Editorial Column: Care, Benefits for Vets Should be Top Priority

The State Journal-Register

November 11, 2008 – George Washington once said, “The willingness with which our young people are likely to serve in any war, no matter how justified, shall be directly proportional as to how they perceive the veterans of earlier wars were treated and appreciated by their country.”

Our first president had it exactly right. On this Veterans Day, as we continue to fight wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, it is more important than ever to honor our nation’s heroes by providing them the care and benefits they deserve.

In the 110th Congress, we have begun to live up to the promises made to our veterans. In 2007, we passed the single largest increase for veterans’ health care in the 77-year history of the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). That means more money for post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), traumatic brain injury (TBI) and prosthetics. We followed that up with additional funding this year.

Unfortunately, 17 of the last 19 VA budgets have been late. This is inexcusable. Funding for our veterans should take first priority.

I have introduced the Assured Funding for Veterans Health Care Act to make VA health care a mandatory spending item within the federal budget, like Social Security and Medicare. It currently has 127 co-sponsors. I am also supporting efforts to authorize appropriations for VA health care one year in advance of the start of the fiscal year. In other words, VA health care would have a one-year advantage over other programs, ensuring it is timely, sufficient and predictable. I am hopeful that next year we can finally improve the system for disbursing VA health-care funds.

In June of this year, Congress achieved another victory for our veterans by passing a new GI Bill of Rights. After World War II, Congress saw a need to help veterans rebuild their lives, for the benefit of both the individual service member and the nation as a whole. That original GI Bill offered veterans the chance to attend college, purchase a home and contribute to a slowly rebuilding American economy. Now we have extended that same opportunity to Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, including Reservists and National Guardsmen.

I am very proud that Congress passed legislation to reduce the immoral backlog of 800,000 VA disability claims. The Veterans Disability Benefits Claims Modernization Act, which President Bush signed last month, instantly pays partial claims for severely wounded veterans, completely overhauls the prehistoric ratings schedule that has contributed to the size and scope of the backlog, and repairs the flawed and broken system of processing claims.

The president also signed my legislation to improve mental health care for veterans and their families. Previous law allowed the VA to provide professional counseling, consultation, training and mental health services to the immediate family members of veterans being treated for service-connected conditions when such services are deemed necessary for the veteran’s treatment.

However, with respect to other veterans, the statute stated that the VA may only provide such services when they are initiated during a period of hospitalization. My legislation – the Mental Health for Heroes’ Families Act – eliminated that hospitalization requirement. Now we can end the nitpicking about how a veteran was injured or where they were treated and offer these services to each and every family that needs them.

There is much more to do in the weeks and months ahead. We must help veterans who are sleeping on the street or contemplating suicide. We must build more polytrauma units and improve access to mental health care. And we must hold the VA accountable for providing benefits in a timely fashion. I will continue to use my seat on the House Veterans Affairs Committee to ensure that we honor our veterans in deeds, not just words.

Congressman Phil Hare, D-Rock Island, is a member of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee and served six years in the U.S. Army Reserves.

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