Statement of Sen. Sanders on Funding to Treat Veterans Suffering from Traumatic Brain Injuries

Thank you all for coming. I want to welcome here with me Gary DeGasta, who is head of the Veterans Administration Medical Center in White River Junction, and Trevor Squirrell, Executive Director of the Brain Injury Association of VermontToday, we are here to discuss an issue of grave importance to both those in the military and those in the civilian world, namely, the tragedy of Traumatic Brain Injury and the need for the federal government to provide the funds necessary to develop new treatments for this category of injuries. Some 1.4 million Americans suffer from Traumatic Brain Injury or TBI every year, including 475,000 children under the age of 15. Of the 1.4 million number, 50,000 die annually and some 235,000 are hospitalized. Americans with TBI account for 2 percent of the total United States population and represent nearly 10 percent of our nation's disability population. Yet despite these staggering statistics, the lack of public awareness is so vast that TBI remains a silent epidemic plaguing our nation.Importantly, of the 23,000 plus troops who have been wounded in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, 2/3s have been diagnosed with TBI. In fact, some estimate that as many as 10 percent of the troops serving in Iraq and Afghanistan have suffered a TBI, with many going undiagnosed and untreated. Many now describe Traumatic Brain Injury as the signature injury of the Iraq War because of the large number of our troops who are suffering this type of injury during attacks with Improvised Explosive Devices or IEDs. I know that Gary DeGasta and the staff of the VA hospital in White River Junction understand the severity of this problem. As he will no doubt mention in a minute, the very dedicated staff there are involved in research to determine whether some of the many veterans of the Iraq War who have been diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (or PTSD) may in fact be suffering from undiagnosed TBI. And that's a very important diagnosis to make, because people with PTSD will be treated differently than people with a Traumatic Brain Disorder.Congress also understands the need to develop new treatments for TBI. In 1996, Congress began to take this issue seriously by passing the Traumatic Brain Injury Act. This legislation has provided vital resources to increase prevention, education, research, and community support for people living with brain injuries and for their families. And both the House and Senate committed $9 million for Traumatic Brain Injury in the recent funding bill for the remainder of this year. Even though the VA understands the importance of treating TBI and the Congress understands the importance of treating TBI, apparently President Bush and his Administration do not. This year President Bush proposes to zero out funding for Traumatic Brain Injury. If you can believe it, with thousands and thousands of U.S. service members returning home with TBI, this is the second year in a row that the President has proposed eliminating the Traumatic Brain Injury program. Further, as a member of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, I am happy to report that some real progress is being made in developing a budget for the VA which, in a very serious way, will begin to address all aspects of veterans' health care - including Traumatic Brain Injury. Just this past week, the majority on the Committee recommended the Budget Committee include billions more in next year's budget for veterans' benefits and health care than President had requested. Included in our proposal was an increase in funding to treat TBI in the amount of $303.4 million. As a member of the Senate Budget Committee I am pushing to make sure this additional funding for veterans in general, and TBI in particular, gets approved - both at the Budget Committee level and with the Appropriations Committee. As the signature injury of the Iraq War, we need to invest in the new treatments that all Americans suffering from TBI need so badly.