September 5, 2007 - Issue: Vol. 153, No. 130 — Daily Edition110th Congress (2007 - 2008) - 1st Session
MILITARY CONSTRUCTION AND VETERANS AFFAIRS APPROPRIATIONS ACT, 2008
(Senate - September 05, 2007)
Text available as:
Formatting necessary for an accurate reading of this text may be shown by tags (e.g., <DELETED> or <BOLD>) or may be missing from this TXT display. For complete and accurate display of this text, see the PDF.
[Pages S11092-S11095] From the Congressional Record Online through the Government Publishing Office [www.gpo.gov] MILITARY CONSTRUCTION AND VETERANS AFFAIRS APPROPRIATIONS ACT, 2008 The PRESIDING OFFICER. Under the previous order, the Senate will resume consideration of H.R. 2642, which the clerk will report. The legislative clerk read as follows: A bill (H.R. 2642) making appropriations for military construction, the Department of Veterans Affairs, and related agencies for the fiscal year ending September 30, 2008, and for other purposes. The Senator from Rhode Island. Mr. REED. Mr. President, I am pleased to resume consideration of the fiscal year 2008 Military Construction, Veterans Affairs, and related agencies appropriations bill. To recap the essentials which I discussed yesterday, the bill provides $109.2 billion in funding, including $44.5 billion in mandatory spending and $43 billion in discretionary funding for the Department of Veterans Affairs. Overall discretionary funding in the bill totals $64.7 billion. That is a $4 billion increase over the President's budget request. Most of the increased funding is targeted at expanding and improving veterans health care, which is an essential requirement for our obligation to the veterans, and also it recognizes that as generations of veterans are aging, those veterans from Korea and World War II and the Vietnam conflict, we also have a new era of veterans from Afghanistan and Iraq, and this money is essential. This bill represents a landmark commitment to our troops and their families and our Nation's veterans by investing in urgently needed military construction projects and in expanding health care services to our veterans. For the Department of Veterans Affairs, the bill includes $29 billion for direct medical services for veterans. This level of funding is equal to the amount requested by the veterans service organizations in the independent budget. Each year, our veterans service organizations prepare an independent budget, not based upon what the administration thinks they can afford but what veterans need. This is one of the few times we have been able to meet that objective of the veterans service organizations within their independent budget. It will allow the Department to increase its resources for both physical and mental health care for veterans, and it will give the Department the resources it needs to expand research and treatment of traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorders. At a time when scores of veterans are returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan with these often invisible wounds, this increased funding in this regard is urgently needed. It has been estimated that perhaps 30 percent of those who have served in Iraq or Afghanistan have received either traumatic brain injuries or have post-traumatic stress or both, and we have to be able to respond to those concerns. The bill also includes needed funding for military construction of facilities [[Page S11093]] and housing for our troops and their families. We are a nation at war, and our military forces need the best possible facilities to work, train, and to hone their skills, and their families need the best possible housing and quality-of-life facilities, such as chapels and childcare centers, to see them through the strain and hardship of repeated and lengthy deployments. As I have said before, this bill is supported by the Department of Veterans Affairs and the veterans service organizations. The President, in his Statement of Administration Policy released yesterday, signaled his intention to sign the bill as reported out of the committee, and I hope that intention is carried through. There is no reason the Senate cannot complete work on this bill at a reasonable hour today. In fact, I have spoken with the majority leader, and he has indicated to me that it is his desire to move this bill today, to complete work on it today, and to be able to have a vote on final passage we hope sometime today. I urge my colleagues, if they have amendments they wish to offer, to bring them to the floor as soon as possible. It takes a long time to deal with some of these issues, to vet them, to clear the amendments, and the slower the amendments are presented to us, the longer it will take to complete action on this bill. But the majority leader is committed to finishing this bill today, and I share that commitment. The Senate cannot afford to drag its feet on this bill. Our men and women in uniform, our Nation's veterans are depending on us to provide the resources they so urgently need. I urge my colleagues to move quickly to pass this bill. Mr. President, I yield the floor, and I suggest the absence of a quorum. The PRESIDING OFFICER. The clerk will call the roll. The legislative clerk proceeded to call the roll. Mrs. MURRAY. Mr. President, I ask unanimous consent that the order for the quorum call be rescinded. The PRESIDING OFFICER. Without objection, it is so ordered. Mrs. MURRAY. Mr. President, in Iraq and Afghanistan, like so many conflicts before, our servicemembers have done absolutely everything that has been asked of them. They have answered the President's call to war with honor and a sense of duty we have come to expect from our Nation's bravest men and women. They have performed under enormous pressure in the middle of a civil war, they have left behind loved ones who count on them, and they have continued to put their lives on the line every day. Unfortunately, at home, their commitment to service has not been met yet by an administration that is committed to care for them. From poor conditions at VA facilities around the country, lack of PTSD counselors, benefits claims backlogs that keep our veterans waiting for months and months and months and sometimes years, it is very clear that so far this administration has failed to account for our Nation's veterans and to count them as a cost of this war. It is unacceptable that servicemembers who fought overseas are returning home and being forced to fight their own Government for the care and services they need. Today, with the bill that is in front of us, the VA bill, we take a major step toward reversing that trend and the Bush administration's failure to care for our heroes. The funding for our veterans included in the VA bill is more than $3.6 billion over the President's request. After years of cutting corners on caring for our heroes, we are finally putting forth an honest assessment of what these men and women need. This bill takes into account the additional strains on the VA system that simultaneous wars and new battlefield realities present. It is an investment that represents nearly all of the independent budget, which is the recommendation of the funds needed to care for our veterans and is compiled by our veterans service organization. This bill invests in improving health care, expanding mental health services, and constructing new facilities that are really needed. It is going to mean, when this bill is passed and signed by the President, more qualified health care workers, better prosthetics that our servicemembers are asking for, and more accessible veterans facilities. It is also going to mean, importantly, thousands of new VA case workers who will help us reduce that unacceptable delay that we have heard about from so many of our veterans when they come home and try to access their benefits. It will improve conditions at our VA facilities. It will add an increased investment in polytrauma and mental health care facilities that will drastically improve treatment for PTSD and traumatic brain injury and catastrophic injuries as well. Most of all, this bill means after years of neglect our Government is again going to honor our veterans' sacrifices. This bill and all it provides could not come at a more crucial time. As a member myself of both the appropriations subcommittee that is responsible for this bill and the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee, I have heard numerous times firsthand about the VA's shortcomings in caring for our veterans. In fact, last month on the August break I held a Senate Veterans' Affairs field hearing in Takoma, WA, to specifically examine the challenges that men and women are facing when they come home. At that hearing I spoke with Brandon Jacobs. He is a veteran of the Army and National Guard, and he served in Iraq. He said a lot more has to be done to raise awareness of post-traumatic stress syndrome and combat-related stresses. He talked about how we needed to not only increase access for him and his fellow servicemembers, but also for the families that struggle when a loved one returns home with an invisible wound. I also heard from a young man, Dan Purcell. He is an Iraq veteran who said he didn't ``want to be treated as a tool that could be casually discarded when broken or found to be no longer useful.'' What a tragic statement from someone who served us overseas, that when he comes home he feels like a discarded tool because he has been broken. That is not how we should be treating our veterans, and that is not how this VA/HUD bill treats our veterans. This bill that is before us finally takes the important steps that are necessary to recognize Brandon and Dan and so many others who are part of the costs of this war. We also have to make sure our troops are ready and that they receive the training they need before we send them overseas. I am very pleased that within this bill, the military construction investments that are made will help our country do a better job in training the men and women we asked to serve us in our military. In my home State of Washington, our military facilities play a very important role in our Nation's security. We have Fort Lewis in Tacoma, where we are training the Stryker Brigades at the center of the fighting in Iraq, we have Fairchild Air Force Base in Spokane that plays a major role in our air defense, and we have the Naval Air Station Whidbey Island that helps patrol the Pacific shores. It is extremely critical that these bases, which serve such vital roles, receive the funding they need. The bill that is in front of us today does just that and provides more than $635 million in improvements for Washington State military installations. I thank Senators Reed and Hutchison for their special attention and recognition of the needs of our bases in my home State of Washington and across the country. Their leadership on this bill has been outstanding. I know the chair and ranking member will be on the Senate floor throughout today. The leader has told us that he wants this bill finished by this evening. I urge all Members who have any amendments to come this afternoon to get their amendments offered because we do have to wrap up this bill. We are very aware of the timelines that are approaching, the very short amount of time that is left to get our numerous appropriations bills through. We intend to move them through. In order to do that we ask Members to come to the floor today, offer their amendments, let's work through them and get this bill passed so we can get it sent to the President. It is important to pass this bill because this bill recognizes that any time we invest in building our military and improving training for our troops we invest in their care. I remind my colleagues what George Washington famously observed one time: The willingness with which our young people are likely to serve in any way war, no [[Page S11094]] matter how justified, shall be directly proportional to how they perceive the veterans of earlier wars were treated and appreciated by their country. The bill in front of us reverses President Bush's failures and carries through on the commitment that our very first President discussed. It keeps our military strong by honoring the sacrifices of our heroes with the funding that meets their needs. I note this bill has been endorsed by the Disabled Americans, Veterans of Foreign Wars, American Legion, Paralyzed Veterans of America, AMVETS, and the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, among many other veterans service organizations that take so much time out of their own lives to fight for our veterans and recognize the critical funding for this bill. I note an AP article from this morning that says the Secretary of the VA, Secretary Nickolson, has said in a letter to key lawmakers they do not need additional funding, they just need this bill passed. I note we have heard that song before, and that song was wrong. We have to do the right thing. This bill is critical. The additional funding in this bill, I think every Member knows is needed. Every one of us has been out there and talked to the men and women who have come home from Iraq, to their families, and heard from PTSD counselors on down the line who have visited facilities or Walter Reed or seen facilities in their own States. They know this funding is needed. I encourage my colleagues to come to the Senate floor, offer their amendments, get this bill expeditiously to conference and sent to the President. I encourage the President and Secretary not to challenge us on the need for funding but to do the right thing; recognize the care of our service men and women is part of the cost of war. It is an obligation we have to meet. We are meeting it with this bill, and I hope we can get it done quickly so our veterans, many men and women who have served us, will know this country is doing right by them. I yield the floor and suggest the absence of a quorum. The PRESIDING OFFICER. The clerk will call the roll. The legislative clerk proceeded to call the roll. Mr. COBURN. Mr. President, I ask unanimous consent that the order for the quorum call be rescinded. The PRESIDING OFFICER. Without objection, it is so ordered. H.R. 327 Mr. COBURN. Mr. President, I wanted to spend a few minutes noting some things in the press about H.R. 327 and my hold on that bill. This is a bill which is very well intended. It is to help prevent suicide among our veterans. I have been in the medical field since 1978--1979, that is. Approximately 6 to 10 percent of my practice has been associated with depression, treating clinical depression, suicidal ideation, post- traumatic stress disorder, and other issues. We need to offer our veterans whatever we can offer them in terms of helping them deal with what they have been through and also helping our veterans who have no connection with their war experience in terms of treatment of depression. Our veterans have the right to expect the legislation we craft to deliver on good intentions. H.R. 327, frankly, does not do that. One of the serious flaws with H.R. 327 is that every veteran is preconditioned with a mental status exam. So if you are a World War II vet and you have a sore throat and you go to the VA clinic in Muskogee, under 327 you have to undergo a thorough mental status exam before you can have your sore throat treated. That is Congress hitting a gnat with a cinder block. It is wasteful of our dollars. It portends to have Congress practicing medicine, when, in fact, we do not know how to practice medicine, and you cannot. What this bill sets up is that Congress is going to mandate the doctor-patient relationship or the patient-PA or the patient-nurse practitioner or the patient-social service or licensed medical social service masters. What we have decided is to interject, because of the tragedies that we have seen in the last couple of years, a mandated form of treating suicide, depression, and risk of harm. I have reached out to Senator Harkin on this bill. I offered to make some simple changes. We were rebuffed. Then what we saw in the press is that I wanted to hold this only because of how somebody might not be able to have their second amendment rights guaranteed. That is hardly the situation at all. What I really am holding this bill for is because, first of all, it is bad medicine. No. 2, it duplicates and mandates things we should not be doing. It takes away from the professions within the VA who know what they are doing. It steps on and it interrupts what the VA is already implementing to a good extent and to a great degree. There is another very serious concern with this, which is that it mandates the tracking of veterans who have mental health issues. The vast majority of our veterans do not have mental health issues, but the assumption under this bill is they all have to be screened for it. That would be like me, with every patient that I ever see in my practice, the first thing I have to do is make sure, because they were in the military, that they do not have some type of mental health disturbance coming back. It is insulting to our military men and women who have given their lives, given their blood, given their time, given their honor, and given their sacrifice to assume they cannot do that without having some disruption in their capability to function in this society. So it is highly insulting to the vast majority of our veterans. Now, the question is, How do we solve the problem of depression and post-traumatic stress disorder that leads to suicidal thought, ideation, and behavior? That is what we ought to be doing. And what we are doing is creating a set of circumstances that may have an impact probably not any greater than what the VA is doing now but will, in fact, take away great resources from other mental health issues as well as other health issues within the VA. Let me give you some statistics, if I may. The VA is 3 years into a mental health strategic plan that has been markedly successful in improving the quality of care and ensuring that high-risk factors such as suicidal ideation are considered when veterans are assessed or impact or enter the VA system. The VA has suicide prevention coordinators in every VA facility in this country. They have a hotline 24/7. They have hired over 3,000 mental health staffers just since the end of 2005. So they have recognized what was the problem. They are responding to it. They have two suicide prevention centers of excellence that are geared up and working on the very specific issues associated with our military and post-traumatic stress disorder from combat. Between 2002 and 2007, the VA spent 2\1/2\ times the percentage of their budget as we spend in all other health care on mental health. So they are already addressing the issue. The other thing that is disturbing is this tracking of what they will do. They are not going to be tracking the data, they are going to be tracking individual veterans under this bill. That violates their own civil liberties. If, in fact, you have encountered the VA and because you were screened, not of your choice and not because you had signs or symptoms, because of that, that becomes a part of your record. You automatically are limited in lots of things that you cannot do in this country because you served your country. Now you have a mental health screening, an indication on your VA chart that would forbid you from becoming a police officer, an airline pilot, or an EMS, many other professions within this country. The idea that we are going to track individual veterans and their mental health status rather than the data--this bill specifically states that we are going to track the veterans, not the data--is wrong. Finally, this bill sets out a peer counseling provision that has already been proven in the literature to not be effective. Yet it is mandated in this bill. So what this bill is about is the Senate practicing medicine and mandating ways to do things that the VA itself has already started. It is 3 years into a program of which they are using experts in the field to guide them, and we are using emotion and response. I am going to continue to hold this bill until we work on the issues to guarantee freedom of veterans in terms of tracking of their data and them individually, in terms of securing the data [[Page S11095]] about them--the VA has had two serious leaks on veterans health care data in the last 7 years--and also working to make sure we use a mental status exam when it is indicated and not create a system that is an affront to all the people who have served the country. With that, I yield the floor. ____________________