Message From Senator Burr
Greetings from Washington! It has been a busy few months in our nation's capital. In September, I had the honor to be named ranking member on the Senate Committee on Veterans' Affairs. This is an important issue for North Carolina, a state home to about 750,000 veterans and military bases representing every branch of the armed forces. In addition to issues pertaining to our nation's veterans, I continued to focus on important issues like health care, education, agriculture, and our federal judiciary. The Senate has returned after a short Thanksgiving break to try to finalize the 2008 federal budget. I will continue to work toward fiscal accountability and responsible spending of taxpayer dollars.
Veterans and the Military
VA Secretary Nominee
On October 30th, the President nominated Lieutenant General James B. Peake (Retired), M.D. to serve as Secretary of Veterans Affairs. Dr. Peake's distinguished military and medical career makes him an excellent choice to lead the department tasked with the care of our nation's veterans. He has dedicated his life to the wounded and his unique expertise will ensure our veterans receive the health care and other benefits they deserve. I look forward to holding a hearing with Senator Akaka (D-HI) on the nomination on December 5th. Our veterans need a Secretary of Veterans Affairs now, and I hope this nomination will be passed quickly.
Senator Burr meets with Dr. James Peake, the President's nominee to be Secretary for Veterans Affairs.
Dr. Peake is very qualified to serve as Secretary of Veterans Affairs. He graduated from the United States Military Academy at West Point in 1966 and served as a platoon leader in Vietnam where he earned the Silver Star, a Bronze Star with Valor and two Purple Hearts. After Vietnam, he attended Cornell University Medical College and became board certified in general and thoracic surgery. In 2000, Dr. Peake was nominated as the 40th Surgeon General of the Army and as Commander of the United States Medical Command. He is currently the Chief Medical Director and Chief Operating Officer and Chief Medical Director at QTC Management.
Health Care Reform
All veterans deserve the best health care we can provide. While the VA health system provides excellent care, there is room for improvement. Veterans living in rural areas don't have access to the same quality of care as veterans in more populated areas. Too often, veterans have to navigate confusing, bureaucratic programs to attempt to receive benefits and treatment. Veterans who recently left the military have different needs than those who served in past wars. Diagnoses of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) are more common with younger veterans. Better treatment for PTSD and TBI, improving rehabilitation programs, and advancing research in prosthetics would go a long way in helping the next generation of America's veterans. I look forward to working with my Senate colleagues and the VA to improve the lives of our veterans. If you are a veteran and you are having difficulty receiving benefits or would like to share your experience as a veteran, please do not hesitate to contact my office.
According to a recent study by The National Alliance to End Homelessness, on any given night, nearly 200,000 of America's homeless are veterans. To help address this troubling news, I introduced the Services to Prevent Veterans Homelessness Act (S. 874). The bill is designed to increase veterans' access to assistance for housing, physical and mental health services, health insurance, and vocational and financial counseling. This legislation is an important first step in addressing and preventing the root causes of homelessness for our veterans. It is important that our veterans come home to a support structure that can help them return to civilian life.
Senator Burr speaks at a press conference sponsored by the National Alliance to End Homelessness on November 8, 2007. (Jamie Rose/McClatchy-Tribune Photo Service)
North Carolina's VA Hospitals
The Department of Veterans Affairs recently announced plans to build Community Based Outpatient Clinics (CBOC) in Franklin and Hamlet. Veterans will be able to receive physicals, disease screening, patient education, routine lab work, and immunizations at the new CBOCs.
The President also recently signed legislation changing the name of the Asheville VA Medical Center to honor Private First Class Charles George, who was awarded the Medal of Honor for his courageous actions during the Korean War. Private George dove on a grenade, saving the lives of two other soldiers, sacrificing his own. It is my hope that we always remember the sacrifice Private George made, and I am proud the VA Medical Center in Asheville will bear his name.
In September, General David Petraeus, commander of multinational forces in Iraq, provided Congress with an assessment of the Iraq War. His report stated that the military has had great success in eliminating al Qaeda and other foreign insurgents in Iraq. U.S. forces have made remarkable progress in bringing stability to the Al Anbar and Diyala provinces. He also reported that Iraqis in many areas are turning against al-Qaeda and working hand-in-hand with U.S. forces.
Progress has continued since Petraeus' report in September - American casualties, Iraqi civilian deaths, and IED explosions have consistently declined over the past four months. I am still disappointed by the lack of progress achieved by Iraq's elected leadership. Ultimately the long term stability in Iraq depends on the Iraqis themselves. Iraq's leaders must do what they were elected to do - lead the country toward reconciliation. I want to see our troops come home as soon as possible but we cannot abandon the opportunity for our military to build on its recent success. I support Petraeus' recommendation to continue our mission in Iraq.
North Carolina Judicial Nominees
Judges provide critical interpretations of the law through their decisions and have a significant impact on the lives of individuals appearing before them. Any candidate for such a position of responsibility and influence should be impartial, well-qualified and have a sound judicial philosophy and temperament. Confirming judges holding these virtues is a top priority of mine.
I support all of the President's North Carolina judicial nominations for the federal bench. While I applaud the work that the Judiciary Committee has done in moving a few of our federal judicial nominees through the lengthy confirmation process, I am concerned that we have not moved quickly enough on the remaining North Carolina nominees. Tom Farr and Judge Robert Conrad are still awaiting hearings in the Judiciary Committee for federal judgeships and Tom Schroeder, while recently approved by the Judiciary Committee, still needs to be brought to the full Senate for a vote. Unfortunately, judicial nominations are moving at a painfully slow pace. I continue to encourage my colleagues on the Senate Judiciary Committee to move our nominees through the process and I remain hopeful that they will all be confirmed in the near future.
The House and Senate passed legislation reauthorizing the Head Start program on November 15. This reauthorization further improves an already stellar program. Head Start is designed to help pre-Kindergarten kids prepare for school through educational, health, and nutritional programs. The program serves over 900,000 low income children through 1,600 public and private organizations. Under the new legislation more children will have access to Head Start and more academic programs will be offered.
Medical Student Deferment Program
I recently introduced an amendment to the Higher Education Act to help struggling medical students as they get started in their careers. The legislation would restore the 20/220 rule, commonly known as the medical student loan deferment program. The rule allows most medical students to defer payments on their student loans while they are in their residency. Medical residents have an average student loan debt of $130,571 and earn only $43,266 per year. Students were able to defer payments on their federal student loans without accruing interest under the 20/220 rule. The American Medical Association and similar groups have warned that medical students may be deterred from practicing in underserved areas of the country or in medical education and research due to the immense financial burden of this new policy. With recent reports indicating the United States is facing a shortage of physicians in the future, the elimination of the student loan deferment could further dissuade students from pursuing a career in medicine.
As we approach the holiday season, I wish you and your family the very best. I am grateful for the opportunity to serve North Carolina in the U.S. Senate and my staff and I are always here to help you solve problems with the federal government or to assist you in getting the information you need. If you intend to visit Washington, D.C. please contact my office for a tour of the U.S. Capitol, the White House, and other attractions. Please stop by my office and say hello when you're up in Washington. We'd be glad to see you.