Patty Murray developed a firsthand appreciation for a viable veterans health-care system while working as a college intern in the Seattle VA Medical psychological ward in the early 1970s. That internship, along with her father's experience as a disabled World War II Army veteran - he was wounded on Okinawa - fueled her interest in veterans issues.
Washington voters elected Murray to the U.S. Senate in 1992. In 1995, she became the first woman appointed to the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee. The fourth-term Democrat recently became chairman of the Veterans Affairs Committee, replacing Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii.
Murray takes charge as pressure to cut federal spending appears likely to collide with a significant increase in demand for both veterans medical care and programs to fight veterans homelessness and unemployment. For example, the Republican majority in the House of Representatives proposed eliminating nearly $633 million from VA's construction budget. Individual representatives have suggested freezing VA health-care spending and paring veterans benefits.
The American Legion Magazine caught up with Murray in the midst of the budget battles, to talk about her priorities as Senate Veterans Affairs chairman and the prospects for maintaining veterans programs in tough fiscal times.
Q: What are your top priorities as chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee?
A: My overall goal is to make sure that VA is working on the side of the veteran. My experience, talking to veterans, is that it is very frustrating working through VA. They often feel like they fought a war, and now they are fighting VA to get the benefits they've earned. We've got to reduce the wait times for VA benefits.
Q: The Obama administration and Congress have directed a lot of money toward resolving the claims backlog. Yet it's still a significant problem.
A: It is a significant problem, and understanding that is the first part of solving the problem. There are more claims being filed, obviously. But they are more complex than they have been in the past. Part of the solution is electronic records and IT (information technology). Why is it that the military services haven't moved to an electronic system, that easily transfers people's records so they don't get lost? It is also the hiring process - it takes forever to hire somebody and train them at VA. We can't just keep saying this is a priority for every single Congress, because it hasn't been solved.
Q: Advance-appropriations legislation was supposed to ensure that VA health-care accounts were funded on time. Given the troubles in getting a federal budget passed this year, are advance appropriations for VA working?
A: VA is now operating under the fiscal 2011 budget, not the fiscal 2010 budget, so I think I would have to answer you that it is working. Because we have advance appropriations, we are not in as dire a place as many agencies (that are operating under continuing resolutions). We are very worried where we go from here. We obviously have a large number of veterans coming into the system from Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom. And we have a number of veterans who are coming into the system because of age ... and because the economy has impacted so many people. So I am deeply concerned about the long-term implications of all of that - making sure we have sufficient funding for our VA system - and I want our committee to focus on that.
Q: How do we ensure that the needs of the men and women who are serving now are funded many decades into the future? After all, demand for services for World War I veterans didn't peak until about 1969.
A: It's a long-haul commitment. The growing number of veterans coming home from this conflict will be with us for a very long time - a generation - and will have very different demands in terms of health care. The whole Veterans Caregivers bill was about that.
Q: Why did it take so long for VA to start the Veterans Caregivers program?
A: I have been furious with them. VA didn't tell anybody they were going to be late, didn't talk to our committees and say, "This is a challenge, help us work with it." They just failed to meet a deadline. To me, that's not tolerable.
Q: During tough fiscal times, politicians and pundits who aren't familiar with veterans issues often call for replacing VA health care with vouchers. How will you address that?
A: I am more than willing to take on anybody who proposes that system. I worked in a VA back in 1971 and 1972. The soldiers coming home from Vietnam needed to have a community who knew their injuries. That has not changed. Our soldiers who are coming home with signature wounds of this war need to be in a facility that is best trained to deal with their wounds and their history. If you are a World War II veteran and you go to a private physician, they may not recognize or have the knowledge of what a conflict did to impact your health, or that you have benefits that you can access because of that.
Q: Are VA construction projects a means of stimulating the economy?
A: I've been making that argument.
Q: How will you deal with the conflicting demands of your job as chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee - and the need to build and maintain bipartisan support for veterans issues - with the demands of your job as head of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, where your job is getting Democrats elected to the Senate?
A: It doesn't matter what party you are on my committee. Veterans have always been a nonpartisan issue. To me, it is absolutely critical that all of us focus on fighting for our veterans. The bill we're dealing with right now, the Veterans Caregivers bill, I'm working with my ranking member, Sen. (Richard) Burr, R-N.C., and members of the House - both Republican and Democrat - to go after VA because they too narrowly defined the (eligibility) criteria. That's how I intend to act.
Q: What other issues will you focus on?
A: I'm going to continue to make sure women veterans have the facilities that they need. Homelessness is a huge issue, and the need for HUD-VASH (Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing) grants. I'm fighting that right now because House Republicans have eliminated these grants from the continuing resolution. I have so many veterans who come up to me when I am at home, and tell me they spent 20 years on the street after Vietnam, and because of a HUD-VASH voucher they are now working. I see this making a huge difference because of the way the HUD-VASH vouchers are structured. It isn't just putting them into a home; it's making sure they get the mental-health help that they need so they can get back on their feet.
Q: Adm. Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, says that Iraq and Afghanistan veterans are becoming homeless at four times the rate returning Vietnam veterans did. Should Congress fund four times as many housing vouchers?
A: I would argue yes.
Ken Olsen is a frequent contributor for The American Legion Magazine.