Senators Debbie Stabenow, Senate Colleagues Fight for Assured Funding for Veterans Health Care
Legislation offers a historic opportunity to keep promise to veterans' to meet health care needs
A revelation by the Veterans Administration in June that it was falling about $1 billion short in veterans health funding in the current fiscal year prompted bipartisan outrage and a vote on emergency funding in the U.S. Senate. With the anticipated shortfall now approaching $2 billion over two years, U.S. Senators Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), Tim Johnson (D-SD), and John Thune (R-SD) are offering bipartisan legislation that amends the VA budgeting process and assures today's and tomorrow's veterans they will have the quality health care they need on a timely basis.
"It's an outrage that the Veterans Administration continue to underbudget for veterans's health care and that Congress must be called on to provide adequate funding in an emergency vote," Stabenow said. "My goal to is to eliminate the year-to-year uncertainly about funding levels for veterans' healthcare, and I will fight to ensure that the resources will always be there to meet the health care needs of our veterans."
The legislation, offered today as an amendment to the Defense Department authorization bill, would lock in discretionary funding by the Veterans Administration at the fiscal year 2005 level. It would also provide for an annual mandatory funding level that would be adjusted each year, based on demand from veterans and the rate of health care inflation. National veterans organizations have thrown their support behind the proposal.
"Patriotism means more than just saluting the flag," said Johnson. "It also means caring for our soldiers and veterans when they return from harm's way. I'm glad that this group of senators could come together to make sure veterans have the funding they need and health care they deserve.
"Continuing shortfalls and rising costs have resulted in unprecedented waiting times for veterans seeking care," Stabenow said. "I've talked with veterans in Michigan who have to wait six months to see a doctor. This is simply not acceptable, and we have got to do better and keep our promise to those who have served our nation in the military."
"The sacrifices our veterans make for our country are not discretionary and our nation's commitment to their healthcare shouldn't be either," Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) said today. "Our veterans deserve health care they can count on, and we should provide mandatory funding to the VA so that veterans will know that health care will be there forever."
"We in Congress continue to battle over how much VA should be given this year in emergency funds," Sen. Daniel K. Akaka (D-HI) said today. "Although the Senate has unanimously voted on two occasions to provide $1.5 billion in supplemental funding, not one thin dime has yet to be provided. Veterans and the VA health care system are suffering. This is totally avoidable."
Chronic underfunding of veterans healthcare can only lead to a greater crisis - and a greater national embarrassment, Stabenow said. "The number of veterans in the U.S. increases every day. More than 360,000 have already returned from Iraq and Afghanistan, and more than 86,000 have sought health care from the VA. In fact, the number of veterans treated through the VA rose by 5.2 percent this year, an increase of 3.2 percent over their original projection."
The budget shortfall acknowledged by the VA in June was no surprise to Stabenow and veterans' groups. According to an "Independent Budget," developed by a coalition of leading veterans' organizations, the president's budget for fiscal year 2005 fell more than $3 billion short of the amount needed to address the current demand for veterans' health care. Stabenow has urged use of the Independent Budget as a guideline for veterans health care funding.
Spokesmen for veterans groups are urging passage of the Stabenow-Johnson amendment.
"The American Legion fully supports the Stabenow-Johnson Amendment to stabilize funding for the nation's largest integrated delivery system operated by the Department of Veterans Affairs," said Thomas P. Cadmus, national commander of The American Legion. "The American Legion has long supported the goal of improving the quality and access of health care and this amendment is a positive step toward fiscal stability in VA health care.
"We want to take the politics out of the budgeting and appropriations process and fully fund veterans' health care. It's as simple as that," James A. Sursely, national commander of Disabled American Veterans, said today.
"Our veterans' needs should not be subject to the vagaries of political infighting," said Louis Abramson, national commander of Jewish War Veterans of the USA. "Congress must pass mandatory funding for our veterans' health care. We owe it to our veterans and to those wounded veterans who are returning from the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan."
"VA health care is in a state of crisis headed for a massive train wreck," said Tom Miller, executive director, Blinded Veterans Association. "Everything is being impacted - access, timeliness, efficiency - to the point that things can only get worse if mandatory funding does not become a reality for the care of our nation's veterans."
"This amendment offers a long needed, long-term solution to the annual shortfall in veterans health care," said Richard Jones, national legislative director of AMVETS. "It would help eliminate the annual uncertainty about funding levels for veterans and allow VA to plan for meeting the growing needs of veterans seeking medical treatment."