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Public Statements

Emergency Supplemental Appropriations Act for Defense, the Global War on Terror, and Hurricane Recovery, 2006

Location: Washington, DC


Mr. SALAZAR. Mr. Chairman, I believe that this Congress needs to recognize that caring for our veterans is a continuing cost of the war on terrorism.

My amendment adds $630 million in emergency funding so that the VA can better meet the needs of veterans returning home from Iraq and Afghanistan, and with this financial relief the VA will also be able to provide better care to the heroes of earlier conflicts.

Here is the situation. The VA projected that it would treat 110,000 Operation Iraqi and Enduring Freedom veterans this fiscal year. At the end of January, the first third of the fiscal year, the VA had already treated 74,000 veterans. At this rate, the VA will treat twice the number of veterans than projected.

Our veterans need our support now. There is no better place to include funding for our veterans and military families than in the bill addressing the costs of the war.

First, I have added $250 million for mental health. According to a recent Army study, as many as one in three veterans returning from combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan will experience symptoms related to mental health problems.

This amendment will make available $9 million to expand veterans' access to family therapy; $168 million to implement the VA's own Comprehensive Mental Health Plan; $24 million for additional substance abuse treatment, one in five post-traumatic stress disorder patients have had substance abuse problems; $35 million to increase capacity to treat returning Iraq and Afghanistan veterans who need outpatient mental health services; $15 million for increased in-patient PTSD treatments, about a 12 percent increase; $3 million to increase staffing for VA efforts to seamlessly transition returning veterans with the Post-Deployment Health Assessment.

The VA is seeing more and more veterans from previous conflicts with post-traumatic stress disorder. This is a growing concern, and it is smart to provide quality mental health care to our returning veterans now and help forestall greater problems and more expense in the future.

The amendment also adds $110 million for prosthetics, a 10 percent increase. We all marvel at what we have done today to help return veterans to a full life, but it is not cheap. Above-knee replacement costs about $50,000, and then it needs periodic adjustment and maintenance. In past years, the VA prosthetic budget had grown by 17 percent a year. By 2007, the administration would cut back the growth to 12 percent. Now is certainly not the time to cut these important programs.

In another area, I added $200 million for direct medical services. Just like last year, we are already hearing anecdotes about shortages at VA medical facilities. Supply problems, budget problems, we do not need a crystal ball to make these predictions. With all the extra new veterans in need of medical care, there will be another budget shortfall.

This is by no means the fault of the men and women in the VA. The VA has made a real innovation by establishing state-of-the-art polytrauma centers, but they cost real money. These centers treat the worst injuries, sharing information with one another and military hospitals by videophone.

The amendment also adds $15 million for medical and vocational rehabilitation services. Service-disabled veterans applying for vocational rehabilitation and employment services increased dramatically over the last decade, roughly a 75 percent increase. Demand for this service will grow even faster due to the ongoing conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Finally, the amendment includes $55 million for increased staffing to process the growing number of disability claims. Currently, the backlog is more than 370,000 cases, and it is getting worse. In 2005, the VA was averaging 167 days to process one of these claims.

In 2006, it has grown to 185 days. In a time of war, we need to treat our heroes well. Slowing down the process of disability claims is a slap in the face.

Before closing, I would like to acknowledge Chairman Walsh's recognizing that there is a need for VA funding. In fact, he was good enough to grant the VA authority to use $275 million for the construction of a VA Hospital in New Orleans on a need basis.

VA facilities are already feeling the crunch when it comes to their budgets. Why are we not preparing for the future? Why are we willing to let the VA funding run out this year? Why is this administration not willing to fully fund the true cost of the war?

I am here to tell you that we can do better and we must do better. Our troops bravely put their lives on the line and it is our moral duty to provide them the care they were promised. Mr. Chairman, it is high time we stop paying lip service to our veterans and realize that caring for veterans is an ongoing cost of the war. It is high time that we start working towards providing the VA with the tools needed to provide proper care for our servicemen and -women.

Mr. Chairman, I urge my colleagues to support the amendment and to support the brave men and women in uniform.

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