WASHINGTON, D.C. - Today, Senator Daniel K. Akaka (D-HI) applauded the Senate's proposed increase in funding for the Department of Veterans Affairs. Akaka praised Chairman Kent Conrad (D-ND) and his colleagues on the Senate Budget Committee for the proposed increase.
The floor statement is copied below:
MR. AKAKA. Mr. President, before I address the proposed funding for VA in the Budget Resolution for Fiscal Year 2008, I applaud Chairman Conrad and his colleagues on the Budget Committee for their hard work on this resolution. The measure before us today clearly reflects the right priorities and directions for our Nation.
For a number of years, I have made the case for the President to include funds for VA health care as part of the War Supplemental packages he has submitted to Congress. And every year, my colleagues and I fought to get those funds included in the Budget Resolution to no avail.
The pending Budget Resolution finally recognizes that caring for returning servicemembers and veterans is part of the cost of war, and in turn, proposes to fund VA health care appropriately for this effort.
Right now, a great deal of attention is being paid to the needs of our men and women in uniform - attention that Chairman Conrad, myself, and other members of this chamber have been talking about for quite some time. I am proud to stand with Chairman Conrad in support of our servicemembers and veterans.
One of the harshest realities of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is the number of servicemembers who have sustained complex and multiple injuries in combat.
In stark contrast to past conflicts, significant improvements in battlefield medicine have enabled very seriously wounded servicemembers to survive their injuries. Subsequently, these men and women are coming home with extraordinarily complex health care needs.
We know that right now, there have been 1,882 identified and registered cases of servicemembers who have suffered from traumatic brain injuries, or TBI, alone. This does not include those who have suffered from a milder form of this injury and may not even be aware of it. While TBI is becoming the signature wound of the current conflicts, many of these soldiers also have been rendered blind or lost a limb as a result of their injuries. And the numbers of those who are coming back with serious and multiple wounds continues to grow.
In recognition of the emerging medical and rehabilitative needs of veterans with traumatic brain and other injuries, Congress directed VA to establish specialized centers for rehabilitative care. VA's four lead Polytrauma Rehabilitation Centers are essential to meeting the needs of the most severely injured veterans and their families.
In the budget before us today, Chairman Conrad and his colleagues have provided over $300 million specifically for meeting the needs of these veterans and servicemembers who are in need of the comprehensive health care and rehabilitative services VA delivers through their Polytrauma Centers.
This level of funding will enable VA to conduct assessments and screenings of troops for traumatic brain injury, provide veterans with intensive comprehensive TBI/Polytrauma rehabilitation, and most importantly, support intensive case management for veterans with TBI and other injuries when they return to their communities and continue the rehabilitation process.
Recent reports by the VA Inspector General and others have illustrated that case management is a key element in the process of assisting these veterans achieve the fullest possible recoveries. Funding VA so that it can provide the continuum of care needed by the most severely injured servicemembers is imperative if we are to truly fulfill our obligation to take care of our troops and veterans.
I am also very pleased that the Budget Resolution before us is making a long-overdue investment in mental health care.
Studies published in some of the most prestigious journals have found that a third of those seeking VA care are coming for mental health concerns, including PTSD, anxiety, depression, and substance abuse. We do not know the full magnitude of this need, as many returning servicemembers have yet to seek care from VA.
As Chairman of the Veterans' Affairs Committee, my goal is to make sure that VA is doing everything possible to guarantee that each and every veteran who needs mental health care - whether in North Dakota, Vermont, or Hawaii - can receive that care.
Mr. President, I remind my colleagues that so much of the time, battle wounds manifest themselves as invisible wounds - wounds which cannot be seen but are every bit as devastating as physical wounds. PTSD affects not only a veteran's mental status, it affects his or her physical well being as well. It impacts the veteran's relationships, his or her ability to work, and to interact in society. VA must catch readjustment issues early before they turn into full-blown PTSD. And this budget resolution would enable VA to take a serious approach towards making this happen.
When we talk about the mental health needs of veterans, we cannot deny the reality that substance abuse is prevalent among many veterans. We know that many veterans with PTSD turn to drugs or alcohol in order to self-medicate. Yet, the Administration does not seem to want to be in the business of helping veterans with substance abuse problems. VA used to provide an intensive month-long program to treat substance abuse. Today, most VA substance abuse programs run for two weeks - not nearly enough time to put a veteran truly on the road to recovery. Again, this Budget Resolution provides funds for comprehensive inpatient substance abuse care. This is a very real investment in VA mental health care, Mr. President.
On the benefits side, the current claims inventory and the time it takes to process a claim is unacceptable. Veterans deserve a timely and accurate response to their claims. It is obvious that Chairman Conrad agrees, as this Budget Resolution takes a major step toward responding to this very real problem by providing appropriate funding for VA to use to employ additional claims adjudicators.
There are 30,000 more claims pending right now than last year this time. This constitutes an eight percent increase. As the veterans population continues to age, and new veterans come home from Iraq and Afghanistan, this trend of increased claims will continue. Given that it takes nearly two years for a new VA employee to start fully contributing to the bottom line, now is the time for new staff to be hired and trained to help reduce this caseload.
Just two weeks ago, the Committee on Veterans' Affairs held a hearing on the VA claims adjudication process. During the hearing, VA witnesses testified to the nearly 400,000 ratings claims inventory and the 175 days it takes to process a claim for benefits. We must insist that VA have no more than 250,000 claims in the pipeline at once, and that it take not more than 125 days to adjudicate a claim.
VA clearly needs additional resources to hire the employees needed to adjudicate claims in a timely manner, which this Budget Resolution certainly provides.
Mr. President, I am very pleased with the investment in veterans' programs that is made in this Budget Resolution. I again commend Chairman Conrad and the Budget Committee for sending the right message to our Nation's veterans - that we are honoring our commitment to them by making a real investment into their care. I urge my colleagues to support swift passage of the Resolution before us today.
March 22, 2007