August 06, 2008

CARDIN, MIKULSKI HOLD ROUNDTABLE DISCUSSION WITH VETERANS AND PLEDGE TO CONTINUE TO FIGHT FOR BETTER HEALTH CARE AND OTHER BENEFITS

CUMBERLAND, MD - U.S. Senators Benjamin L. Cardin and Barbara A. Mikulski (both D-MD) today held a roundtable discussion with veterans from Western Maryland at the Vietnam Veterans of America, Chapter 172, to hear their concerns about health care and funding for other veterans-related services.  Both Senators pledged to continue to fight for expanded health care and additional services for veterans. 

"Our veterans have made great sacrifices to keep us safe and to protect our nation.  We made certain promises and commitments to them in terms of health care and other benefits, and it is our duty as a nation to make sure we fulfill those promises and that our veterans receive the services and benefits which they have earned," said Senator Cardin. 

"Whether fighting to defend democracy overseas or standing sentry on the home front, America's veterans have been there for us. We have a sacred commitment to honor all of the promises made to them when they signed up to fight for America," said Senator Mikulski.  "That's why I am working hard today and everyday as a U.S. Senator to ensure that the federal government maintains its commitment to veterans.  Promises made must be promises kept."

Senators Cardin and Mikulski told the group of veterans that last year Congress enacted legislation to provide $87.6 billion for Department of Veterans Affairs programs, $3.7 billion more than the President requested and the largest increase for veterans health care in the 77 years of the VA's existence.  This increase included $37.2 billion for veterans' health care and medical research and $3.5 billion to improve management and efficiency of the VA health care system.

The Senators stressed that the VA budget for FY 2009, which is working its way through Congress, contains $94.8 billion for VA programs -- $3.3 billion more than requested by the President.  It is the largest VA budget in the nation's history and contains additional funding to hire more claims specialists to address the growing backlog of compensation, pension claims and disability cases.  It also includes $250 million to initiate a new health outreach program for veterans in rural areas and funding to increase the income threshold for Priority 8 veterans.

The Senators also discussed how pleased they were by the VA decision to reverse an earlier directive and to allow veterans to continue receiving counseling services through Re-Entry Associates.  Both called it a "victory" and added that the FY 2009 bill also contains additional funding for fee-based service providers like Re-Entry Associates. 

Both Senators strongly support passage of the Veterans Mental Health and Other Care Improvements Act, S. 2162, which has passed the Senate and is awaiting House action.  The bill would establish a pain care program at all inpatient facilities, improve care for and research into veterans mental health issues, and would authorize mental health services for families of veterans.   Both Senators Cardin and Mikulski also have co-sponsored a resolution that would call for better pain management by the VA.

There are approximately 480,000 veterans in Maryland, and 45,000 located in the four most western counties of Garrett, Allegany, Washington and Frederick.