JCP ORGANIZATIONAL MEETING
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TUESDAY, JANUARY 9, 2007
United States Senate,
Committee on Veterans' Affairs,
The Committee met, pursuant to notice, at 9:38 a.m., in Room SR-418, Russell Senate Office Building, Hon. Daniel K. Akaka, Chairman of the Committee, presiding.
Present: Senators Akaka, Murray, Obama, Brown, Webb, Craig, Burr, Isakson, and Sanders.
OPENING STATEMENT OF CHAIRMAN AKAKA
Chairman Akaka. Before I make my statement, I first want to thank my very, very good friend and, really, a brother, Senator Craig, for his cooperation in allowing today's meeting to happen. We did talk about this and we worked on scheduling it, but officially there was, technically, a time difference here. Although this meeting was scheduled in anticipation of the adoption of the organizing resolution for the 110th Congress, it now appears that the resolution will not be adopted before tomorrow or Thursday. Thus, under the rules of the Senate, there has been no change in chairmanship of any committees, including, of course, this one.
So Senator Craig is still Chairman and could have asked that today's meeting be postponed until after the resolution is adopted, but in his own kind way he has allowed us to proceed. And in the interest of getting the Committee under way, he agreed for the meeting to go forward, for which I am very grateful.
So good morning and welcome to the Committee's first meeting of the 110th Congress. I look forward to a productive session for our Committee. Our obligation, to take the lead in ensuring that those who served in the Armed Forces receive the benefits and services they need is really a profound one for us. That is never more true than now when members of the military are in harm's way in service to our nation.
Today's session provides the Committee with the opportunity to begin to set an agenda for the year ahead. I will take the time to briefly outline my thoughts on the issues we might address, and then will ask each of you to share your thoughts and your expectations.
Our Committee has a strong history of bipartisanship, and I intend to do all I can to maintain and foster that tradition--and Senator Craig really brought that about, too. And I intend to do all I can to maintain and foster that tradition that has been set. I value my relationship with Larry Craig and will work with him as he worked with me over the past Congress when our roles were reversed. I do not expect that all members will be in agreement on all issues, but, of course, I do anticipate that when we disagree, it will be with a respectful regard for the views of all.
So I begin with some housekeeping matters today.
First, following the pattern set by Senator Craig, I plan to have at least two events a month for the Committee, either hearings or meetings. My tentative plan is to schedule these events for the second and fourth Tuesday of each month, beginning at 9:30 a.m. So please let me know if this schedule conflicts with any other Committee on which you sit. I know many of us are serving on a number of Committees, and finding a time that accommodates all members may prove difficult, but I would like to have a time set that results in as few conflicts as possible.
In addition to our two Committee events each month, I expect that we will again have joint meetings with the House Veterans' Affairs Committee a number of times during the year, to hear the legislative presentations of veteran service organizations and military organizations. Details on this are still being ironed out, but I anticipate that we will have an agreement and a schedule for this year's hearings in the next few weeks.
So that those with an interest in the activities of the Committee have a chance to follow our work and our plan, I plan to have materials related to our meetings and hearings put on the Committee's website as quickly as possible after an event. For activities such as today's meeting that will not otherwise be published, I would ask that the transcript be posted after all members have had an opportunity to correct any transcription errors. I also encourage each of you to provide an electronic version of any statements you may make during a hearing or meeting so that those may be posted promptly, as well.
One last scheduling issue, related to legislation, that I want to avoid as much as possible, is the situation we found ourselves in at the end of last year when we were forced to cobble together a final legislative package, some of which had been before the Committee for nearly two years, and we had to do in 48 hours. That is something we need to work on and try to avoid.
While I will always be open to considering legislation that arises later in the year, I intend to schedule the Committee's markup of the major legislation for this session by mid-May, with a goal of Senate action in June. So I encourage you to introduce legislation as soon as possible. And I know some of you have done that and are doing it.
Additionally, I intend to continue the Committee's long-standing practice of focused oversight hearings on VA and other departments and agencies that have a role in responding to the needs and concerns of veterans.
One particular emphasis for our oversight will be on the state of cooperation and collaboration between VA and the Department of Defense. There has been strong interest, dating back at least to the early 1980s, in improving the ways in which the two departments work together for the benefit of those who have been in the Armed Forces and who are becoming veterans.
One phrase that is used repeatedly in this area, and during the chairmanship of Senator Craig, is 'seamless transition.' I understand this to mean that, for the servicemember, the shift from DOD to VA should be smooth and efficient. Achieving this result should always be an important outcome, but never more so than during a time of war when so many servicemembers need assistance in dealing with the impact of combat upon their lives.
It is clear to me that the desired level of cooperation and collaboration between DOD and VA has, really, not been achieved as well as we want it to be. I planned a series of hearings to explore the many facets of this issue.
The first hearing, later this month, will focus on the what DOD and VA have agreed upon as goals and objectives for their mutual efforts, how they plan to meet those goals, how they are monitoring their progress, and how they are rewarding successes and dealing with failures.
Subsequent hearings will focus on health care and rehabilitation for returning servicemembers, compensation and other benefits, education and employment, and other areas of overlap. I have a particular understanding of what is happening for members of the Reserves and National Guard as they return from deployment.
I plan to schedule other oversight hearings focused directly on VA and the major operational elements: the Health Administration, the Benefits Administration, and the National Cemetery Administration, so that the Committee might be able to gauge how each is doing and address some of the key issues facing VA.
This is particularly important as the Department is called on to respond to the legitimate needs of veterans from World War II and earlier, up to those now leaving service, especially in this time of budgetary pressures.
I anticipate that the Committee, directly and through the separate work of its members, will be deeply engaged in the budget and appropriations process, both immediately, as the Congress deals with VA funding for the current fiscal year, and as we begin the process for fiscal year 2008.
As many of you have heard me say, I feel very strongly that the costs of benefits and services for those who have served must be treated as ongoing costs of war. Even as the Congress debates the appropriate funding for the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, we must ensure that VA is given the resources needed to carry out its mission. VA must not be seen simply as another department or agency coming hat in hand to seek funding. When we send our servicemembers into harm's way on behalf of the Nation, we must be prepared to fund VA so that the Department can furnish the needed health care, rehabilitation, and compensation among other benefits and services needed by those who have served. Anything less is the breach of the fundamental obligation we owe to those who wear our Nation's uniforms.
Again, I look forward to a productive session for the Committee. And now I want to yield to my good friend, Senator Craig, for his thoughts.
OPENING STATEMENT OF SENATOR CRAIG
Senator Craig. Well, Mr. Chairman, thank you very much. Again, thank you for those kind opening comments, to me, but most importantly to the way that we have worked together.
To our newest members, welcome to the Committee. It was a working Committee the last several years, and, clearly, as it has been outlined by the Chairman, it will be again, and I appreciate that for all the reasons I think our Chairman has just spoken to.
Now, I would much prefer that you call me Mr.
Senator Craig. --but that is not going to happen, nor should it. But what is important, I think, is the spirit of cooperation and the unity of purpose that we share and that has been clearly spoken to by the Chairman.
And in all fairness, of the Committees that I have served on in the Senate over a number of years, I think this Committee is unrivaled in that relationship and that attitude. When I consider the work we did in the 109th Congress, in which all of the legislation that passed out of this Committee passed the floor by unanimous consent. Now, that is a very fascinating but important record to remember. Our differences got sorted out here, and we worked to make sure that when we got to the floor, the Senate spoke in unity on behalf of our veterans, and I think that is tremendously important.
Bipartisanship is not, I think, the exception when it comes to veterans, it is the rule, and we will work very hard, I will work very hard, with the Chairman in the 110th Congress, to make that happen. When it comes to our men and women in uniform, or those who wore the uniform, the unity of the Nation on their behalf is critical.
Now, turning to the Committee's legislative and oversight agenda for the current Congress, I believe we must continue to focus our needs on the Iraq and Afghanistan vets that are coming out. The Chairman has already spoken to that and he will give that his priority. I will work with him to make sure that is our priority. The seamlessness that is talked about between the Department of Defense and Veterans Affairs is critical. We began to work on that. We made tremendous progress in that area, but it does not exist, in my opinion, in the way it ought to exist, and there is a good deal more that can be done, and it will be done if this Committee is vigilant in its oversight and its insistence in those kinds of relationships between record and record keeping, and the ability to transition records, and the service relationships between those soon to become veterans and the Veterans Administration itself.
Let me touch four issues that I see as important, but they will also, I think, very closely dovetail with what the Chairman has just outlined.
I. Rural Health Care
One of our colleagues who is not now with us who was last year, Ken Salazar, started talking about this early on, and for those of us in rural states--and for some of you from more urban states, I am always fascinated by your definition of rural. Those of us out West, rural is frontier, at least by an Illinois definition. And it is in that context that I think we have to ask the VA, in their service of our veterans, to think a little differently than those large structured institutions or facilities.
Looking through the modern glasses of health care today, it can be done in a variety of ways through tele-medicine and other approaches that, clearly, can service at less expense a veteran and a veteran's need, allowing them to avoid, oftentimes, the ultimate step of moving to an urban setting simply to receive the health care they are entitled to.
II. Long-Term Care
Obviously the challenges confronting VA in meeting the long-term care needs of our veterans are similar to those confronted by the rest of the Nation. Who is eligible? What type of long-term care should they be eligible for? And so on, and so forth. I think we have got to reexamine that with VA. It is an institution of phenomenal bureaucracies, good bureaucracies that serve our veterans well today, but it is, by definition, an institution that does not necessarily like to change, at times, unless it is caused to change for all the right reasons.
III. Claims Processing Reform
We have always been concerned about timeliness, Mr. Chairman, as you know. We have worked on that issue. We will continue to work on it again. Veterans who stand at the door should not have to do so for lengthy time periods. And while we have been able to measure that and cause it to be improved, whether it is budgetary or whether it is reform--certainly I know that the senior member here from the State of Washington, along with all of us, has been tremendously concerned with that. And we have seen our numbers improve, but that does not mean that we cannot work on it.
IV. VA Budget Sustainability
Well, the Chairman has talked about that, and I do not know of anything more important than doing that. And let me close with my final thoughts on that. I think the biggest challenge we must come to terms with is whether the VA medical care budget can be sustained at its present growth rate under the way we are handling it now. Assuming money is added to the continuing resolution for VA medical care, its budget will stand at $80 billion. Now, that means a 70 percent growth since this President took office in 2001. At the current pace, VA's medical budget will double every six years.
I have said it before and I will say it again, unless prudent policies are adopted with respect to the financing of VA health care systems, we will continue to see VA spending collide with many other important programs of our Government. And by the Chairman's own statement, and my concluding agreement with his statement, I do not think that is something we want to see happen. At the same time, constant vigilance in how we get there, arguing, respectively, whether this is a sustainable approach, is the responsibility of this Committee.
Last year, with the tensions of VA spending and military construction projects, we know we dealt with them, VA had the second largest budget increase in all of government, second only to defense. And obviously we are at war, you would expect those budgets to move, but this was second right behind it, and for obvious reasons, because we want America's veterans to receive the finest of care. And we built that, and it is there, and it is being delivered today, and we want it to be sustainable, and we want it to be accessible.
The question is, can we collectively sustain this growth rate in the current configuration of how we approach it or is there another approach? I will be looking at it. I hope this Committee will responsibly look at it. I just do not think that we can assume each year an 11 or 12 percent increase on an annualized basis with the numbers we are dealing with, with the concerns we have, and with the variance of programs that we also are concerned about.
Again, Mr. Chairman, I look forward to working with you and all of the Committee as we move through the next two years. Obviously, America is focused, as we should be, on our men and women in uniform, and we want to make sure that those who arrive at veteran status are not forgotten and have access to the finest health care delivery system in the country.
Thank you very much, Mr. Chairman.
Chairman Akaka. Thank you very much, Larry, for your thoughts and expectations.
I would like to now call on Senator Murray, one of the senior members on this Committee for her thoughts as well.
OPENING STATEMENT OF SENATOR MURRAY
Senator Murray. Mr. Chairman, thank you very much. Let me congratulate you on taking over leadership of this Committee. You outlined a very aggressive agenda, a very appropriate agenda, and I think we have a lot of work to do. I look forward to working with you and Senator Craig on those issues that you outlined.
And I want to join you in welcoming our new members to this Committee. I am very impressed by their credentials, and their sincerity, and their long history of working on these issues. And I know by working together all of us can move forward on what is our primary concern, making sure that those who have served us, we serve them well.
Certainly, as I listen to you, I have to agree, Mr. Chairman, with all that you have outlined. We need to have strong oversight of the VA. The recent GAO reports found that the VA is not spending the mental health care dollars that Congress provided it. They have misled Congress about planning for the care of our veterans, and they are not meeting the needs of our veterans today, and it is our responsibility to make sure that they come to the table and do what is required of them at this time.
We do need to demand a real plan from the VA to meet the needs of our Iraqi and Afghani veterans. 60,000 veterans have returned from Iraq and Afghanistan with undetermined ailments, and we have got to get to the bottom of that, Mr. Chairman.
I am pleased that you have scheduled a hearing already on how to explore working the DOD and VA--cooperating together better with a seamless transition. That is a challenge many of our veterans are talking with us about and I think that will be an excellent hearing.
I think this Committee also needs to establish a real system for the VA to bring an honest budget to Congress. We have faced that challenge too many times in the last several years. We know about the long waiting lines. We know about the mental health care, as one VA official said, being virtually inaccessible, and we have got to have a real budget for those veterans who are returning.
Senator Craig rightfully said that the VA budget has increased, but that is no surprise. We are at war. We do have soldiers returning. We have more Vietnam veterans who are entering our system today. We have health care costs, overall, rising within our country. We have to step up to that reality and keep the promise that we have made to our veterans real.
I am also very concerned about mental health. We know that the high instances of PTSD with our soldiers who are returning--it is unacceptable to me that they are not getting the care they need immediately. We know that is what we should be doing. We have got to move forward on that. So I appreciate, Mr. Chairman, that being part of your agenda.
I also, as we move forward in this Committee, hope that we can address the Nation's convoluted community emergency room policies that our veterans face today. When they go into an emergency room they do not know who is going to pay for it or when, and it is affecting their health care, and I hope that we can address that.
You mentioned the benefits backlog, and I know that we will have hearings on that as well, and I will have more to say, but that is just unacceptable to me, when someone comes home and has done right by our country and then they wait for months to get the benefits that they were promised.
And I also hope, Mr. Chairman, in our time this year, that we will be able to address the issues of homelessness and unemployment in our veterans' community. I have been home and talked to some of our returning soldiers who cannot get a job, particularly in the Guard and Reserve, mostly because most employers are concerned that they are going to get called up again today. We have a responsibility to make sure that they do not come home and face unemployment; that, to me, is just wrong.
So we have a very aggressive agenda. We have great, exciting new members. I am really looking forward to working with you, Mr. Chairman, Senator Craig, as we address, I think, one of the most pressing concerns of this Nation, and that is how we take care of the veterans who have done so well by us.
Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
Chairman Akaka. Thank you very much, Senator Murray.
And now time moves on here and so do positions. Another senior member of this Committee, Senator Burr.
OPENING STATEMENT OF SENATOR BURR
Senator Burr. Thank you, Mr. Chairman. I also welcome the new members, some of which I have had the opportunity to work with in the past, and Bernie, it is great to see you. We have got quite a history together on the Energy and Commerce Committee.
Mr. Chairman, I applaud your aggressive list of priorities, and I have learned on this Committee that every member comes with a list of priorities. I look forward to working with Senator Murray on homelessness. It is my hope that this Committee will focus not just on the health care we are delivering, but the facilities we use to deliver that health care from. I think that we see across the country an effort to put new facilities in, and sometimes when we do that, we forget the age of the facilities we have got.
To some degree my request is selfish, because North Carolina is the number one recipient of retired military individuals today, and our facilities show their age. The Salisbury VA facility this year will become the most utilized VA facility in the country, yet its age shows. And when a demographic shift in our military results in as many females as we have males, it makes it impossible for a facility that was not built to accommodate both sexes to provide adequate services to all veterans. My hope is that we will see an effort to accelerate the update of those facilities.
The last issue I would just like to highlight is not one that is new to this Committee, it is one that everyone is passionate about, and it is making sure that the funding is there for traumatic brain injuries. With the IED experience of Iraq, and now we have seen in Afghanistan, over 60 percent of those that return probably are affected with some type of traumatic brain injury. It is my hope that this Committee to stay vigilant to make sure we are pushing VA to, in fact, offer the array of services that I think our veterans deserve.
I look forward to this work of this Committee and to work with the Chairman.
Chairman Akaka. Thank you very much, Senator Burr.
Senator Obama, too, also has come up in the senior ranks. Senator Obama.
OPENING STATEMENT OF SENATOR OBAMA
Senator Obama. Thank you very much, Mr. Chairman. I want to thank you and congratulate you for taking up the gavel of this Committee. I want to thank Ranking Member Craig, who did a terrific job chairing this Committee, and both of you were models of bipartisanship during the last session, and I am sure that will continue.
I am very pleased to hear the priorities that you have outlined, Mr. Chairman, and I am glad to know that one of the priorities will be transition of soldiers from DOD to the VA. More than 1.5 million servicemembers have been deployed as a part of the Global War on Terror. Of those, more than 630,000 are now veterans. More than 205,000 have been treated at VA hospitals or clinics.
The VA, which, as Senator Murray spoke to, and has been one of the more vigilant members to focus on this, has been strained for years as a consequence of what I consider to be budgetary neglect, and I do not believe it is entirely prepared to receive this flood of new veterans.
One thing, as we hold hearings on transition, I hope we will examine some of the issues that I addressed with Senator Snowe in a piece of legislation that we introduced on the first day of business called the Lane Evans Veterans Health Care Benefits Improvement Act of 2007. It is named after one of our colleagues, Illinois Congressman Lane Evans, who served our Nation's veterans in Congress for over 20 years before retiring, and many of you know him. And the bill tackles several obstacles to keep newly separated veterans from getting the care they deserve. It establishes a system to track Global War on Terror veterans to help with budget planning and health research. It extends the amount of time for veterans to get assessed for mental health care, and it requires DOD to provide each separating servicemember at the time of discharge with an electronic copy of all military and medical records so that they can apply for health care and benefits in a more timely fashion.
One other issue that I would just like to bring up that has been mentioned is the issue of homelessness among veterans. At the very end of the last Congress, we worked together to extend and expand some critically important services for homeless veterans. It was an important step forward, but not as far as we need to go. Right now, the services that are provided by the VA are only treating a fraction of the veterans who need them. So I would like us to take a look at expanding the successful voucher program that allows more veterans to afford their rent. We need more long-term affordable housing, which can be served through community organizations, purchasing, building, and rehabilitating housing for veterans. I plan on introducing a bill earlier this year to work on that issue, and I look forward to working with all of you to make sure that we are dealing with homeless veterans in an effective way.
So Mr. Chairman, thank you very much. I look forward to working on this Committee, and I am sure that it will be very productive, and our new members will provide some outstanding, new insight and energy to the Committee.
Chairman Akaka. Thank you very much, Senator Obama.
Another senior member here of this Committee is Senator Isakson, and we would like to hear from you at this time.
OPENING STATEMENT OF SENATOR ISAKSON
Senator Isakson. Well, Mr. Chairman, thank you very much. And thanks to Ranking Member Craig for his great service as Chairman the last two years.
Welcome to Senator Sanders, Senator Webb, and Senator Brown. I had the privilege to serve with Sherrod and Bernie in the House, and I am glad to have you. I think you will be great additions to the Committee.
I want to just echo what Barack and Richard have said, and what you emphasized, your remarks with regard to health care. It is a tremendous focus, and the growth that Ranking Member Craig mentioned is only going to grow because of the deployment that we have and because of the military and its position around the world.
I also think the transition from DOD to the VA is most important in terms of being seamless, being effective and meeting the needs of those veterans as they retire and go into VA service.
So I look forward to working with you, Mr. Chairman. I appreciate the service of Ranking Member Craig as Chairman, and I appreciate the opportunity to speak. Thank you.
Chairman Akaka. Thank you very much, Senator Isakson, for your thoughts.
Let me now call on one of our new members and one we are looking forward to working with and welcome you as well. Senator Sanders.
OPENING STATEMENT OF SENATOR SANDERS
Senator Sanders. Thank you very much, Mr. Chairman, Mr. Craig. It is a pleasure to receive the strong bipartisanship--or tripartisanship, as the case may be--which exists on the Committee, because I think we all understand that protecting the needs of men and women who put their lives on the line, certainly, if there is a an issue that is nonpartisan, this is an issue that is nonpartisan.
And I think the crux of the issue, and both Mr. Chairman and Mr. Craig raised the issue, is that, if we are going to do the right thing, it is an expensive proposition, and I would hope that all of us stand together and say if we are going to put people in harm's way, we have to see it, as the Chairman indicated, as a cost of war, and we have to raise it as a high priority. And in my view, not attempting to be partisan here, I think we have to get our priorities right and say that taking care of every veteran in this country is, in fact, more important than giving tax breaks, in some cases, to people that do not need it. But I would hope that we would come together and say, all of us stand with our veterans.
Let me just tick off a couple of the issues that are on my agenda, and these are some of the issues that I have been working on for over 16 years in the House. And by the way, I find myself in agreement with everything that was said so far. I got a call a couple of years ago in my House office from a gentleman who was in his 80s who served in World War II, and he called my office to say that he could not get into a VA facility in the State of Vermont because he was a Category 8. Well, as a Nation, I do not think we throw hundreds of thousands of Category 8s off of VA health care. I think we should reinstate that. Is it expensive? Yes, but I think we should do that.
Second of all, as everyone has indicated, the cost of health care is soaring because health care is soaring in general and because we have more veterans. And again, I think we have to adequately fund the VA. I respect the work done by--the independent budget by the VFW and the DAV and the other service organizations. I think we should listen to that budget and support their efforts. And I think we should move to the mandatory funding of the VA so that every year we do not have to go through struggles to make sure that our veterans get the health care and other benefits that they need.
I am supportive of eliminating the Disabled Veterans Tax. As Mr. Craig mentioned, we have a benefits claims backlog. If someone is entitled to a claim, they should not have to wait months and months, years and years, to get that claim addressed. That should be done very promptly.
And as Senator Murray and others, Mr. Burr, have mentioned, we have to deal with the very serious problems of PTSD, TBI, and the other problems that are tragically taking place in Iraq right now.
I come, as Mr. Craig does, from a very rural state. We have folks in Vermont who are returning from Iraq where, as everybody knows, there is no front line. The stress level there is terrible. They are coming back to small towns in northern Vermont, and we want to make sure that they are integrated well into their families, into their communities, and that they have the jobs that were there when they left.
So it seems to me that there is a lot of work that we have to do to get up to speed. And to be honest, I think, in many ways, we have treated our veterans over the years without the kind of respect that they are due, without the kind of funding that they are entitled to.
So I very much hope that, in a tripartisan way, we can go forward together to make sure that we keep the promises that have been made to the men and women who have served our country.
Thank you very much.
Chairman Akaka. Thank you very much, Senator Sanders.
And now I would like to call on Senator Webb for your thoughts.
OPENING STATEMENT OF SENATOR WEBB
Senator Webb. Thank you very much, Mr. Chairman. I appreciate the energy you are promising to bring to this Committee. And Senator Craig, I look forward to working with you and the members on the other side in, I prefer to say, a nonpartisan basis.
I have been working in this area since my last year in the Marine Corps when I was on the Secretary of the Navy's staff, and as part of our functions had to look at a lot of those transition issues, and discharge issues, and those sorts of things. And it is a little stunning for me to sit back and think about this, but actually 30 years ago in March I reported to the House Veterans Committee as Committee Counsel. I was the first Vietnam Veteran to work as a full committee counsel in the Congress. And we were very much, I like to say, a nonpartisanship Committee, during the four years that I was counsel over there. We had a tremendous working relationship. There were divisions, but they were rarely across party lines. There were geographic arguments about issues such as the GI Bill. Very rarely were there any issues that were divided along party lines.
During that period, I was privileged as a counsel to do a lot of the early work, along with the other people on the Committees, in areas such as post-traumatic stress. The Disabled American Veterans during that time had a pilot program called the Forgotten Warrior Project, which was the first program that really focused on what was happening and this delayed emotional problem that a lot of combat veterans had coming back from Vietnam. We worked on the Agent Orange issue. We did some really landmark studies on prisoners of war from different wars and how the prisoner of war experience had impacted on people. We did a lot of stuff on the issue of how you fit the VA system into national medical care priorities. As people on this Committee know, sometimes that is a real plus. The VA has been a pioneer, and sometimes there have been difficulties. And we worked on GI Bill issues.
Following my time on the Veterans Committee, I have continued, largely in a pro bono fashion, I have done several thousands of hours with veterans. I have stayed involved in this. This is a Committee that I actively sought to be on. I care very deeply about the issues, and I am really privileged to be here as a member of it.
I would like to ask my fellow members of this Committee to take a look at a bill that I introduced, an educational bill. It is S.222. We worked over this transition period with legislative counsel to come up with a clean bill. It is a bill that would give those who have served from 9/11 forward the same type of educational benefits as those people who came back from World War II received. I believe they have earned it.
This is a bill that--when we talk about all these other issues, I can remember looking at how they interrelated when I was a committee counsel here, the issues of post-traumatic stress, and being able to readjust, and homelessness, and you find that it is very, very important that the people that get a good educational readjustment package tend to have fewer of these other problems.
So I think there are many reasons why this is a bill that I hope will get support that we can get through the Congress, and it is a bill that the people who are serving right now very strongly deserve.
I was very glad to hear you speak of oversight. There are always problems in the functioning of a bureaucracy. The VA has got a good story to tell in a lot of areas, but there is nothing like having people from the Legislative Branch show up and start going through some of the pieces of the bureaucracy in order to help it function better.
And finally, with respect to the issues of VA and DOD cooperation, that is an area that, when I was Assistant Secretary of Defense for Reserve Affairs, particularly, we did a lot of work in. We had, basically, this transition period from peacetime to war and how it affected the federal institutions. For instance, in the VA, there was an overlap that we were looking at in terms of being able to share medical facilities and this sort of thing. And I look forward very much to continue in that area.
So I am very pleased to be on this Committee, and I am very glad to see that we are going to take a very strong posture toward these issues.
Thank you, sir.
Chairman Akaka. Thank you very much, Senator Webb.
Let me now call on Senator Brown for your thoughts and expectations.
OPENING STATEMENT OF SENATOR BROWN
Senator Brown. Thank you, Mr. Chairman and Senator Craig, for standing up for our Nation's 25 million veterans, as you have done for so many years. I particularly appreciate, as Senator Webb just said, Mr. Chairman, your interest in the cooperation, as we talked in your office, and I have heard you talk about many times, between DOD and VA and how important that is.
My state is home to about 1 million veterans, and the experience, I know, of all of us, is that hardly a day goes by when we do not hear about concerns from those veterans that we see in their daily lives, and our daily lives out among our constituents.
Four particular sort of themes come to mind as I think about these discussions over time with Ohio's veterans. The discussion about barriers to health care and long-term care, claims that languish for months without response, all-too-inadequate job and educational opportunities, and unfair cuts in widow and other survivor benefits.
I think, in addition to these critical concerns, we need to pay attention to another whole range, or whole body, of issues and problems of people we do not see as much, and that is--or at least, we probably do not talk to as much--that is, homeless veterans, as Senator Murray and Senator Sanders talked about. Veterans who are in physical and emotional crisis after sustaining a debilitating injury and are not integrated into society particularly well, and those who are struggling with severe mental illness. There is undoubtedly a crisis building as more and more men and women come back from Iraq and Afghanistan with clinical depression, with traumatic mental and emotional conditions. Those, as Senator Murray points out, are going to become increasingly expensive to provide that care, but it is absolutely our obligation to do that.
Our Committee needs to, in my mind--and I echo many of your comments earlier, Senator Akaka, to fully fund the VA health care system to enhance VA mental health care to abolish the Disabled Veterans Tax, and to entertain the thought, as many of us worked on in the House in the last few years for the 21st Century GI Bill of Rights--more on that later at some future hearing.
Clearly, these are expensive needs in our society, but, as Senator Sanders says, they are the cost of war and they are an obligation by us, as everybody in this Committee--I know I have heard Senator Burns, Senator Isakson, talk about that, too. It is our obligation to do, frankly, better than we have. So I have watched, actually, in my own congressional district, about three years ago, the Administration decided to close the Brecksville Hospital, which was nationally known as one of the preeminent centers caring for the mentally ill and caring for homeless veterans. The commitment from the VA is that the high quality of service will continue at another hospital. Senator Voinovich and I need to hold them to that. That is especially important, because I have been in both the hospital that closed, many times, and the one that it will be integrated into, and that level of service is essential for so many veterans who have been so forgotten in my State.
As Senator Webb said, I actively wanted to be on this Committee. I am thrilled to be a part of this, and I look forward to the leadership of both Senator Craig and Senator Akaka. Thank you.
Chairman Akaka. I very much appreciate hearing from each of you, and hearing about your views and your suggestions. And also, it makes me feel as though we are looking forward to a great year, a great session, here in this Committee, and I look forward to working with each of you. It is so great for me, at this moment, that there is an excitement of moving ahead to try to do as much as we can for our veterans in this great country of ours.
I want to, again, welcome all of you, our new members especially, to this Committee. You have a feel, I think, now, of how we are going to move with this Committee, and we want to do the best we can for our veterans and we can do it together. And again, I look forward to working with Senator Craig and each of you. And again, I want to thank you for your views, and your comments, and your suggestions.
I should remind you again that our next event will be an oversight hearing on VA and DOD cooperation two weeks from today. And I look forward to seeing all of you then. Otherwise, we can meet each other in the aisles.
Senator Craig. Mr. Chairman, I will always give you the last word--
Chairman Akaka. Yes.
Senator Craig. --but let me suggest a couple of thoughts. One of the projects I took on last year as Chairman, and collectively, as a Committee, we could continue with--when we started it I did not realize it would mean as much to me, and, I think, to some of our colleagues, as it did. You could not be with us because of your schedule back in the State and because of the primary, but we started, I started, I would hope it could be continued, and if you cannot lead it, I would hope you would allow me to lead it, trying to get to all of our military cemeteries around the world and our memorials.
We were in France last year, in Belgium, in Holland, and in North Africa. A phenomenal experience, if you have not done it. And it was interesting, because I went through all those emotions again after a gift my staff gave me that I watched over the holidays called--it was the HBO collection, the Band of Brothers series. And here were these now elderly men giving testimony to their experiences and their relationships in the Battle of the Bulge, or something of that nature, and I would hope, as a Committee, we could continue to do that. We did it in the Memorial Day recess last year. This year, it would be nice to get in the south of France and into Italy. It is a nice time to be there.
Senator Craig. And lastly, I had the great privilege to go to Hawaii last year to hold field hearings, and I would suggest that would not be a bad idea again--
Senator Craig. --but only in February. In Idaho, it would be a nice time to hold field hearings, or we could step across into Washington some time in June, or July, or some time of that nature.
Anyway, again, thank you very much, Mr. Chairman. Thank you all. I look forward to working with you.
Chairman Akaka. Thank you very much, Senator. I will remember to always offer the last word to you, but they were excellent suggestions that we need to think about and do. So I want to thank you for that, and all of you, again, for being here and I look forward to working with you.
Please, we can talk any time about these issues, other than through official meetings, but we will move as quickly and as well as we can to help our veterans.
So with that, again, thank you so much, all of you. We have so much to do. If you have ideas, please let us know.
So with that, the meeting stands adjourned.
[Whereupon, at 10:31 a.m., the meeting was adjourned.]