Akaka recommends $2.9 billion increase (over Administration's request) for veterans' medical care
Mr. President, last week, my majority colleagues and I on the Committee on Veterans' Affairs submitted the required views and estimates on the Administration's Fiscal Year 2008 budget for the Department of Veterans Affairs.
In summary, Mr. President, we are recommending a $2.9 billion increase over the Administration's request for veterans' medical care. We believe that this is the total amount necessary to treat all eligible veterans and maintain the quality of VA medical services through the upcoming fiscal year.
This amount would also provide VA with resources to absorb the thousands of service members presently on medical hold at Walter Reed and in other military facilities. We must ensure that these brave men and women are provided the best care possible.
Today's Washington Post leads with a story titled "It is Not Just Walter Reed." The story focuses on the various Federal facilities across the system, including VA facilities. I urge my colleagues to understand that at the heart of any solution to improve care is increasing resources to match demand and to ensure that the facilities themselves are up to par.
I intend to hold a hearing later this month on cooperation between VA and the Department of Defense on the treatment of injured service members, and I will pursue the situation at Walter Reed and other military treatment facilities that are handling the bulk of returning Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans to ensure that the government is helping those who have been injured in service to our country, and their families.
I want to highlight just a few of the accounts for which we are seeking substantial increases.
In our estimate, we recommended an additional $300 million for treatment of traumatic brain injuries. These funds will support the expansion of VA's capacity and will help to resolve case management problems identified in an IG investigation last summer. Traumatic brain injuries are turning out to be the hallmark of this war. We simply must ensure that VA has the resources to do more than just keep up; but to become a leader in brain injury care.
The recent televised account of ABC newsman Bob Woodruff's long recovery from a brain injury endured in Iraq has highlighted the suffering of new veterans and their families. Looking at these young soldiers with such devastating injuries reminds us of the true costs of war. We know that the transition from DoD to VA can be a tough one. And this is even more true for those veterans suffering with TBI. At the start of this war, VA was unprepared to deal with returning servicemembers with injuries of all kinds. The budgets in the early years underestimated these costs, and many VA facilities were caught flat-footed. Over the last year, VA has made strides in improving the lead brain injury centers. Yet, VA still has miles to go in caring for servicemembers when they return home to their communities. Many of these men and women are quite young and will live with brain injuries for the rest of their lives. VA must do more than simply send them back to their communities.
I am also concerned that veterans with less severe forms of TBI may not be receiving appropriate compensation for their injuries. We need to make sure that VA has the resources necessary to provide for specialist examinations and appropriate testing so that veterans who file claims for headaches, memory loss, and other effects of TBI may be properly compensated and rehabilitated.
We also recommended an increase of $693 million over the Administration's request for VA mental health programs. These funds are essential to guarantee timely access to mental health services for veterans of the Global War on Terror and prior conflicts, including the Vietnam War. We have heard too many stories of veterans in crisis who were unable to see a mental health professional for lack of staff or beds at VA facilities. It is time to fully fund VA's mental health programs, so that not one more troubled veteran finds himself or herself on the street for lack of therapy or counseling, or, far worse, takes his or her own life.
As Chairman of the Committee on Veterans' Affairs, I am deeply committed to have all in Congress recognize the reality that meeting the needs of veterans is truly part of the ongoing costs of war. I urge my fellow Senators to join us as we work to uphold our end of the bargain by giving our Nation's veterans accessible, first-rate medical care. Thank you.