Time to focus on the needs of our veterans
Tomorrow we will recognize an important milestone. It’s been one year since the revelation of substandard facilities and excessive bureaucratic red tape faced by recovering soldiers and their families at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.
Reports of squalor, rodent infestations, disengaged and underqualified hospital staff, an inflexible bureaucracy and a support system sagging severely under the pressure of providing treatment for so many injured service members shocked all of us.
Our soldiers, who put their lives on the line for our country and returned injured, deserve better. So do our veterans, who long after their years of military service have been completed, can still face the physical and mental wounds of combat.
We can never fully repay our debt of gratitude to these heroes, but we all have a moral obligation to support them with our words, and more importantly, our deeds.
For those of us in Congress, it is vital that we offer support not just with our speeches, but with our budgets. After years of VA budgets that barely kept up with inflation, this new Congress has kept its promise to honor veterans with historic spending increases.
In 2007, the new Congress increased health care and benefits funding for veterans by $11.8 billion, which was $5.5 billion more than requested by the president. This is the largest funding increase in the 77-year history of the Veterans Administration and a larger increase than the combined total of the six previous years in Congress.
Our veterans have earned every dime of this funding.
For 5.8 million veterans in the VA health care system, it will mean better care, more doctors and shorter wait times for medical appointments.
For the 400,000 veterans backlogged in the VA claims processing system, it will mean 3,100 new claims processors to reduce the unconscionable six-month delay for those waiting to receive their earned benefits.
For Iraq and Afghan war veterans, it will mean screenings for post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury as they enter the VA system. It also means increased support and care coordination in making the transition from active duty to veteran status.
For the most severely wounded vets, it will mean modernized polytrauma centers.
For veterans from all wars with mental health issues, it will mean a minimum of $2.9 billion dedicated to better mental health care services, a $700 million increase over last year.
For veterans in rural areas far from VA hospitals, it will mean more VA clinics closer to home. And for the first time since 1979, when gasoline prices were 95 cents per gallon, it will mean a more than doubling in the travel reimbursement from 11 cents to 28.5 cents per mile.
For thousands of homeless veterans, increasing the homeless program by $23 million will mean the dignity of a roof over their heads and hope for the future.
For all Americans who never want to see a single veteran living in the squalid conditions Army soldiers were subjected to at Walter Reed last year, it will mean nearly $1.5 billion in new funding to do preventive construction and maintenance at our VA hospitals and clinics.
Our service members and veterans have done so much in the service of our country. We owe them the best possible care and all the benefits they have earned through their service.
I am proud that in just the past year, this new Congress has come a long way in keeping the promise to our veterans, but we should do more. In the weeks, months and years ahead, let us all work together to thank our veterans with our words and our deeds. They deserve no less.