Mikulski Floor Statement on FY16 Veterans & Military Construction Appropriations Bill
WASHINGTON, D.C. – Today, U.S. Senator Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.), Vice Chairwoman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, spoke on the Senate floor about the fiscal year 2016 Military Construction and Veterans Affairs (VA), and Related Agencies appropriations bill.
The following are Vice Chairwoman Mikulski’s remarks, as prepared for delivery:
“I’ve been fighting for veterans since I first was elected to Congress. It was important to me then. It’s important to me now.
“Veterans are our nation’s heroes. They put their lives on the line to fight for our freedom and make tremendous sacrifices to protect our country and our values. Whether our veterans served at Iwo Jima, Pork Chop Hill, the Mekong Delta, Iraq or Afghanistan – America owes our veterans a debt of gratitude. It’s important that we show our gratitude not just with words and medals, but with deeds. Veterans priorities are my priorities.
“Working with veterans, we’ve accomplished a lot together over the years, from increasing access to health clinics to reducing the VA backlog to fighting to put funds in the federal checkbook, making sure promises made are promises kept. That’s why when veterans told me the Senate Committee bill was too spartan, underfunding our veterans by more than $850 million, I voted against it. We rolled up our sleeves to get more money in this bill to meet critical and growing needs through caregiver programs and lifesaving Hepatitis-C drugs.
“We are on the floor today with the Kirk-Tester substitute amendment to add $2 billion for veterans health care because we passed the bipartisan, bicameral budget agreement to get funds for important priorities, including our nation’s veterans.
“I want to thank Chairman Kirk and Ranking Member Tester for what is in this bill. It supports needed military construction, particularly in Maryland. I especially appreciate the bill’s funding of access control points at Fort Meade. The bill also continues progress on two important issues I have fought for: shrinking the VA backlog with my checklist for change and advance funding for mandatory veterans benefits, so veterans and their beneficiaries wouldn’t be shut down if Congress couldn’t complete its work.
“First, I want to discuss the terrible claim backlog, a national shame and national scandal. At its peak in March 2013, the backlog was over 611,000 claims nationwide and it took more than 125 days to process a claim. In Maryland, the backlog peaked in October 2012 with 14,818 claims, each representing a veteran seeking disability benefits. Veterans who fought on the front lines shouldn’t have to stand in line for care and benefits they’ve earned and deserve.
“That is why I fought to make sure the VA had additional tools and resources to address the backlog in the fiscal year 2014 Omnibus Appropriations bill. The fiscal year 2016 bill on the floor today increases funds for VA claims processing by $164 million, for a total of $2.7 billion, which will support 770 additional claims processors.
“But I didn’t just throw money at the problem, because that never gets the results you actually need. That’s why part of the funding for the VA’s claims processing won’t be available until the VA gives Congress a real plan for fixing issues with veterans records. I’m holding their feet to the fire, making sure they don’t get a blank check – doing my job to make sure the VA is doing its job. While we were dealing with crisis of the backlog at the VA, we were also dealing with crisis of politics in Washington where in the end more gets said than gets done.
“In the closing hours of 2014, I met with Disabled Veterans of America and a coalition of seven Veterans Service Organizations, from American Legion to Vietnam Veterans to Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. They asked me to add advance appropriations to the Omnibus bill, funding veterans benefits one year in advance to protect them from shutdown, slamdown politics. Together – we made history.
“Because of what we did last year, for the first time veterans benefits will be funded a year in advance in this bill, with $103.9 billion in advance appropriations. That means government shutdowns and delays will no longer impact benefits. You will still get your retirement payments if you were permanently disabled while in the military. Your health care costs for illnesses and injuries you got while in the military like back pain, hearing loss, or PTSD won’t be impacted. Your GI Bill Check to continue your college education with proper housing, books and board will keep coming. And survivors’ insurance checks to spouses won’t be impacted by a shutdown, because they made the ultimate sacrifice.
“Maryland veterans and Barb Mikulski have been together for a long time. We’ll always be together. To Maryland’s veterans – I thank you. You’ve honored me with your confidence and trust. I’ve tried to live up to it and will continue to do that every day. You’ve fought your battles, and I’ll never stop fighting for you. I look forward to moving the fiscal year 2016 VA-Military Construction bill and enacting it, along with the other 11 appropriations bills before December 11 – so there is no Christmas crisis.”
Contact: Mara Stark-Alcalá (202) 224-2667
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