Thursday, March 08, 2007
Budget Cuts for Veterans and Who's Fighting For Vets
Statement of Representative Lane Evans
Ranking Democratic Member
House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs
Hearing on the VA’s Budget Submission for FY 2007
February 8, 2006
As we meet here today I know that I express the sentiments of many on this Committee that we will do all that we possibly can to make sure that the funding shortfalls the VA has experienced over the last two years are not seen once again in FY 2007.
Yesterday, I stated that I was baffled by the Administration’s claim that this budget was a “landmark” budget for veterans. I am still baffled today. Although I appreciate that the Administration has submitted a budget this year that actually requests an increase in appropriated dollars, a review of this budget indicates that a significant increase in discretionary funds is due to accounting gimmicks and requiring veterans to pay more for their health care – an approach which has been rejected out of hand time and time again.
Although the President’s requested increase looks good at first glance, it does not deliver the resources needed to provide veterans with the health care and benefits they have earned. In fact, upon closer study, the “increase” turns out to be largely illusory.
Once again, this Administration has submitted legislative proposals to the tune of $796 million that would have the effect of driving veterans out of the VA health care system. This $796 million is used to offset appropriations for Medical Services. In addition, the Administration counts $544 million of the $796 million twice – once to offset the appropriation and once again in its claims for total collections. Taken together, this represents more than $1.3 billion this Administration has not asked for in real dollars.
Once again, the Administration claims “management efficiencies” in order to reduce its request for appropriations. In fact, it claims $884 million in efficiencies carried over from FY 2006, and an additional $197 million in new efficiencies for a total of $1.1 billion. What troubles me is that just last week the GAO issued a report that concluded that the “VA lacked a methodology for making the health care management efficiency savings assumptions reflected in the President’s budget requests for fiscal years 2003 through 2006 and, therefore, was unable to provide [GAO] with any support for those estimates.” So there is no actual proof this $884 million exists, but it is in the budget this year, and is used to offset increased appropriations.
Once again, the Administration appears to have underestimated the continuing costs of war as they relate to our servicemembers returning from active duty. The VA estimates that it will see fewer OIF/OEF veterans than last year, and the VA’s prosthetics account seems to me not to include sufficient resources to meet the ever-increasing costs of prosthetic devices.
Once again, the Administration estimates a decline in the number of unique patients, from the current estimate of 5.4 million to 5.3 million. Last July, the Administration conceded that it had underestimated the number of patients and requested an additional $677 million. I hope we are not going to have to seek an additional $700 million because of this lower estimate. But if we do, I hope the Administration will be more timely and forthcoming with its request than it was last year.
Once again, the Administration relies on a change in “unobligated balances,” totaling $442 million, to offset its appropriation request. This was a strategy employed in last year’s budget, a strategy that proved to be shortsighted and unrealistic.
Once again, the Administration proposes continuing its ban on enrollment of new Priority 8 veterans, a ban instituted in January 2003. I know I speak for many of my colleagues when I voice my strong opposition to this ban.
Once again, like last year, we are beginning to hear reports from the field that some VA regional health care networks and the medical facilities they oversee could be facing budget shortfalls in the current fiscal year and again will be forced to delay equipment purchases and hiring of hospital staff to close the gap. I seek VA’s assurance that if this is indeed happening, VA will immediately seek supplemental funding in order to fix the problem.
Across the gamut of VA health care I see actual cuts in such areas as VA medical and prosthetic research, or slight increases that I believe are not sufficient to meet our obligations. We need to meet the needs of our returning servicemembers, reduce waiting lists and the time it takes to receive earned benefits, address in a vigorous manner the mental health care needs of our veterans and do what is necessary to end homelessness. I want to be assured that the FY 2007 VA budget will contain real dollars to meet real needs.
In fact, if we have learned anything on this Committee over the last year, it is to treat VA’s budget estimates warily. I certainly hope my colleagues approach this request with the skepticism which to me seems warranted. Let us work together to make sure that we meet our responsibilities to our veterans, and that, as a Committee, we do the needed work to ensure that the dollars are there to care for our veterans.
Honoring the bravery of our veterans means providing the benefits and services our nation promised to these true American heroes. As the daughter of a World War II veteran, the wife of a veteran and a U.S. Representative, I am personally committed to ensuring that Congress meets its obligation to those who served our nation in uniform.
President Bush and Republican leaders in Congress have failed to deliver the full funding needed for America's veterans. I fully support increased investments in new VA facilities, medical research, meaningful burial benefits and other programs to benefit veterans.
I am also continuing the fight to end the Disabled Veterans Tax so that all military retirees with service-connected disabilities will be able to receive full retirement compensation from the VA, rather than the current system where our vets actually lose a portion of their pay. Congress has begun to mend this broken system, but half of all disabled military retirees are still being unfairly penalized.
And I am proud to have voted to protect the spouses of our veterans who will no longer be penalized by what has been called the “Widows’ Tax.” Those who served in the military expect that their survivors will receive the retirement benefits that they were promised in exchange for the service of a loved one to our nation. Congress has finally begun to address the practice of penalizing survivors once they reach age 62, when benefits were slashed to 35% of the military retiree's benefit. Those survivors whose benefits had been reduced have received an increase in their April 2006 checks. The benefit will increase each April until 2008 when the payment will be restored to the 55% paid to survivors under age 62. Ending this outdated and unfair practice will help the families of our veterans and send a message to active duty military personnel that America keeps its promises to our military.
I believe we should honor the commitments we have made to those who fought for our country, and I will continue to work in Congress to improve care and benefits for our veterans in southern Nevada and across the nation.
Check these links to see a few of the issues I've been working on for veterans:
SCROLL DOWN FOR NUMEROUS ISSUES SHE HAS BEEN WORKING ON!!
By Andrew Taylor / Associated Press
WASHINGTON - The Bush administration plans to cut funding for veterans' health care two years from now — even as badly wounded troops returning from Iraq could overwhelm the system.
Bush is using the cuts, critics say, to help fulfill his pledge to balance the budget by 2012.
After an increase sought for next year, the Bush budget would turn current trends on their head. Even though the cost of providing medical care to veterans has been growing rapidly — by more than 10 percent in many years — White House budget documents assume consecutive cutbacks in 2009 and 2010 and a freeze thereafter.
The proposed cuts are unrealistic in light of recent VA budget trends — its medical care budget has risen every year for two decades and 83 percent in the six years since Bush took office — sowing suspicion that the White House is simply making them up to make its long-term deficit figures look better.
"Either the administration is willingly proposing massive cuts in VA health care," said Rep. Chet Edwards of Texas, chairman of the panel overseeing the VA's budget. "Or its promise of a balanced budget by 2012 is based on completely unrealistic assumptions."
Edwards said that a more realistic estimate of veterans costs is $16 billion higher than the Bush estimate for 2012.
In fact, even the White House doesn't seem serious about the numbers. It says the long-term budget numbers don't represent actual administration policies. Similar cuts assumed in earlier budgets have been reversed.
The veterans cuts, said White House budget office spokesman Sean Kevelighan, "don't reflect any policy decisions. We'll revisit them when we do the (future) budgets."
The number of veterans coming into the VA health care system has been rising by about 5 percent a year as the number of people returning from Iraq with illnesses or injuries keep rising. Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans represent almost 5 percent of the VA's patient caseload, and many are returning from battle with grievous injuries requiring costly care, such as traumatic brain injuries.
All told, the VA expects to treat about 5.8 million patients next year, including 263,000 veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan.
The White House budget office, however, assumes that the veterans' medical services budget — up 83 percent since Bush took office and winning a big increase in Bush's proposed 2008 budget — can absorb a 2 percent cut the following year and remain essentially frozen for three years in a row after that.
"It's implausible," Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., said of the budget projections.
The White House made virtually identical assumptions last year — a big increase in the first year of the budget and cuts for every year thereafter to veterans medical care. Now, the White House estimate for 2008 is more than $4 billion higher than Bush figured last year.
And the VA has been known to get short-term estimates wrong as well. Two years ago, Congress had to pass an emergency $1.5 billion infusion for veterans health programs for 2005 and added $2.7 billion to Bush's request for 2006. The VA underestimated the number of veterans, including those from Iraq and Afghanistan, who were seeking care, as well as the cost of treatment and long-term care.
The budget for hospital and medical care for veterans is funded for the current year at $35.6 billion, and would rise to $39.6 billion in 2008 under Bush's budget. That's about 9 percent. But the budget faces a cut to $38.8 billion in 2009 and would hover around that level through 2012.
The cuts come even as the number of veterans from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars is expected to increase 26 percent next year.
In Bush's proposal to balance the budget by 2012, he's assuming that spending on domestic agency operating budgets will increase by about 1 percent each year.
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March 7th, 2007 1:08 amFail to the chief
FLASHBACK: Pentagon Official Said Veterans Benefits Were ‘Hurtful’ To National Securityhttp://thinkprogress.org/2007/03/05/vets-benefits-hurt-security
Asked to name one question she would like to pose to senior officials about the Walter Reed Scandal, Washington Post reporter Dana Priest said, “The root of so much that we cover is money. And the question is, why isn’t this funded to the extent that it needs to be funded?”
Indeed, as Paul Krugman writes in today’s New York Times, the crisis in the veterans’ health system “starts with money“:
The quagmire in Iraq has vastly increased the demands on the Veterans Administration, yet since 2001 federal outlays for veterans’ medical care have actually lagged behind overall national health spending.
To save money, the administration has been charging veterans for many formerly free services. For example, in 2005 Salon reported that some Walter Reed patients were forced to pay hundreds of dollars each month for their meals.
More important, the administration has broken longstanding promises of lifetime health care to those who defend our nation. Two months before the invasion of Iraq the V.H.A., which previously offered care to all veterans, introduced severe new restrictions on who is entitled to enroll in its health care system. As the agency’s Web site helpfully explains, veterans whose income exceeds as little as $27,790 a year, and who lack “special eligibilities such as a compensable service connected condition or recent combat service,” will be turned away.
The administration’s approach to funding wounded veterans should already be clear. In 2005, the Wall Street Journal noted the growing cost of veterans benefits due to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Pentagon’s response was to complain that it would “rather use [the funds] to help troops fighting today.”
“The amounts have gotten to the point where they are hurtful. They are taking away from the nation’s ability to defend itself,” says David Chu, the Pentagon’s undersecretary for personnel and readiness.
During today’s hearing, House Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Henry Waxman (D-CA) called Chu’s remark “offensive.” Staff Sgt. John Daniel Shannon, whose “eye and skull were shattered by an AK-47 round” in Iraq and who is waiting for prosthetic eye surgery, said Chu was “absolutely” inaccurate.
Veterans Day Outrage: Conservatives End 55-Year-Old Practice of Hearings for Vet Groups
On Tuesday — three days before Veterans Day — House Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Steve Buyer (R-IN) announced that for the first time in at least 55 years, “veterans service organizations will no longer have the opportunity to present testimony before a joint hearing of the House and Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committees.”
Remember that Buyer was handpicked by criminally-indicted Rep. Tom DeLay (R-TX) to replace former veterans committee chairman Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ), who had been extremely vocal about the consistent underfunding of veterans causes.
The Disabled American Veterans, the “official voice of America’s service-connected disabled veterans,” just issued a scathing release calling the move “an insult to all who have fought, sacrificed and died to defend the Constitution.” The timing, they said, “could not have been worse.”
Posted by Nico March 5, 2007 3:43 pm
Update: Hearing Highlights Vet Tracking Woeshttp://blogs.abcnews.com/theblotter/2007/03/update_hearing_.html
March 08, 2007 3:30 PM
The Department of Veterans Affairs scrapped an early effort to track returning war casualties because it was too expensive to implement, a senior official confirmed today before a congressional panel.
ABC News yesterday reported a former VA employee said the department did not implement a 2004 plan that would have ensured injured veterans received timely care and benefits. As a result, some wounded vets have suffered as they waited for disability payments and proper care.
News of the program's shelving prompted outrage from some quarters. "I am not convinced the Veterans Affairs Department is doing its part," said Rep. Harry E. Mitchell, D-Ariz., chairman of the panel, in prepared remarks. Mitchell said he was "deeply troubled" by the report.
THE BLOTTER RECOMMENDS
Dr. Michael J. Kussman, the VA's acting undersecretary for health, said the program, known as the Contingency Tracking System (CTS), was designed only to handle information related to veterans' benefits, not their health care, and would have been too expensive to adapt. "It could not meet [the VA's health administration] needs, or even all of [the VA's benefits administration] needs, without significant additional development costs," Kussman said without citing specific figures.
Instead, shortly after CTS was scrapped, the department began developing a new program, said Kussman. He did not say when the VA began using that program.
The department is at work on a new program, Kussman confirmed, that would more closely tie VA and Pentagon health information, so records and notes are not lost. His prepared remarks did not include a proposed start date for that program; a VA statement to ABC News yesterday said it was "very near deployment."
Kussman also told the panel that VA Secretary Jim Nicholson played no role in rejecting the earlier casualty tracking effort. "This was a programmatic decision -- and one not made by the secretary." He did not say who made the call to scrap the program.
The department has aided over 6,800 injured or ill soldiers from Iraq and Afghanistan so far, Kussman said. Over 23,000 casualties have been logged by the Department of Defense. To ensure they receive the care they need, Kussman said the VA was calling every single wounded soldier to ask if they needed assistance in obtaining medical attention or benefits.
A VA spokesman confirmed that "hundreds" of calls have already been made.
Under VA Chief, Efforts to Aid Wounded Vets Stalled, Ex-Employee Charges
Under VA Chief, Effort to Aid Wounded Vets Stalled, Ex-Employee Charges
March 07, 2007 4:30 PM
A proposal to keep seriously wounded vets from falling through the cracks of the bureaucracy was shelved in 2005 when Jim Nicholson took over as the secretary of the Veterans Affairs Department, according to the former VA employee who was responsible for tracking war casualties.
As a result, seriously wounded veterans continued to face long delays for health care and benefit payments after being discharged from the military, says former VA project manager Paul Sullivan.
The program, called the Contingency Tracking System, had been approved by Nicholson's predecessor but died once Nicholson took over the VA, Sullivan told ABC News.
Sullivan said he was told the cost of the system -- less than $1 million to build and requiring a handful of staff to maintain -- was prohibitive.
When asked about the Contingency Tracking System at the White House Wednesday, Nicholson told ABC News, "I'm not sure I know what program you're referring to." He added that "when the VA gets patients...we instantly create an electronic medical record for them."
In testimony before Congress today, a VA official confirmed that its current tracking system still depends on paper files and lacks the ability to download Department of Defense records into its computers, a key flaw originally identified as leading to veterans getting lost between the cracks.
Throughout 2004, the new program sat on a shelf while returning veterans struggling with serious brain injuries, psychological trauma, paralysis or worse spent weeks and months fighting the VA bureaucracy to receive the benefits they deserved after being discharged from the armed services, veterans advocates say.
"In that gap...people find themselves not being able to pay for their car, their mortgage, they may have marital problems because they can't pay their bills," said Steve Robinson, director of veterans' affairs for the advocacy group Veterans for America. "You find suicide, alcohol abuse, drug abuse, domestic violence."
Yesterday, President Bush put VA Secretary Nicholson in charge of an interagency task force to determine what can be done to deliver benefits and health care now to thousands of wounded vets who have struggled to receive care.
The announcement came almost exactly two years after Nicholson had received the newly designed system, itself the result of an internal VA task force studying how to make sure wounded soldiers were "seamlessly" transitioned from military service to veteran status with the care and benefits they'd earned.
Despite Nicholson's apparently cool reception to the inexpensive solution, others thought the system had merit. "It was a great idea," said Cynthia A. Bascetta, a congressional expert on veterans' health care who was briefed on the project just prior to its completion. After the briefing, she said, she didn't hear any more about it.
Newspaper exposes in 2004 prompted former VA Secretary Principi to come up with a plan to fix the problem of wounded vets returning from Iraq and Afghanistan and not receiving timely care and benefits.
"You read a story about someone who was caught in between and I said, 'Wait a minute. We have to do better than that,'" Principi, now a lobbyist for the Pfizer pharmaceutical company, told ABC News.
Sullivan and his team designed the "Contingency Tracking System" (CTS), a secure online database that would capture Department of Defense data on soldiers wounded on the battlefield and track their status through their medical care and treatment at both Defense and VA facilities.
To keep costs down, he said, he cadged computer hardware from other offices which weren't using theirs.
CTS would record each vet's diagnosis and help VA staff make sure he or she received all of the dozens of benefits they might qualify for as soon as possible, from rehabilitative care to disability payments, vocational training and more.
"Before the CTS, VA had no nationwide system for tracking casualties from the battlefield," Sullivan said. Instead, the department relied on a haphazard system of casualty records manually kept on spreadsheets at several locations, which sometimes did not match up with Defense Department casualty records. That process hampered vets' timely access to medical care and other benefits after discharge, Sullivan said.
Sullivan left the VA in March 2006; he is now an advocate for improving care for veterans. He reacted with dismay at yesterday's announcement that Nicholson would be leading the new effort to make sure wounded veterans get the care and benefits they deserve.
"I don't think it's a good idea for the people responsible for the problem to be in charge of fixing it," he told ABC News.
In a written response to ABC News, the VA said a new tracking system "very near deployment" would allow them to track casualties soon after they left the battlefield, much the way CTS was designed to do in 2004.
This post has been updated.
Why is it that government will always find the most incompetent bureaucrat to put in charge? I guess the better question is why is the American public so tolerant of government's unfailing and incredible incompetence?
Posted by: Jim Mar 7, 2007 5:34:37 PM
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