MILITARY CONSTRUCTION AND VETERANS AFFAIRS, AND RELATED AGENCIES APPROPRIATIONS ACT, 2006 -- (Senate - September 22, 2005)
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Mr. OBAMA. Mr. President, I rise today to support this important piece of legislation. As many of you know, the young soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan are already coming home with post traumatic stress disorder. A recent Army study found that one in six soldiers in Iraq reported symptoms of major depression. Some experts predict that more than 100,000 soldiers may need some kind of mental health treatment when they come home.
It is not only our patriotic duty to provide these soldiers with the benefits they deserve; it is our moral duty at the most fundamental level. Unfortunately, PTSD is a disease that is still all too often misunderstood, and as I speak, there are efforts at the VA to require those folks who suffer PTSD to undergo additional scrutiny in the disability benefits process.
According to VA, it will review 72,000 cases in which the maximum amount of PTSD disability benefits was awarded. The rationale for reviewing these cases is VA's belief that 2.5 percent of these cases are ``potentially fraudulent.'' But notably, this review will entirely ignore cases in which benefits may have been unjustly denied.
This review sends a troubling message to the brave men and women who defended this country. Too many veterans see the VA as a bureaucracy with the singular goal of denying services and benefits to veterans. This decision to reopen only approved PTSD claims merely serves to promote that impression.
It is unconscionable for our Government to put the onus on law-abiding veterans to affirmatively demonstrate that they are not engaging in fraud. The process of gathering evidence to prove PTSD disability is extremely time consuming. It requires the compilation of medical records, military service records, and testimony from other veterans who can attest to a person's combat exposure. I cannot fathom why the VA would require veterans to go through this emotionally painful process for a second time.
The VA--and our Nation's veterans--would be better served by creating nationwide standards for evaluating PTSD claims. As underscored by the inspector general's report in May that evaluated the chronic disparity between benefits received by veterans in Illinois and veterans in the rest of the country, PTSD is a highly subjective evaluation subject to significant variation. That same report uncovered significant variation in PTSD ratings from State to State--with Illinois consistently in the bottom rung for those ratings. The variation in PTSD ratings across the country may very well be the result of a lack of training or standardized practices on the part of the VA, not fraud on the part of our Nation's veterans.
I am pleased that Chairman Hutchison and Ranking Member Feinstein worked with me and Senators Durbin and Murray to include an amendment that prohibits the VA from proceeding with its review unless and until the VA reports to the Appropriations Committee on its plan for implementing this recommendation and outlines the staffing and funding requirements.
While this is an important provision, I am disappointed that there was no requirement that the VA look at denials of benefits as well as grants. To get an accurate and fair depiction of PTSD claims in this country, we need to ensure that denials are reviewed as well as grants of benefits. I will continue to work with my colleagues to see that this fundamental issue of fairness is addressed.
I also want to thank Chairman Hutchison and Ranking Member Feinstein for their assistance in accepting an amendment to provide notice to veterans in certain States about their right to seek a review of their cases.
This provision addresses an important issue in Illinois. As some of you may know, Illinois has for more than two decades ranked 50th out of all 50 States in terms of disability benefit compensation. This staggering disparity in payments may well be the result of poor staffing and a lack of standards for disability payments across the Nation.
I have been pleased that Secretary Nicholson has agreed to provide the veterans of Illinois with extra disability raters so that the veterans in Illinois who may have been unjustly denied benefits will have the opportunity to seek a special review of their cases.
Unfortunately, up to now, there has been no special effort made to alert veterans to this special opportunity. This amendment will provide the funds for information campaigns in states with less than average disability compensation rates. These campaigns will alert veterans of the past history of below-average disability benefit rates and provide these veterans with information on how to request a review of any past claims. The hiring of additional disability raters is important, but it is meaningless unless veterans know of their right to get their cases reopened.
I thank my colleagues for their assistance with these amendments.