Former House VA Chairman Asks Senate Committee to Overhaul Funding Mechanism for Veterans' Health Care
Warning lawmakers in the upper body of an impending crisis in veterans' medical care, U.S. Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ)former Chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committeerecommended a complete overhaul of the funding mechanism for veterans' health care during his testimony before the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee today.
Smiththe lead witness at today's hearingbegan his testimony by praising our veterans saying, "No one on earth has done more to protect and preserve freedom, democracy, and fundamental human rights than our veterans. When the dust settles, it is the veteran and his or her family who bear the physical and emotional scars of war, for some it's the ultimate price."
"A grateful nation must at all times and in every circumstance put veterans first," Smith stated.
Smith went on to paint a "sobering picture" of the current direction veterans health care funding is headed saying, "Notwithstanding a potentially huge plus-up in the FY08 VA Medical Appropriationsthe funding mechanism remains broken."
"Unless we fix the funding process for VA health care, all efforts to improve its delivery will continue to be impeded, and worse, we risk new Walter Reed-like problems at VA facilities in the future," Smith told the committee.
Smith, author of thirteen comprehensive laws to help our nation's veterans, argued that the recent shortfalls in veterans health care funding could only be fixed by "sufficient, timely and predictable funding."
Smithpointing to the unpredictability of the current VA funding processstated, "It is astonishing to me that since 1990, sixteen of the eighteen VA appropriations were lateon two occasions five months late, once seven months late. How can the Secretary, VISN directors and medical directors plan and execute delivery of medical services under those adverse circumstances?"
The hearing was held as President Bush was meeting with the President's Commission on Care for Returning Wounded Warriors, an advisory committee created after the recent spate of serious problems returning soldiers were facing at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.
Smithwho chaired the House Veterans Affairs Committee from 2001 to 2004pointed to the proposal of a previous advisory board set up by President Bush to support his recommendation that the system must be reformed.
Smith strongly encouraged the Committee to heed the advice of the President's Task Force to Improve Health Care Delivery for Our Nation's Veterans which recommended a "full funding" system in 2003 and established two alternatives to achieve that goal: a mandatory funding system; or the establishment of an independent panel of experts charged with submitting the Administration's request absent Office of Budget Management (OMB) vetting and veto.
Smithwho has introduced legislation in the House to create an independent, expert panel to determine the level of funding required to meet projected demand with accepted access standardssaid that either of these suggestions or perhaps a hybrid of both "would be a dramatic improvement over the status quo."
Without such a commitment, Smith warned the Committee that veterans' health care will continue to deteriorate.
"The VA health care systema system that has been hailed as the best health care in America by authoritative studies and leading publicationscould be threatened if we do not correct the underlying funding problems," Smith said.
Smith noted that "no single issue garnered more of the Committee's attention than ensuring that VA received the funds it required to provide services veterans needed" during his tenure as Chairman. Despite the bipartisan nature of the Committee, Smith said that the Congressional appropriations process for veterans' funding is where the process becomes flawed as it "replaces sound data with other agendas."
"The effect on the VA has been extremely harmful, leading to management and staffing problems, as well as construction funding shortfalls that threaten VA's physical infrastructure," Smith stated during the hearing.
When concluding his opening statement, Smith implored the Committee to address this looming crisis before it was too late.
"With the devastating types of injuries being suffered in the war today and the long term care needs of so many veterans on the rise, we must ensure that the VA continues to provide world class medicine far into the future," Smith said. "I urge you to move forward with recommendations for a systematic reform of VA's health care funding system that provides sufficient, timely and predictable funding."