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“The only thing necessary for these diseases to the triumph is for good people and governments to do nothing.”

      

VETERANS

Rep. Benjamin A. Gilman
20th District, New York

    The 106th Congress was one of the most veteran friendly in our nation’s history.  Not only did we provide a record amount of funding for veterans health care, we also updated and expanded veterans health care and education benefits.    When the Balanced-Budget Act passed in 1997, many feared it would have a severely detrimental effect on VA health care.   The fear most frequently expressed was that since veterans discretionary funds were frozen by the BBA, VA health care resources would eventually be stretched too thin.

    The VA  assured Congress in testimony that the retention of third party insurance receipts would make up for any future shortfalls in discretionary funding.   Regrettably, this has not been the case.  The freeze in health care spending, when coupled with rising medical inflation and mandatory pay raises for VA employees, has resulted in a serious decline in the ability of the VA to perform its health care mission.

    

    The problems which we saw three years ago in New York have now spread across the nation.  In one sense, this is positive, because it has finally garnered the attention of the Veterans Affairs Committee.

    I was pleased to see that President Bush's first proposed budget for VA healthcare requested a $1 billion increase over the level in the budget for Fiscal Year 2001.  This marked a refreshing change from the prior administration, which had flat-lined health care budgets for four of the past five years.  Over the past five years, Congress has provided $93 billion for VA health care, $16.3 billion more than the previous five years.

    While this Congressional appropriation is a positive development, it does not necessarily help the budget of VISN 3 in New York, which continues to face shortfalls and crowding out costs associated with the Hepatitis C vaccine, medical inflation and labor costs.   Last year I sought, and secured, the support of Veterans Committee Chairman Bob Stump in directing the Central VA office to divert $60 million from the National Reserve Account to VISN 3 for the purpose of offsetting funds lost to VERA and medical inflation.

    Despite the budget problems, I am more concerned with how the VA allocates the funds which Congress appropriates.  As many of you know, I, along with many of my colleagues from the State of New York,  was strongly opposed to the VA’s plan of reallocating funds to the south and southwest which had  been targeted for the northeast.  The model which the VA used to determine where to shift the funds was inherently biased against those veterans living in areas with high costs-of-living, particularly those in the northeast.   Although the VERA program has now officially ended, its effects still linger.   As I did last year, I intend to ensure that VA facilities in New York receive funding at levels sufficient to provide high quality health care to our veterans.   Throughout the past two years, I have been urging consistently reminded the top officials of the VA that they need to remember the human side of VA health care and that bureaucratic decisions have ways of impacting upon thousands of lives.

    

    Finally, the 106th Congress upgraded and improved a host of other veterans benefit programs.  These included: a major upgrade to the Montgomery G.I. bill, sweeping claims assistance legislation, badly needed pay raises for VA dentists, pharmacists and nurses, and the provision of lifetime medical care for all military retirees and their families.