WASHINGTON, D.C. - U.S. Senator Daniel K. Akaka (D-HI), Chairman of the Veterans' Affairs Committee, spoke this evening on the Senate floor in support of the majority budget that fully funds Veterans Affairs as a cost of war. The majority budget authorizes $3.2 billion above the President's request for VA.
Senator Akaka's speech as prepared for delivery is reprinted below:
"I am pleased to discuss funding for VA in the Budget Resolution for Fiscal Year 2009. Chairman Conrad and his colleagues on the Budget Committee have done impressive work on this resolution. They have demonstrated sound judgment in their funding recommendation to address the needs of our country.
Servicemembers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, like those who returned from Vietnam, Korea, World War II and all previous wars, bear the effects of their service. They show us that the costs of war do not end on the battlefield. In crafting this budget, we are in a position to ensure that care for returning servicemembers, of every war, is a top priority.
The Department of Veterans Affairs provides superior health care to millions of veterans every year. It is widely regarded as one of the preeminent health care systems in America. Today, VA faces a growing wave of new demands - veterans of past wars are aging and making greater use of the system, and younger veterans of the current conflicts require a new range of services from VA. Congress must provide the resources for VA to meet all of these demands.
This Budget Resolution acknowledges the challenges facing VA. It meets our responsibility of caring for our nation's servicemembers and veterans. In recent years, VA and Congress have made a tremendous investment in mental health services. I am pleased that this budget reflects an ongoing commitment to better serve the needs of veterans with mental health concerns.
Mr. President, I remind my colleagues that battle wounds frequently manifest themselves as invisible wounds. These wounds can be just as devastating as physical wounds. Indeed, many mental health disorders, including substance use disorder and PTSD, have both physical and mental manifestations. They impact the veteran's relationships, and his or her ability to work and to interact in society. The effects of many mental health disorders can be limited or even avoided if they are caught and treated promptly, before long-term disabilities develop. This budget resolution provides the funds to continue the essential task of providing timely access to mental health care for all veterans.
Families play a critical role in the well-being of veterans. As Chairman of the Committee on Veterans' Affairs, I held a hearing yesterday on the role of families in veterans' lives, and on the support VA and DoD provides them. Families are often the primary caregivers for injured veterans, and provide essential assistance in recovery and rehabilitation through reintegration into civilian life. The degree of support provided by family members is directly related to a veteran's ability to deal effectively with readjustment and mental health concerns. Providing support to veterans' families is in VA's vital interest.
One of the harshest realities of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is the number of soldiers who have sustained complex and multiple injuries in combat. Significant improvements in battlefield medicine have enabled many seriously wounded servicemembers to survive their injuries. These men and women are coming home with extraordinarily complex health care needs.
VA and Congress have focused on addressing the needs of these veterans. There have been improvements in screening and care for servicemembers with traumatic brain injury, but much remains to be done. In addition, Congress directed VA to establish specialized centers for rehabilitative care in response to the challenging medical and rehabilitative needs of veterans with multiple and complex injuries. VA's four lead Polytrauma Rehabilitation Centers are essential to meeting the needs of the most severely injured veterans and their families.
As we work to meet the needs of all returning servicemembers, we must pay close attention to the full range of war wounds - from eye trauma and damage to servicemembers' hearing, to PTSD and depression, to burn injuries.
Another important tool which VA is still developing is comprehensive health screening for returning servicemembers. This is absolutely essential. Without effective screening for mental health disorders, traumatic brain injury, hearing and vision loss, and other injuries or disorders, VA will miss opportunities to help veterans in need of services. Further, I believe that comprehensive health screening before deployment is essential to help with the evaluation and understanding of the effects of combat on servicemembers. As Chairman of the Committee on Veterans' Affairs, I have worked to ensure that all veterans receive appropriate health screenings. I will continue to advocate for these screenings.
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 my continuing support to get veterans the benefits they need in an appropriate amount of time. Congress must now assure that VA has sufficient funding for technology and training initiatives to aid in its endeavor to reduce the backlog of claims. This Budget Resolution is certainly a step in the right direction.
The entitlement funding provided to veterans in this Budget Resolution reflects the Nation's continuing responsibility to care for he who has borne the battle, long after the last shots of war have been fired. Indeed, I view funding for veterans' entitlements as a continuing cost of war.
The Administration's VA budget request proposed severe cuts to multiple essential programs and accounts. Research, the Inspector General, the National Cemetery Administration, and grants for state home construction would all be unnecessarily cut. I am particularly troubled by the proposed cuts of nearly fifty percent to the VA construction accounts. Over the past year, internal reviews identified widespread maintenance concerns, in addition to already planned construction projects. I find it unconscionable that, in the face of the pressing demands across the country, the President would suggest such cuts.
The budget proposal advanced by Chairman Conrad and his colleagues rectifies these mistakes in the President's request, and I appreciate their foresight on these issues.
Mr. President, I am pleased with the investment in veterans' programs that is made in this Budget Resolution. I again commend Chairman Conrad and the Budget Committee for their thoughtful and responsible work. Care for our nation's veterans is truly a cost of war, and it is our responsibility to meet their needs. I urge my colleagues to support swift passage of the Resolution before us today."