U.S. Senator Tom Udall announced today that the Senate Appropriations Committee has approved funding for essential military construction projects for New Mexico's Air Force bases (AFB) and provisions to improve veteran care.
"Our nation's military readiness relies on the quality of our people, their equipment, and our facilities. This legislation makes important investments in the future of New Mexico's military bases supporting the people and communities who work there," said Udall, a member of the Senate Military Construction and Veterans Affairs Appropriations Subcommittee. "Our veterans made great sacrifices for this nation, and they rely on the quality of the care we provide. This bill provides adequate resources for our VA system and most significantly includes a detailed plan and major funding increases to address the severe backlog in claims processing affecting veterans in New Mexico and around the nation."
As a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Udall voted late last week in favor of $10.7 billion in military construction expenditures including $148.25 million for construction projects at Cannon AFB, Kirtland AFB and Holloman AFB. The bill also includes a 10-Point Action Plan to address the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) claims processing backlog. The plan includes $20 million above President Obama's request to improve the Veterans Benefits Management Program (VBMS) that processes paperless claims and directs the VA to increase training for claims processors and create Centers of Excellence to field complex claims such as post traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury.
Udall successfully included language in the appropriations bill to improve care for veterans across the nation and New Mexico. Notably, the committee urged the VA to detail its implementation efforts for the Open-Air Burn Pits Registry, improve and present a plan for increasing outreach to veterans and their families affected by open-air Burn Pits and an explanation of how the VA plans to inform VA physicians about the findings of the registry to improve care for our veterans. The report requires the VA to present its plan within 60 days.
Last Congress, Udall worked with Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) to successfully establish a registry of service members and veterans who were sickened due to possible exposure to toxic chemicals and fumes from open-air burn pits in Afghanistan and Iraq. The Dignified Burial and Veterans Benefits Improvement Act of 2012 requires the VA to establish the Open Burn Pits Registry by January 2014, but the VA has not outlined a concrete plan for implementation. Udall has expressed his concerns to the VA and met with Secretary Shinseki to help speed up implementation and better inform veterans of the process.
In order to better understand the needs of rural VA Community-Based Outpatient Clinics, Senator Udall also included language which would require the VA to conduct a full assessment of all VA CBOCs in rural and highly rural areas. In a constrained budget environment, it will be helpful for the committee and VA to better understand and identify priorities for possible expansions, and improvements at VA CBOCs in order to better serve rural veterans.
Udall, along with Senator Reed (D-R.I.) also included language in the bill that urges the VA to work with state, local and tribal governments and libraries to find ways to assist claims submissions from rural veterans who lack broadband internet.
U.S. Senator Martin Heinrich praised the bill. "Continued investments in our military communities, installations, and facilities ensure our state remains a key player in maintaining our national security," Heinrich said. "These provisions also help us meet the needs of our returning service members, such as guaranteeing they receive the care and benefits they have earned in a timely and efficient manner. Our veterans have defended our country with valor and unparalleled distinction, and they deserve the best care our country has to offer."
The Military Construction and Veterans Affairs FY 2014 Appropriations bill funds $158.8 billion for the construction of facilities critical to our nation's military and quality of life for U.S. military personnel and their families. It also provides for veterans medical care and benefits and for VA facilities throughout the country.
The bill includes the following funding for New Mexico:
$34.1 million to Cannon AFB for an airmen and family readiness center, dormitory and satellite dining facility
$2.25 million to Holloman AFB for F-16 aircraft covered washrack and pad
$30.5 million to Kirtland AFB for a nuclear systems wing and sustainment center
$21.4 million to the Defense Logistics Agency at Holloman AFB to replace the hydrant fuel system
$60 million to the Tri-Care Management Activity at Holloman AFB to replace the medical clinic