WASHINGTON, D.C. - U.S. Senator Daniel K. Akaka (D-HI), Chairman of the Committee on Veterans' Affairs, held a hearing Feb. 13 on the Fiscal Year 2009 Budget for Veterans' Programs. Veterans Affairs Secretary Dr. James Peake, in response to a follow-up question from Chairman Akaka, stated that he was willing to work with the Committee to consider modifying the current policy that prohibits middle-income veterans from enrolling in the VA health care system.
Chairman Akaka said: "I am encouraged by the Secretary's willingness to work with the Committee on reopening eligibility for middle-income veterans. The current income threshold is unduly restrictive on veterans in high cost-of-living states like Hawaii. I will continue to work with Secretary Peake for action on this issue."
The current income threshold for eligibility for VA health care is $28,429 for a single veteran. A 2003 decision by the Administration barred veterans above this threshold from enrolling for VA health care. Raising the threshold to a higher amount would allow more veterans to have access to VA health care. VA estimates that as many as 1.5 million veterans have been denied enrollment since the ban was implemented.
Akaka, who steadily pushed for last year's (FY08) historic budget increase for VA, expressed concerns with the proposed budget for the coming year (FY09):
"VA's estimate of the number of OIF/OEF veterans that will seek care is significantly low. We know that VA has underestimated the needs of this population in the past, and I will be working to ensure that the men and women who have served our country in Iraq and Afghanistan have the resources they need," Akaka stated.
Akaka also noted the need to correct especially severe proposed cuts to key programs such as medical research, construction, grants for state homes and cemeteries, and the Office of Inspector General:
"I continue to believe that the Administration's proposed cuts to important VA activities are unacceptable. These cuts would pull back funding states need to provide long-term care for veterans and maintain state veterans cemeteries. The Administration's budget would also cut funding for needed infrastructure improvements in half, and reduce the Office of Inspector General's budget by $4 million. And it is shocking that the Administration would recommend cutting medical and prosthetic research by $38 million at a time when servicemembers are returning from Iraq and Afghanistan with complicated injuries which could be helped by research breakthroughs," Akaka stated.
Senator Akaka was pleased to be assured by VA that the planned expansion of columbarium at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, commonly known as "Punchbowl," was on target and that the cemetery would continue to provide uninterrupted services in the years to come. "Punchbowl is held in great esteem by veterans in Hawaii, especially those of the World War II and Korean War generations. I believe it is our duty to ensure that those veterans who gave so much to this Nation have the opportunity to choose a final resting place that is appropriate for themselves and their families," stated Senator Akaka.
The first panel of witnesses included Honorable James B. Peake, MD, Secretary of Veterans Affairs, accompanied by Honorable Daniel L. Cooper, Under Secretary for Benefits; Honorable Michael J. Kussman, MD, Under Secretary for Health; Honorable William F. Tuerk, Under Secretary for Memorial Affairs; Honorable Robert J. Henke, Assistant Secretary for Management; Honorable Robert Howard, Assistant Secretary for Information and Technology; and Honorable Paul J. Hutter, General Counsel.
The second panel consisted of veterans advocates, including four representatives of the Independent Budget: Carl Blake, National Legislative Director, Paralyzed Veterans of America; Kerry Baker, Associate National Legislative Director, Disabled American Veterans; Raymond C. Kelley, National Legislative Director, AMVETS; and Christopher Needham, Senior Legislative Associate, National Legislative Service, Veterans of Foreign Wars; as well as Peter S. Gaytan, Director of the National Veterans Affairs and Rehabilitation Commission of The American Legion, and John Rowan, National President of Vietnam Veterans of America.
Chairman Akaka's opening statement is copied below:
Aloha and welcome to all.
When the President released billions in contingency funding last month, he put VA on course to make the improvements that we all know are needed. It was my sincerest hope that the FY09 budget would build upon that financial commitment. After all, the challenges facing veterans grow more complex as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan continue. Yet, in his very last budget submitted to this body, the President is proposing limited funding overall and at the same time, some very severe cutbacks to key programs.
The Administration is quick to tout that this latest budget, if enacted, would nearly double the budget in effect since President Bush took office seven years ago. This statement ignores the fact that it was the work of Congress which has, on average, doubled the President's request each and every year.
While the Administration is requesting a straightforward increase for VA, an even greater level of resources must be dedicated to care for the newest veterans and for their very specific needs. The Administration has consistently underestimated the impact that Operations Enduring and Iraqi Freedom would have on the VA health care system. An even more pressing concern is the need for VA to do a better job of reaching out to these veterans and bringing them into the fold for care. Preventing suicide and healing invisible wounds, especially for members of the Guard and Reserves, takes a much more aggressive approach than is embodied in this budget.
It is also true that the budget before us targets key areas for significant funding cuts. To cut VA research is incredibly shortsighted. To cut the Inspector General's office - the central gear in oversight efforts - is unwise. And to drastically cut construction at a time when VA should be upgrading its infrastructure is reckless and will prove to be quite costly.
On the benefits side of the ledger, in the last year, Congress has provided a significant amount of funding to VA for much-needed staffing to adjudicate claims. Our Nation's veterans deserve nothing less than having their claims rated accurately and in a reasonable period of time. Now, the American people, especially veterans, will expect to see a decreasing backlog and increased timeliness and quality. I pledge to you my continuing support to get veterans the benefits they need in an appropriate amount of time.
I am committed to working with the Secretary and my colleagues on both sides of the aisle to ensure that the Department gets what it truly needs to deliver high quality benefits and services to veterans. I am also deeply committed to working with all Members of Congress to recognize the reality that meeting the needs of veterans is truly part of the ongoing costs of war.
This budget takes a meek approach to funding VA, especially in light of the sacrifices made by those who have served in past conflicts and the devastating injuries sustained by many who are serving today. I do not doubt that we will turn this budget around. We must support a much more aggressive approach for improved health care and benefits. We have much work to do.
I look forward to our dialogue with Secretary Peake and other top VA officials, as well as the representatives of veterans' service organizations here with us today.
February 13, 2008