Friday, November 9, 2007
A Column by Congressman Mel Watt
On November 11 we will celebrate Veterans Day, joining others throughout the nation in honoring those Americans who have made tremendous sacrifices in service to our nation. We will also use this occasion to mark our continuing gratitude to the new generation of military personnel who are currently serving.
One way we can honor our veterans is to examine the extent to which we have lived up the commitments we have made to the more than 24 million veterans in America and the hundreds of thousands of military personnel returning from Iraq and Afghanistan and to reaffirm those commitments.
This year, press reports exposed serious problems at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. House and Senate Oversight Committees conducted a series of hearings about Walter Reed and about the broader Defense Department medical system. The hearings, unfortunately, revealed substandard outpatient care and a maze of bureaucratic red-tape facing returning soldiers as they transition into the VA health care system. This was true not only at Walter Reed but at virtually every VA medical facility in the United States, including our own Hefner VA Hospital in Salisbury. As a result of these hearings, the House and Senate passed the Wounded Warrior Assistance Act to help improve outpatient medical care for wounded service members, restore integrity and efficiency to disability evaluations, cut bureaucratic red-tape and improve the transition of wounded service members from the Armed Forces to the VA system.
It is projected that in 2008 the United States Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) health care system will treat 5.8 million patients, including approximately 263,000 veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan. Today the VA faces a backlog of 400,000 disability cases. To help meet this demand, the House and Senate approved a $6.7 billion increase in VA funding, the largest increase in the 77-year history of the VA. This funding would pay for 1,100 new processors to reduce the VA's backlog of veterans' disability claims. The House and Senate also passed legislation prohibiting fee increases in the military's TRICARE program, the health care program for military personnel and retirees, and approved a cost-of-living increase for veterans with disabilities and their dependants.
Part of the money approved by Congress is to help meet the growing mental health care needs of our veterans.
Hundreds of thousands of returning veterans suffer Traumatic Brain Injury or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and at least 1,000 veterans a year commit suicide. In response, Congress approved major funding for the VA to expand mental health, PTSD and Traumatic Brain Injury services. Congress also approved funding for five poly-trauma centers, which will provide intensive rehabilitation services to veterans who have suffered injuries to more than one organ system, and three Centers of Excellence for Mental Health and PTSD.
Unfortunately, the only piece of legislation to benefit veterans that Congress has passed and that the President has signed into law is the Joshua Omvig Veterans Suicide Prevention Act, signed by the President on November 5. This law creates a comprehensive VA program to reduce suicides among veterans by providing suicide prevention counselors at medical facilities, 24-hour mental health care for at-risk veterans and an outreach program for veterans to promote mental health. The President has threatened to veto a number of the other proposals approved by Congress.
Despite the efforts of Congress, I remain concerned that we have not met the increasing demand for VA health care and mental health care services. Congress and the President need to do more to ensure that our veterans and returning soldiers receive the kind of health care they deserve. As our thoughts and prayers turn to our veterans and military personnel at home and overseas this Veterans Day, let us reaffirm our commitment to meet their health care needs. That will be an important tribute to our veterans on Veterans Day and beyond.