STATEMENTS ON INTRODUCED BILLS AND JOINT RESOLUTIONS -- (Senate - March 08, 2007)
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By Mr. CRAIG:
S. 815. A bill to provide health care benefits to veterans with a service-connected disability at non-Department of Veterans Affairs medical facilities that receive payments under the Medicare program or the TRICARE program; to the Committee on Veterans' Affairs.
Mr. CRAIG. Mr. President, I rise today to talk a little bit about recent events reported in the media surrounding the care and housing provided to our returning, injured service members from Iraq and Afghanistan. Walter Reed, of course, is an Army-run facility. As such, it does not fall under the jurisdiction of the Veterans' Committee, which I am proud to lead along with my Chairman, Senator AKAKA.
Never-the-less, the American public--rightly--does not care who runs the place or who oversees it in Congress. Collectively, VA and DOD make up a system of services provided to active and former members of our Armed Forces.
Of course, we have all read about the poor conditions in Building 18 at Walter Reed. I am not here on the floor today to defend poor physical infrastructure. It is bad, a free press reported it, senior officials were held accountable, and it is being fixed.
I am here instead to talk about how the justified uproar over the conditions at Walter Reed seems to have provided an opportunity for some of my colleagues on the other side of the aisle to hone in on new strategy for criticizing the war. The strategy appears to me to be one of ``questioning the competency' of those who work in our Federal system caring for our wounded servicemembers.
Now I don't want to accuse anyone of politicizing the care and treatment of our most deserving citizens. But, I have to wonder when I hear my friends on the other side of the aisle using a slight variation on one of their ``catch-phrases' from the 2006 elections. I've heard one of my colleagues lament the ``culture of command' in the military as the reason for poor conditions at Walter Reed.
I don't really know what the ``culture of command' means, other than it sounds a lot like phrases used during the last election. But this time they are using that playbook with the care provided by the 220,000 dedicated employees of the VA health care system.
Speaking of which, I want to caution my colleagues who have used the case of the young veteran from Minnesota who tragically took his own life a few weeks ago as an example of what is wrong with the VA health care system. Some of us on the Veterans' Committee have been briefed thoroughly about all of the facts in this case. And while HIPPA prevents VA from defending itself in this situation, I am not so constrained.
That said, I do not intend to reveal at this time the facts surrounding this case. But, I believe all of my colleagues would tone down their rhetoric on this example if all of the facts known to me were known to them.
Still, there is no question that every individual instance of poor care or treatment is a tragedy. And, every one of them should be investigated. There should be accountability at the highest levels. And there should be consequences if VA is found to have been responsible for inappropriate treatment.
But I have to say that using anecdotes of horribly unfortunate situations, such as the Minneapolis tragedy to castigate an entire system of health care and the people who provide is not fair. It is simply not fair.
But then again politics sometimes has no fairness.
Over the past 2 weeks, more than one Member has come to the floor or spoken in the press about how the VA system is failing our wounded service men and women. Frankly perhaps we have failed them by not taking actions to make those wounded in service the priority that we say they are.
Instead, all I hear from Members on the other side is: we haven't given VA enough money. In fact, I hear we are preparing to throw $5 billion at the VA in the supplemental Appropriations bill.
I find that to be very interesting especially when I consider that this Senate just 3 weeks ago passed an FY 2007 Joint Funding Resolution written wholly by the new majority.
This is what some of my colleagues had to say about the money provided in that bill for VA's health care system. One Senator from the majority said: ``We have included an increase of $3.6 billion ..... so that the VA can continue to meet the growing demand for health care for our veterans.'
Another said: ``If we do not pass this resolution, which includes needed funding for the veterans health care system, we will have no one to blame but ourselves.'
And still another Senator from the majority had this to say arguing for passage of the FY 2007 Resolution: ``We need a VA budget for the current year that meets their needs.'
Yet now I hear that the VA is chronically under funded. The first chance the new majority had to provide all of the funding they believed was needed was 3 weeks ago. That's right, just 3 weeks ago. And apparently they neglected to do so.
Frankly, I think the budget for 2007 was an excellent budget. And I voted for it. So, I am not going to run away from that right now. And I certainly don't know if I can support throwing $5 billion at it because the media is watching. Instead, I have a different idea.
I don't want to wait for a commission to report to me on the findings of their review of the VA health care system. Those findings will be important, of course. I thank Senator DOLE and Secretary Shalala for their willingness to once again serve.
But, I say that we already have our own commission and our own investigators on the ground every single day. They are the veterans who use the VA health care system. And overwhelmingly they are proud of their health care system.
In fact, I am so confident that the vast majority of our veterans feel that way that I announce today that I will introduce legislation to give ANY service-connected disabled veteran the choice to go to any medical facility in the United States.
I understand that it may sound like I am agreeing with my Democratic colleagues and that I have lost faith in the VA health care system. Nothing could be further from the truth. Why? Because I believe the vast majority of our veterans will choose to stay right where they are--in the VA.
Our veterans know that VA is not a bunch of nameless, faceless bureaucrats who deserve to be vilified at the drop of a political hat. Instead our veterans see everyday the caring dedicated men and women who treat them as they should be treated--with respect and compassion.
Veterans overwhelmingly will continue to come to the VA because of its people. They are some of the most caring individuals in government. And they provide some of the highest quality of care in the country. So, I believe in empowering our veterans with this selection because I believe our veterans will select VA.
It's not just me who believes in VA. For the seventh year in a row VA's health care system outscored the private sector in the University of Michigan's Consumer Satisfaction Survey:
Ninety-one percent of VA's patients rated VA as having good customer service;
Eighty-four percent of VA's patients were satisfied with their inpatient care compared to the private sector average of just 73 percent; and
Eighty-two percent are satisfied with their outpatient care compared with just 71 percent on average in the private sector.
You might say: ``Well, then 10 or 16 percent were not satisfied and that's a disgrace.' I agree. We should strive for 100 percent satisfaction.
But what we should not do is force our most deserving citizens to stay in a system for their health care while we talk about how to study it or while we throw money at it and declare we've done something.
I want to be clear. I think the number of veterans who don't trust VA for their care is small. But I also think that if they've been injured while serving this Nation, then we should not force even a small number of them to keep coming to us if they don't trust us.
We have all of the objective studies, articles, and reviews that say we're good. Now let's find out what our veterans think. If they leave in droves, then we'll learn something. But if they stay, as I think they will, then we'll learn something too.
So I say to my colleagues if you don't believe that our doctors and nurses are providing the best care in the best facilities right now, then I invite you to join me in giving those with service-connected disabilities the option to pick up tomorrow and go to a facility they trust.
Don't just stand up and throw money at it. Stand in the well of the Senate and vote to empower our heroes by providing them with immediate relief.
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