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Veterans Health Programs and Facilities Enhancement Act of 2004

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Location: Washington, DC


VETERANS HEALTH PROGRAMS AND FACILITIES ENHANCEMENT ACT OF 2004 -- (House of Representatives - September 29, 2004)

Mr. SMITH of New Jersey. Mr. Speaker, I move to suspend the rules and pass the bill (H.R. 4768) to amend title 38, United States Code, to authorize the Secretary of Veterans Affairs to enter into certain major medical facility leases, to authorize that Secretary to transfer real property subject to certain limitations, and for other purposes, as amended.

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Mr. SMITH of New Jersey. Mr. Speaker, I yield myself such time as I may consume.

Mr. Speaker, I rise in very strong support and urge colleagues to support and embrace H.R. 4768, the Veterans Health Programs and Facilities Enhancement Act of 2004. I want to thank the gentleman from Illinois (Mr. Evans), ranking member, who has been a very strong partner in helping shape this legislation. And I particularly want to thank the gentleman from Connecticut (Mr. Simmons), chairman of the Health Subcommittee, who is the prime sponsor of this legislation, for his leadership. It has been extraordinary, and I do want to acknowledge that. I also want to thank the gentleman from Texas (Mr. Rodriguez), who likewise has worked as a good partner in a bipartisan effort to craft this very important piece of legislation.

Mr. Speaker, this legislation will help address the need to modernize aging veterans health-care facilities, make better use of existing properties and dispose of unneeded VA properties over the next several years. The Veterans Health Care, Capital Asset, and Business Improvement Act of 2003 gave the Secretary of Veterans Affairs wide latitude to spend funds to improve, restore, or replace those VA health-care facilities most in need of such work. Congress instructed the Secretary to approve individual products based on recommendations of an independent capital investments board, and we placed a premium on projects to protect patient safety as well as privacy, improve seismic protection, and provide barrier-free accommodations. Moreover, we also put an emphasis on improving specialized-care facilities. Thus, even though the VA's budget request of $400 million for fiscal year 2005 to carry out approved modernization projects, the necessary authorization legislation is already enacted.

For the benefit of the many Members who are interested in the plans to improve VA health-care facilities, I will insert a summary of the capital projects which the Secretary listed as the VA's highest priorities when he announced his CARES decision in June of this year. The cost of the projects for fiscal year 2004 totals $623 million, while the projects listed for fiscal year 2005 total $401 million.

Mr. Speaker, after a multi-year drought in available funds to improve VA's extensive hospital and outpatient network, this long list of OMB-approved projects marks the beginning of a multi-year effort to modernize those facilities that will be needed to serve veterans in the first half of the 21st Century. VA Secretary Principi anticipates that the just-completed CARES process will require additional investment of approximately $1 billion per year for the next 5 years in order to bring the VA's infrastructure up to contemporary standards and meet veterans' expectations of accessible care.

In addition, it should be noted that the CARES process is not complete, and there will undoubtedly be further fiscal consequences when the VA has fully assessed its current and future obligation to veterans who need long-term care as well as mental health care. Honoring these commitments may well mean additional investments in the VA facilities which are not included in the Secretary's $5 billion figure.

This legislation, Mr. Speaker, authorizes major medical facility leases at 16 locations for community-based clinics at a cost of approximately $24.4 million in fiscal year 2005. Most of these leases are for replacement facilities, although some expansion into new locations is also proposed and approved by this bill.

This bill would also provide the Department authority to enter into a unique long-term lease for up to 75 years for the land to construct a new medical facility on the Fitzsimons Campus at the University of Colorado in Aurora, Colorado. It is anticipated that this new VA facility will share many services with the university and also provide services to Air Force beneficiaries. I want to recognize and thank the gentleman from Colorado (Mr. Beauprez) for helping to identify the need to provide this authority to support the Fitzsimons project as well as the close attention he has given it as we have worked on this in the 108th Congress. And I thank the gentleman from Colorado (Mr. Beauprez) so much for that.

This legislation, Mr. Speaker, will also facilitate the Secretary's authority to transfer unneeded real property currently in the VA's portfolio. The bill would require fair-market value for disposals, except when a property would be transferred to a provider of homeless veterans' services under a grant under section 2011 of title 38, U.S. Code.

This bill would also establish a new fund to be known as the Capital Asset Fund. The purpose of the new fund would be to defray VA's cost of transferring real property, including demolition, environmental restoration, maintenance, repair, historic preservation, and administrative expenses. This bill would authorize appropriations of $10 million in seed money to launch the fund and support the capital planning initiatives developed through the VA's capital planning process.

Mr. Speaker, VA controls the fourth largest inventory of owned, leased and operated federal real property. It is estimated that more than half of the VA's facilities are over 50 years old. Many structures date from the 19th Century, and many more were constructed in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Portions of the 24 VA medical center campuses are currently listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Another 61 sites have been determined eligible or potentiality eligible for this designation. Given this array of heritage assets, H.R. 4768 would also allow the Secretary to enter into partnerships or agreements with public or private entities dedicated to historic preservation and to use resources from the Capital Asset Fund to facilitate the transfer, leasing or adaptive uses of these historic properties that no longer serve useful purposes as health-care facilities.

The bill would also require an inventory and series of reports on the status of each historic property. The bill would also require the Department's annual budget submission to include information on each proposed and completed transfer of VA real property, including historic property, using this authority, as well to report deposits and expenditures from the new fund.

Mr. Speaker, the Millennium Health Care and Benefits Act requires the VA to maintain long-term care programs, sustain a defined number of nursing home beds, and enhance other long-term programs, such as geriatric evaluation, domiciliary, and adult day health care, and respite, palliative and hospice programs, in both institutional and noninstitutional settings. The Congress' interest in these programs is strong and ongoing, as evidenced by our decision last year to extend many of the provisions of the 1999 Millennium Health Care Act for another 5 years. Since VA has struggled to meet many of these requirements of the Act, this bill would make the new property transfer authority contingent on the Secretary's certification that the VA is maintaining the long-term-care facility required in that Act.

The bill also includes additional provisions endorsed by the administration, including one to clarify that the Veterans' Canteen Service can serve all enrolled veterans, not just hospitalized veterans. Congress established the Canteen Service in the late 1940s at a time when the VA health-care system was hospital-based and many patients were hospitalized for months at a time at facilities that were far from commercial centers. This restatement of the Canteen's mission is consistent with the shift of VA care over the past 10 years from hospital-based care to an outpatient-based health-care system. Veterans enrolled in the VA health care ought to be able to obtain the products and services available in VA canteens without any restrictions in law.

Below are the FY 2004 and 2005 projects for which VA is requesting authorization and appropriation approval from Congress to proceed.

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

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Mr. SMITH of New Jersey. Mr. Speaker, I yield 4 minutes to my good friend and colleague, the gentleman from Florida (Mr. Stearns), the prime sponsor of the Millennium Health Care Act referenced earlier in the debate.

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Mr. SMITH of New Jersey. Mr. Speaker, it is a pleasure and delight to yield such time as he may consume to the gentleman from Connecticut (Mr. Simmons), the prime sponsor of this bill and the chairman of our Subcommittee on Health.

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Mr. SMITH of New Jersey. Mr. Speaker, I yield such time as he may consume to the gentleman from Colorado (Mr. Beauprez), who was instrumental and really took the lead on this Fitzsimons Hospital. I congratulate him on his leadership.

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Mr. SMITH of New Jersey. Mr. Speaker, we likewise yield back the balance of our time, and ask for a "yea" vote.

The SPEAKER pro tempore (Mr. Shimkus). The question is on the motion offered by the gentleman from New Jersey (Mr. Smith) that the House suspend the rules and pass the bill, H.R. 4768, as amended.

The question was taken; and (two-thirds having voted in favor thereof) the rules were suspended and the bill, as amended, was passed.

The title was amended so as to read: "A bill to authorize the Secretary of Veterans Affairs to enter into certain major medical facility leases, to authorize that Secretary to transfer real property subject to certain limitations, otherwise to improve management of medical facilities of the Department of Veterans Affairs, and for other purposes.".

A motion to reconsider was laid on the table.

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