Mr. PRICE of Georgia. Mr. Chairman, I yield myself such time as I may consume.
I thank the Chair, and I thank the leadership for the opportunity to present this amendment.
This amendment is very simple. It transfers $50 million from the 1990 BRAC account and puts $22 million into the Veterans Health Administration and Medical Services account. The proposal for the 1990 BRAC account is $50 million above the Department of Defense request. As has been talked about with the previous amendment, it is nigh impossible to be spending more than the request.
The money that is in the request is used for environmental cleanup associated with previous BRAC-based closings, and my amendment would make the 1990 BRAC account reflect the Defense Department request and place $22 million of these funds in health care for our veterans. The amendment as scored by CBO is outlay neutral which is the reason for the difference in the figures.
While cleaning up after base closings is indeed important, the unrequested money, as has been mentioned, would be very difficult to spend and would be better spent, I believe, by providing better health care for our returning service men and women.
The conflict we are in has left many soldiers with lifelong injuries, and veterans are acquiring lasting health care. As a physician, I am well aware of the fact that traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder are the signature conditions from our current conflict. As we are learning more about traumatic brain injury and PTSD, we find that more and more of our soldiers are suffering from these injuries.
I believe it is imperative that we ensure that as much funding as possible [Page: H6539]
is available to go for important veterans health care. I believe this amendment to be a fiscally responsible amendment that ensures that our veterans are taken care of in the finest possible manner. I urge adoption of the amendment.
Mr. Chairman, I reserve the balance of my time.
Mr. EDWARDS. Mr. Chairman, I yield myself such time as I may consume.
Mr. Chairman, I am proud of the fact that under the new leadership in the Congress, in a period of 6 months, we will have increased veterans health care spending by over $10 billion compared to the funding level that existed in December of 2006.
Virtually every major veterans organization in America has applauded this bill for its $6 billion increase in veterans health care spending.
I salute any Member of this House who has worked or is working or will work to improve funding for veterans health care, but I must say to the gentleman, and perhaps in fairness to him he spoke to other Members of the House, but when I was working as chairman on the Subcommittee on Veterans Funding for a $3.4 billion increase in VA health care spending for the 2007 continuing resolution, I didn't hear from the gentleman.
When as chairman I worked to add $1.8 billion in the Iraq war supplemental for VA health care programs, I didn't hear from the gentleman.
When Mr. Wicker and I worked together on a bipartisan basis to put together the largest increase in VA health care spending in the 77-year history of the VA, I didn't hear from the gentleman any requests for an additional $22 million for VA medical services.
Here at the relatively last moment we get this amendment. While it is well intentioned and I salute and respect the gentleman for trying to increase funding for VA health care, we have been working for 6 months to provide more health care funding for the VA than any previous Congress in the history of the country. And with Mr. Wicker's bipartisan leadership, we have accomplished that so far.
The problem I have with this amendment is that it takes $50 million out of the BRAC 1990 account. Now, in this bill we provide $3.8 billion above the President's request for VA health care and benefits programs and only $207 million above the President's request for BRAC and military construction together.
I think it is very modest to ask for, given there is a $3.5 billion backlog to clean up former military sites all across America, in States such as California, Texas. And in a number of other States, Alabama, Alaska, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, this BRAC 1990 money is needed to help these communities get back on their feet and take this former military land and use it for the benefit
of their communities and for economic growth in their communities.
So given we have had a $3.8 billion increase in veterans health care spending above the President's request in this bill, I think it is more than fair that we add an additional $50 million to a BRAC 1990 program that needs $3.5 billion.
So I am going to oppose the gentleman's amendment and encourage him to work with our committee on a bipartisan basis in the months ahead, just as the Members of the committee worked on a bipartisan basis to provide historic increases in veterans health care funding.
Mr. Chairman, I yield the balance of my time to Mr. Blumenauer.
Mr. BLUMENAUER. Mr. Chairman, I appreciate the gentleman's courtesy, and I am really bitterly disappointed that we would have somebody come before us to break the commitment that we have to the previous BRAC-round cleanups, communities across the country who are going to wait up to 60 years to have their bases cleaned up, to take that funding and further reduce it. I think this is a very cruel cut.
If you wanted to do something, you've got $13 billion in the 2005 BRAC account that is only going to be spent a maximum of 10 percent. Why in heaven's name would we reach back and penalize people who have been waiting in some cases since 1988 to have the Federal Government keep its commitment to base closure and cleanup. I think this is cruel. I think it is unjustified. I think that it is unfair to make these communities that have dealt with unexploded ordnances and military toxins and have land
that is not available for reuse and penalize them for a small amount of veterans health.
I respectfully request that we reject this amendment.
Mr. PRICE of Georgia. Mr. Chairman, I appreciate the chairman's comments, and I applaud the work he has done to increase funding for veterans health care, sincerely. I don't recall, specifically, requests to the committee; but I am certainly on record in multiple areas across this Congress in urging increased funding for health care. As a physician, I appreciate the need for increased funding for health care across all areas of our budget.
My understanding regarding this provision in the bill is that the $50 million increase over the DOD request is, as I understood it, money that would not be able to be spent in fiscal year 2008. Consequently, that was the reason we requested or proposed in this amendment that the money come from that. So removing $50 million from there, based on outlays by CBO, would stipulate that $22 million was available; and it is my respected request to my colleagues that we place that money for veterans
health care for the obvious benefits to all.
Mr. Chairman, I yield back the balance of my time.
Mr. FARR. Mr. Chairman, I would just like to respond to the gentleman from Georgia about his amendment.
First of all, I think it is an ill-conceived amendment, and here's why.
In order to build veterans facilities on former military property, you have to have that property cleaned and cleared and transferred. I happen to represent a base where we have that problem. We have to clear the area. So if you want to provide health care for your communities, you have to do this clearance.
Your statement that this money couldn't be spent is totally false. These are projects ready to go. It is the newest BRAC round that can't be spent until 2008 because they have to have all their plans in place.
You are cutting $50 million out of something that is very critical for a lot of communities and can do a lot of good, and you are adding it to a program where we just put in $3.4 billion. $3.4 billion. So $50 million more in that account is not going to help.
Frankly, we have already raised that account in committee with strong bipartisan support by $1.7 billion over what the President asked for. So you are going to steal from essentially accounts that are critical and put it into an account that has been plussed-up and is fat. The consequences are going to be that people who are wanting to provide health care services for veterans in their community won't be able to build that facility or get that facility refurbished because the environmental cleanup
hasn't been done because we didn't have enough money in the old account. And the only way we can get that money in the account, as I said previously, is to appropriate it.
I think this is a very reckless amendment. I would prefer that we even add more, but that was opposed. But this one, I would hope that you might withdraw your amendment because you are going to do more harm than good.
Mr. PRICE of Georgia. I appreciate the chairman yielding.
I would hope that we wouldn't impugn an individual's motives for bringing amendments forward. My motive is sincere. I believe it is appropriate to increase funding for veterans health care as much as possible, and it was my understanding, and we can disagree about whether or not the funds would be available to be spent in fiscal year 2008, and we may have a legitimate disagreement about that, but I would hope that we wouldn't impugn an individual's motives. [Page: H6540]
Mr. EDWARDS. Reclaiming my time, I certainly don't question the gentleman's motives. Could I ask the gentleman where did the $22 million figure come from.
We increased VA health care spending in this bill by $3.8 billion above what President Bush asked for. That is a $6 billion increase in VA health care spending over last year. That level of funding has been saluted by every national veterans organization, including the American Legion, Military Officers Association of America, AMVETS, National Association for Uniformed Service, Disabled American Veterans, and dozens of others. Where did the gentleman at the last minute come up with the $22 million
We haven't had this conversation at any time during the first 6 months of this year when we were working on adding $10 billion, and it was done on a bipartisan basis, to VA health care funding.
Where did the $22 million figure come from, if I can ask the gentleman?
Mr. EDWARDS. Right. You take $50 million in order to add $22 million, but did the gentleman meet with Veterans Administration leaders, perhaps the Secretary of Health for the VA, and did they request this additional $22 million?
Was there a specific project that wasn't being funded or a particular need that wasn't being met by the $6 billion increase in VA health care spending this year that caused the gentleman to ask specifically for a $22 million increase?
Mr. EDWARDS. And I agree with the gentleman. That is why we provided over $600 million more than the administration request to improve mental health care, traumatic brain injury and PTSD services.
Reclaiming my time, Mr. Chairman, I respect the gentleman's intentions in this effort. I would simply say that we have provided a historic increase in VA health care spending in this bill. That level of funding has been supported by virtually every major veterans organization in America, and we ought not to have to gut another important program for the gentleman's last-minute amendment.
Mr. BISHOP of Georgia. Mr. Chairman, thank you very much for yielding.
Mr. Chairman, the prevalence of HIV/AIDS among veterans who access the VA health care system is markedly higher than that of the general population. Furthermore, barriers within this system contribute to already late diagnoses of HIV among veterans. Early diagnosis is crucial because the sooner an HIV-infected person begins treatment, the more manageable and the more cost effective their treatment will be.
I speak today as a member of the subcommittee with concern about the impact of HIV/AIDS on veterans, not only in Georgia, but throughout the Southeast and every major city around the Nation.
The need for action on this issue, Mr. Chairman, is exemplified by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's recent Heightened Response to HIV/AIDS in African American Communities initiative. These actions follow the September 2006 release of the CDC's revised HIV testing guidelines, which advise HIV testing become a routine part of medical care.
The VA is the largest integrated health care system in the United States and, therefore, the largest provider of HIV care in the country. However, VA's current HIV testing policy is based on an outdated testing model which is inconsistent with the CDC guidelines.
Compared to the general population, the prevalence of HIV infections is higher among those accessing the VA health care system. A recent study that was conducted by a VA researcher found that at the time of diagnosis 55 percent of HIV-positive veterans had already developed Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome, or AIDS, which takes roughly 10 years to develop after it's initially contracted.
Even more disturbing is the fact that most of these veterans had accessed the VA health care system on an average of six times before they were ever diagnosed with this disease. This outdated VA HIV testing policy denies veterans sensible and what is now recommended as standard access to HIV screening in other health care systems.
I applaud the chairman for his leadership in making health care for veterans a priority in the VA appropriations bill. Mr. Chairman, I'm hoping that we can work together to further explore this important issue and address it in an appropriate way as we move forward on the VA Appropriations measure for fiscal 2008.
At this point, I'd like to ask the chairman of the subcommittee if he would be so kind as to yield to Mr. Jackson from Illinois to speak to the issue of HIV prevalence among veterans.
Mr. JACKSON of Illinois. Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
Mr. Chairman, let me first thank my friend from Georgia (Mr. Bishop) for his remarks and for his leadership in bringing this topic to the attention of our colleagues. I would also like to recognize the timeliness of his comments, as National HIV Testing Day is on June 27.
The gravity of this issue cannot be understated, and I hope to work with Mr. Bishop and lend my support to address the veterans who suffer from this interminable disease. [Page: H6541]
Chicago is the epicenter of HIV/AIDS in Illinois. Roughly 70 percent of reported AIDS cases in the State are in Chicago. Minorities account for approximately 69 percent of the city's total population, but represent 81 percent recently diagnosed AIDS cases. Minorities constitute 20 percent of veterans in Illinois; yet the trend of HIV/AIDS among the State population and the higher prevalence of HIV/AIDS among veterans in general demonstrates minority veterans are disproportionately affected by
HIV/AIDS has had a significant impact on veterans across the country. Combating the spread of this disease through testing and education is not only important to our communities, but vital for the health of all Americans.
I want to thank the chairman for yielding me the time and thank Mr. Bishop for his leadership.
Mr. EDWARDS. I want to thank Mr. Jackson and Mr. Bishop for your leadership on this. By exercising early intervention, we can save the lives of thousands of America's veterans and prevent them from having HIV or AIDS. It will be a tremendous service to those who have served our country in uniform, and I look forward to working with both gentlemen as we go to conference committee and as we work with the Veterans' Affairs Committee to address this serious national problem.