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Submission For The Record of Mr. David G. Greineder, American Veterans (AMVETS), Deputy National Legislative Director

Chairman Michaud, Ranking Member Miller, and members of the Subcommittee:

AMVETS is honored to join our fellow veterans service organizations and partners at this important hearing on the Department of Veterans Affairs Veterans Health Administration budget request for fiscal year 2008.  My name is David G. Greineder, Deputy National Legislative Director of AMVETS, and I am pleased to provide you with our best estimates on the resources necessary to carry out a responsible budget for VHA.

As you know, AMVETS is a co-author of The Independent Budget.  This is the 21st year AMVETS, the Disabled American Veterans, the Paralyzed Veterans of America, and the Veterans of Foreign Wars have pooled their resources together to produce a unique document, one that has stood the test of time. 

The IB, as it has come to be called, is our blueprint for building the kind of programs veterans deserve.  Indeed, we are proud that over 60 veteran, military, and medical service organizations endorse these recommendations.  In whole, these recommendations provide decision-makers with a rational, rigorous, and sound review of the budget required to support authorized programs for our nation’s veterans. 

In developing this document, we believe in certain guiding principles.  Veterans should not have to wait for benefits to which they are entitled.  Veterans must be ensured access to high-quality medical care.  Specialized care must remain the focus of VA.  Veterans must be guaranteed timely access to the full continuum of health care services, including long-term care.  And, veterans must be assured burial in a state or national cemetery in every state.

As an aside, Mr. Chairman, AMVETS is honored that you are the recipient of the 2007 Congressional Silver Helmet award.  You have been a strong and steadfast supporter of veterans throughout the years, and we look forward to presenting you with the Silver Helmet in March. 

Veterans Health Administration

Everyone knows that the VA healthcare system is the best in the country, and responsible for great advances in medical science.  VHA is uniquely qualified to care for veterans’ needs because of its highly specialized experience in treating service-connected ailments.  The delivery care system can provide a wide array of specialized services to veterans like those with spinal cord injuries and blindness.  This type of care is very expensive and would be almost impossible for veterans to obtain outside of VA.

This week, Congress will finish work on a continuing resolution that will cover the rest of the 2007 fiscal year.  We thank the leadership in the House, from both sides of the aisle, for their work in adding an additional $3.6 billion for VA in the continuing resolution.  Since the start of the current fiscal year in October 2006, VA has been forced to ration care and place freezes on hiring medical staff.  Furthermore, because VA resources has been strained for the nearly five months, it had to raid accounts from many important programs and functions.  Frankly, Mr. Chairman, we cannot do this every year.  We hope we can work together with you to find viable solutions to this yearly reoccurrence.   

For fiscal year 2008, the Administration requests $34.2 billion for veterans’ health care, a $1.9 billion increase over the House-passed continuing resolution.  AMVETS recognizes this increase is more than what VA has seen in other years, however it still falls short.  The Independent Budget recommends Congress provide $36.3 billion to fund VA medical care for FY08, an increase of $4 billion over the FY07 appropriation and $2.1 billion over the administration request.

AMVETS, along with our Independent Budget partners, reaffirm our belief that Priority 8 veterans should be allowed to access VA if they so chose, and we encourage VA to overturn its current policy banning these so-called “high-income” veterans.  VA estimates that more than 1.5 million category 8 veterans will be denied enrollment in 2008.  This is unacceptable and we will continue our fight for them and all veterans when it comes to accessing the quality services VA has to offer.

We are disappointed, and quite frankly irritated, that the administration once again recommended in increase in prescription drug co-payments from $8 to $15 and an indexed enrollment fee, based on veteran incomes.  Although VA has not clearly explained the ramification of such a policy proposal, we estimate that as many as 200,000 veterans will leave the system and more than one million veterans will choose not to enroll.  Is this the message VA wants to send to the 26 million veterans that are alive today, and thousands more returning home from operations overseas?  Congress has soundly rejected these proposals in the past, and we ask you do the same this year.

Assured Funding

Because veterans depend so much on VA and its services, AMVETS believes it is absolutely critical that the VA healthcare system be fully funded.  It is important our nation keep its promise to care for the veterans who made so many sacrifices to ensure the freedom of so many.  With the expected increase in the number of veterans, a need to increase VA health care spending should be an immediate priority this year.  We must remain insistent about funding the needs of the system, and the recruitment and retention of vital health care professionals, especially registered nurses. Chronic under funding has led to rationing of care through reduced services, lengthy delays in appointments, higher co-payments and, in too many cases, sick and disabled veterans being turned away from treatment.

One option, and we believe the best choice, to ensure VA has access to adequate and timely resources is through mandatory, or assured, funding.  I would like to clearly state that AMVETS along with its Independent Budget partners strongly supports shifting VA healthcare funding from discretionary funding to mandatory.  We recommend this action because the current discretionary system is not working.  Moving to mandatory funding would give certainty to healthcare services.  VA facilities would not have to deal with the uncertainty of discretionary funding, which has been inconsistent and inadequate for far too long.  Most importantly, mandatory funding would provide a comprehensive and permanent solution to the current funding problem. 

AMVETS is encouraged from the positive responses we received from the Leadership in the House in holding hearings on the subject of mandatory funding.  This is a start, and one AMVETS looks forward to.  We feel that discussing the topic in a public forum, and reviewing and critiquing the merits of different proposals is how the democratic process should work.  We are anxious to begin the dialogue, Mr. Chairman, and are available as a resource to you and your staff. 

Mr. Chairman, this concludes my testimony.  I thank you again for the privilege to present our views, and I would be pleased to answer any questions you might have.