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Veterans Programs Extension Act of 2006

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Location: Washington, DC


VETERANS PROGRAMS EXTENSION ACT OF 2006 -- (House of Representatives - December 06, 2006)

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

I am also pleased to rise in support of H.R. 6342, which would, as we have heard from Chairman Brown, extend expired and expiring authorizations for Department of Veterans Affairs programs, expand eligibility for survivor and dependent educational assistance, and authorize leases for VA medical facilities. This bill will permanently establish Parkinson's Disease research, education, and clinical care centers, as well as multiple sclerosis centers of excellence.

Mr. Speaker, I include for the RECORD letters of support for this bill from the Parkinson's Action Network, American Academy of Neurology, the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, and the Paralyzed Veterans of America.

December 5, 2006.
Hon. Steve Buyer,
Chairman, Veterans' Affairs Committee, Washington, DC.
Hon. Lane Evans,
Ranking Member, Veterans' Affairs Committee, Washington, DC.

Dear Chairman Buyer and Ranking Member Evans: On behalf of American veterans and all those who struggle with the effects of multiple sclerosis (MS) and Parkinson's disease (PD), we appreciate your strong leadership in protecting the Veterans Affairs Multiple Sclerosis Centers of Excel1ence (MSCoE) and Parkinson's Disease Research, Education and Clinical Centers (PADRECCs). We commend you for working to enact legislation that will formally establish the MSCoEs and PADRECCs for the first time in statute. We believe that this bill must be enacted to ensure that the PADRECCs and MSCoEs will continue providing valuable services to veteran patients, family members, and the entire Parkinson's disease and MS communities.

Significant contributions have been made by the Centers in research, education, and clinical care that benefit all Americans impacted by PD and MS. The MSCoEs and PADRECCs support a range of programs including state-of-the-art clinical care, basic research into the causes of disease, clinical research into better treatments, behavioral research about effective education strategies for MS and Parkinson's patients and providers, and population level research into the needs of patients and the effectiveness of the care delivery system.

Our organizations have recognized the record of leadership that has been provided by the PADRECCs and MSCoE in the fight against Parkinson's and MS. Approximately 25,000 veterans have MS and require specialized care that is best provided by having leaders in the field directing that care at a national level. In addition, through the six PADRECCs and the National VA Parkinson's Disease Consortium, the VA is able to treat more than 79,000 veterans with Parkinson's disease. The efforts of these Centers are the model of innovation in the delivery of health care and research for progressive disease in the veteran population.

We appreciate your efforts to ensure that the Veterans Programs Extension Act of 2006 (H.R. 6342) will be voted on by both the House of Representatives and Senate before Congress adjourns in December. We look forward to enactment of this bill that is so important to all those who struggle with the devastating effects of MS and Parkinson's disease, many of whom are American veterans.

Thank you for recognizing the benefits provided to veterans fighting Parkinson's disease and MS through the VA PADRECCs and MSCoEs. We appreciate your efforts to ensure the highest level of care and hopeful research for our returning veterans.

Amy C. Comstock,

Chief Executive Officer, Parkinson's Action Network.

Joyce Nelson,

President and CEO, National Multiple Sclerosis Society.

Thomas R. Swift, MD, FAAN,

President, American Academy of Neurology.

Carl Blake,

Acting National Legislative Director, Paralyzed Veterans of America.

Mr. FILNER. Mr. Speaker, I want to thank the gentleman from Indiana (Mr. Buyer), the chairman of our committee, and our colleagues in the Senate, Chairman Craig and Ranking Member Akaka, for coming together to craft this bill that will pass both Chambers before we recess.

As this may be our last bill of this term in Congress in the Veterans Committee, I want to say a special thank-you to Ranking Member LANE EVANS for his work on behalf of veterans. As we all know, he is retiring at the end of this session, but for more than two decades here in Congress he has been a tenacious and indispensable voice for our Nation's veterans. He has championed the needs of veterans exposed to Agent Orange, homeless veterans, veterans who return from war with post-traumatic stress disorder, and he has helped untold number of veterans. He will be missed by all of us as we move into the next session of Congress.

As we have heard, this bill before us today permanently establishes VA's Parkinson's Disease Centers and VA's Multiple Sclerosis Centers of Excellence. The work of these centers has benefited more than 80,000 veterans across our Nation. I am proud that the VA medical facility in San Diego, which I represent, is affiliated with the VA's Southwestern Parkinson's Research Center in Los Angeles. Not only do these centers conduct groundbreaking research, they also advance the State's clinical and rehabilitative care. The innovations and rehabilitation designed for veterans who are battling chronic disorders may also yield gains and care for veterans with traumatic brain injury. The good work of these centers must continue. Through this legislation we are sending a clear signal that the VA must continue to fund and support the clinical and the research work done at all the existing centers.

In addition, this bill authorizes VA programs for homeless veterans and veterans who need mental health care. I am proud and I am also grateful that this legislation will help the families of these very severely wounded servicemembers by providing education benefits to eligible spouses and dependent children before these servicemembers are actually released from military service. The bill also gives urgently needed authorization for VA outpatient clinics across the Nation.

The number of women veterans will increase in the coming years. Thirteen percent of the veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan who have turned to VA for health care are women, and 11 percent of the troops deployed there are women. This bill makes sure that Congress receives the report and recommendations of the VA Advisory Committee on Women's Veterans which can help guide our actions and oversight of VA's capacity to address the unique needs of these veterans.

I would be remiss if I failed to acknowledge that we are ending this Congress, apparently, without passing a funding bill for the VA, as for much of the government. Yes, we will pass a continuing resolution to keep all the hospitals, regional offices, and other services operating, but we are shortchanging veterans, Mr. Speaker, by not passing the appropriations bill for the Veterans Administration. The delay in an increase in VA's funding for fiscal year 2007 means that the VA medical directors are forced to put on hold a whole variety of necessary expenditures, from the hiring of needed staff to care for our veterans, to the maintenance and repair of their buildings. As a result, veterans access to needed services suffers, and VA staff is stretched even more thin in providing quality care.

This failure to pass a budget is a clear illustration of the need for mandatory or assured funding of VA health care, and for the past 14 years I have been a firm supporter of this method of funding the VA. I agree with those veteran service organizations who have proposed that funding for veterans health care be mandatory. If we are unable to pass adequate and timely funding, timely funding, Mr. Speaker, to meet the health care of veterans, then we need to look seriously at alternate ways to ensure adequate funding for the health care of our veterans.

Unfortunately, we have also not completed our work in authorizing needed veterans programs. We must honor our veterans and make sure that our recent veterans who have returned from Iraq and Afghanistan receive the benefits and services that they need to transition back to civilian life.

For example, I think we owe it to our newest veterans to modernize the GI bill, especially including meaningful benefits for the Guard and Reserve units who have taken such a heavy load of the fighting in Iraq. We must increase VA's capacity to meet the rehabilitation and lifelong care needs of veterans with traumatic brain injury.

While VA has a strong mental health care program, many of our returning veterans are falling through the cracks, and we have gaps in those services. We must strengthen VA's capacity to help veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental health concerns. The recent GAO report, which found that the VA did not spend funds on promised mental health initiatives, raises serious questions about VA's lack of accountability, a lack of accountability that was not really looked into by the previous Congress. We must ensure that VA does not ignore gaps in its capacity to help veterans recover from psychological wounds.

As we work to address the emerging issues for veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, we must also continue to press VA to meet the health care needs of veterans exposed to Agent Orange, atomic testing and veterans still struggling with a range of Gulf War illnesses.

In addition, we must maintain keen oversight to ensure that the laws we have passed are yielding the outcomes Congress intended. We also must be vigilant to ensure that the vulnerabilities in VA information technology are addressed, and we will certainly continue this oversight in the next Congress.

Today's bill keeps VA's homeless grant and per diem program authorized through the end of next year. This is a good program, but it only helps a fraction of the homeless veterans on the streets. We have already seen returning from Iraq and Afghanistan veterans who have become homeless, almost 600 of them. We must act to prevent and end homelessness for all veterans.

In addition, many veterans are from small towns and rural areas. We must work to improve their access to VA care. In my district, most of the entire Imperial County can be classified as rural. There are no real services provided to them as they seek care. So we need to acknowledge some of these gaps, we need to acknowledge these problems, and try to address them in the next Congress.

Finally, I would like to thank all of the staff of the VA Committee on both the Democratic and Republican sides for their diligence and dedication in serving our Nation's veterans. We appreciate their work. While we have a lot of work to do in the coming years, this is a good bill. I urge my colleagues to support H.R. 6342.

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