Since 2004, Rey Leal has been fighting. He's fought on the streets of Fallujah; for mental health care in south Texas; and in Washington, for a solution to years of late veterans' health care budgets.
Today, Rey and millions of veterans have won their fight.
When Rey returned home from Iraq after two combat tours, he sought mental health care at his nearest VA clinic, where there was just one psychologist, taking appointments only two days a week. The psychologist only works two days because that Texas clinic, like many VA clinics and hospitals, has to stretch its funding to make sure the money lasts the whole year. They don't know how much funding they'll have next year because the VA budget is routinely passed late.
In fact, 20 out of the last 23 years, the budget has not been passed on time. This year was no exception. As of today, the VA budget is 22 days late--and counting.
For veterans, these late budgets mean the VA is forced to ration care for the almost 6 million patients whose livelihoods depend on its services. This is why Rey took his fight to Washington. The good news for vets is that Congress finally listened.
Today, President Obama signed the Veterans Health Care Budget Reform and Transparency Act into law, which authorizes Congress to approve the VA health care budget at least one year in advance. I was there at the White House today with the nation's leading veterans groups who represent all generations of veterans to witness this historic moment. With the President's signature, timely, predictable funding for veterans' health care will become the norm, VA Secretary Shinseki will be set up for success, and the VA will be forced to become a more proactive department. With today's signing, the days of massive GI Bill backlogs and playing politics with the VA budget should be gone forever.
But this is bigger than just the VA. Advance funding is a transformative way to run a government agency, and it promises to change the core of how Washington does business. This year, the only funding bill that did pass on time was the one that pays Congress's salaries. Imagine how efficient other parts of government could be if it actually knew its budget a year ahead of time?
However, this common sense solution to Washington's budget woes wasn't an easy fight. For nearly two decades, veterans' groups waged a battle to change the way the VA is funded. IAVA made it our top legislative priority for 2009, bringing dozens of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans to storm Capitol Hill back in February to push for it. And amazingly, both McCain and Obama advocated for it during the 2008 campaign; President Obama's continued support helped make this massive change a reality.
Thankfully, some real veterans' advocates in Congress had our back too. We couldn't have passed advance funding without its champions, House and Senate Veterans Affairs Committee Chairmen Bob Filner and Daniel Akaka, and a broad, bipartisan coalition of Senators and Representatives. In fact, the bill passed Congress with near unanimous support. And of course, we couldn't have done it without hundreds of thousands of concerned citizens, including countless Huffington Post readers, who called Congress, made donations, and recruited others to join the fight.
Last year, IAVA made the new GI Bill our number 1 priority, and we got it done. This year, we showed again what can be accomplished when patriotism trumps partisanship. Together, we reformed the way veterans' health care is funded forever, and made an historic investment in the future of the VA that will benefit millions of America's heroes.
Now that's a fight worth fighting.
Crossposted at www.IAVA.org.