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Iraq Vets Storm the Hill, Congress Rapidly Responds

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Earlier this week, I told you about an amazing group of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans that were coming to Capitol Hill for a historic trip to Congress, to advocate on behalf of their fellow vets. Today, I want to tell you just one of their extraordinary stories.

Rey Leal served as a Marine in Fallujah during some of the heaviest fighting, earning a Bronze Star with valor as a Private First Class, an almost unheard of accomplishment for a soldier of his rank. But when he returned to southern Texas, he needed help coming home from war. Instead of having resources at his fingertips, his closest VA hospital was over five hours away. Rey’s a tough Marine, and a boxer, but he shouldn’t have to fight to get care at a veterans’ hospital. And at his nearest outpatient clinic, 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, 19 of the past 22 years, the budget has not been passed on time. As a result, the VA is forced to ration care for the almost 6 million veterans that depend on its services.

For the millions of veterans like Rey, we must fix this broken VA funding system. 

Imagine trying to balance your family’s budget without knowing what your next paycheck will be. That’s what we’re asking of the largest health care provider in the nation to do.  And it doesn’t work.

The good news is that there is a solution. “Advance appropriations,” approving the VA health care budget one year in advance, would supply timely and predictable funding, and it’s an effective way to ensure the highest quality care that our veterans deserve. It doesn’t make for a sexy news story.  But it is a critical, comprehensive way to tackle many of the challenges facing vets ranging from PTSD, to homelessness to military sexual trauma. And it wouldn’t cost a dime. That is not something you hear much down in Washington lately.

While the lack of cost is highly unusual, advance appropriations is not a new concept for how the federal government does business. Low-income housing and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting already depend on the advance appropriations process to plan their programming. If this policy is good enough for Big Bird, then it should be good enough for vets like Rey.

That has been our message all week in Washington.  Now this week, in the face of a surge of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans from across the country, Congress has rapidly responded.  Senator Daniel Akaka (D-HI) and Congressman Bob Filner (D-CA), the chairmen of the Senate and House Veterans’ Affairs Committees, are introducing bipartisan legislation to provide advance appropriations for the VA.  And Rey and the rest of our Storm the Hill team of young veterans will be there to support this historic change.

It’s reassuring to know that in these tough fiscal times, Congress is not only listening to Wall Street CEOs, but that they are also listening to Iraq and Afghanistan veterans.

And Senator Akaka and Congressman Filner are not alone in supporting advanced VA funding. It has a broad coalition of support. President Obama and Senator McCain both backed the idea during the 2008 campaign, and new VA Secretary Eric Shinseki has signaled early support for the concept.

Every major veterans’ organization in America is also on board. The IAVA crew in Washington this week represents the first wave of veterans’ groups hitting Capitol Hill to push for advance appropriations in 2009. This week, the young vets have boldly taken the beach. And in the coming days and weeks, other generations of veterans will follow.  We are coordinating our political fire—just like we did on the battlefields of Baghdad and Normandy.  Together, we will show Capitol Hill, the media, and the entire country, that 25 million veterans of all generations stand united behind the right solution to fix VA health care funding once and for all.

Crossposted at IAVA.org.

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