Congressman Tim Walz (MN-01)
Budget Committee Testimony
Wednesday, February 14, 2007
Chairman Spratt, Ranking Member Ryan, and members of the committee, thank you for the opportunity to testify on some of the budgetary matters facing America's veterans today. Your willingness to hear testimony from me, as well as so many of my colleagues and other concerned citizens demonstrates your strong commitment to writing a fiscally sound budget that fulfills the needs of our veterans. I hope that my testimony today can aid you in your work.
Mr. Chairman, I am here today to discuss veterans' priorities within this budget from my perspective as a 24 year veteran of the Army National Guard and the son of a Korean War veteran. Last week, the President released his FY2008 budget request for the Department of Veterans Affairs, and while I am pleased to see at least slight increases in some important areas, the majority of his budget request leaves me deeply concerned. During his 2002 State of the Union speech, this President spoke of the need to care for our nation's veterans. He went so far as to ask Congress to "approve an historic increase in spending for veterans' health."
Since then, Mr. Chairman, the President has not followed through on his promises to America's veterans. In fact, President Bush has not mentioned veterans' issues in his last four State of the Union addresses. And in 2005, only a few short years after his 2002 promise to fund an historic increase in veterans' health care, the Department of Veterans Affairs was left so dangerously underfunded that Congress had to appropriate an emergency fund of $1 billion to keep the doors of our VA clinics and hospitals open.
This year, in his FY2008 budget request, the President has again placed veterans far too low on his list of priorities, underfunding VA medical care by $3.5 billion over five years. The President has requested a 6 percent increase in funding for VA medical care which is wholly inadequate. While certainly an improvement over his .4 percent increase request in FY2006, the FY2008 request does not meet the needs of a rapidly growing number of new veterans needing VA medical care, coupled with rapidly escalating health care costs. As a practical matter, that means that the VA will not be able to provide the care that our nation's retired servicemen and women are entitled to. You don't have to take my word for it: this request is a full 6.7 percent below the recommendation of the Independent Budget, a report put out by a group of veterans' service organizations.
Mr. Chairman, you don't need me to read you the statistics. What I need to express to this committee is the human impact of these budgetary decisions. It is not acceptable for us to exclude entire classes of veterans from the VA system. The men and women we call Priority 8 veterans served this country in the same ways other veterans did. The lack of a combat injury is no excuse for excluding them from the health care system they were promised access to. Barring 1.6 million veterans from their own health care system is unfair and unacceptable.
Mr. Chairman, the President's budget request proposes increased co-payments on prescription drugs and new enrollment fees for priority 7 and 8 veterans. These fees will drive out the veterans who need the system most, adding to the 47 million Americans who now lack health insurance.
If fees don't drive our veterans out, access to care just might. In my district, there are less than a half dozen primary care veterans clinics in operation. Mr. Chairman, my district is 300 miles wide - it stretches from the border of South Dakota to the border of Wisconsin. Veterans from my district who need more than a regular physical must charter vans through their Veterans Service Officers in order to make the drive to the VA Hospital in Minneapolis. A three hour ride is an excessive hardship, only made worse by the fact that this President is asking our veterans to pay more for those services when they finally arrive at the hospital. We can do better.
Mr. Chairman, the President's FY2008 budget request for the Department of Veterans Affairs represents the wrong priorities for our nation's veterans. However, the responsibility to do right by veterans does not lie with the President alone. We, the United States Congress, have the solemn responsibility and duty to create a budget that fulfills the promises we made to those who served.
We are responsible for caring for those who gave of themselves in years past and to care for those who are returning from Iraq and Afghanistan in the future. The President's budget asks for only minimal increases in mental health services for Iraqi veterans despite recent studies that show 1 in 6 soldiers in Iraq report symptoms of depression, serious anxiety, or post-traumatic stress disorder. At a time when the VA expects to treat 5.8 million patients, including 263,000 veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan in the coming year, it is Congress' duty to increase funding for the Department of Veterans Affairs and specifically to increase funding for both research into and treatment of the mental health conditions that plague many of our veterans.
At a time when Harvard University and the American Customer Satisfaction Index are recognizing the VA for its quality medical care, it is Congress' duty to ensure the VA does not veer from this upward trend and that it continues to improve not only quality of care but access to care.
At a time when our VA system is straining under the weight of both an aging veterans population and an entirely new group of veterans returning from the War on Terrorism, we must ensure funding matches not just monetary inflation but also the inflation in the number of veterans eligible for service.
Mr. Chairman, I am here today to ask you to help fulfill this duty by increasing the President's request for veterans' programs. The President's $86.75 billion request is simply not enough. As a veteran and the descendent of a long line of men who served this country, I can say with authority that properly funding our VA system does more than just provide veterans with the health care they were promised. Properly funding our VA ensures a new generation of soldiers will enlist and it helps to keep our communities both physically and economically healthy.