Senator Lankford Defeats Fiscally Irresponsible $7.5 Billion Spending Amendment
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WASHINGTON, DC–Senator James Lankford (R-OK) today objected to a spending amendment that would have allotted $7.5 billion in emergency funding to the Department of Veterans Affairs. Lankford successfully raised a point of order to defeat an amendment to the Transportation, Housing and Urban Development Appropriations and Military Construction/Veterans Affairs Appropriations bill. Lankford did this to stop an effort to use emergency funding and challenged the Senate to find a permanent solution within the budget.
Mr. President, I’d like to speak to the issue that was just brought up dealing with veterans funding and specifically the Choice Program. Three years ago, Congress put into place a response to what was happening in VA centers all over the country. Was happening in VA centers all over the country we were all appalled with but for any of us that are in congressional offices we were aware and pushing on this issue and had pushed on this issue for a while. But the media exposed what we all saw, and that was long, secret waiting lists for veterans so that the VA centers could keep their positive numbers up and look better, months of waiting for things that would take days across the street. As I dealt with the VA center in my own city, it would take six months at times to get a knee replacement surgery at the VA center when the great hospital directly across the street they could get that same surgery within two days. Hearing aids that would take months and months to actually go through the process to get it at our VA centers. Cancer care that should be diagnosed with cancer needs and that treatment was going to be required and literally to send you across the country, sometimes more than 2,000 miles away to actually get cancer treatment away from your family.
Congress responded to that by putting into place the Choice Act. It was an emergency. There were major problems that were happening around the country in multiple VA centers and there had to be a response right then. Congress set aside emergency funding and an emergency response to make sure something came into existence that only loosely existed before. What was called “community care” now was clarified to say this is “choice” and it had a simple thing. If a veteran had to wait more than 30 days to be able to get in and get an appointment or get a treatment or if they lived more than 40 miles from a VA center, they would be given the option to go wherever they wanted to go. And VA was required to start working relationships in every community across the country so that veterans would have that option to go wherever they wanted to go.
Now I would tell you that program is in its infancy. It is two years old at this point. It has a ways to go to be perfected and there are still problems with that and there’s a constant push from Congress to provide accountability to them to make sure that program is done and is done well. But it should be the first step on giving veterans real choice. The first step of that is 30 days or 40 miles. The second step of that is any VA-eligible veteran would get a card and they could go to any place that accepts Medicare. If they accept Medicare anywhere in the country, any lab, any hospital, any doctor, they should also be able to receive veterans as well. So that veterans can go to wherever they choose to go regardless of the distance.
I have veterans that drive past six great hospitals, driving 200 miles to get to a VA center and their families have all of that burden of all of that travel. It should not be that way. Veterans should be able to go wherever they choose to go for care. So the choice program is not only a good program, it’s the right direction to go and it’s a positive first step.
Here’s a problem though. The way this particular amendment has come up is not only not germane to this bill because it deals with something that started three years ago and we’re dealing with a new bill right now, but it is also an issue of we’re doing the right thing the wrong way. My staff have heard me say over and over again, there is a right thing to do and there’s a right way to do it. Three years ago we knew this was an issue. Three years ago the planning should have been put in place and put this in the normal appropriations process. This process puts it into place, so we’re adding $7.5 billion on to our children for a program that should be in the normal appropriations process that we started three years ago that is not an emergency anymore. This is not emergency. This is normal funding now for a program we want to keep going and expand.
So there is a big issue here that we do have to resolve. I want to see us do the choice program and do it right, but there’s a right thing to do and a right way to do it. This program is already fully funded through the next year. It’s not an emergency. It’s in place, funded, ready to go. It doesn’t go away in the next year. All the way through the fiscal year. Let’s put it into the normal process. Let’s do it the right way. Let’s not add $7 billion to our children for an emergency that’s actually a year away from now.
No one’s going to convince me in a $4 trillion budget that there’s not areas that we could cut. I identified earlier this week $86 billion in funds that are available to cover the $1 billion for Zika, that this congress decided to do an emergency funding anyway. We have the funds available. We can honor our veterans. We can do this and also honor our children. At the same time we’re honoring our veterans, let’s honor the next generation and let’s make sure we’re not adding debt to the next generation. So with that, Mr. President, I raise a point of order that the McCain amendment number 4039 is not germane to the Collins amendment number 3896 as amended, or HR 2577.