From: Veterans Press <Vetspress@MAIL.HOUSE.GOV>
Date: Wed, 8 Feb 2006 17:01:29 -0500

Announces Support for modernized GI Bill Initiative
Pleased with VA's $80.6 billion budget request

Washington, D.C. — Chairman Steve Buyer (R-Ind.) today held a full committee oversight hearing on the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) budget request for Fiscal Year 2007.  Secretary of Veterans Affairs R. James Nicholson detailed the Administration’s $80.6 billion request, the largest dollar increase in discretionary funding for VA ever requested by a president.

“It is worth noting that the President has proposed substantial increases in the budgets of four agencies:  the Departments of Defense, State, and Homeland Security – agencies focused on fighting the war on terror; and the Department of Veterans Affairs – an agency focused on caring for those who have borne the battle,” said Buyer.

Chairman Buyer commended Secretary Nicholson for his leadership in examining and learning from the problems with VA’s budgeting process that led to funding shortfalls in fiscal years 2005 and 2006, both since corrected by supplemental funds.

“By improving the integrity of the process, this budget will more effectively meet the needs of this nation’s 25 million veterans and their dependents,” said Buyer. “The Secretary owns this budget,” he said.  Buyer also praised the heroic response of VA employees to Hurricane Katrina, safely and quickly evacuating thousands of patients.

Buyer considers this budget a good first step, but acknowledged the committee has concerns with some items in the request.  As it did last year, the Administration proposed that veterans who do not have service-connected disabilities, special disabilities such as blindness, or lower incomes, pay a $250 annual enrollment fee and higher drug co-pays.  Congress did not support these fees and co-pay increases last year; in the current budget request, they account for approximately $800 million in funding.

Further, Buyer said, “Given the Department’s track record, the VA’s projections of nearly $3 billion in collections from third-party health care insurers appears overly optimistic.”  Buyer also noted potentially inadequate funding levels for VA’s Inspector General, medical research and raised concerns about any reduction in staff needed to adjudicate claims.

Turning to the importance of helping veterans transition from the military and take full advantage of the educational opportunities, Buyer announced his support of initiatives to modernize the GI Bill.

“I welcome ideas and proposals such as one made by the Partnership for Veterans Education, led by retired U.S. Navy Vice Admiral Norb Ryan.  The Montgomery GI Bill, as good as it is, does not reflect the realities facing today’s servicemembers, especially those in the Guard and Reserves.  We must modernize the GI Bill,” said Buyer.

Efforts to modernize the GI Bill would include enabling members of the Guard and Reserve to continue their education after they are discharged.  In addition, increasing the flexibility of benefits would enable veterans to prepare for a wider variety of good jobs and careers.

Following Secretary Nicholson, testimony was received from representatives of veterans groups which develop the annual Independent Budget – AMVETS, Disabled American Veterans, the Paralyzed Veterans of America, and the Veterans of Foreign Wars.  Also testifying were representatives of The American Legion and Vietnam Veterans of America.  Some expressed concerns with fees and unrealistic projections for collections.  Others discussed the potential opportunities offered by collaboration between VA and other entities, such as medical teaching universities. While these partnerships can enhance access to quality care, concern was expressed that veterans must have facilities and staff that are focused on their specific needs.

Closing the hearing, Buyer thanked the veterans’ groups for their participation and told them that their input today and in next week’s legislative hearings would be used as the Committee develops its 2007 views and estimates for submission to the House Budget Committee.

“We have an obligation, established in law and in the very fabric of our faith as a nation, to compensate and care for those who bear the burdens of war and of military service, whether those scars are in body or mind.  The work of this committee and our counterparts in the Senate must move us toward the fulfillment of that obligation,” Buyer said. 

The Administration’s FY07 budget request for the VA includes:

  • $36 billion for Medical Care; a 12.2% increase from 2006 (excluding supplementals and carry-over funding from FY06)

  • $42 billion in mandatory funding to support benefits programs: 14.5% increase over the enacted level for 2006.

  • $3.2 billion in mental health services; $339 million above the FY06 funding level.

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