that of homeless veterans.
On any given night we know that more than 130,000 veterans are homeless.
We know that homelessness is often a consequence of multiple factors, including unstable family supports, job loss, and health problems.
S. 1963 would also create programs to help ease the burden of veteran homelessness, including programs aimed at outreach so that veterans know that they are eligble for benefits.
This lone Senator also is blocking provisions that would improve quality controls for VA health care, from the facility level to the national level.
Two years ago, the VA hospital in Marion, IL, had nine veterans die following surgery.
The VA's inspector general found that the Marion VA's quality controls were not adequate to ensure that veterans received good quality care.
This month, the IG published another report on the Marion hospital, finding that it still did not have adequate quality controls. It is time for this body to act, so that no more veterans receive less than the best care VA can provide.
Senator Durbin drafted provisions in this bill that will help improve overall quality management so as to help fix the problems at Marion and other facilities.
S. 1963 would provide uniform allowances for VA police officers. Many organizations have expressed support for these provisions, including the Fraternal Order of Police.
VA police officers ensure the security of veterans and their families while they are visiting VA hospitals and clinics.
To refuse to provide for these officers because it is too expensive is not only penny-wise and pound-foolish, it cheapens the sacrifices of these uniformed officers and the Nation's veterans who are protected by them.
While I understand that the Senator who is refusing to agree to allow this bill to go forward questions the cost of the underlying bill, I would say that we cannot now turn our back on the obligation to care for those who fought in those efforts.
When we, as a body, vote to send American troops to war, we are promising to care for them when they return.
I firmly believe the cost of veterans' benefits and services is a true cost of war and must be treated as such.
We are preparing to observe Veterans Day.
Let us remember that we owe our veterans our gratitude and appreciation year round, and not merely on the day set aside for the commemoration of their service and sacrifice.
It would be truly disgraceful if veterans were made to feel forgotten except for this 1 day per year.
Indeed, our gratitude should be as steadfast as the great monuments that Americans have built in commemoration of the very service and sacrifices our veterans made.
There should be no ambivalence in our attitude toward those who serve in the U.S. Armed Forces.
And this legislation should be immediately cleared by the Senate.
November 6, 2009