Capitol News from Senator Richard Burr
Message From Senator Burr
Greetings from Washington! Congress recently concluded the first session of the 110th Congress, and I am looking forward to 2008. We have accomplished much, but there is still a lot to do. Next year, I will work on many of the issues that are important to North Carolina including growing our economy, providing better care and benefits for our veterans, improving education for our children and finding solutions to make sure all Americans have access to health care.
Veterans and the Military
Improved Veterans' Benefits
The National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2008, which included improvements in veterans' benefits, passed the Senate on December 14. The bill boosts education benefits, expands services for veterans who suffer from traumatic brain injury and improves joint Veterans Affairs (VA) and Department of Defense (DOD) programs.
In this bill, National Guard and Reserve servicemembers who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan can more easily qualify for education benefits and will be able to use those benefits for a longer period of time after their release from active duty. Guardsmen and reservists can now receive education benefits after three years of active service and can also qualify for the "buy-up" program that provides $5,400 in additional benefits.
I am particularly pleased by the Wounded Warrior provisions contained in this legislation. I believe injured servicemembers should not have to suffer through bureaucratic hurdles and red tape when transitioning from DOD to VA. This bill requires both agencies to develop a plan to smoothly move recovering veterans from DOD care to VA treatment programs. The bill also calls for both departments to work toward coordinating their electronic health records systems, which will help ease this transition as well. The legislation also standardizes DOD and VA physical and medical evaluation boards. Currently the two departments have different policies which often cause problems for veterans.
Congress has accomplished much in working to provide a more seamless and smooth transition for veterans returning to civilian life, but there is more we can do, and I look forward to working toward additional improvements for our veterans next year.
Secretary of Veterans Affairs
Dr. James Peake was confirmed by the Senate to serve as Secretary of Veterans Affairs on December 14 and was sworn into office by President Bush on December 20. Dr. Peake has spent over forty years caring for soldiers and veterans. He is a Vietnam War veteran and is a recipient of the Bronze Star With Valor, the Silver Star, and two Purple Hearts. I look forward to working with him on improving the lives of our veterans in the coming year.
Durham Medical Center Renovations
The VA recently awarded a contract for renovations of the Durham VA Medical Center, and I am pleased this project is moving forward. The project calls for the demolition and reconstruction of three wards covering over 30,000 feet of hospital space. Contractors will raze the existing wards, remove asbestos, and build a new, state-of-the art facility with large patient rooms and private bathrooms for female veterans. The Durham VA Medical Center treated over 46,200 veterans last year, including 3,565 veterans who recently served in Iraq and Afghanistan.
I am pleased there is encouraging news coming out of Iraq. The Pentagon's December 18th quarterly report shows signs of improvement. The report notes that military progress has continued the past three months and attacks on coalition troops and Iraqi Security Forces have declined dramatically. Over the past six months, civilian and military casualties have followed this same trend.
I remain concerned by the Iraqi government's slow progress, especially in the area of reconciliation among the Shia and Sunni. Iraq's leaders were elected to form a national government that brings the country together and to tackle difficult issues like oil sharing. Iraqi politicians must step up to the plate and move forward with reconciliation.
The last few months have taught us that while we still have a tough road ahead, there are reasons to believe that we can succeed in Iraq. Building a stable Iraq rests on the Iraqis themselves, but reconciliation is not possible without security. I want our troops to come home as soon as possible, but leaving prematurely would jeopardize our mission in Iraq.
Every year, Congress is tasked with funding our government, and we should do so in a fiscally responsible way. On December 18, the Senate passed a massive "omnibus" spending bill, the largest appropriations measure in U.S. history. The Consolidated Appropriations Act (H.R.2764) is a 3,400 page bill that spends $515.7 billion of taxpayer money. With over half a trillion dollars in government spending, and with no time to really review its contents, this legislation does not responsibly spend the taxpayers hard-earned money. It also uses legislative gimmicks to hide billions of dollars in additional spending, which should be accounted for through the normal annual budget process. This is an irresponsible way to fund our nation's government and therefore, I did not support this legislation.
State Children's Health Insurance Program
Congress recently extended funding for the State Children's Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) until March 31, 2009. SCHIP is a state-run program funded partly by the federal government that provides health insurance to children whose parents cannot afford insurance, but do not qualify for Medicaid. North Carolina's SCHIP program, North Carolina Health Choice for Children (NCHC), is widely regarded as one of the most successful in the United States. Over 122,000 North Carolina children count on SCHIP for health insurance coverage and I was proud to support extending this program.
While I do believe this program is effective, there is plenty of room for improvement. The funding formula for SCHIP does not adequately pay North Carolina's costs for the program. More importantly, I believe we need a greater focus on making health insurance accessible to all Americans. In July, I introduced the Every American Insured Health Act, which aims to give every American the ability to purchase health care in the free market.
Preparing America For Future Health Emergencies
December 19 marked the one-year anniversary of the passage of the Pandemic and All-Hazards Preparedness Act (PAHPA), P.L. 109-417. In celebration of the anniversary, I
visited the Secretary's Operation Center (SOC) at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). The SOC is the Secretary of Health and Human Services' central point for communication and coordination when monitoring and responding to disasters, emergencies, and health threats like bird flu.
The operations center is staffed around the clock with health officials 24 hours a day.
PAHPA put HHS in charge of health emergencies, thereby making it much easier to prevent, plan and respond to a national health emergency. Through PAHPA, the operations center can develop a complete assessment of a health emergency and coordinate an effective response. Although I hope we face few emergency medical situations, I am proud this legislation has given our government the tools it needs to develop a national strategy to respond quickly to health emergencies.
I remain committed to reducing America's dependence on foreign energy sources and lower gas prices. I support using American supplies of traditional energy sources while we develop new technologies that improve energy efficiency and take advantage of renewable fuels. I will continue to support legislation that promotes energy independence and makes better use of alternative energy sources.
The President signed into law the Renewable Fuels, Consumer Protection, and Energy Efficiency Act of 2007 (H.R. 6) on December 19. The law includes legislation I offered to strengthen U.S. national energy security. The provisions give the Secretary of Energy a seat on the President's National Security Council and requires the administration to formulate a national strategy to improve energy security. Many of the countries who supply oil to America are politically unstable and a major disruption of energy supply would cause great harm to our economy. These provisions will provide an opportunity for our government to consider how our energy supply affects our national security.
The strength of our economy and the opportunity for North Carolinians to find and keep good-paying jobs is critical. Over the past year, I have sponsored summits and workshops as part of the ongoing Economic Development series. This series is designed to provide information on how to increase economic development in North Carolina and to help our communities expand the local economy.
cosponsored two summits this year as part of the Economic Development program. The first was held in Durham and focused on wellness and prevention solutions and health care research and development. The second summit focused on higher education and improving access to federal resources, particularly for research campuses and the newly developing North Carolina Research Campus in Kannapolis. We also held several workshops throughout the year designed to enhance educational opportunities and provide assistance with federal grants. The groups we helped included museums and libraries, faith-based and community initiative organizations and aspiring entrepreneurs and current small business owners.
2007 proved to be a successful year for the Economic Development program, and I look forward to hosting more of these events next year to help the state remain competitive for federal funding. For more information, please call my Washington office. I also invite you to sign-up for The Burr Bulletin, an electronic newsletter dedicated to federal grant news and information. The bulletin will announce grant opportunities and key information regarding federal grant programs. To register, go to http://burr.senate.gov/bb.
I want to wish you and your family the best during this holiday season. The holidays are a good time to remind us what we are grateful for, and I am grateful for the opportunity to serve North Carolina in the U.S. Senate. I look forward to continuing to represent our great state in the coming year. My office is happy to assist you in getting information or in helping you solve problems with the federal government. Please don't hesitate to visit my offices in Winston-Salem, Asheville, Gastonia, Rocky Mount and Wilmington. If you are planning a visit to Washington, D.C. please contact my office for a tour of the U.S. Capitol or other historic sites in our nation's capital. If you are Washington, please stop by my office and say hello. We'd be glad to see you.
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