Mr. EDWARDS. Mr. Chairman, I do want to thank the gentleman from New Jersey for his support for state-extended care facilities, and I agree with him that the President's budget for this account was, in my words, woefully underfunded, and it is because of the importance of these extended care facilities that in our subcommittee we provided a 95-percent increase over the President's request for that. The President has requested $85 million; we fund it at $165 million.
The reason I oppose this amendment and would ask my colleagues to do the same is that the gentleman, in order to provide additional funding, cuts $10 million out of the funding account that is necessary to meet one of the veterans service organizations' highest priorities this year, and that is reduce the terrible backlog of 400,000 veterans waiting to get their claims reviewed by VA caseworkers. And with the funding we provided in that account in this bill, if we don't reduce it in this or other
amendments, we are going to be able to hire 1,100 new VA caseworkers in order to reduce that backlog. Right now that backlog is averaging 177 days, and many veterans are having to wait longer than that, including combat veterans, to get their earned benefits approved and started.
The gentleman in no way would want to or intend to cut the funding to try to help our veterans get their benefits more quickly. But the reality is that taking $10 million out of that very account, the very account that the VAV, the VFW, the American Legion, and others emphasized to us all year long, we have to reduce the terrible backlog in veterans benefits claims processing. All the groups supported that additional funding. And that is why I would ask, with all due respect, that our colleagues
on a bipartisan basis respect that 95 percent increase we provided in this bill for state-extended care facilities and let's not cut one of the top two priorities of veterans service organizations this year all across the Nation, and that is, reduce the 400,000 claims backlog of veterans benefits.
Mr. GARRETT of New Jersey. As you know, this is not an issue that is new. I actually brought this up and talked about this back early in the year in the Budget Committee, and we had a discussion on it at that time.
Just a question to you: That account you are referencing where we are drawing the money from has grown as well, has it not?
Two questions. And the second question is there are other aspects of that account other than just that provision that you are referencing; so does it necessarily mean, in your opinion, that if we do withdraw some funds from the fairly large account that it will have a detrimental effect on the area that you are specifying, one which I agree with?
Mr. EDWARDS. Mr. Chairman, reclaiming my time, we can't say on the floor at this moment exactly what the VA would do, but what I could say for a fact is this $10 million comes out of the account. It is used and intended to fund an additional 1,100 VA claims caseworkers, and I am afraid if you start cutting that account, the VA will obviously have to cut funding out of our intended plans to increase those numbers.
We still have a long way to go in this process. Who knows, as we look carefully at various projects in military construction and the VA side, where we might find additional money. And I think the committee has shown its good intention by increasing President Bush's request for this program by 95 percent. We understand it is an important need, and the gentleman has spoken out on it earlier this year and in the past.
I would just say to our colleagues, not this year, not now, not today. Let's not cut $10 million out of an account that the veterans service groups say we desperately need funded in order to reduce the backlog for 400,000 veterans to get their benefits started. Many of these veterans need their benefits started as soon as possible. Many of them are living day to day, week to week; and the earlier we can get them their benefits, the quicker they go on with rebuilding their lives. And for that
reason, I must oppose the gentleman's amendment.
Mr. Chairman, I reserve the balance of my time.
Mr. GARRETT of New Jersey. Mr. Chairman, I appreciate the gentleman's comments. And we are on the same page as far as both aspects that we wish the Department to deal with.
On this amendment, I think your comment was ``just not this year.'' And obviously as a Member who has been here 4 years now fighting, as you have also, probably before me, but myself here on this floor fighting for these [Page: H6551]
veterans homes, fighting literally for the ones back in my districts as well for the veterans there and seeing just the smallest improvements in just a certain number of the safety areas. And there are other area safety areas that would
seem to me to need improvements in and health areas as well, and we just can't get the funds.
And the quality of life even goes beyond those issues as far as what these gentlemen need in these homes.
So I bring this amendment to the floor today for that reason, firstly. And secondly, also from a pragmatic point of view that this will go to the Senate and, as I did make the reference, that the Senate has already marked it up even significantly higher than what the gentleman has already done.
Mr. Chairman, I yield back the balance of my time.