CONGRESSIONAL BUDGET FOR THE UNITED STATES GOVERNMENT FOR FISCAL YEAR 2008 -- (Senate - March 22, 2007)
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Mr. CRAIG. Mr. President, I have sought recognition to comment on veterans funding in this budget resolution. The Democrats have put forward a resolution that proposes to increase veterans discretionary spending by 18 percent--this is on top of a 12 percent increase that was included in last month's joint funding resolution. I have also heard that billions more will be proposed for veterans in the war supplemental.
Spending proposals of this magnitude in any area of Government should rightfully raise a few eyebrows and be met with a healthy level of scrutiny. Veterans programs are no exception. Taxpayers will continue to support higher veterans expenditures only to the extent we can assure them that those expenditures are absolutely necessary, will not be wastefully spent, and will meet our highest priorities. The Budget Committee chairman stated as much in his opening remarks on Tuesday.
Let me be clear. I am absolutely committed to providing the highest quality of care to our veterans. I have supported a 70 percent increase in VA medical care since President Bush took office. I have spoken frequently about not sparing any expense when it comes to getting the highest quality of care to our Iraq and Afghanistan veterans and veterans with disabilities. I have even introduced legislation that allows all veterans with service-connected disabilities to seek care outside of the VA system if that is what they prefer.
But what I see in this resolution is an effort to use the legitimate needs of our war wounded as a pretext to support funding increases that are beyond reason and that actually may harm the care provided to the veterans who are our No. 1 priority.
Let me point out a couple of areas where I think this budget fails our highest priority veterans and taxpayers.
The Democrats' budget proposes an extra $1.1 billion to allow new ``Priority 8'' veterans to enroll for VA health care. Now who are these Priority 8 veterans? Priority 8 veterans are veterans with no service-connected disabilities and higher incomes. They were granted comprehensive access to VA health care back in 1996 at a time when we thought their care could be provided on a budget-neutral basis. We were wrong. Priority 8 veterans then enrolled in such large numbers that quality and timely health care to VA's service-disabled and indigent patients began to be compromised.
In January 2003, Secretary Principi used authority granted to him by Congress to suspend new enrollment of Priority 8 veterans. His rationale was simple:
VA is maintaining its focus on the health care needs of its core group of veterans--those with service-connected disabilities, the indigent and those with special health care needs.
Taking the action he did on the eve of the war in Iraq was the right thing to do. He rightly instituted a policy that focused our limited resources on those for whom VA was established--our war injured and veterans who need VA the most.
All I have been hearing from the Democrats for the last 2 years is how we must not make our OIF/OEF veterans wait in lines for mental health care, TBI treatment, or other specialty care. I agree! That is why their proposal puzzles me. At a time of war, when we're trying to get quicker access to VA care for our OIF/OEF and service-disabled veterans, how does allowing an increase in the patient load help matters? Where is the sense of priority here? It is like we are trying to keep a ship afloat by pouring tons of water onto the deck. It doesn't make sense.
For those who think that simply providing more money permits VA to automatically increase its capacity to see new patients, think again. It takes time to hire quality medical personnel. It takes time to find space to accommodate additional medical appointments and patients. Since 2003 VA has been able to improve the amount of time it takes to schedule primary and specialty care appointments so that more than 94 percent of such appointments are scheduled within 30 days of the veteran's desired date. Why would we risk longer waiting times for our OIF/OEF veterans and service-disabled veterans?
Furthermore, is this new spending fiscally prudent at a time when VA budgets have been growing at double-digit rates? There are 24 million veterans in the United States; only 5.3 million use VA health care now. Have the longterm cost implications of opening the system to all veterans been considered in this budget? Have we contemplated the multibillion dollar unfunded liability we are creating here if millions more Priority 8 veterans show up for free care?
Let me move on to another area that concerns me.
The chairman of the Budget Committee made it a point to show how his budget meets or exceeds the recommendations of the independent budget. That is all well and good, but when the IB is used to set budget policy for the Congress, then a fair evaluation of the budget numbers is in order. Let's look at one account in particular--general operating expenses. The Budget Committee chairman quite proudly stated that his budget meets the IB recommendation of $2.23 billion for this account.
The largest portion of this account funds the administration of VA's benefits programs, to include its backlogged claims processing system. The administration has submitted a proposal that would provide VBA with the highest number of
claims processors in its history. In fact, the President's budget will result in what will have been a 61 percent increase in claims processing staff since 1997. While I support the President's budget, it is time we tried a new approach to fixing the backlog of disability claims. Simply providing more and more money to fix the problem does not solve the problem.
What do we have with the Democrats' budget? On top of the President's record increase, the IB recommends an extra $700 million: roughly $100 million for new information technology spending, and $600 million for additional staff. According to unofficial VA estimates, 600 million would buy over 10,000 VBA employees, almost double the size of the existing bureaucracy? VA cannot accommodate a staffing influx of this size in 1 year. It would have to lease hundreds of thousands of square feet and additional facilities all over the country. More money would be needed for communication services, utilities, personal computers and IT support staff.
Is this rational? Have the long-term costs been factored in? Was VA's ability to provide space for these employees factored in? Does the incoming workload command a bureaucracy of that enormous size? As ranking member of the Veterans' Affairs Committee, I have not seen any data to substantiate a request of that magnitude. I have even asked the authors of the IB to justify the number, but have yet to receive a response.
We are not talking about chump change here. If an error was made by the IB, and I suspect one was, then we should fix it before it is perpetuated.
Let me conclude with this final observation. VA has been criticized in recent years for its very public budget gaffes. The General Accountability Office rightly condemned VA for ``errors in estimation'' and ``inaccurate assumptions'' that led to the VA funding shortfall of 2005. I would caution my colleagues that we, in this budget resolution, may be repeating those same mistakes by providing money that VA could not prudently spend. It may be politically expedient to reflexively throw more money at problems. But let's also not forget about our obligations to the American taxpayer.