For Immediate Release Contact: Geoffrey Collver, 202-225-9756
January 30, 2006
The Bush Administration's Record of Shortchanging Veterans: The Real State of the Union
Washington, D.C. - Congressman Lane Evans of Illinois, Senior Democrat on the House Veterans' Affairs Committee, issued the following statement on the President's State of the Union address:
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 serving 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 II 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 funds 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;
- Recommendations arising from evaluations of VA programs have gone ignored or unimplemented, such as:
- Increasing benefits to surviving spouses with children whose veteran spouses died as the result of service to our Nation;
- Increasing funds for maintenance of cemeteries as national shrines;
- Reducing premiums paid for government life insurance by severely disabled veterans;
- 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.