U.S. TROOP READINESS, VETERANS' HEALTH, AND IRAQ ACCOUNTABILITY ACT, 2007--Continued -- (Senate - March 27, 2007)
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Mr. BIDEN. Mr. President, once again we are debating additional wartime funding for Iraq. Once again, we are trying to mitigate the damage caused by the President's utterly failed Iraq policy and the failure to properly plan for and manage the aftermath of Saddam Hussein's fall. I have spoken many times about how damaging this lack of planning has been to our efforts in Iraq and to our standing in the world.
For the past 2 months, the spotlight has shone on another administration failure in this war: the shameful conditions our wounded soldiers face as outpatients navigating the military health system when they return from Iraq or Afghanistan. This is another example of gross mismanagement and a strained system. As such, I will offer amendment No. 766 to improve the care that members of the Armed Forces and veterans receive at Walter Reed and other military medical facilities.
The purpose of this amendment is to ensure that some of the reasons for concern at Walter Reed do not occur in the future. As the living conditions for outpatients at Walter Reed Army Medical Center indicate, moving to private contracts for maintenance can cause problems. After a private contract was awarded for maintenance and upkeep of buildings on the campus of Walter Reed Army Medical Center, a maintenance crew of approximately 300 was whittled down to 50 by the time the contract went into effect. Many of the terrible living conditions found in Building 18 were a direct result of delays in building repair and maintenance because of a shortage in manpower. To prevent this situation from occurring again, this amendment calls for public-private competitions of maintenance services at military medical complexes to stop while our country is engaged in military conflicts. It also calls for a Government Accountability Office review of contracting-out decisions for basic maintenance work at military facilities.
Other problems discovered at Walter Reed are directly attributable to shortages resulting from pressures to cut budgets for military medical services. These cuts cannot be tolerated at a time when military medical services are needed to treat servicemembers who have been wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan. As such, this amendment would require medical command budgets to be equal to or exceed the prior year amount while the Nation is involved in a major military conflict or war.
Another issue that the conditions at Walter Reed brought up is whether or not the facility should be closed as the Base Realignment and Closure Commission recommended. The Commission recommended building new, modern facilities at the National Naval Medical Center at Bethesda and at Fort Belvoir to improve the overall quality of care and access to care in this region. Military leaders have indicated that the planned closure has limited their ability to attract needed professionals to jobs at Walter Reed and there have been concerns raised whether adequate housing for the families of the wounded has been properly planned. To deal with that, this amendment requires the Department of Defense to submit to Congress within one year a detailed plan that includes an evaluation of the following: the desirability of being able to guarantee professional jobs for 2 years or more following the closure; detailed construction plans for the new facilities and for new family housing; and the costs and benefits of building all of the needed medical treatment, rehabilitation, and housing before a single unit is moved.
Another major problem and source of frustration for injured soldiers is the length of time it takes to receive a disability determination. In order to hasten the disability determination process, we need to ensure that the Department of Defense has information systems capable of communicating with those in the Department of Veterans Affairs. The VA has been a leader in implementing electronic medical record keeping, but we have to improve the capability of the Department of Defense to send electronic medical records to the VA to speed up the disability determination process. Making the disability determination system more efficient can reduce the stress on the soldiers and their families going through the determination process.
Caseworkers are also critical. They schedule appointments and make sure wounded servicemembers get the rehabilitative and follow-up care they need. As more and more soldiers and marines come home wounded, many military caseworkers are overwhelmed. To improve the care given to servicemembers, this amendment requires a minimum ratio of case managers to patients of 1 to 20, that case managers have contact with recovering servicemembers at least once a week, and that case managers be properly trained on the military's disability and discharge systems so they can better assist patients with their paperwork.
Currently, many combat veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan have service-related mental health issues like posttraumatic stress disorder, PTSD, and traumatic brain injury, TBI. Many have labeled TBI the ``signature injury'' of the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts. It is estimated that as many as 10 percent of those serving or who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan have brain injuries. That would mean about 150,000 of the 1.5 million soldiers who have served in Operation Enduring Freedom or Operation Iraqi Freedom have suffered a brain injury. In many cases, these injuries are not diagnosed because there is not an external wound. Depending on the severity of these injuries, returning soldiers can require immediate treatment or not have symptoms show up until several years later. This amendment calls for every returning soldier to be screened for TBI. While the VA has announced plans to do this, it needs to happen in active-duty military medical facilities too. In addition, the amendment calls for a study on the advisability of treating TBI as a presumptive condition in every service's disability evaluation system, as well as the VA disability evaluation system.
We often hear about the 25,000 soldiers and marines who have been wounded in these wars--but that figure grossly underestimates the demand that the VA health care system faces. Since our country was attacked on September 11, 2001, more than 1.5 million soldiers have been deployed to Afghanistan, Iraq, and other locations. Of these, 630,000 are now veterans and, according to the Department of Defense, more than 205,000 have already received medical treatment through the Department of Veterans Affairs. A recent Harvard study on the long-term costs of treating these new veterans estimates that by 2012 more than 643,000 veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan will be using the VA system, an almost three-fold increase of what the system faces now. With a significant backlog of claims currently existing, the system is in desperate need of an upgrade. To address this concern, my amendment directs the Secretary of Veterans Affairs to submit to Congress a plan for the long-term care needs for veterans for the next 50 years.
In addition to this amendment that I offer today, I am happy to have also joined with my colleagues Senators OBAMA and MCCASKILL and offered an amendment based on the Dignity for Wounded Warriors Act. My amendment complements the Obama and McCaskill amendment to improve the care our wounded soldiers receive at Walter Reed Army Medical Center and other military medical facilities. I believe both amendments will make medical care better for our military personnel and veterans. I also commend the Appropriations Committee for already providing approximately $3.1 billion in funding above the President's request for health programs in the Department of Defense and the Department of Veterans Affairs. Providing $1.3 billion for defense health programs and $1.767 billion for veterans' health programs is a great step to fix some of the problems we currently face.
It is our highest obligation to heal the hundreds of thousands of brave men and women who will bear the physical and emotional scars of these wars for the rest of their lives. While President Bush and his administration may have failed to plan adequately to ensure that these soldiers and veterans receive the care that they deserve, we in Congress must act now to improve this situation.