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Veterans' Mental Health and Other Care Improvements Act of 2008

Floor Speech

By:
Date:
Location: Washington, DC


VETERANS' MENTAL HEALTH AND OTHER CARE IMPROVEMENTS ACT OF 2008 -- (House of Representatives - September 24, 2008)

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

We are considering two bills. This first one, S. 2162, as amended, the Veterans' Mental Health and Other Care Improvements Act of 2008, and the next one is going to be about the Veterans' Benefits Improvement Act of 2008. These are two bills which passed the Senate, and is an omnibus bill that includes legislation from the Senate and from the House.

Many of our Members have legislation in this bill. And they are two bills that are really going to be great for veterans, greatly enhance the benefit in both the health field and on the benefit field.

As we have discussed these bills, we have learned much about the needs of our Nation's veterans, and this bill goes a long way to address them. Rates for post traumatic stress disorder, for example, amongst Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom veterans has been estimated to be higher than 30 percent. Additionally, as we have tragically learned, suicide is on the rise. The Army reports, in fact, rates as high as they were during the Vietnam War. And the rate of homelessness among this cohort is also tragically growing. We must act now to address these issues before it's too late.

We know from past wars that some veterans will struggle with substance abuse, homelessness, and PTSD. And we can see the same patterns emerging as a result of the stress of repeated deployments to OEF and OIF.

This bill expands and improves the health care services available to veterans fighting substance use disorders and requires that all VA medical centers provide veterans access to the full continuum of care for substance use disorders.

I would like to recognize both the leadership of the chairman of the Subcommittee on Health, Mr. Michaud, and Ms. Berkley for their strong advocacy for veterans who suffer with substance use disorder and for their contributions to this very important provision in the bill.

As a way to honor the memory of Justin Bailey, a brave veteran that we lost to the horrors of war, this bill would ensure that the VA conduct more research about the often tragic relationship between PTSD and substance use disorders. The bill allows community mental health centers in rural areas to work with the VA to provide peer outreach and support services as well as readjustment and mental health services.

We now know that PTSD not only affects the veteran, but also has a profound effect on their family. Thanks to the leadership of Mr. Hare from Illinois, this bill makes necessary changes to the law to allow the VA to provide needed counseling to families of veterans.

In addition to addressing the mental health challenges facing our veterans, many also experience homelessness. While the VA continues to be the largest provider of direct services to homeless veterans, we must ensure that it remains postured to assist the growing number of homeless veterans and veterans at risk for homelessness. To this end, the bill increases the authorization for homeless programs to $150 million.

It also expands and extends a valuable joint VA and Department of Labor program of referral and counseling services, ensures that the VA domiciliary program is capable of meeting the needs of the growing female population, and provides necessary support to low-income veteran families that have made the transition to permanent housing. I want to thank Mr. Murphy and Ms. Herseth Sandlin for their focus on this issue and ensuring that these provisions are in the bill.

Aside from mental health and homelessness, many veterans struggle to cope with chronic and acute pain. This pain lingers long after the physical wounds of war have healed and affects the quality of life of many veterans. Thanks to Mr. Walz of Minnesota's leadership, this bill would require the VA to develop and implement a system-wide policy on pain management.

S. 2162 also improves the health care for certain groups of especially vulnerable populations within the VA. It establishes Epilepsy Centers of Excellence to care for the 89,000 veterans with epilepsy, provides comprehensive health care to children of Vietnam veterans born with spina bifida, and updates VA policies regarding HIV testing. This would not have been possible without the hard work of Mr. Perlmutter of Colorado, Mr. Ellsworth of Indiana, and Mr. Doyle of Pennsylvania.

Next, this bill would reduce the financial burden placed on our veterans. It requires the VA to reimburse veterans for the cost of emergency treatment received in non-VA facilities, prohibits the collection of copayments for all hospice care furnished by the VA, and increases the beneficiary travel mileage reimbursement rate to the current government employee rate. I want to thank Mr. Space of Ohio for his contribution on the emergency treatment provision. And I would like to thank Mr. Miller from Florida for his work on prohibiting copayments for hospice care.

Another challenge facing the VA is rural health. Today, nearly 39 percent of veterans enrolled in the VA health care system live in rural areas. Despite the expansion of community-based outpatient clinics and vet centers, many rural veterans still have problems of access. Thanks to Mr. Moran of Kansas' leadership, this bill requires the VA to conduct a 3-year pilot program in five Veterans Integrated Service Networks to allow highly rural veterans to seek covered health services from non-VA health care providers.

The VA is currently authorized to collect third-party payments from veterans' insurance companies, but due to ineffective procedures, over $1 billion go uncollected annually. This legislation would require the VA to establish no more than seven other Consolidated Patient Account Centers to enable it to improve its billing performance. And I want to recognize and thank my ranking member, Mr. Buyer of Indiana, for his contributions to this issue.

The bill also gives the VA the legal authorities it needs to move forward in major facility construction projects and leases so that it can continue to provide world-class health care to veterans in world-class facilities.

The bill also extends or makes permanent a number of important expiring authorities.

Finally, the bill would name the VA Spinal Cord Injury Center in Tampa, Florida, after our former colleague, Michael Bilirakis. It was through former Congressman Bilirakis' efforts that this center came into being. He served in the Air Force in the 1950s and served in Congress for 24 years. It is fitting that we recognize his efforts in naming the center after him.

I want to recognize and thank Mr. Miller of Florida for his leadership on this issue, and also the younger Mr. Bilirakis from Florida for carrying on his father's tradition.

Mr. Speaker, both Republican and Democratic Members of this committee made major contributions to this bill. And I want to thank the staff from both sides of the aisle for putting together such a comprehensive package. It takes care of the men and women who have given so much to defend this Nation, provides our veterans with the quality health care programs and services they need and they so richly deserve.

I hope my colleagues will support S. 2162, as amended.

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

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