WASHINGTON, D.C. - U.S. Senator Daniel K. Akaka (D-HI), Chairman of the Veterans' Affairs Committee, held a hearing today on health-related legislation pending before the Committee. Two of the reviewed bills, the Mental Health Improvements Act of 2007 (S. 2162), and the Veterans Pain Care Act of 2007 (S. 2160), were introduced by Chairman Akaka. "The bills under consideration hold promise to improve care for all veterans, especially by helping VA adapt to the challenges of our current conflicts," said Akaka.
Chairman Akaka's mental health bill garnered bipartisan support from the Committee for its potential to improve VA's treatment of the invisible wounds of war. Akaka noted at the hearing that Congress has yet to receive draft legislation from VA regarding improvements to mental health, and questioned VA witness Under Secretary for Health, Dr. Michael Kussman, on the matter.
Today's testimony also raised new concerns and underscored the need for improvements to veterans' mental health care. Constance Walker, speaking on behalf of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, spoke on challenges her family has faced in getting her son, a veteran of the war in Iraq, the services he needs for treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder. Her story demonstrates the difficulties veterans living in rural areas experience when seeking consistent and comprehensive mental health services from VA.
The Committee also heard testimony on the need for better pain management among veterans. Chronic pain symptoms and PTSD frequently co-occur and may intensify an individual's experience of both conditions. Witnesses also testified about the link between epilepsy and shockwave-induced TBI, a prevalent injury among OIF/OEF veterans. Chairman Akaka pledged to continue working in a bipartisan manner to see these bills through to final passage and ensure needed improvements to veterans' care.
Chairman Akaka's opening statement is copied below:
Aloha and good morning. I welcome everyone to the Committee's hearing on pending legislation. Today the Committee will hear testimony on five bills from a number of witnesses.
The bills under consideration are largely in response to the needs of the newest generation of veterans but hold promise for all veterans.
Mental health issues remain an important part of our work in Committee. Based upon the valuable testimony gathered at our mental health hearing in May, I introduced S. 2162, "The Mental Health Improvements Act." I am pleased that Senator Burr has joined as a co-sponsor. Now more than ever, VA must make mental health services a priority. New approaches and programs aimed at substance use disorder, PTSD, and readjustment services are included in this legislation.
Also on the agenda is legislation which recognizes the need for improvements in VA's pain care management program. VA's current pain care efforts are worthwhile, but are unfortunately too inconsistent and unstandardized to adequately meet the needs of all veterans. S. 2160 would enhance VA's pain management program on a national, system-wide level, through better clinical practices, research, and professional education.
Senator Murray and Senator Craig have proposed S. 2004, which would require VA to create epilepsy centers of excellence. These centers would focus their attention upon research, education, and clinical care related to epilepsy. Thanks largely to the testimony from prior hearings, we have recognized that TBI is a significant problem facing veterans of Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom. Veterans with TBI are at a substantially increased risk to develop post-trauma seizures months or even years after injury.
We also have before us a bill by Senator Brown to clarify how non-VA emergency care needs to work. Senator Brown chaired a field hearing earlier this year which highlighted problems with the reimbursement process for veterans and private hospitals when emergency care and treatment is needed. Senator Brown's bill would improve the emergency treatment of veterans at non-VA facilities by removing uncertainty through a mandatory reimbursement system and a clarification of transfer procedures.
We will have a Committee markup next month. My expectation is that we can move some of this legislation forward to the full Senate.
In closing, I note that the Committee has moved much legislation through its process. Several large authorization bills are on the Senate calendar. As Chairman, I am working with our new Ranking Member to work on time agreements so that we can expedite the path to enactment. I am hopeful that we will be able to reach agreement and get the pending bills to the floor in the next week or so.