WOUNDED WARRIOR ASSISTANCE ACT OF 2007
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Mr. FILNER. Mr. Chairman, as the chairman of the Veterans Affairs Committee, I rise in strong support of the Wounded Warrior Assistance Act; and I yield to myself what time I might consume.
I want to thank Congressman Skelton and Congressman HUNTER. This is a great bill. As a Nation and as a Congress, we were faced with a test, a real challenge, whether we can respond to the conditions of our Nation and of our veterans and our active duty troops. The revelations of what happened at Walter Reed presented us that challenge, gave us that test, and I say with confidence that this Congress is meeting that test.
This is step two in meeting that test. Step one was to make sure we had sufficient resources in the budget of this Nation to meet the needs not only of our existing veterans who have more and more need, whether they are from World War II or Vietnam or the first Persian Gulf war or the great influx of veterans that we are going to have from Iraq and Afghanistan. We already have over 700,000 returning troops who are now veterans, and we are going to get hundreds of thousands more.
In the so-called continuing resolution that was passed by this Congress a few weeks ago, the Veterans Administration was the only agency that got a significant increase from last year's budget; and this Congress added $3.6 billion to veterans in that one continuing resolution.
The supplemental for war that passed this House last week, led by Speaker Pelosi, Chairman Skelton, Chairman Obey, and Chairman Edwards, we said that the supplemental for war has to also have a supplemental for the warrior--for the health care of our returning veterans. Both in the Defense Department and the VA, we put in almost $3.5 billion; and in the budget resolution that we will be considering today and voting on tomorrow, the Democrats have put in $6.6 billion above the 2007 levels. That, in 90 days, is over $13.5 billion added to last year's budget for the care of our veterans.
George Washington said it very clearly, that the morale of our active duty troops is dependent on the sense of how they are going to be treated when they come home.
The first step of infusion of money, the second step of the Wounded Warrior Assistance bill, says that we are going to meet the challenge, that we understand that the costs of caring for our veterans is part of the cost of war, and that no matter what we think about the war in Iraq, we are united in this Congress and in this Nation that every returning young man and woman gets all the care and love and respect and honor that this Nation can deliver. That is what this bill says, that we are all committed to making sure that the care of these veterans is first in our consciousness.
Both the Defense health care system and the VA system is stretched to its limits. We have underfunded it over the years. We are asking from very dedicated professionals in the VA system to do more and more with less and less resources.
The strain is evident wherever you look. The strain is evident at Walter Reed. The strain is evident when a young Marine shows up at a VA hospital in Minnesota and says, I think I have PTSD and I am having thoughts of suicide, and he was told that you are 28th on the waiting list, come back in a few weeks or a few months, and he went home and he committed suicide. The strain on our system is shown by events like that, and we are committed to making sure that they do not continue.
So we have to live up to our responsibilities, both for the returning Iraqi and Afghanistan veterans and to those who have served our Nation going back to World War II.
In many instances, the problems are exacerbated because of jurisdictional and procedure roadblocks between the Defense and the Veterans Administration. So we have to remove those roadblocks; and, as chairman of the Veterans Affairs Committee, I have worked closely with other members of our committee who will speak today, with Chairman Skelton and Ranking Member Hunter of the Committee on Armed Services, to make sure we are working off the same page.
This legislation takes important steps in making the servicemember's transition from the Department of Defense to the VA a seamless transition. We have been using that word for a long time, but we still have great cracks in that system. It is not seamless, but this bill would mandate the Department of Defense to provide disabled servicemembers who are being separated or returned from the Armed Forces with a written transition plan, a road map pointing the way to programs and benefits offered to them as veterans.
It would institute a formal process for transmitting reports and other information to the Veterans Administration from the active duty situation.
It would require both the Department of Defense and the Veterans Administration to establish a joint separation and evaluation physical.
Physicals now are done by two different agencies and with two different standards and with two different bureaucracies. It is sometimes a hellish situation for returning active duty troops. We have to have a fully interoperable medical information system so that two agencies can speak to one another, so that the veteran coming home will have on his record in the VA all the things that occurred to him when he was on active duty in the military.
If we are going to make the handoff in the continuum of care successful, if we are going to make sure there is a seamless transition, if we want to make sure that we don't fumble information that puts at risk the returning servicemembers, we have to take these steps. These steps have are not newly invented. They were first expressed in earlier reports, the President's Task Force, for example, to Improve Health care for our Nation's Veterans, talked about this transition. I hope we are providing both departments with the resources and the tools they need to get that transition right.
Mr. Chairman, our concern is for the health of our fighting men and women when they come home that they get that health care taken care of, both in the Defense Department hospitals and in the VA system. Let's work seamlessly. I urge support for H.R. 1538.
Mr. Chairman, I reserve the balance of my time.
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Mr. FILNER. Mr. Skelton and Mr. Hunter, your committee, working with the Veterans Committee, has produced an outstanding piece of legislation; and I hope that that cooperation, I know that cooperation will continue, because we have other things to do.
The gentleman from Kansas expressed what is on the minds of many of our colleagues, and that is to make sure that our rural veterans are served, also. We will do that; and I know my ranking member, Mr. Buyer, joins me in that commitment.
As I said earlier, Mr. Chairman, we have a test as a Nation. Are we going to make sure that every returning young man and woman from Iraq and Afghanistan has the best facilities, the best health care, the best treatment, the best love, the best commitment that we, as a Nation, can offer? And are we going to make sure that their predecessors, from World War II to the present, are also given that same care and commitment?
There are 200,000 homeless vets on the street tonight, mainly from the Vietnam era. We cannot allow that to continue.
We have a 600,000 claim backlog for disability payments. We cannot allow that to continue.
We have facilities that need to be repaired and rebuilt. We have needs for Agent Orange veterans and atomic veterans. We, as a Nation, must take up this challenge and must meet it.
We had significant new resources provided in the budget matters that have come before us in the last 60 days. This Wounded Warrior Assistance Act is the next step as we try to make sure that those who faced danger and life-threatening situations in Iraq do not have to face a bureaucracy which threatens to kill them off. This is a step to change that. We are going to have a seamless transition, and I thank the Chair for his commitment.
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