Legislation moving through Congress would provide record-levels of support for veterans. The Senate earlier this month approved the greatest increase in veterans' health care in history, an increase of $3.6 billion over the past year. The House has passed similar legislation. Senator Bernie Sanders was joined Monday at a press conference in his Burlington office by Ed Laviletta, national legislative officer for the Veterans of Foreign Wars in Vermont, Asiat Ali, representing the Disabled American Veterans, and Milt Willis of the American Legion.
"I have believed for a long time that the United States government must keep the promises that it made to its veterans. This is especially true today - given the 27,000 soldiers who have been wounded in Iraq and the many more coming home with PTSD and Traumatic Brain Injury. But it is equally true for the men and women who fought in the first Gulf War, who fought in Vietnam, who fought in Korea and who fought in WWII as well as our other conflicts. What we must understand, now and forever, is that taking care of veterans is a cost of war - and that it must be built into the financial equation of any war and any military budget," Sanders said.
"As a member of the Veterans Committee and the Budget Committee I am pleased that Congress is finally beginning to move us in that direction. It is finally beginning to keep faith with veterans. On September 6, the Senate approved the largest increase in veterans' benefits spending in the VA's 77-year history - an increase that amounts to $3.6 billion more than last year's level. The overall VA budget has gone from $79.5 billion in FY 2007 to $87.5 this year, an increase, incidentally, which is $3.6 billion higher than the president requested.
"The House has passed similar legislation seeking $87.6 billion. In the next few weeks these two very similar pieces of legislation will be reconciled in a conference committee. It is my hope that we get this legislation to the president as soon as possible.
"It is important to note that when Congress first proposed these huge increases for veterans' healthcare and benefits earlier this year, the president threatened to veto the legislation. Too much money for veterans I guess. After a few days of saying that, the president may have realized that we are in a war and we have hundreds of thousands of veterans that need help and he withdrew his veto threat.
"For the first time ever, the level of funding provided by Congress will match the levels proposed by the veteran organizations themselves in their Independent Budget.
"Let me take this opportunity to thank all of the veterans organizations, The VFW, the American Legion, the DAV, the Vietnam Veterans of America, the Paralyzed Veterans of America, AMVETS and many others for all the help they gave my office and the Veterans Affairs and Appropriations Committees in developing this legislation.
"Here is what this additional funding will mean as far as improvements for veterans' care:
"Just last week, we found out that the VA underreported the number of veterans that it had on its waiting lists last year by more than 53,000 people. The average wait time for a veteran's claim to be processed is 177 days, almost six months, and the department has a current backlog of almost 400,000 claims. At a time when veterans in Vermont and around the country too often have unacceptably long waiting times in order to get into a VA hospital or a clinic, this new funding will give the VA the resources it needs to decrease waiting times through more staff, improved training, and greater use if technology.
"The VA also will have the necessary resources to address the needs of returning veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan. Importantly, new investments are being made to treat Traumatic Brain Injury, which is the signature injury of this conflict, and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. We know from media reports that 125,000 to 150,000 U.S. troops may have suffered brain injuries in Iraq and Afghanistan. The number is far higher than what the official casualty figures of 26,000 tell us.
"In addition, the Defense Department's Task Force on Mental Health tells us in its study that it found 38 percent of Soldiers and 31 percent of Marines report psychological concerns such as traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder after returning from deployment. And among members of the National Guard, the figure is much higher - 49 percent - with numbers expected to grow because of repeated deployments.
"Another report from the Department of Veterans Affairs says that 52,375 veterans who fought in Iraq or Afghanistan, and are now home, have been treated or evaluated for PTSD by the department. Clearly there is a great need out there and it is only growing.
"The bill provides $28.979 billion for VA medical services, which is $1.8 billion above the requested amount and represents an increase of $3.46 billion over Fiscal Year 2007 funding. This will go to the important and urgent work of researching and treating TBI and PTSD, in addition to other counseling and mental health needs.
"Also very important is that this bill will provide an increase in funding to give the VA the approximately $1.2 billion in resources it says it needs to treat all veterans, including the 1.5 million Category 8 veterans that President Bush has barred from the VA.
"Once this bill becomes law later this month there will no longer be any excuse for continuing to deny Category 8 veterans the VA health care they have earned through their service.
"This brings up a larger point that I want to touch on for a moment. We must make sure that as we provide top-notch care to our veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan we do not undermine the care and service our current veterans receive. The VA needs to set the goal and request the funds to meet the goal that every veteran, no matter what war or age, has comprehensive top-notch care with no waiting lines. We can not have a rob-Peter-to-pay-Paul situation where the care for one group of veterans forces the care of others to go down. All our veterans deserve the best care our country can provide. That is my goal and the funding for the VA coming out of Congress can help make that happen.
"In addition to providing the funding needed to eliminate the ban on Category 8's, this legislation rejects each of the Bush administration's proposals to increase fees on some veterans such as increasing the prescription drug co-payments from $8 to $15 and imposing an annual enrollment fee of $250-$750. These proposals, which would have driven many veterans out of the VA, are thankfully dead for another year.
"The spending bill also put over $85 million additional into medical and prosthetic research at the VA, including $15 million for continuing work on Gulf War Illness. The total $500 million for medical and prosthetic research is $85 million fiscal year 2007 enacted level and $89 million above the president's request.
"Finally, I added an amendment to this spending bill on the floor of the Senate - which was adopted unanimously by voice vote - to rectify another insult to our veterans. Many people may not know this but every year when the government adjusts disabled veterans compensation by whatever the cost of living allowance is, the government then rounds that amount to the next lowest dollar. So, for example, if a disabled veteran is entitled to $200.99, the veteran only receives this $200. This so-called ‘rounding down' was originally imposed as a short-term budget saver and now amounts to a $20 million-a-year reduction in disability compensation and other veterans benefits such as the clothing allowance that some veterans receive because their clothes wear out more quickly because of the use of a wheel-chair or prosthetic device.
"What an insult to those veterans who have sacrificed more than anyone could. Well, with the support of the American Legions, the Veterans of Foreign Wars, the Disabled American Veterans, the Paralyzed Veterans of America and AMVETS, I brought an amendment to the floor of the Senate that would eliminate this rounding down, that would say loud and clear that it is wrong to try to balance the budget on the backs of our disabled veterans, especially at a time when the Bush administration has given hundreds of billions of tax breaks to the wealthiest people in this country. The Senate has accepted this amendment and I am going to push to make sure that it becomes law.
"Let me conclude by saying the good news is that the Congress is making great strides in the effort to keep faith with our veterans. As a member of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, I am happy to be in the middle of that fight and to be working with our nation's veterans and with veterans here in Vermont to keep the ball moving forward.
"All across the country there are veterans and their families who, as a result of their service to the nation, are experiencing health problems or financial problems. As a nation, we owe it to them to provide them the health care and benefits they have earned, and we owe it to them to not let them be nickeled and dimed to pay for tax breaks for those who don't need them."