Opening Statement of Hon. Cliff Stearns, a Representative in Congress from the State of Florida
I appreciate the opportunity to be here today at this important hearing on the eligibility of Priority 8 veterans for VA healthcare. There are many issues that must be considered before any changes are proposed, and I look forward to hearing the insight of our panels of witnesses on these issues.
As many of us are aware, the Veterans’ Health Care Eligibility Reform Act 1996 reformed the very confusing previous system of categorizing the eligibility of veterans for enrollment in the VA system. In the new legislation, seven categories were created, ranging from those veterans with 50% or more service-connected disabilities to veterans not covered by other classifications but who cannot afford to defray the cost of necessary care. Then in 2001, the new category of Priority 8 veterans was created for those who had served but have income or net worth above the VA income threshold, but who would agree to paying co-payments for their care.
This eligibility category was later suspended under former VA Secretary Anthony Principi. His reasoning was that, “both quality of care and timeliness are placed at risk by the larger number of veterans seeking VA medical care.” I believe that all of us want to ensure that all veterans have healthcare coverage. That is absolutely one of my primary goals as I serve on this Committee. In our search for providing for veterans, it is important that we care for our disabled veterans, veterans with special needs, and our country’s poorest veterans.
We are all aware that the VA is operating under an enormous burden at present. Currently, the VA has about 7.9 million enrollees in its system. Returning veterans from Afghanistan and Iraq will continue to swell the number of veterans seeking care, with anticipated new enrollments in the coming year of about 5.8 million veterans. The concern is that without wise budgeting and prioritizing spending, the resources will be stretched so thinly that the incorporation of Priority 8 veterans will inhibit the VA’s ability to provide quality care for all the veterans in the system, including the disabled and lower income vets. As we consider incorporating Priority 8 veterans into the system, let us also consider how we are getting the resources for the department to care for them and practice fiscal discipline to ensure the needs of no veterans are overlooked.