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Hon. Jeff Miller, Ranking Republican Member, and a Representative in Congress from the State of Florida

Thank you, Mr. Chairman.  I want to congratulate you, Mike, as you assume your new role as Chairman of the Subcommittee on Health. 

I, myself, am honored to have been selected by my colleagues to serve as the Ranking Member.  With the return of thousands of new veterans from the Global War on Terror in need of medical services, this Subcommittee faces additional responsibilities and challenges.   I look forward to working with you and all of the Members of the Subcommittee to see that the highest quality medical care is provided to our new generation of younger veterans and our older veterans from past conflicts.

In recognition of today being Valentine’s Day, I want to express my heartfelt gratitude to the brave men and women serving in our Armed Forces.  I also want to take this opportunity to thank all the dedicated VA health care personnel throughout the country that work hard to make sure that servicemembers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan and all of our honorable veterans receive the best care. 

Over the past decade, we have watched VA transform its health care system from one with a lackluster reputation to one that is highly rated and highly regarded.  Research study after study continues to distinguish the VA health care system for its outstanding performance, recognizing the significant benefit of VA’s use of electronic medical records, focus on preventative care and measurable accountability. 

The Department proposes a record $36.6 billion for VA health care for fiscal year 2008 - the largest amount ever requested by any Administration, and a 6 percent increase over the fiscal year 2007 request.  

It is satisfying to see that after this Committee uncovered weaknesses in the process VA used to develop its health care budget last Congress, the budget request for fiscal year 2008 is more transparent.  For example, this year’s budget submission does not assume savings from "management efficiencies," that the Government Accountability Office (GAO) recently reported, did not materialize in years past.

I am concerned, however, that the Administration again requests legislation to establish enrollment fees and increase pharmacy co-payments for certain Priority Group 8 veterans.  These proposals do differ from last year in that they are not assumed as reductions to the Administration’s request for appropriations.  Still, Congress has emphatically rejected similar legislative proposals the last four years running and I am certain that the political will of this Congress will not support these proposals. 

The Administration requests nearly $3 billion for mental health services, including $360 million to continue implementation of mental health initiatives begun in 2005 to address deficiencies and gaps in services.  While this amount is substantial, last September, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) reported that VA had not used all of the mental health funds Congress allocated in 2005.  We must have a better handle on how much and in what way VA is spending its resources to meet the emerging demand for mental health services, especially Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).  VA must plan for and fund those programs that have been identified as particularly relevant to the needs and requirements of our soldiers. 

The Department of Defense is reporting that more than 12,000 returning wounded servicemembers suffer with Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI).  Because of the frequency and unique nature of TBI, it is vital that VA continues to embrace and enhance an interdisciplinary program to handle the medical, psychological, rehabilitation, and prosthetic needs of these injured servicemembers.  It is a high priority of mine to ensure that appropriate funds are available to support important research into TBI causes and prevention and efforts for early identification and better clinical diagnosis to separate TBI from PTSD.  

The Administration’s budget request includes $740 million for major and minor medical facility construction, more than a 60 percent increase over the FY 2007 request.

Three years ago, the Capital Asset Realignment for Enhanced Services (CARES) Commission identified the Florida Panhandle region as underserved for inpatient care.  In fact, it is the only market area in the VISN, VISN 16, without a medical center. 

The absence of a VA inpatient facility continues to be one of the biggest concerns of the more than 100,000 veterans who live in my Congressional District.   Currently, many of these veterans have to drive to Mississippi to receive inpatient care.

The VA patient workload in the State of Florida is among the highest in the Nation and the demand for VA health care continues to grow, especially in Okaloosa County, the center of my Congressional District. 

Bringing a full service VA hospital to the first district is something I have been fighting for.  I look forward to working with the Department in support of VA’s overall capital construction program to address the issue of providing timely access to inpatient healthcare for veterans living in and around Okaloosa County.

In conclusion, I thank our witnesses for appearing today, and look forward to your testimony.

Thank you, Mr. Chairman, I ask that my statement be included in the record, and yield back the balance of my time.