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Department of Defense Appropriations Act, 2006--Continued

Location: Washington, DC



Ms. STABENOW. Mr. President, I rise to thank both the chairman and ranking member, Senator Inouye, for their leadership on this legislation. I am very supportive of the Defense appropriations bill. And I appreciate all of the hard work and leadership they have brought to this point in this important legislation.

I come to the floor this evening to fix a broken promise to our veterans, a promise our country made to the men and women who serve our country in the armed services. They put their lives on the line to protect us, as we know, and in exchange we have a sacred obligation to extend to them the honors and benefits and the health care benefits they have earned through their service.

I have met with men and women from Michigan and across the country who are recovering at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, as many of my colleagues have. Some have suffered minor injuries that will not have a dramatic impact on the rest of their lives. Others though, because of their injuries, will need years of rehabilitation and face considerable obstacles as they return to their civilian lives.

We owe these men and women our continued support so that they can recover from their injuries and lead productive lives.

Today's soldiers are tomorrow's veterans--and America has made a promise to these brave men and women to provide them the care they deserve. They deserve the respect and support of a grateful nation when they return home.

We also owe it to the men and women who have fought in America's prior conflicts to maintain a place for them in the VA system so they can receive the care they need, as well. We need to keep our promise to our veterans, young and old.

Together we can do better for our men and women who have served our country. We must consider the ongoing costs of medical care for America's veterans as part of the continuing cost of our national defense. The long-term legacy of the wars we fight today is the care of the men and women who have worn the uniform and are willing to pay the ultimate price for their nation.

Senator Johnson, Senator Thune, and I are offering an amendment today to provide full funding for VA health care to ensure the VA has the resources necessary to provide quality health care in a timely manner to our Nation's disabled veterans. The Stabenow-Johnson-Thune amendment provides guaranteed funding for America's veterans from two sources.

First, the legislation provides an annual discretionary amount that will be locked in for future years at the 2005 funding level. Second, in the future, the VA receives a sum of mandatory funding that is adjusted year to year based on changes in demand from the VA health system and the rate of health care inflation.

This funding mechanism will ensure that the VA has the resources it needs to provide a steady and reliable stream of resources to care for America's veterans. It will also ensure that Congress will continue to be responsible for the oversight of the VA health system as it does with other Federal programs funded directly from the U.S. Treasury.

This amendment will bring funding for veterans health care into line with almost 90 percent of Federal health care spending which is mandatory rather than discretionary. One of our greatest accomplishments as a nation is that every American knows when they enter their golden years, when they reach 65 or if they are disabled, they receive the health care they need. Medicare is a universal and comprehensive system that benefits a person for their life's work. Our veterans deserve the same. We can do better for them by ensuring that their service is repaid with reliable health care benefits.


In July, I offered this amendment to the 2006 Defense authorization bill. Unfortunately, the Defense authorization bill was pulled from the Senate at that time. While we are working out whether this will be included in this particular bill, it is important to offer my amendment again at this time. The amendment has been endorsed by the Partnership for Veterans Health Care Budget Reform, a group of major veterans service organizations that has been working to provide a reliable stream of health care for America's veterans over the last 2 years. It includes the American Legion, the AMVETS, the Blinded Veterans Association, Disabled American Veterans, Jewish War Veterans of the United States, Paralyzed Veterans of America, and the Veterans of Foreign Wars, all of them together asking us to get this right for our veterans.

The problem we face today is that resources for veterans health care are falling behind demand. We have more veterans being created, more men and women coming home from the wars. Yet the funding is falling behind. Shortly after coming into office, the President created the task force to improve health care delivery for our Nation's veterans. The task force found historically there has been a gap between the demand for VA care and the resources to meet the needs of our veterans. The task force also found that:

The current mismatch is far greater ..... and its impact potentially far more detrimental both to the VA's ability to furnish high quality care and to the support that the system needs from those it serves.

The task force released its report in May of 2003, well before we understood the impact of the men and women fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan and the impact that would have on our VA system.

If the mismatch between demand and resources was bad in May of 2003, imagine what it is today. Over 360,000 brave soldiers have returned from Iraq and Afghanistan, and over 86,000 have sought health care from the VA. There are an additional 740,000 military personnel who served in Iraq and Afghanistan who are still in the service. This next generation of veterans will be eligible for VA health care and will place additional demands on a system that is already strained. These are promises we need to keep.

In addition, each reservist and National Guard member who has served in Iraq is eligible for 2 years of free health care at the VA. The administration has in its own way admitted they do not have sufficient resources to provide adequate care for our veterans. While they would not until recently admit there were shortfalls, they have for years attempted to ration care and cut services at the expense of our veterans. We can do better than that.

In 2003, the VA banned the enrollment of new priority 8 veterans. For the past 3 years, I fought attempts by the administration to charge middle-income veterans a $250 enrollment fee to join the VA health care system and a 100-percent increase in prescription drug copays. This year, the administration also proposed slashing Federal support for the State veterans homes from $140 million to $12 million. The head of the Grand Rapids Home for Veterans and the D.J. Jacobetti Home For Veterans in Marquette tells me these cuts would be devastating.

The fiscal year 2005 and 2006 VA health care budgets are a case study in why Congress should guarantee reliable and adequate resources through direct spending.

Last March, the President submitted an inadequate fiscal year 2005 budget request for VA health care to Congress that fell $3.2 billion short of the recommendation of the independent budget, an annual estimate of critical veterans health care needs by the coalition of leading veterans organizations.

In fact, in February 2004, Anthony Principi, then the Secretary of VA, testified before Congress that the request the President submitted to Congress fell $1.2 billion short of the amount he had recommended. It then fell to Congress to again increase the amount provided to the VA for health care. The final amount Congress provided to the VA for health care was $1.2 billion over the President's request, but it was still not enough to meet their immediate needs.

In April of this year I cosponsored an amendment with Senator Murray to the fiscal year 2005 supplemental appropriations bill for Iraq and Afghanistan to provide $1.9 billion for veterans medical care, especially for those soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. During the debate on the amendment we were again told that the President's budget was sufficient but, in fact, on April 5, Secretary of Veterans Affairs Jim Nicholson sent a letter to the Senate that said:

I can assure you that the VA does not need supplemental funds for FY2005 to continue to provide timely, quality service that is always our goal.

I was proud to cosponsor an amendment in June, however, to provide an additional $1.5 billion for veterans health care because they finally admitted there was a gap in funding for this year. Finally, they admitted, in fact, the veterans health care system was not adequately funded this year. I was pleased we were able to add dollars under an emergency spending measure, to be able to fill the gap this year.

As it turned out, we received more bad news from the administration on July 14, when the administration requested another $300 million for this year and a whopping $1.7 billion for next year. The total shortfall for this year and next was nearly $3 billion, 3 billion short of where we should be in adequately funding health care for our veterans.

At the end of July, I was pleased to support the conference report for the Interior appropriations which included the $1.5 billion this year that the Senate has twice unanimously supported. Further, in September, I supported the Senate's Military Construction and Veterans Affairs appropriations bill which provided a total of $33 billion for veterans health care. This is $1.1 billion more than the administration requested and $2.5 billion more than the House version of the legislation for veterans health care.

I tell this to make two points: First, it is clear that the demand for veterans health care is increasing, and a good portion of this increase can be attributed to men and women seeking care after they are returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. The second is to show despite the best intentions of the VA and Congress, the VA does not have a reliable and dependable stream of funding to provide for veterans health care needs. We should not have to pass an emergency funding bill to give our veterans the health care they need and deserve.

In 1993, there were about 2.5 million Americans in the VA health care system. Today there are more than 7 million veterans enrolled in the system, over half of which receive care on a regular basis. Despite the increase in patients, the VA has received on average a 5-percent increase in appropriations over the last 8 years. My amendment will fix this problem and ensure that each year we provide the funding necessary to care for our veterans in a timely manner that is separate from the uncertainty and the ups and downs of the congressional calendar.

At last count, at least 86,000 men and women have returned from Iraq and have sought health care from the VA. We can safely assume that this number will reach hundreds of thousands. This bill provides the resources our troops need to prepare and defend our country in Iraq. We must not forget about them when they return home and put on a veteran's cap. We must ensure that we keep our promises to them when they come home as veterans. Let's stop this up-and-down roller coaster of emergency spending measures, of budgets that do not match with need year to year. We owe our veterans better than that. Together, we can do better than that.

I urge the support of my colleagues for this very important amendment.



Mr. STEVENS. Now, is the record clear about my making a point of order to the Stabenow amendment? If not, I renew the point of order under 302(f) of the Congressional Budget Act. The amendment requires spending in excess of the committee's 302(b) allocation for the fiscal year concurrent resolution of the Budget, and I ask for the yeas and nays.

Ms. STABENOW. Pursuant to section 904 of the Congressional Budget Act of 1974, I move to waive the applicable sections of that act for the purpose of the pending amendment, and I ask for the yeas and nays.

The PRESIDING OFFICER. Is there a sufficient second?

There is a sufficient second.

The yeas and nays were ordered.

Ms. STABENOW. Mr. President, I ask colleagues to support the Stabenow-Johnson-Thune amendment that guarantees funding for our veterans for health care. It takes it out of the annual appropriations process where every year we are wrestling with whether the funding is available. This year alone already we have had one emergency designation of $1.5 billion because the veterans health care budget was underfunded this year. We know there are concerns about next year.

This amendment would do two things. First, the legislation provides an annual discretionary amount that would be locked in for future years at the 2005 funding level. Then in the future, the VA would receive a sum of mandatory funding that would be adjusted year to year based on changes in demand from the VA health care system as well as rate of inflation.

This is incredibly important. We should not be arbitrarily picking numbers in terms of funding veterans health care. It should be based on the brave men and women who have served who come on home and put on a veteran's cap. We have more and more coming home from Afghanistan and Iraq every day. Each and every one of them has been promised health care. The way to guarantee we keep our promise is to pass this amendment.

I urge agreement.

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