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Public Statements

Veterans Health Programs Improvement Act of 2004

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Location: Washington, DC


VETERANS HEALTH PROGRAMS IMPROVEMENT ACT OF 2004 -- (House of Representatives - November 17, 2004)

Mr. SMITH of New Jersey. Mr. Speaker, I move to suspend the rules and concur in the Senate amendments to the bill (H.R. 3936) to amend title 38, United States Code, to authorize the principal office of the United States Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims to be at any location in the Washington, DC, metropolitan area, rather than only in the District of Columbia, and expressing the sense of Congress that a dedicated Veterans Courthouse and Justice Center should be provided for that Court and those it serves and should be located, if feasible, at a site owned by the United States that is part of or proximate to the Pentagon Reservation, and for other purposes.

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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 of H.R. 3936, the Veterans Health Programs Improvement Act of 2004. The bill, as amended, represents a compromise agreement between the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs and the Senate on these matters.

Mr. Speaker, I want to thank the gentleman from Illinois (Mr. Evans), the committee's ranking member, for his work on this. I especially want to thank the gentleman from Connecticut (Mr. Simmons) for his admirable leadership as chairman of the Subcommittee on Health, where most of these measures originated. He has done a tremendous job as chairman. As a 37-year Army veteran, he has put veterans first and has done so in a way that is extraordinary.

Again, I want to thank him for his work and his meticulous attention to detail. It has made the difference. This bill, regrettably, went through a lot of difficulties and travail, and yet he persevered. And I want to thank our chairman of that subcommittee for his leadership. It has been extraordinary.

I also want to thank the gentleman from Texas (Mr. Rodriguez), the ranking member of that subcommittee. Again, these bills are bipartisan. We have worked together very closely, and it is a pleasure to bring this before the body today.

Mr. Speaker, H.R. 3936 contains more than 33 measures that would improve the management and the administration of veterans health care programs. I want to highlight just a few of those provisions that are contained in the bill.

The VA's homeless grant and per diem program is an economical, flexible, and innovative approach to housing and supportive services for thousands of homeless veterans. The compromise agreement would increase the fiscal year 2005 authorization level for VA's grant and per diem program from $75 million to $99 million. The Department requested this increase because it has received far more requests for funding from meritorious potential grantees than it can support under existing funding limits.

Another important provision compromise would direct the Secretary to make payments to assist the 128 State-operated nursing homes in hiring and retaining nursing personnel. These homes provide long-term care to over 38,000 veterans annually in an excellent partnership with the VA, and this provision encourages their efforts to keep highly qualified staff caring for these veterans.

Mr. Speaker, today we are at war overseas. We know war can produce terrible physical injuries, and we must do everything possible for wounded servicemembers. This compromise agreement would authorize the VA to establish, in conjunction with the Department of Defense, a limited number of new centers for research, education, and clinical care to improve rehabilitative services for complex traumatic injuries, such as those being suffered by our brave soldiers and Marines in Iraq. These centers will be a Godsend for these wounded war veterans and for their families.

This bill provides VA authority to enter into a 75-year lease to acquire a medical facility on the new Fitzsimons Campus of the University of Colorado. It is anticipated this Federal-State health sciences campus would share many high-cost specialized services and provide expanded access for Air Force beneficiaries at the nearby Buckley Air Force Base.

I want to recognize and thank the gentleman from Colorado (Mr. Beauprez) for his leadership on this important provision and the chairman of the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, who has also done yeoman's work on this as well.

Mr. Speaker, our compromise agreement would improve the process for disposing of unneeded VA properties and authorize the proceeds from property transfers to be deposited into a new VA capital asset fund.

The new fund would facilitate transfers, leases and adaptive uses of VA properties, including historic properties. This compromise agreement also includes authorization for naming five VA medical centers, including one in Illinois to be named for the distinguished House minority leader, Bob Michel. Having served with Bob and having great respect for him, I am grateful that this provision is in here, and I want to thank my colleagues for their support for it. It also names facilities in Texas and New York for two heroic Marines who gave their lives for freedom in Vietnam.

Mr. Speaker, the staff of the Committee on Veterans Affairs has worked hard in this Congress to examine ways to provide the best possible health care to those who have earned the honored title of "veteran." I would like to recognize the staff of the Subcommittee on Health: John Bradley, staff director; Dolores Dunn and Kathleen Greve, professional staff members; Susan Edgerton, Democratic staff director; and VA detailee Rosalind Howard. I would also like to thank our full committee staff, Pat Ryan to my left, chief counsel and staff director; Kingston Smith, deputy chief counsel; Jeannie McNally, legislative coordinator; and Jim Holley, Democratic staff director.

I also thank the Senate committee staff director, Bill Tuerk, and Bill Cahill, III, professional staff member. I also thank Kim Lipsky, Alexandra Sardegna and Amanda Krohn of the Democratic professional staff for their contributions. This has been a true collaborative effort.

Again, I thank all who have participated in shaping, crafting and making this an extremely valuable bill that will soon be on the desk of President Bush for his signature.

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Mr. Speaker, I move that the House suspend the rules and concur in the Senate amendments to H.R. 3936.

Mr. Speaker, I rise in strong support of H.R. 3936, the Veterans Health Programs Improvement Act of 2004.
H.R. 3936, as amended, represents a compromise agreement between the Committees on Veterans' Affairs of the House and Senate.

Mr. Speaker, I want to thank the gentleman from Illinois, Mr. EVANS, Ranking Member of the Veterans' Affairs Committee, who has helped to shape this particular legislation. Also, I want to thank the gentleman from Connecticut, Mr. SIMMONS, for his outstanding leadership as Chairman of the Subcommittee on Health, where most of these measures originated. Finally, I thank the gentleman from Texas, Mr. RODRIGUEZ, the Ranking Member, who has worked in a bipartisan effort to help craft this and numerous other important veterans' health bills during his time in Congress.

Chairman SPECTER and Ranking Member GRAHAM of the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee also contributed to the legislation before the House today.

Mr. Speaker, VA's homeless grant and per diem program provides competitive grants to community and faith-based organizations that offer transitional housing or comprehensive service centers for homeless veterans. This program is an economical, flexible and innovative approach to housing and supportive services for homeless veterans in all 50 States and in the District. Over 6,000 beds are now available nationally to veterans through this vital community network. In 2003, 66 percent of the veterans discharged from these VA-funded programs went on to either independent living or residential-program housing. The compromise agreement will increase the fiscal year 2005 authorization level for this key program from $75 million to $99 million. The department requested this increase because it has received far more requests for funding from meritorious potential grantees than it can support under existing funding limits.

Another important provision in this compromise agreement would direct the Secretary to make payments to assist states in hiring and retaining nursing personnel at State-operated nursing homes for veterans. The 128 State veterans' homes collectively represent the largest institutional provider of long-term care to elderly veterans, now caring for over 38,000 veterans annually in 47 States. I am personally aware of staffing difficulties that the three New Jersey State veterans' homes in Vineland, Paramus and Menlo Park have faced over the past several years in their efforts to recruit and retain quality nursing staff to those homes. We need this new incentives program all across the country. It would allow State homes currently receiving per diem payments from VA with established employee-incentive programs to apply for assistance to retain and recruit their nurses. This provision encourages their efforts to keep highly-qualified staff caring for veterans.

Another provision affecting the State home programs would specify that per diem payments made by VA to States for the care of veterans in these homes may not be used to offset or reduce third party payments made to assist veterans, whether from private, State or other Federal sources.

There is well established history of partnership between the Federal and State governments providing care for veterans. This originated with the first Federal law in 1888, providing $100 per year in aid to States to help alleviate the burden of caring for sick and disabled soldiers. This partnership and the first annual payments preceded the advent of the Veterans Administration and the State Home program as we know them today-but Congressional intent has remained constant and clear. Since 1960, Congress has taken an active role in expanding the State home programs to include four levels of care, increased per diem payments and grant funding for construction of facilities. The Congress and its Veterans' Committees are adamant that this partnership and the mutual reliance by VA and the States should not be inadvertently affected by the rules of any other program which is not specifically targeted at caring for aged and infirmed veterans.

Mr. Speaker, 12 years ago, with Public Law 102-585, it was acknowledged that women who experienced sexual trauma while on active military duty may undergo a variety of psychological and physical health effects requiring special counseling. This law authorized VA to provide mental health counseling for these women veterans. Two years later, eligibility for VA sexual trauma counseling and treatment was broadened in Public Law 103-452 to include veterans of either gender who experience sexual trauma while serving on active duty. H.R. 3936 would make permanent VA's authority to provide sexual trauma counseling to veterans.

Mr. Speaker, the shortage of nurses throughout the United States is well documented and VA must position itself to take advantage of all opportunities available to deal with this shortage. H.R. 3936 would establish a pilot program to evaluate the use of proven private sector techniques, such as employer branding, interactive advertising, automated staffing systems and the use of outside recruitment agencies and online technologies to improve VA's program for recruiting nursing personnel.

Mr. Speaker, how well we know that we are at war overseas. We know war can produce terrible physical injuries. In previous wars, many soldiers did not survive the very serious injuries of the kind being seen in Iraq and Afghanistan today. The means were not available for quick evacuation to sophisticated medical treatment. Today military medical treatment capabilities have greatly improved for complex traumatic injuries.

However, Mr. Speaker, this success creates new challenges for the caregivers who have patients with complex traumatic injuries. The compromise agreement will authorize VA to establish in cooperation with the Department of Defense a limited number of new centers for research, education and clinical activities to improve rehabilitative services for these veterans. I particularly want to thank Senator BOB GRAHAM, Ranking Member of the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee, for his work in helping us reach agreement on this provision. These centers will be a godsend for these wounded war veterans and their families.

Mr. Speaker, the delivery of health care in this country and in the VA system has undergone a profound transformation over the last decade. Once a hospital based health care system, today's VA has made a significant shift from inpatient to outpatient services, with tremendous growth in the number of enrolled veterans. Yet, much of VA health care bricks-and-mortar infrastructure was designed and built decades ago-some parts of it over a century ago-in a bygone era of health care delivery when long stays in the hospital were the norm.

In 1999, a General Accounting Office report not surprisingly found that VA's cost of operating and maintaining its large inventory of old buildings was a huge and avoidable drain on resources. In the years since that GAO report, VA has undergone a major initiative referred to as the Capital Asset Realignment for Enhanced Services (CARES) initiative, to assess the best use of VA's capital assets for the veteran population to be served, and to use resources more effectively to improve health care delivery to these veterans.

While awaiting the CARES recommendations, little was done by the Department to upgrade VA's physical plants. This legislation is consistent with the CARES recommendations and would provide VA the needed authority to execute leases for 16 community-based outpatient clinics at a cost of approximately $24.4 million, in fiscal year 2005, in the States of California, Colorado, Florida, Indiana, North Carolina, Ohio, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia. Most of these leases will upgrade existing clinic locations. All of these leases were requested by the VA.

Mr. Speaker, this bill also provides VA authority to enter into a 75-year lease to acquire a medical facility on the Fitzsimons Campus of the University of Colorado in Aurora. It is anticipated that a new federal-state health sciences campus would share many high cost and specialized services, and also would provide expanded access to care for Air Force beneficiaries from nearby Buckley Air Force Base. I want to recognize and thank the gentleman from Colorado, Mr. BEAUPREZ, for his leadership in developing this good Federal health policy to serve the people of Colorado.

Mr. Speaker, our compromise agreement would improve the process for disposing of unneeded VA properties and authorize the proceeds from these property transfers to be deposited into a new VA Capital Asset Fund. The new fund would defray VA's cost of transferring property including demolition, environmental restoration, historic preservation and establishment of new health facilities. This bill would authorize appropriations of $10 million in seed money to launch the fund to support these initiatives.

Mr. Speaker, the VA has one of the largest federal inventories of properties with significant historic value. In fact, 24 VA medical center campuses are already listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and even more are eligible for this designation. This compromise agreement would allow the Secretary to enter into new partnerships or agreements with entities dedicated to historic preservation, and to use the funds in the Capital Asset Fund to facilitate transfers, leases or adaptive uses of those historic properties that are no longer useful for VA health care. Thus, this compromise agreement would protect history and at the same time the way to new uses of structures that have served their purposes for veterans.

Mr. Speaker, this compromise agreement includes authorization to name VA facilities to honor two heroic Marines who gave this country the greatest measure of their personal devotion, giving their lives in combat to save others in Vietnam. Lance Corporals Thomas E. Creek of Texas and Thomas P. Noonan, Jr. of New York were each posthumously awarded the Nation's highest military decoration, the Congressional Medal of Honor, for their selfless deeds.

The late James J. Peters of New York, a war hero in Vietnam, and a leader of paralyzed veterans after his service, would also be honored by our naming a VA outpatient clinic in the Bronx in his memory.

Further, Mr. Speaker, a VA facility in Illinois will be named in honor of our distinguished former House Minority Leader, Bob Michel, and a facility in Texas will be named in honor of the public service of another former Member of this House, Charles Wilson.

Mr. Speaker, under current law, VA must comply with a variety of Federal, state and local laws and regulations relating to the collecting, handling and disposing of medical waste. Failure to adhere to these laws and regulations could place patients, VA employees and their communities in hazardous situations, as well as subject VA to civil or criminal penalties. This bill would provide a means for Congress to evaluate the effectiveness of VA's medical waste management policies and determine whether additional procedures are needed to reduce environmental and heath risks. The costs of waste disposal would be assessed as well. The bill would require VA to establish and maintain an inventory of medical waste management activities in VA facilities and report to Congress on its inventory, regulatory compliance, and violations of record, along with plans for management improvements.

Mr. Speaker, the staff of the Veterans' Affairs Committee has worked hard in this Congress to examine ways of providing the best possible health care for those who have earned the honored title of "veteran." I would like to recognize the staff of the Subcommittee on Health: John Bradley, Staff Director, Dolores Dunn and Kathleen Greve, professional staff members; Susan Edgerton, Democratic Staff Director, and VA detailee Rosalind Howard. I'd also like to thank our full Committee staff: Patrick Ryan, Chief Counsel and Staff Director; Kingston Smith, Deputy Chief Counsel; Jeannie McNally, our Legislative Coordinator; and Jim Holley, Democratic Staff Director.

Finally, I want to compliment the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee staff: Bill Tuerk, Staff Director and Chief Counsel; and Bill Cahill III, professional staff member. I also want to recognize Kim Lipsky, Alexandra Sardegna and Amanda Krohn, of the Democratic professional staff, for their contributions to this bill.

For the benefit of my colleagues, I include at this point in the record a joint explanatory statement describing the compromise agreement we have reached with the other body.

Mr. Speaker, I ask unanimous consent to revise and extend my remarks and that all Members may have 5 legislative days in which to revise and extend their remarks, and include extraneous material on H.R. 3936, as amended.

Mr. Speaker, one final word on homeless veterans: these veterans who need services and a place to lay their heads have difficult problems. VA's programs and the hundreds of community and faith-based programs that serve in partnership with VA work miracles with many of them. The continuation and expansion of these programs with the goal of eradicating chronic homelessness in the veteran population has been one of my top goals as Chairman of this Committee. I intend to further address this program in the next Congress, so that those who once wore the nation's military uniform and who are now homeless. These veterans need a hand up to turn their lives around, and we should provide that hand.

I urge my colleagues to support this measure to enhance health care for veterans.

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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 such time as he may consume to the gentleman from Connecticut (Mr. Simmons).

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Mr. SMITH of New Jersey. Mr. Speaker, for the benefit of my colleagues, I include at this point in the RECORD a joint explanatory statement describing the compromise agreement we have reached with the other body.

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Mr. SMITH of New Jersey. Mr. Speaker, I yield 3 minutes to the gentleman from Florida (Mr. Stearns), the author of the law, the Millennium Health Care Act, which has made a tremendous difference on behalf of our seniors who are veterans who need long-term health care.

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Mr. SMITH of New Jersey. Mr. Speaker, I yield 3 ½ minutes to the gentleman from Indiana (Mr. Souder).

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Mr. SMITH of New Jersey. Mr. Speaker, I reserve the balance of my time.

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Mr. SMITH of New Jersey. Mr. Speaker, I yield back the balance of my time.

The SPEAKER pro tempore (Mr. Terry). The question is on the motion offered by the gentleman from New Jersey (Mr. Smith) that the House suspend the rules and concur in the Senate amendments to the bill, H.R. 3936.

The question was taken; and (two-thirds having voted in favor thereof) the rules were suspended and the Senate amendments were concurred in.

A motion to reconsider was laid on the table.

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