2:09 PM EDT

Chet Edwards, D-TX 17th

Mr. EDWARDS. Mr. Chairman, I ask unanimous consent that the remainder of title I and all of title II be considered as read, printed in the Record, and open to amendment at any point.

I believe this has been cleared with the minority leadership.

2:09 PM EDT

Jerry Moran, R-KS 1st

Mr. MORAN of Kansas. Mr. Chairman, I commend the committee's work in regard to the funding levels that are here before us in this Veterans Administration and Military Quality of Life appropriation bill. [Page: H6547]

I am pleased to be here in support of this legislation, but I do have an amendment. My amendment would transfer $125 million from veterans health administration accounts to the medical services account, and the purpose of doing so is to increase the amount of mileage reimbursement that disabled veterans receive for travel for medical services.

Currently, and, in fact, since 1978, our veterans have received 11 cents per mile. One would think that to be a misstatement on our part. I think it's very hard to believe that since 1978 we have not increased that reimbursement rate.

Because of funding constraints and priorities, I'm not asking that it be increased to what most of us would think is appropriate. Amendments have been offered in support on this House floor that have been demonstrated for the 48 1/2 cents allowed by IRS regulations.

On the floor today is the gentleman from Georgia who offered an amendment that passed unanimously by voice vote earlier this session that would increase the rate, authorize the increased rate to 48 1/2 cents. My amendment today appropriates the money, provides the money necessary to double the mileage reimbursement rate for disabled veterans from 11 cents per mile to 22 cents per mile.

A reasonable reimbursement rate is awfully important. This bill, in my opinion, goes a long way toward increasing the likelihood that veterans will have access to medical care and services that they so desperately need and so sincerely desire and deserve.

Those of us, however, who come from places in which it's a long distance to receive that service, to receive those benefits, are very concerned that there are people who are slipping through the cracks, as we have heard in other instances, within the VA system, because they cannot afford to make the trip to see the physician, to be seen at the hospital, to receive the services that they are entitled to.

I represent a district approximately the size of the State of Illinois. There is no VA hospital within the district. So my veterans must travel significant distances in order to receive care and treatment, and we know what has occurred in regard to the cost of travel with gas prices where they are today, as compared to where they were in 1978 when 11 cents per mile was established.

This concept is supported by our veterans service organization. I am a member of the House Veterans' Affairs Committee. I have chaired the health care subcommittee. This has been an issue we have dealt with for a long time, and I have seen amendments offered in previously years often stuck on a point of order or for me to withdraw them.

Today, I think it's important that we move forward, particularly at a time when we were increasing the amount of money available within the VA funding stream. If we don't do it now, when will we do it? I offered this amendment, a similar amendment, in 2003, and most years since. It's always going to be next year.

With the levels of funding that are provided for in the underlying appropriation bill, it seems important for us, to me, for us not to sidestep this issue for another year.

Mr. Chairman, I reserve the balance of my time.

2:14 PM EDT

Chet Edwards, D-TX 17th

Mr. EDWARDS. Mr. Chairman, in all due respect, I had not seen this amendment until 2 minutes ago.

I wish we had an opportunity to sit down, as our subcommittee has been doing for the last 6 months on a bipartisan basis, to see if the legitimate needs that the gentleman from Kansas has raised could have been dealt with through our subcommittee process.

The problem with what the gentleman has proposed in this amendment, while it might sound like we are cutting medical administration overhead at the central office in Washington, D.C., the gentleman may or may not know that the VA Medical Administration account funds employees with their feet on the ground, in the hospitals all across America, including in the gentleman's home State.

So, perhaps, unintentionally, I assume unintentionally, this amendment would cut funding needed to fund security at our VA hospitals, it would cut funds needed to provide patient medical information, transcription of patient records, financial management services at our VA hospitals and third-party collection activities.

[Time: 14:15]

So, unintentionally, by cutting this funding, it could make it more difficult to even bring third-party funding into the VA system and into the Treasury. So for those reasons, I must rise in opposition to this amendment.

I would be happy to sit down and work on a bipartisan basis to try to find a way to increase the miles reimbursement rate for veterans. I completely agree with the gentleman that the miles reimbursement rates are inadequate.

And I would like to think, given that we increased the medical services account for 2008 by $3.4 billion over the 2007 level, and given that we increased it by $1.7 billion over the President's request for medical services, my hope would be that the VA could seriously look at using those significant increases in funding to address the shortfall that the gentleman has mentioned.

I'm not sure what the authorizing process is. Since this amendment was one I'd never seen prior to, now 4 or 5 minutes ago, I'm not sure if there's a need to authorize funding for this if that authorization has passed both the House and the Senate. I think it might have been in the Wounded Warrior legislation. But there might be an authorization question. Perhaps not.

But I would like to request the gentleman draw down the amendment. He doesn't have to, but I'd be happy to work in good faith, as we've been working all year long, to address legitimate needs. And the gentleman has pointed out a legitimate need.

But I want to be clear. I strongly oppose this amendment because it could hurt medical services provided to veterans by cutting out funding needed to staff our VA hospitals. The source of this money wouldn't be cutting out the Washington, D.C., office staff; it would be cutting out employees that are serving vital roles in our veterans hospitals in the gentleman's home State as well as mine.

2:17 PM EDT

Jerry Moran, R-KS 1st

Mr. MORAN of Kansas. Mr. Chairman, I appreciate the comments offered by the gentleman from Texas (Mr. Edwards). I will have to admit to him that my amendment is not unintentional, and so his assumption that the offset that I'm providing is an unintentional offering on my part is not true. I'm aware of where the money comes from and still believe that this is a high priority. And, in fact, this bill, the medical administration account, receives a 14 1/2 percent, $458 million, increase

over last year's funding levels, and $193 million more than the President requested in fiscal year 2008. And, in fact, our authorizing committee, both the minority and majority views, accepted those, the President's recommendation, as our suggested funding levels.

So again, in searching year after year for a place from which this money can come, it is not without concern that we have chosen these accounts. But this is the year in which there is a 14.5 percent increase in those funds. And even if my amendment would be adopted, it would still allow for a 10.6 percent increase in those administrative accounts.

Mr. Chairman, I reserve the balance of my time.

2:18 PM EDT

Chet Edwards, D-TX 17th

Mr. EDWARDS. Mr. Chairman, if I could use my remaining time, I'd like to just say to the gentleman, I appreciate his bringing this serious problem before the House. I wish, in hindsight, he'd brought it to us earlier than 5 or 10 minutes ago. I hope we could work together to try to find a way to address the needs he's mentioned.

But, my colleagues, let me reemphasize two points. He may know the source of the funding, but I'm not sure he intended to actually cut out funding, which this amendment would do, that is needed to hire VA employees to man our VA hospitals to see our veterans get the service that they desperately need and deserve.

In addition, we've had lengthy discussion, including from the Republican leadership, about the importance of oversight of this additional funding, [Page: H6548]

this historic level of funding we're putting into the VA this year. If we cut out the accounts that the gentleman's trying to cut out in this amendment, that undermines the entire effort that was discussed so eloquently by my Republican colleagues, that we've got to have enough money to have oversight to see

that these new dollars are spent wisely and for the highest priority.

So, if the gentleman persists in offering the amendment and having a vote on it, I would ask my colleagues, on a bipartisan basis, in all due respect, to reject it and allow us to then work together in the months ahead to find an appropriate way to more adequately fund reimbursement rates for America's veterans.

I believe, personally and strongly, that this amendment would do harm to medical care to veterans, not intentionally, because the gentleman is a strong supporter of veterans. But nevertheless, it would do harm to service to veterans and undermine our ability to have strong oversight on the historic increases in VA funding that we provide in this bill.

2:18 PM EDT

Chet Edwards, D-TX 17th

Mr. EDWARDS. Mr. Chairman, if I could use my remaining time, I'd like to just say to the gentleman, I appreciate his bringing this serious problem before the House. I wish, in hindsight, he'd brought it to us earlier than 5 or 10 minutes ago. I hope we could work together to try to find a way to address the needs he's mentioned.

But, my colleagues, let me reemphasize two points. He may know the source of the funding, but I'm not sure he intended to actually cut out funding, which this amendment would do, that is needed to hire VA employees to man our VA hospitals to see our veterans get the service that they desperately need and deserve.

In addition, we've had lengthy discussion, including from the Republican leadership, about the importance of oversight of this additional funding, [Page: H6548]

this historic level of funding we're putting into the VA this year. If we cut out the accounts that the gentleman's trying to cut out in this amendment, that undermines the entire effort that was discussed so eloquently by my Republican colleagues, that we've got to have enough money to have oversight to see

that these new dollars are spent wisely and for the highest priority.

So, if the gentleman persists in offering the amendment and having a vote on it, I would ask my colleagues, on a bipartisan basis, in all due respect, to reject it and allow us to then work together in the months ahead to find an appropriate way to more adequately fund reimbursement rates for America's veterans.

I believe, personally and strongly, that this amendment would do harm to medical care to veterans, not intentionally, because the gentleman is a strong supporter of veterans. But nevertheless, it would do harm to service to veterans and undermine our ability to have strong oversight on the historic increases in VA funding that we provide in this bill.

2:21 PM EDT

John Barrow, D-GA 12th

Mr. BARROW. Mr. Chairman, this is an important bill that addresses the needs of our veterans who've been neglected for too long now. Taking care of our veterans is important at any time, but it's particularly important in a time of war. So I want to thank you, Mr. Chairman, and your staff for your hard work on this bill.

I recently conducted a tour of veterans service organizations all across my district, and one of the things I heard over and over again was the growth in demand for veterans services in the future, and that's what I'd like to discuss with you, Mr. Chairman.

Mr. Chairman, community-based outpatient clinics play a vital role in meeting the health care needs of our veterans, especially in the rural parts of our country. My district, a 17-county area centered on Statesboro, Georgia, contains some 34,000 veterans. And I ask for your commitment, Mr. Chairman, to work in conference with the other body to look at this area and evaluate the need and determine the feasibility of a community-based outpatient clinic in Statesboro, Georgia.