Top Senate Democrats Urge Action for Vets

Reid, Akaka, Mikulski send letter to President

Washington, D.C. – Standing up for our nation’s veterans, Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid, Committee on Veterans Affairs Ranking Member Daniel Akaka, and Veterans Affairs Appropriations Subcommittee Ranking Member Barbara Mikulski today urged President Bush to support sweeping improvements in programs for veterans, including health care, education and easing the transition difficulties for troops returning from Iraq.

The three key Democrats also pledged to work with their Republican colleagues to ensure that Jim Nicholson, Bush's nominee to head the Department of Veterans Affairs, receives a fair and timely confirmation hearing.

A copy of their letter follows:

December 16, 2004

The Honorable George W. Bush
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W.
Washington, D.C. 20500

Dear Mr. President:

We appreciate your moving quickly to fill the top position at the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) following the resignation announcement of Secretary Anthony Principi. We commit to working closely with our Republican colleagues to ensure your nominee, Ambassador Jim Nicholson, receives an expeditious, thorough, and fair confirmation hearing.

Our nation’s veterans and their families face several major challenges that require the Administration’s immediate attention. As Ambassador Nicholson prepares for his confirmation process, and as you finalize your fiscal year 2006 budget request for the Department, we urge you to take the following actions to stand up for our nation’s veterans:

(1) Fully fund and reopen the VA health care system for all veterans. Due to chronic underfunding of the VA health care system, hundreds of thousands of veterans are being denied the care they were promised and deserve. Last year, most experts and veterans organizations found the Administration’s budget request for VA health care more than $2.6 billion short, and as a result, Congress restored over $1.2 billion during the appropriations process. This year again, we are told that the Office of Management and Budget has recommended cutting almost $1 billion in veterans health care funding. Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of Priority 8 veterans remain shut out of the VA health care system. Many of those veterans denied access to the VA medical system or who suffer because of cutbacks in services often have no recourse, as nearly 1.7 million military veterans have no health insurance. It is a serious mistake to shortchange VA at a time when we are creating a whole new generation of veterans. The current situation is untenable and unfair to those who have bravely served our nation.

(2) Create a seamless transition from active duty to veteran status. Many soldiers are being denied timely access to health care benefits and services when they transition from active duty to veteran status. The Administration must do more to ensure that returning combat veterans, as well as all other service men and women who complete their term of service or retire from service, receive timely access to VA benefits and services. Currently, the burden falls upon returning war veterans to produce service and medical records in order to gain access to the VA system. Separation physicals to exit the military are often duplicated to enter the VA health care system. This is wasteful and inefficient. The archaic nature of the system, especially the heavy reliance on paper-based records, leads to mistakes, backlogs, lost records, long waiting times, and an unnecessarily difficult transition between the two systems. VA and the Department of Defense must become interoperable by developing an electronic records system worthy of our high-tech fighting force, so that those who have served our country are not mired in bureaucracy. Although some progress has been made, VA still has more work to do.

(3) Eliminate claims backlogs and reduce claims processing times. The backlog of VA claims continues to grow, yet the VA continues to reduce claims processing staff. Currently, there are nearly 338,000 claims and 132,300 appeals pending with VA. It takes VA, on average, 163 days to process a single claim. The demand for VA services is only expected to grow, as we are a nation at war, and thousands of newly disabled veterans will be entering the VA system. VA has projected that there will be a 3 percent increase in rating receipts in fiscal year 2005. How could VA possibly process claims in an accurate and timely manner with fewer Veterans Benefits Administration claims processors? The nation owes to its service men and women and their survivors prompt, accurate, and comprehensive support for their disability claims. The current system must be improved.

(4) Increase education benefits. Education benefits for service members and veterans continue to lag well behind the rising cost of post-secondary education. When we opened the door of education to our veterans in 1944, we changed their lives and our nation for the better. We cannot let that door slam shut because of a failure to keep pace with rising college costs. Today, active duty troops will find that the GI bill meets only about 50 percent of higher education costs for a public college or university. The problem is even more acute for Guardsmen and Reservists, whose education benefits have not kept pace with active duty education increases in recent years. It is time, Mr. President, to enhance the GI bill so it delivers real education benefits in line with the costs of a 21st Century education.

(5) Increase burial benefits. Burial benefits for the families of our wounded or disabled veterans have not kept up with inflation and rising funeral costs. While these benefits were never intended to cover the full costs of burial, they now pay for only a fraction of what they covered in 1973, when the federal government first started paying burial benefits for our veterans. We are losing over 1,000 World War II veterans each day, and it is time to revitalize veterans’ burial benefits to honor those who have sacrificed for our country.

(6) Protect and expand long-term care and mental health services. The VA must carefully implement the Capital Asset Realignment for Enhanced Services (CARES) recommendations, and continue to ensure timely and quality service delivery to all eligible veterans. More specifically, the VA must guard against any reduction in long-term care and mental health services. As you may know, one in every six soldiers returning from Iraq suffers from post-traumatic stress disorders. Quality and accessible mental health services must be made available. We understand VA has committed to expedite a strategic planning process for long term care and mental health services, and not proceed with a closure or reduction in services until a thorough analysis, examining demand forecasts and all other reliable data, is complete.

Mr. President, we know you agree that our nation has no more important obligation than caring for our veterans, especially during a time of war. We are deeply concerned that the Administration’s policies have shortchanged this obligation. That is why, early in the 109th Congress, we will introduce legislation to correct many of the injustices currently endured by America’s veterans. Full funding for veterans health care and greater assistance to our returning war veterans and their families are just two of the initiatives we intend to pursue. We hope to have your support, and look forward to working with you and the leadership of the Department of Veterans Affairs in the coming year.

DANIEL AKAKA Committee on Veterans Affairs
HARRY REID Minority Leader

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