Dear Gen. Shinseki:
Congratulations on your nomination to lead the Department of Veterans Affairs. The VA needs a strong leader and veterans need a bold advocate who will begin to immediately and honestly address the critical challenges facing our wounded veterans and their families. Your leadership can begin today when you testify before the U.S. Senate, where we hope you will take the opportunity to address the single most important policy issue affecting veterans: the funding of their health care.
We can no longer tolerate a budget process that has long been defined by late, unpredictable, erratic funding decisions, the result of increasingly bitter partisan fights. It is time to take the politics and partisanship out of veterans' health care by reforming the budget process to provide sufficient, timely and predictable funding.
During the presidential campaign, President-elect Obama supported a proposal to do just that -- the Veterans Health Care Budget Reform Act. Essentially this proposal would allow Congress to appropriate veterans' health care funds one year in advance, while the actual monies would not flow until the year for which they were approved. In addition to Obama, other influential Democratic and Republican members of Congress (including Sen. John McCain), a growing coalition of leading veterans and military organizations, and many former Department of Veterans Affairs officials support this proposal.
We appreciate that Congress has significantly increased the amount of money allocated for veterans' medical needs for the past two years. But the history of veterans health care funding is so consistently poor that even when Congress has gotten the funding level right, it has usually been late. Last year marked only the third time in the past 22 years that Congress has had a VA health care budget ready on time; over the past seven years VA's final appropriation has been an average of three months late.
Imagine trying to run a private sector health care system without knowing what your budget would be until weeks or months after the start of the fiscal year. The advance appropriations proposal would enable VA to know the size of its annual health care budget and plan accordingly to care for the sick, injured and disabled veterans when and where they need it. We hope you will not only support this common-sense proposal, but aggressively advocate for it if confirmed.
In addition to budget reform, we want to bring two other critical VA health care issues to your attention, both of which need your strong and effective leadership this year: expanded coverage for women veterans' health care and support for family caregiver support.
Of the 75,000 women veterans who served in Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom, 42 percent have already come to VA for health care treatment. VA must become better prepared to meet women's unique health care needs and provide quality comprehensive care to all in need, while removing the barriers that discourage women from seeking their medical care in a VA system that is still predominately male-oriented. We encourage your support for legislation that would address these and other gaps in care for women veterans, including those who have experienced military sexual trauma.
Finally, as you are aware, when one of our brave warriors is wounded, their entire family is affected. Often a family member will drop everything -- school, work, their way of life -- to take care of a husband, wife, son, or daughter who has been injured in combat. VA needs to develop new ways to provide meaningful support to these caregivers and recognize that they are essential to the recovery and rehabilitation of our veterans. We need your support and leadership to bring new thinking to VA, and to help pass legislation that provides comprehensive financial and psychological support for family caregivers.
Gen. Shinseki, we encourage you to address these and other critical veterans issues at your confirmation hearing today and, if confirmed, we look forward to working with you in the years ahead to improve the lives of America's veterans and their families.
Joseph A. Violante
National Legislative Director
Disabled American Veterans