Washington, DC – Nevada Senator Harry Reid spoke on the Senate floor today on the urgent need to ensure that American veterans receive the care they need. Below are his remarks as prepared for delivery:
Our esteemed colleague, the Chairman of the Budget Committee, Senator Patty Murray has said that, “Caring for our veterans is the duty of a grateful nation.” I have no doubt that every member of this body agrees with that sentiment. But there is a big difference between nodding one’s head in approval, and actually doing something to take care of our veterans. Chairman of the Senate Veterans Committee, Senator Bernie Sanders, is doing something to help our veterans. Senator Sanders is introducing a bill to ensure that American veterans are getting the care they need. This legislation allows veterans facing long delays in health care to seek care outside of the VA, at private doctors’ offices, community health centers, or military bases. Additionally, this bill authorizes the VA to use emergency funding to hire new doctors and nurses. Senator Sanders’ legislation increases accountability throughout the Veterans Affairs Administration, holding senior officials responsible for poor job performance. This is a good bill that will improve the manner in which the United States of America cares for its veterans. I am hopeful that all members of this body will support it.
In light of the shocking reports of inappropriate practices at Department of Veterans’ Affairs hospitals, every Senator should support this legislation. Last week the VA Inspector General’s office released its report detailing many troubling, systematic failings which are unnecessarily putting our nation’s veterans at risk. Instead of receiving the proper care they deserve, thousands of combat veterans have been languishing on nonexistent waiting lists at a VA hospital in Arizona. The Inspector General’s report declared that many of these men and women who have been relegated to health care limbo are “at risk of being lost or forgotten.” Lost or forgotten? The brave veterans of our nation’s armed services should never be lost or forgotten by grateful Americans. These soldiers went to war and pledged not to leave their brothers-and-sisters-in-arms behind. Now in their moment of need, some of our most vulnerable veterans have been left behind. We must never allow any service member – past or present – to simply fall through the cracks. Now that the Senate has returned from its state work period, we should pass Senator Sanders’ bill as soon as possible, ensuring that our veterans get the care they deserve. Yet, even as Senate Democrats try and improve the reliability of our veterans’ health care, certain Republican members of Congress are content to scapegoat the VA leadership. Even more disappointing is the fact that these same Republicans have, through their obstruction, deprived the VA of essential resources it needs to help veterans.
Last February, Senate Republicans blocked legislation introduced by Senator Sanders which would give the VA the tools needed to meet the demands of a changing veteran population. Senator Sanders’ bill would help our nation’s veterans by improving health and dental care, providing educational and employment opportunities, and addressing claim backlogs. That legislation was shot down by Republicans because, as the junior Senator from Florida stated, the bill “had a cost issue.” Senator Rubio was correct – taking care of our nation’s wounded veterans does cost money. And it is money well spent. But Senator Rubio is not alone. The junior Senator from Alabama opposed the same bill because he didn’t want to “bust the budget.” Republicans didn’t worry about busting the budget when they initially sent our troops to war. Back then they approved emergency supplemental bill after bill, not concerned with pay-fors. And therein lies the problem: Republicans ignore the true cost of democracy – the lives and well-being of the brave men and women who fight to protect our way of life. Instead, Republicans focus on the monetary cost, the dollar bills. Because any money going to our veterans is one less dollar going to billionaires and corporations. The American people are tired of the doublespeak coming from the Republican Party when it comes to caring for our soldiers and vets. If Republicans support our nation’s soldiers, then help us support our nation’s soldiers. Instead, there’s always an excuse, some exception that Republicans find to justify not standing with America’s soldiers and veterans. Let’s give American veterans the care and attention they deserve.As the Department of Veterans Affairs works to remedy these serious issues, we in Congress must do our part to help. We owe America’s veterans far too much to leave them behind in their hour of need.
Now, allow me to say a few words about Secretary Eric Shinseki, who resigned in the wake of the VA’s troubling report. Eric Shinseki is a good man. Under his leadership, the VA has drastically improved its care of veterans suffering from mental illness, and has addressed the issue of veteran homelessness. Secretary Shinseki oversaw initiatives which decreased dependence on painkillers and other drugs, addressing a problem which was crippling many combat veterans. Eric Shinseki’s work at the VA has also helped cut waiting times for GI bill benefits down to just a week, helping countless veterans get the aid we promised them. He’s done a fine job, and I’m sorry that his time as head of the VA ended with his resignation. But I understand why he felt the need to step aside. Eric Shinseki has served our country for decades, on the battlefield, as Chief of Staff for the United States Army and as Secretary of Veterans Affairs. I thank him for his service, and wish him all the best as he undoubtedly continues his work on behalf of American veterans, wherever that may be.