Statements on Introduced Bills and Joint Resolutionsby Senator Bernard Sanders
Posted on 2014-01-16
S. 1950. A bill to improve the provision of medical services and
benefits to veterans, and for other purposes; read the first time.
Mr. SANDERS. Mr. President, today as the chairman of the committee I have introduced the most comprehensive piece of veterans legislation that we have seen in a very long time. The Comprehensive Veterans Health and Benefit and Military Retirement Pay Restoration Act of 2014 delivers on the promises that we have made to our servicemembers and I believe will have the support of Members of the Senate and of the House. It addresses virtually every single issue the veterans community has been concerned about.
What we have done now is taken two omnibus bills and wrapped them into this legislation. In addition, we have taken other pieces of legislation passed by the committee, and we have added to that based on some recent developments.
This legislation is the product of a year of bipartisan work and includes provisions important to almost every single veterans service organization and dozens of Members of the Senate, Republican, Democrat, and Independent, many of which were reported out of the Veterans' Affairs Committee with strong bipartisan support.
This legislation completely eliminates the cuts that were made to the military retiree cost-of-living adjustments. I know there was great concern here in the Senate from Democrats and Republicans about that cut, as well as in the House of Representatives. I am happy to say this legislation completely eliminates the cuts that were made to the military retiree cost-of-living adjustments.
As we all know, the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2013 that was passed a few days ago would lower cost-of-living adjustments for military retirees by reducing the annual adjustment by 1 percent until age 62. The American people have spoken very loudly and very clearly. They have told the Congress to restore those cuts to military retirees and we have listened. I applaud the House and the Senate for restoring these cuts for disabled military retirees and survivors in the appropriations act we passed today. Today we took care of part of the problem. But we have to do more. What the comprehensive veterans bill I have introduced today does is restore the full COLA to all military retirees, every single retiree. This bill restores these COLAs and does much more.
I wish to take a moment to highlight some of the key provisions of this comprehensive piece of legislation. Let me say, this legislation is based on listening very carefully to what the veterans organizations have told us in private meetings, in hearings, and at some of the very large hearings we have held with the American Legion, the VFW, the DAV, and many other service organizations. Let me briefly touch on some of the provisions we are addressing, some of the concerns we are addressing in this comprehensive veterans legislation which, I should add, is fully paid for. It is fully paid for.
In the first omnibus bill that we passed, S. 944, the Veterans Health and Benefits Improvement Act of 2013, we dealt with in-State tuition assistance for post-9/11 veterans, an issue of great concern to young veterans and to all of the veterans organizations. This package includes provisions the committee's ranking member Senator Burr and I worked together on, that would help servicemembers transition back into civilian life by making recently separated veterans eligible for tuition at the in-State rate.
Given the nature of our Armed Forces, servicemembers have little to no say as to where they reside during military service. Therefore, many of these servicemembers have not had sufficient time to establish residency by the time they go back to school. This legislation would help the transition of our brave men and women who have sacrificed so much in defense of our country by giving them a fair shot at attaining educational goals without incurring an additional financial burden. We address that issue in this legislation.
Clearly one of the issues that has been an embarrassment to all of us is the degree of sexual assault we have seen in the military. What this legislation does is address that issue as well. While the Pentagon, Congress, and other stakeholders continue to work to end sexual assault within the military, something we have to focus on, we must nonetheless do everything we can to ensure that the VA is a welcoming place for those who have survived sexual assault. That is why this legislation includes important provisions that would improve the delivery of care and benefits to individuals who experience sexual trauma by serving in the military. These provisions were inspired by Ruth Moore, a veteran who struggled for 23 years to receive VA disability compensation.
It would expand access to VA counseling and care to active-duty servicemembers and members of the Guard and Reserve who experienced sexual assault during inactive-duty training. It also takes a number of steps to improve the adjudication of disability compensation claims based on military sexual trauma.
This legislation will give the VA additional tools to provide victims of sexual trauma with the care and benefits they need to confront the emotional and physical consequences of these horrific acts. Sexual assault in the military is unacceptable and this committee is, in a significant way, addressing that issue.
One of the concerns we have heard from many veterans and veterans organizations is the issue of overmedication. Many of our veterans come back and receive in some cases 5, 10 different types of pills to address some of the very serious problems they have. What this bill does is expand, among many other things, access to complementary and alternative medicine. The VA already does a good job in that area. This would expand their capability to provide complementary and alternative medicine.
Maintaining the VA's world-class health care system remains a priority for our committee. I am pleased we were able to respond to calls from veterans to increase access to complementary and alternative medicine for the treatment of chronic pain, mental health conditions, and chronic disease. By expanding access to these treatment options-- options such as acupuncture, meditation, massage therapy, and many others--we can enhance the likelihood veterans get the care they need in the way that works for them. These treatments are becoming more and more popular. More and more veterans want access to them and that is what we do in this legislation.
Additionally, this legislation calls for the VA to promote healthy weight in veterans by increasing their access to fitness facilities as a healthy weight is critical to combating multiple chronic diseases, including diabetes and heart disease. In other words, the [[Page S446]] most cost-effective and best way to treat disease is to prevent that disease by making sure our veterans have the opportunity to keep healthy. This legislation does that as well.
This legislation further honors as veterans certain persons who performed service in the Reserve components of the Armed Forces. I know how important this provision is for all those who wore this Nation's uniforms as members of the Reserves. I am pleased we will finally honor their service with passage of this legislation.
This legislation also expands benefits for surviving spouses, for the spouses of those who gave their lives to defend this country. I want to make special note of provisions that will be included in this package that would also strengthen the benefits and services provided to surviving family members by addressing a number of concerns brought to the attention of this committee by the Gold Star Wives in testimony last year.
Obviously the Gold Star Wives are the spouses of those soldiers who died in combat. Specifically, this bill would provide additional dependency and indemnity compensation for surviving spouses with children in order to provide financial support in the difficult period following the loss of a loved one. This bill would also expand the Marine Gunnery Sergeant John David Fry Scholarship to include surviving spouses of members of the Armed Forces who died in the line of duty. That means surviving spouses would become eligible for post-9/11 GI bill benefits, setting them and their families up for success in the years to follow.
One of the issues that has occupied a great deal of time and energy on the committee deals with claim processing. We all know that for the last number of years the VA has had a very significant backlog. That is clearly not acceptable. When a veteran brings forth a claim, that claim should be processed in a reasonable period of time with a reasonable degree of accuracy. We are all too well familiar with the challenges of the claims backlog. I am very pleased to see that the VA is making significant progress on this complex issue. They are going from paper to digital. That is a huge process. As a result, the backlog is declining. That is good news, but we have to do more.
This legislation would support VA's ongoing efforts and would make needed improvements to the claims system. Among a number of claims- related provisions, this bill for the first time would require the Department to publicly report on both claims processing goals and actual production. This would allow Congress and the public to closely track and measure VA's progress on this difficult issue. The Secretary of the VA Eric Shinseki has proposed a very ambitious goal for the end of 2015. We want to make sure they are on track.
That is some of the provisions included in the first bill. Let me talk a little about bit about the second omnibus bill. Both of those bills passed unanimously out of committee. The Comprehensive Veterans Health and Benefits and Military Retirement Pay Restoration Act of 2014 includes provisions from S. 1581, a second omnibus bill that moved out of the committee with unanimous support at the November markup. Here are some of the provisions in that omnibus.
The improvement and expansion of dental care. I don't know about New Mexico, but I can tell you that in Vermont, and in fact in many parts of this country, inability to access affordable dental care is a major crisis. It is true for the general public and it is true for veterans as well. The truth is, right now the VA, with the exception of service- connected oral problems, does not provide dental care to our veterans. I think that is a very significant omission.
What this legislation does is, starting off with a large-scale pilot project, begin the effort to make sure dental care becomes part of VA health care. This is something that I think the veterans throughout this country will be very excited to learn about and to participate in.
Those are some of the provisions that were in the two omnibus bills, and they passed unanimously.
Let me talk about some other legislation that came out of the committee, in some cases with bipartisan support, but not unanimously. The first one deals with advanced appropriations for the VA; that is, S. 932, the Putting Veterans Funding First Act of 2013. That was introduced, as I recall, by Senators Begich and Boozman in a bipartisan way. Here is the story, which is very important: As we saw last year, in the event of a prolonged government shutdown, the Veterans' Administration would not have been able to issue disability compensation or pension payments or provide educational benefit to millions of deserving veterans.
The truth is that during that shutdown, we were perhaps a week or 10 days away from disabled veterans, and others, not getting the benefits so many of them depend upon. It is what they depend upon to buy groceries, it is what they depend upon to pay a mortgage, and to make their car payments. We were a week or 10 days away from those veterans not getting those benefits.
I am happy to say that in this legislation we have addressed that issue, and we have moved forward with advanced appropriations for mandatory accounts at the VA.
Our economy is making slow progress. We are creating jobs, but nobody believes we are anywhere near where we want to be. Real unemployment in this country is close to 13 percent. In my view, we owe a great deal to our veterans who have left their families, their jobs, gone abroad, and then when they come back, they are unable to find employment. What our legislation does is put into this comprehensive bill the Renew Our VOW to Hire Heroes, S. 6, the Putting Veterans Back to Work Act of 2013. This legislation would reauthorize provisions from the VOW to Hire Heroes Act, including a 2-year extension to the Veterans Training Assistance Program which retrains unemployed veterans for high-demand occupations. There are other employment provisions in this legislation as well.
Several years ago, under the leadership of our colleague Patty Murray, who was my predecessor as chair of the Veterans' Affairs Committee, we proudly passed the Caregivers Act. The Caregivers Act was a very important piece of legislation which said to families who were taking care of disabled veterans: We understand what you are doing is very difficult, and we are going to give you some assistance.
The legislation we had passed dealt with post-9/11 veterans and their families. After listening to the concerns of pre-9/11 veterans and their family members, I introduced S. 851, the Caregivers Expansion and Improvement Act of 2013 to extend eligibility for the caregivers programs to veterans' families of all eras. So we took this program, which was working well, and we said we are going to pay attention to the needs of all families who are taking care of men and women who put their lives on the line to defend us and have become disabled, and that is in this legislation as well.
Also in this legislation is language which will extend eligibility to enroll in VA health care, and that is S. 1604. We all know that early diagnosis of health care conditions is critically important. Under the current law, recently separated veterans have 5 years of free health care from the VA. This legislation would extend the period of time for these individuals, including members of the active component, the National Guard, and Reserves. They will be eligible to enroll in the VA health care system for 10 years post deployment. We go from 5 years to 10 years.
This benefit has been incredibly helpful to our most recent generation of servicemembers, and extending the enrollment period will allow more individuals to take advantage of VA's high-quality, cost- effective health care system, including important access to mental health care services.
Additionally, this legislation simplifies the process for determining eligibility for enrollment in VA health care for lower income veterans. Currently VA uses an extremely complex calculation of geographic income thresholds that vary from county to county. You can have one veteran in one county in Vermont, another person living a mile away, and one is eligible for VA health care because of his or her income, but another person with the same income is not eligible. My legislation establishes one income threshold per State, simplifies the process, and [[Page S447]] will enable more veterans to be eligible for VA health care.
This legislation also includes S. 131, the Women Veterans and Other Health Care Improvements Act of 2013. With the widespread use of improvised explosive devices throughout Iraq and Afghanistan, both female and male servicemembers have found themselves with increased risk of spinal cord, reproductive, and urinary tract injury. Many of these veterans dreamed of starting a family, but their injuries prevented them from conceiving, and this legislation will help them fulfill their dreams.
We have three more important provisions I want to briefly touch upon, and that is, once again, the restoration of full COLA for all military retirees. In an effort to address concerns regarding the cost-of-living adjustments for all military retirees, this bill would reaffirm the commitment Congress made to our servicemembers and veterans by ensuring consistent and appropriate funding for military retirees and veterans. This very important provision is in this legislation.
Furthermore, there has been a concern that many CBOCs, community- based outreach clinics, that have been planned all over this country have been unable to be built for a variety of technical reasons. We addressed that issue as well. This bill also improves access to mental health treatment for veterans.
Let me conclude by saying we give a lot of speeches about the respect we have for the men and women who put their lives on the line to defend this country. They have come forward through the veterans committee and they have said: We have concerns. We have concerns about health care; we have concerns about how quickly the benefits that we apply for come to us. They have been very loud and clear in saying--and we agree with them--that it is unacceptable that pensions promised to veterans have been cut. There have been many other issues dealing with employment and dealing with education.
What this bill does in a comprehensive way is to say to the veterans of this country--the millions and millions of people who have given so much to us--we hear your concerns. We hear your concerns, and we are going to address your concerns.
I want to take this moment to thank majority leader Senator Reid. He has been very supportive of not only veterans in general but supportive of this effort to make sure we keep our promises to the veterans of this country. That bill has been introduced. My hope is we can get it to the floor as soon as possible.
I hope very much that although there is a partisan climate, that on this issue of keeping our promises to the men and women who have put their lives on the line to defend this country, we can come together as a Senate and as a House and have the President sign this bill which will mean so much to so many.
With that, I yield the floor.
The PRESIDING OFFICER. The Senator from Connecticut is recognized.