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Public Statements

Recognizing 75th Anniversary of Establishment of Veterans Administration

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Location: Washington, DC


RECOGNIZING 75TH ANNIVERSARY OF ESTABLISHMENT OF VETERANS ADMINISTRATION -- (House of Representatives - July 18, 2005)

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Mr. FILNER. Mr. Speaker, I yield myself such time as I may consume.

Mr. Speaker, I thank the gentleman from Arkansas (Mr. Boozman) for his remarks, and I rise also in support of this resolution.

Mr. Speaker, 3 days from now the Department of Veterans Affairs, formerly called the Veterans Administration, will mark 7 1/2 decades as a government agency. But the measure before us is not just to acknowledge a mere milestone of existence. On July 21, we will recognize 75 years of a consolidated, organized and formal national effort to carry out what I and many others believe is our most noble mission, to care for those, as Lincoln said, who have borne the battle and for their dependents and survivors. That is why we strongly support H. Res. 361.

More than half of the citizen soldiers who have ever served in uniform in the Nation's lifetime are living today. That is 25 million living veterans to whom we owe the greatest debt, our freedom for their sacrifices. This measure serves to recognize the significance of this debt while acknowledging the agency that is responsible for administering the benefits and services intended to help repay it.

Many Americans might not realize that the Department of Veterans Affairs, its health care system and other programs, are in fact a national resource for all Americans, veterans and nonveterans alike. It is in fact a national treasure. Nationally, VA's health care system has become what one prestigious medical journal called ``a bright star'' within the U.S. health care industry.

With more than 1,300 sites of care, VA operates the largest integrated health care system in the county. VA facilities provide a broad spectrum of medical, surgical, and rehabilitative care. It manages the largest medical education and health professions training program in our country. Each year, about 83,000 health professionals are trained in our VA medical centers. More than half of the physicians practicing in the United States had some of their professional education in the VA health care system. In fact, three recipients of the Nobel Prize in medicine were VA doctors.

While providing high-quality health care to the Nation's veterans, VA also conducts an array of research on some of the most difficult challenges facing medical science today. They have become a world leader in such research areas as aging, women's health, AIDS, post-traumatic stress disorder, and other mental health issues.

VA researchers played key roles in developing the cardiac pacemaker, the CT scan, and improvements in artificial limbs. The first liver transplant in the world was performed by a VA surgeon researcher. VA clinical trials established the effectiveness of new treatments for tuberculosis, schizophrenia, and high blood pressure. In fact, my brother, an anesthesiologist, participated in one of the first open heart surgeries in the world at the VA Medical Center in LaJolla, CA.

We know that VA research has improved medical care for veterans and the Nation. It also has a fourth critical mission: it serves as a backup to the Department of Defense during national emergencies and is a Federal support organization during major disasters.

The VA also helps repay the debt to our veterans by administering disability compensation to those disabled by injury or disease incurred or aggravated during their active military service, and pension benefits to veterans with low incomes who are permanently and totally disabled. Spouses, children, and parents of deceased veterans also receive these benefits.

There is one group, however, that does not receive these benefits: those who fought for us during World War II who were Filipinos and drafted into our armed services. They fought a great battle. They had to surrender after the Battle of Bataan and Corregidor, but they slowed up the Japanese advance for many months and allowed America to prepare. When General MacArthur returned to the Philippines, it was the actions of the Filipino guerillas that had weakened the Japanese forces there and allowed us to regain the Pacific and finally win World War II. We are still struggling to give those veterans, whom we promised benefits when they were drafted in the 1940s, their benefits today. Sixty years later, they have still not achieved equity. We will continue to try to do so.

Since 1944 when the first GI bill began, more than 21 million veterans, servicemembers and family members, have received $72 billion in GI benefits for education and training. That number includes 7.5 million veterans from World War II, including my father. We bought the first home we could afford to live in in 1950 because of the GI bill that my father was entitled to after his service in World War II. We had the American Dream. For the first time after living with relatives, we had our own home, and we were able to move on with education and achieve what we all call the American Dream.

Not only veterans from World War II, but 2 1/2 million veterans from the Korean War and over 8 million post-Korean and Vietnam era veterans, plus active duty personnel. The VA has also assisted in the education of more than 700,000 dependents of veterans whose deaths or total disabilities were service connected.

The GI bill has helped veterans purchase homes. With a total of $866 billion for loan guarantees, many people have called the GI bill the most important piece of legislation ever passed due to its impact on the economic, cultural, industrial, educational, and moral framework of our society.

Mr. Speaker, the VA is a strategic, vital national resource in responding to the needs of veterans and also in responding to the needs of the Nation.

Established in 1930 by President Hoover, the Veterans Administration officially became a member of the President's cabinet on March 16, 1989. It was at that precise moment, as our renowned and beloved former chairman of the Veterans' Affairs Committee, Sonny Montgomery from Mississippi remarked, that veterans were allowed to enter the front door of the White House rather than being relegated to standing hat in hand at the back door.

Mr. Speaker, it is right that we honor the institution, its purpose, and its staff members who provide so much care to our veterans on this day.

However, I would have preferred the cash rather than the proclamation. It is regretful that as we commemorate the establishment of the VA, we should be in the midst of a battle to restore adequate funding. Veterans were given the opportunity to approach the front door of the White House. Today, the Office of Management Budget and that same White House have chosen to turn off the lights, draw the curtains, and pretend no one is ringing the bell. Begrudgingly, in the last 3 weeks after the revelation that VA health care had been severely underfunded, it has sent two requests to Capitol Hill for supplemental funding which still shows that the OBM and this administration cannot or do not want to comprehend the severity of the shortfall that is denying thousands upon thousands the timely health care that they deserve. This is a strain on the VA system, and it must be fixed quickly.

Mr. Speaker, if the gentleman would agree to a unanimous consent request, I would move that we add $3 billion of supplemental funding right here to his resolution.

The SPEAKER pro tempore. The Chair is constrained not to entertain such a unanimous consent request.

Mr. FILNER. Why is that, we cannot help our veterans on this day we are agreeing to a resolution honoring them?

The SPEAKER pro tempore. The power to modify the motion rests with the proponent of the motion.

Mr. FILNER. Mr. Speaker, once again it is out of order to help the veterans of our Nation.

While this resolution, H. Res. 361, is the right thing to do, a more appropriate action would have been for this body, this Congress and this administration, to provide the resources necessary for the 230,000 dedicated employees of the department to do their jobs right and keep this bright star shining without having to struggle to meet the needs of all veterans who seek to enter VA's doors.

Hopefully, that day will come soon with passage of full funding for veterans programs, budget reforms that prevent a recurrence of the current emergencies, and what we would call ``guaranteed funding'' for veterans rather than have them depend on a discretionary battle every year in this Congress.

Mr. Speaker, I reserve the balance of my time.

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Mr. FILNER. Mr. Speaker, I yield myself such time as I may consume.

I appreciate the glowing words of the gentlemen from Florida and from Arkansas. We heard glowing words on Memorial Day; on the July 4 holiday; and I guarantee that we will hear them on Veterans Day, November 11. But as I said earlier, I think the veterans and the employees whom we honor today with this resolution would much prefer the cash; that is, adequate funding for the mission in which they are embarked upon. We simply have not done that.

This Congress over the last 3 or 4 years has vastly increased the amount of money to be given to the Veterans Administration. But the demands have increased at an even faster rate: the aging of our veterans, the new diseases that we find like hepatitis C, the new approaches that we have to such disorders as post-traumatic stress disorder, the increasing number of people affected, and inflation, of course, running at 13 to 14 percent a year. The demands have far outpaced the appropriations, even though we have done better over the past decade.

When OMB Director Joshua Bolten testified just last week at the House Committee on the Budget, he actually said that the VA had more money appropriated than was actually needed. Can you imagine that, Mr. Speaker? With waiting lists for months and months and months for services are common, with vacancies that are not being filled, with maintenance and construction efforts delayed for years and years, with adjudication claims taking several years, he says that we had more money in the VA than was actually needed. Let me quote him directly: ``The appropriations have exceeded the VA medical care needs in the preceding 3 years by over half a billion dollars in each of the preceding 3 years.'' That is a completely irresponsible statement, and if the head of OMB is saying that, we know why this administration is not adequately funding our VA system. To say that we have half a billion more than we need over the last 3 years in each of those last 3 years is irresponsible and not consonant with the facts that we know. How can we say we have as much money as we need when we turn people away from the VA system? We have people now not being encouraged to register because we have no place for them. In my City of San Diego, the VA Medical Center has almost 1,000 people on the waiting list. People wait for a year for a dental appointment; 3, 4, 5, 6 months for other kinds of appointments. We cannot get the nursing care that we need. We cannot do the construction efforts that are needed and the rehabilitation of our aging hospitals and other clinics. To say that we have more money than we need is completely ridiculous, and I would hope that the administration would apologize to the veterans of this Nation for that statement.

We have been engaged in the Congress on the floor, in the Committee on Veterans' Affairs, on the Committee on Appropriations, on the Committee on the Budget for many weeks trying to find what the chairman of our Committee on Veterans' Affairs calls ``the right number.'' The right number. How do we fund the VA health care system? And we had the Secretary of the VA system testify to our committee just a couple weeks ago that it was because they had a bad mathematical model. They are using an outdated mathematical model. It did not account for the war that was going on. I asked for the gentleman's resignation because of that. We do not know a war is going on; so we have a bad mathematical model. That is the second most irresponsible statement I have heard this week, Mr. Bolten's being the most.

In fact, we know how to define the needs of our veterans. We know how to get a right number. Every year all of the veterans groups in America come together to come up with what is called the Independent Budget, a budget for the Department of Veterans Affairs that is arrived at through a very professional, technical, mathematical way to say here is what we need for our veterans. We have underfunded our veterans' care, not overfunded it, as Mr. Bolten says, every year that I have been in this Congress. We have tried to add over time literally billions of dollars that we have short-changed the VA. This year Democrats have tried at every level, whether it was on the Committee on Appropriations, the authorizing committee which I sit on, the floor of this House, the Committee on the Budget, we have tried to bring up motions to adequately fund this year's and last and next year's budget. Every time we were rebuffed by the majority party. When I tried to bring up the Independent Budget on the authorizing committee, they said we cannot have a vote on that. When they tried to bring it up on the Committee on Appropriations, they were voted down. When they tried to bring it up in the Senate, it was voted down. When I tried to add 3 billion dollars to the health care budget, as I just did earlier today with a unanimous consent request, I was ruled out of order, and when I challenged the ruling of the Chair, on a straight party-line vote we were defeated. I was ruled out of order because I tried to give adequate funding to our health care budget in the VA, adequate funding to the veterans whom we are praising so profusely in today's resolution.

That is wrong, Mr. Speaker, and now the administration has been found out. The Secretary had to announce that they were first $1 billion short, now $1.3 billion. They are still searching for the right number. And yet when the Senate actually voted to put $1.5 billion additional funds in this year's budget, fiscal year 2005, we could have given the veterans that money immediately and had that resolution signed by the President several weeks ago. But what did the chairman of our committee do? He said no, we only can put in $975 million. That is the right number. So this House passed one number, the Senate passed another number, and we still do not have adequate funding for the veterans today. Veterans are still being turned away. Vacancies are still not being filled. Waiting lists are still being added to. Maintenance needs are still being inadequately addressed. Nursing stations still go unfilled, while we fight because we do not have a ``right'' number.

Democrats tried to get in fiscal year 2006 the right number. We were denied. Now it appears that the Senate will add a couple billion dollars to their fiscal 2006 budget, and I hope that we follow.

But we are fighting over numbers that should not have to be fought over. We know what the right number is, and we would not have to fight at all if we passed the bill offered by the gentleman from Illinois' (Mr. Evans), our ranking member, to institute guaranteed medical funding for the VA. That is, take it out of the discretionary budget, and make it a guaranteed part of our budget so we don't have to fight over the ``right'' number. There would be guaranteed funding for the health care needs of our veterans.

Mr. Speaker, as we look at the brave young men and women whom we honor so much in Iraq and Afghanistan, the President says support our troops, support our troops, support our troops, and yet when they come home the proper support is not there. I know of veterans who have come home probably with post-traumatic stress disorder, PTSD, lacking the ability to get services or lacking the outreach that is necessary to convince our Marines and soldiers that they may actually have some mental disorder. We have seen an increase in domestic violence. We have seen an increase in the kinds of societal problems that come from returning veterans with mental disorders, and yet we are not taking the action that we should to meet the needs of these brave young men and women. They may not even get an appointment for months and months and months.

Mr. Speaker, this is wrong. We saw after Vietnam tens of thousands of soldiers returning did not get the proper treatment either physically or mentally. Half of the homeless on the street tonight are Vietnam vets because we did not take care of them the way we should have. We are repeating the same mistake as we look at our brave young men and women returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. They are not getting the care they need. They are not getting the support from our Nation that everybody pays lip service to. We pass resolutions like we do today rather than giving them adequate funding, and we will have the same problems in the coming decade if we do not do it now. This is not the way, Mr. Speaker, to deal with our veterans. Let us pass this resolution today, but let us get adequate funding to the health care budget for both fiscal 2005 and 2006.

Mr. Speaker, I reserve the balance of my time.

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Mr. FILNER. Mr. Speaker, I yield myself such time as I may consume.

I have no further requests for time. I would just again ask all the good gentlemen on the other side, led by the gentleman from Arkansas (Mr. Boozman), my friend, let us get this out of the political rhetoric of who has the right number. Let us get these veterans the adequate support they need. Let us pass this resolution but go back to work and provide the cash.

Mr. Speaker, I yield back the balance of my time.

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