While fixing the economy will certainly be a dominant issue for both President-elect Obama and the 111th Congress, we hope, on this Veterans Day, that health care for our wounded warriors will also be a top priority. Regrettably, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are likely to continue to add to the numbers of veterans in need of mental and physical treatment and rehabilitation.
To meet this need, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) must have sufficient resources provided in a timely and predictable manner next year, and for years to come.
About 18 percent of men and women who served in Iraq and Afghanistan have already returned home at risk of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or depression, according to a recent study by the Rand Corp.
Another 19 percent are estimated of having experienced a traumatic brain injury (TBI) caused by improvised explosive devices that “rattle” the brain. In total more than 300,000 veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan may already be suffering from these often invisible wounds of war.
In too many cases, the VA is unable to properly treat the physical and mental scars of war, in part because its budget has been late for most of the past two decades, and the amount of funding - which has thankfully grown in the last two years - is wildly unpredictable from year to year.
The result is that the VA is severely constrained in trying to plan or manage its budget. Robert Perreault, a former Veterans Health Administration chief business officer, has rightly noted in congressional testimony that “VA funding and the appropriations process is a process no effective business would tolerate.”
Such haphazard financing can directly affect the quality of care at VA hospitals and clinics across the country. Insufficient or late funding can mean an increase in waiting times for appointments. Purchasing new and replacement medical equipment may be put on hold, further delaying the delivery of needed medical treatment. And life-altering conditions such as PTSD and TBI may go undertreated or are not treated at all if specialized mental health care personnel cannot be hired when needed.
A partnership of nine veteran service organizations was created to encourage Congress to provide the VA with timely and predictable funding for veterans medical care. Our solution is simple: Congress should appropriate funding for the VA health care system one year in advance of when the funds are actually needed, a method already used by Congress to finance some housing and education programs. Lawmakers would retain complete discretion to set the funding levels and would continue to have full oversight authority.
While there were not many things the two presidential candidates agreed upon, this proposal, called the Veterans Health Care Budget Reform Act, was one of them. This legislation is also backed by an influential group of Republican and Democratic members of the House and Senate, the 8 million veterans represented by nine leading veteran organizations, and more than 80 percent of the American public, according to a national survey released in September.
With tough economic times ahead, President-elect Barack Obama and Congress face grave choices that will require all of us to sacrifice. But we must never forget the very real sacrifices already made by millions of American veterans who have been injured or disabled as a result of their service. In addition to our thanks, we must promise to ensure they get timely access to the highest quality medical care our nation can deliver. Passing the year-in-advance funding proposal would help to ensure we keep that promise.
Raymond E. Dempsey is national commander of the Disabled American Veterans, which is a member of the Partnership for Veterans Health Care Budget Reform (www.fundingforvets.org).