Monday, January 30, 2006

Vets state of the Union

VETERANS' STATE OF THE UNION MESSAGE -- FROM REP. LANE

EVANS (D-IL), RANKING DEMOCRATIC MEMBER, HOUSE COMMITTEE

ON VETERANS' AFFAIRS -- THE BUSH ADMINISTRATION'S

RECORD OF SHORTCHANGING VETERANS

The facts speak for themselves. Read below:

---------------

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: January 30, 2006
NEWS RELEASE

The Bush Administration's Record of Shortchanging Veterans:
The Real State of the Union

Rep. Lane Evans (D-IL)
Ranking Democratic Member
House Committee on Veterans' Affairs

When President Bush delivers his annual State of the Union address on
Tuesday he
no doubt will claim credit for a great many things. But as so often
happens with
this Administration, the rhetoric is contradicted by reality - what you
see and hear
is not always what you get.

The President likely will tell us the economy is doing well, even though
we know
that many of our fellow citizens are working harder and harder trying
just to keep
up. The President's economic plan will consist of more of the same - tax
cuts for
his rich friends and associates and fewer opportunities for average
Americans.

I expect he will present Americans with more misguided legislative
proposals and
skewed budget priorities that will mean more deep cuts to the programs the
American people need and care about. America's veterans should be spared
from
these false choices - unfortunately the record of this President does
not give me
cause to expect it.

Last year, the President did not once mention the word "veteran" during
the course
of his State of the Union address. I wonder if he will discuss veterans
this year;
they and their families represent more than a quarter of the U.S.
population. No
one, after all, has sacrificed more in the course of sewing our nation.
Surely he
can find space in his message to acknowledge and thank them.

But more important than merely mentioning veterans is what his
Administration
should do for veterans and their families. Has this President heard the
voices of
veterans across our land, voices demanding adequate health care funding?
Has he
heard from veterans who deserve accurate and timely decisions on claims for
earned benefits? Has he heard veterans pleading for more resources and
creative
initiatives in order to address post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
and the plague
of homelessness? Sadly, the evidence shows he has not.

Since fiscal year 2002, which marks the first budget submitted by his
Administration, the President has requested an average annual increase
of only 3.4
percent in appropriated dollars for VA health care. In fact, for this
current fiscal
year, the President initially requested an increase in appropriated
dollars of only
0.4 percent. Congress has provided an average annual increase of 7.9
percent.

Although this average increase of 7.9 percent is over twice as much as the
President has requested, it has not been sufficient to meet the needs of
the Nation's
veterans. The VA itself testified that it requires a 13 to 14 percent
annual increase
just to keep up. The President wishes to take full credit for a funding
job less than
half-done, while his Administration stands by and watches the care gap
widen.

Moreover, the President is quick to point out that he has signed into
law bills that
benefit veterans, again masking the complete truth - his Administration
waged
unsuccessful battles against the very legislation to which the President
affixed his
signature. A case in point is the White House claim that "President Bush
twice
signed legislation effectively providing 'concurrent receipt' of both
military retired
pay and VA disability compensation for those regular military retirees most
deserving - combat-injured and highly disabled veterans - reversing a
century-old
law preventing concurrent receipt." However, the statement fails to
acknowledge
that the President early on signaled his adamant opposition to such
legislation,
vigorously fighting against its passage and vowing to veto it if it
reached his desk.

Further, more work remains to fully repeal the Disabled Veterans' Tax,
as disabled
veterans rated at 40 percent or below - roughly two-thirds of all
disabled veterans
- continue to wait for their earned benefits, including elderly World
War I1 and
Korean War era veterans.

The President's claims of providing greater funding than he has
requested and
taking credit for new laws he did not initially support, even fought
against, belies
the appalling record of an Administration that has not only given
veterans' needs
short shrift but has, in fact, actively sought to diminish VA's mission:

The President's budget requests have not kept pace with health
care demand,
as evidenced in part by continuing unacceptably long waiting times for
thousands of veterans to receive a medical appointment;

The President denied access to more than 260,000 veterans who
sought VA
care in fiscal year 2005 and upwards of a half million in the last two
years,
solely as a cost-cutting measure;

The President's budget includes years of purported savings due to
"management efficiencies" in his VA budget submissions. In reality this
budget gimmick equals millions of dollars in claimed phantom savings that
he uses to short change real financial needs for veterans' health care.
There
is no convincing justification or true accounting for these "efficiencies,"
which serve as nothing more than a diversion to conceal the fact that the
White House wants to ration health care to veterans;

The President clearly believes that veterans do not pay enough
for health
care, and that some veterans should pay for the health care services
provided
to other veterans, as exhibited by his persistent call for user fees and
startling
increases in prescription co-payments - increases repeatedly rejected by the
Congress. The President's cost-shifting proposals seek to suppress demand,
further deterring veterans from even seeking health care that they have
earned through their service;

The President has sought to devastate long-term care services,
just as we are
experiencing a peak in the aging veteran population. He called for cuts in
VA's nursing home program that would drop its average daily census
drastically below the capacity mandated by federal law and which would
effectively end the highly successful state veterans' home program;

The President's pattern and practice of shortchanging veterans
led to a fiscal
year 2005 VA health care shortfall of $1.5 billion and fiscal year 2006
budget shortfall of $1.97 billion. After months of repeated warnings by
Democrats and veterans' advocates that the VA faced a dangerous funding
shortfall, the Administration during the summer of 2005 begrudgingly
acknowledged that these warnings were accurate and that it lacked the finds
to adequately meet the health care needs of our veterans;

The President had rejected two earlier attempts to add funding
through
supplemental budget requests and, in fact, directed delivery of a
statement of
position to Capitol Hill "strongly" opposing Congressional efforts to add
$1.3 billion for veterans' health care in the fiscal year 2004 Emergency
Supplemental for Iraq and Afghanistan Security and Reconstruction Bill;

The President sought deep cuts in VA's cutting-edge research
program, and
recommended insufficient resources in the VA construction program to
modernize and replace VA medical facilities;

Data indicate that 1 out of 4 returning servicemembers from Iraq and
Afghanistan experience physical and mental stress symptoms, and many are
suffering from PTSD. The Administration has refused to increase staff to
help the families of veterans with PTSD, even though veterans with PTSD
are at risk of divorce and relationship problems. The Administration
targeted many severely-disabled veterans suffering with mental health
problems by seeking review of their benefits, subjecting them to the trauma
of re-documenting their claims even though the errors that prompted the
review were the result of administrative mistakes and not fraud, as the
Administration implied. The Administration has also halted a
congressionally mandated study to examine the long-term health effects of
PTSD on Vietnam veterans;

Recommendations arising from evaluations of VA programs have gone
ignored or unimplemented, such as:

o Increasing benefits to surviving spouses with children
whose veteran
spouses died as the result of service to our Nation;

o Increasing funds for maintenance of cemeteries as
national shrines;

o Reducing premiums paid for government life insurance by
severely
disabled veterans;

o Increasing pension benefits for low-income wartime
veterans and their
survivors.

The number of staff at VA regional benefits offices has dropped from 7,053
as of September 30, 2002, to 6,880 as of September 30, 2005. During the
same period, VA experienced a significant increase in the number of claims
filed for benefits, such as service-connected compensation, pensions and
survivor benefits. Partly because of veterans returning from our recent wars
in Iraq and Afghanistan, more than 50,000 additional compensation claims
were filed in 2005 than in 2002. The backlog has increased and more
veterans are waiting over six months for a decision on their claims. As of
January 21, 2006, more than a half million claimants were awaiting a
decision, including 368,000 who were seeking a decision on a disability
rating. More than 151,000 veterans had appeals pending at VA regional
benefits offices. Without resources that match the need for services, the
backlog can be expected to grow, yet the President refuses to recognize
these
issues as a continuing cost of his war.

The Administration illegally used scarce resources, originally specified for
veterans' health care services, to pursue pet projects within the
President's
Management Agenda. The non-partisan Government Accountability Office
has found that VA violated federal law by wrongly using such funds for
unauthorized purposes. The Administration characteristically disavows any
wrongdoing.

It is disgraceful that year after year veterans, hats in hand, must beg
for an
adequate budget from the White House and GOP-controlled Congress. As the
past
year's $1.5 billion shortfall in veterans' health care demonstrated,
veterans have
not been unreasonable in their call for adequate funding for the agency
that was
established to care for them. But instead of stepping forward and
legitimately
addressing veterans' concerns, the President's response is to brazenly
take credit
where credit is not due and then further diminish veterans' benefits and
services.

So as he addresses the Nation on Tuesday, and as he submits his new
budget on
February 6, I will be hoping that the President will do right by
veterans. I hope
that the President will own up to the shortcomings of his Administration and
finally address the problems faced by our veterans and returning
servicemembers.

It is time for him to step up to his responsibility - America's
responsibility - and
work to reverse a misguided philosophy and extraordinary failures in the
veterans'
benefits and health care arena.

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