Floor and Committee Statements

“Madam President, I am delighted to stand today, shoulder to shoulder with all my colleagues on the Veterans’ Affairs Committees in the House and the Senate, to thank the Senate for a very strong vote on cloture yesterday to take us to a point today where we will pass the VA MISSION Act, which is this legislative body fulfilling a promise to those who fought and sacrificed for each of us to be here today--our families and loved ones as well.

“For years, there have been problems in the VA in terms of healthcare.

“You read the headlines. I read them, too, and our constituents read them. In Arizona, we had veterans who died waiting to get a routine appointment. We had scheduling errors. People were getting bonuses for scheduling things they had falsified.

“We had a lot of things that were disappointing to all of us.

“We worked hard in the Veterans’ Affairs Committee in the House and Senate to address these tough issues head-on and fix them so that the VA would be the best functioning health delivery system it could possibly be for the people who were willing to risk their lives for each of us when they joined the military.

“I think it is appropriate that we are doing this the week before Memorial Day. Next Monday, we will celebrate all of those who, in all the wars that preceded the fight we have today, represented our country, volunteered unselfishly, fought, and in some cases died for America’s peace, freedom, liberty, and the perpetuation of our democracy.

“One promise we made to them was that they would have good quality healthcare, and it would be successful. Four years ago, with the leadership of John McCain, we started the movement toward Veterans Choice. We passed a good bill with a 40-mile rule and a 30-day rule.

“The 40-mile rule said that if you live within 40 miles of a VA clinic or service, you can go to a closer clinic in the private sector, as long as it is approved by the VA. The 30-day rule said that if you couldn’t get an appointment for a routine medical service in 30 days, you could get an appointment in the private sector, and the VA would approve it. But the labyrinth of the approval process for that 30-day appointment or that 40-mile access made it almost impossible for the veteran, in many cases, to get access that is as timely as we would like it to be.

“It was a good start. It was an improvement in our process. It addressed the problem--but not well enough.

“We learned enough as a test bed to know that veterans liked Choice, as long as it was not so cumbersome that they couldn’t use it. The VA liked Choice, as long as they were a partner with a veteran who made the choices, so we lost no continuity in healthcare.

“With the passage of the VA MISSION Act, we are repealing both the 30-day rule and the 40-mile rule. Instead, we are saying the following: If you are an eligible veteran for VA healthcare services, you can choose a private sector doctor if you want to, as long as the conditions and circumstances, in concert with your VA primary care doctor, fit. In other words, the VA needs to know about it and work with you in making that decision and work with you in finding that private doctor. We are not going to have mountains of paperwork and third-party administrators breaking the rules and regulations and slowing things down. Instead, the VA will be motivated to see you, the veteran, get fast, timely service and quality healthcare, whether it is private or the VA.

“There have been some who have talked about this being privatization. It is not privatization; it is mobilization.

“We are mobilizing healthcare for the veterans to see to it that they have access in a timely fashion. The VA is an instrumental service for our veterans who come home. Many of them come home with injuries and sicknesses and illnesses and diseases that, quite frankly, nobody ever contemplated people surviving.

“Who heard of PTSD and TBI 20 years ago? Who saw veterans lose arms and legs--in some cases, all of their arms and legs--and survive a battlefield wound? How many of you have seen people wear an eye prosthesis, where they had an eye replaced? The VA has specialists who can do all of those things, the best in the world. They can deliver high-quality healthcare and high-quality rehabilitation to veterans with the most serious injuries in the history of warfare.

“We will always continue to do that, but we also have to understand that when healthcare in the private sector can be utilized for the convenience of the veteran--not as a competitor to the VA--we can use it as a force multiplier to lower the number of people we have to hire and, in addition, lower the number of hospitals we have to build and instead provide that money for services to our veterans.

“It is a win-win proposition for the VA and for all of us.

“It is no secret why every former VA Secretary who has served this country has endorsed the VA MISSION Act. All of them have endorsed it, every one of them, whether a Republican appointment or appointment by a Democratic president. They all know this is something we needed to do for a long time.

“It is no secret why we got a vote of 91 to 4 yesterday on the floor of the U.S. Senate to invoke cloture and go to a vote today on the VA MISSION Act. It is past time we made sure our laws for healthcare available to our veterans are as high quality as our veterans are when they go to fight wars for us.

“Secondly, I want to focus on another feature, which is very important to me because I was in the service. I was not in Vietnam. I am a Vietnam-era veteran. I was in the Georgia Air National Guard during the Vietnam War. I lost buddies in that war. I know a lot of our soldiers sacrificed in that war and made it home with terrible injuries, but because of our healthcare delivery system in the battlefield and at other hospitals around the world, we were able to save veterans and rehabilitate them. But the need for ongoing medical healthcare for the basic essentials of life is sometimes one of the byproducts for some of the injuries and for some of those who survived those wounds.

“There are veterans who have difficulty feeding themselves. There are veterans who can’t dress themselves. There are veterans who need assistance in the five basic essentials of life, and then from time to time, they have to call in a caregiver. There are spouses, moms, in some cases, dads, brothers, and sisters who come and deliver those services to their brother or sister or son or daughter.

“If they are a veteran of almost any area except Vietnam, they get caregiver benefits from the VA or a stipend benefit provided to that volunteer to help that veteran. It helps the veteran pay for their service, and it helps the VA not have to go out to find someone to do it because there is someone offering to be their caregiver.

“We are expanding the caregiver services in the VA to all veterans, so finally the Vietnam-era veterans and their families will be as eligible as anybody else who is entitled to VA benefits.

“Sens. Patty Murray of Washington, Susan Collins of Maine, and a lot of members of this chamber today deserve credit for that. We fought for caregivers for a long time.

“It is a big step forward, and it is going to be a lifesaver and a life extender for many and remove just one of the major burdens that some have to care for a spouse or a loved one injured in battle or who has fought for us.

“I can go on and on and on about detail after detail after detail in this bill, but I don’t want to bore everyone.

“I want everybody to realize, when they go home this weekend, how important it is to tell them what we have finally done.

“We have finally dealt with the accessibility of healthcare to our veterans. There will be no more headlines of veterans dying because they can’t get an appointment because they are going to be able to get an appointment.

“They are going to be able to make the choice with the VA at that appointment.

“It is not the case anymore where a veteran is going to die because they can’t get a basic service to stay alive at their home, that if they don’t have the money to pay for a caregiver, they therefore languish, unable to feed themselves or clothe themselves or live in a sanitary condition.

“That is the very least we owe to our veterans. Today, when you cast your vote for the VA MISSION Act, you will do just that.

“I want to address some individuals, if I can, and thank them. One, I thank Sen. John McCain, whose idea this was originally. He is a great hero to all of us, a friend to all of us, one we love and pray for today as he recovers from cancer. John is the one who started the movement toward Choice, and he deserves the credit for it.

“I thank all of those secretaries who have worked with us over the past three or four years to get to the point where we are able to pass the VA MISSION Act today.

“I will tell you whom I really want to thank. I want to thank all those veterans who sacrificed and died for us in the wars before now.

“The reason we enjoy our freedom and you, Madam President, can preside freely without fear of retribution, I can say what I think without fear of retribution, I can say to our constituents who gather in the gallery and listen to what we have to say, and protest if they wish, is we have a Constitution and 10 basic amendments, the first 10 being our Bill of Rights. It gives us everything, but the ones who protected that gift are our veterans.

“It is not a stretch to remember that had it been a different outcome in World War II, I might be speaking Japanese or German today, not English, but because of our veterans and because of our soldiers who fought in the Battle of the Bulge, who fought in the Pacific--my father-in-law flew reconnaissance in the Pacific. My brother-in-law was in the Air Force in Vietnam. If those vets had not risked their lives and really offered their lives in exchange for our liberty and freedom, we wouldn’t be enjoying this today.

“So we owe no less than the VA MISSION Act to our veterans. I am proud to be part of it, and I am proud of my committee and my committee members who are doing so much to help us.

“Let me just say thank you to my colleagues for your vote yesterday. I urge you to vote today for passage of the VA MISSION Act. It is an honor to serve our country as a member of the U.S. Senate. It is an honor to be an American. May God bless our country.

“I yield the floor.”