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Op-Ed - Spratt: Keeping Our Promises


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For many of our troops coming home, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will not be over because of the injuries they bring with them.

Three years ago, the agency charged with caring for America's veterans was strained to the breaking point. America was fighting two wars, and the Department of Veterans Affairs was unprepared for the surge in demand for health care. The Bush administration responded by proposing higher user fees and co-pays, and by underfunding research into care for veterans suffering from injuries such as post-traumatic stress syndrome, which we do not know enough about.

The House Budget Committee, which I chair, helped chart a new course by supporting each year a substantial increase in VA medical care funding. Going a step further, Congress secured "advance appropriations" for veterans' health care. This means, for the first time, Congress wrote and approved two budgets: the first for fiscal year 2010 and the second for fiscal year 2011. As a result, veterans' health care is no longer subject to legislative delay, and our VA hospitals can rely on a steady source of funding.

Although vitally important, resources alone will not ensure that the promises made to our armed forces are kept. I joined my colleagues in identifying other needs of veterans. In four years, we have created:

1. Access. Our No. 1 priority is greater access to VA health care for veterans who need it. In one of our defense bills, we provided an additional three years of VA health care eligibility for troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan -- for a total of five years. That same bill incorporated the Wounded Warrior Act provisions to improve treatments for Iraq and Afghanistan veterans suffering from traumatic brain injury.

2. The post-9/11 G.I. Bill, which covers the cost of an education at a public university and includes a housing and book allowance. The law recognizes the sacrifice of Reserve and National Guard service and for the first time allows service members and veterans to transfer their unused education benefits to spouses and children. Since August 2009, the VA has issued benefits to more than 275,000 individuals, delivering $2.1 billion in education benefits to 275,000 veteran students and paying $1.6 billion to schools.

3. A strong VA home loan program. Veterans from World War II had access to a valuable home loan program that over time became obsolete. In the last Congress, we increased the home loan limit to match current home prices and eliminated the equity requirement for veterans opting to refinance into a VA loan. We also protected our returning service troops by barring foreclosure for nine months after combat duty.

4. Greater access for rural veterans. Congress provided an additional $30 million to increase the number of community-based outpatient clinics for the 3.2 million veterans living in rural areas who do not have ready access to VA hospitals. The Caregiver Act establishes a grant program to increase transportation options for veterans in highly rural areas. It provides training and education to family care-givers and reimbursement for medical travel, plus health-care benefits and a monthly stipend.

5. Better care for female veterans. Within 10 years, 10 percent of the patients receiving VA health care will be women. The Caregiver Act expands VA services for the 1.8 million women receiving VA health care. It goes a step further by anticipating the expected increase of female service members over the next five years. The VA has a long way to go, but this law recognizes the need and is an important step forward.

We have made progress, and I am proud to have played a part, because of all the promises the government should keep, none is more important than those we make to the men and women who serve in our armed forces.

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