By Sandra Basu
WASHINGTON — The chairman of the Senate Veterans’ Committee vowed to keep fighting for the passage of a sweeping veterans bill that failed to clear the Senate at the end of February.
Introduced by Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), advocates argued that the legislation would improve VA healthcare and dental care, help the VA address a disability claims backlog and aid veterans in finding jobs. The measure also sought to undo the 1% cut in annual cost-of-living adjustments for military pensions, which was part of a budget agreement late last year. Advocates also said that the bill would allow VA to open 27 new clinics and medical facilities.
Sanders had said earlier this year in introducing the bill that the nearly 400-page bill is “the most comprehensive piece of veterans’ legislation to be offered in decades.”
“I am going to keep going on this. We will not give up on our veterans and at some point we are going to pass this legislation,” he said at a news conference after the bill didn’t make it out of the Senate.
The legislation failed to gain traction with Republicans who, among other things, cited that Sanders’ plan to fund the bill was not viable. Sanders had said that the cost of the bill would be paid for by $4 billion in savings from the VA and offset by $20 billion in caps on the Overseas Contingency Operations fund.
“This bill increases, creates new veterans programs, new spending for veterans, and it is not paid for in any way. It is all borrowed money,” Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) said of the bill. “We are already in debt, so when we enter and commit ourselves to additional obligations above what we have agreed to, every penny of that is borrowed, every penny of that will add to the debt of our country.”
Support for Bill
The legislation includes several healthcare provisions, including requiring VA to report to Congress regarding telemedicine services such as updates on VA teleconsultation and telemedicine initiatives for veterans.
The bill also would direct VA to develop a plan to expand research and education on the delivery of complementary and alternative medicine services and mandates a three-year program to assess approaches for integrating complementary and alternative medicine services with other VA healthcare services.
Other provisions in the bill include a program of supportive services for family members and caregivers of veterans with mental illness be established using outside providers and that a strategic plan be submitted to Congress for improving access and quality of healthcare services for veterans in rural areas.
At the news conference earlier this year, several organizations voiced support for the legislation.
“There is absolutely nothing in this conglomerate bill that any member of the House or any senator should hesitate voting for this bill and doing so quickly,” said Vietnam Veterans of America Executive Director for Policy & Government Affairs Rick Weidman.
He pointed to the provisions to address military sexual trauma (MST). In addition to expanding VA eligibility for care and services for MST to active-duty troops, the bill would require VA to report on the prevalence of domestic abuse in the veteran population, the types of treatments and care offered to them, the effectiveness of these approaches and on any correlation between MST or other sexual trauma and experiencing domestic abuse.
“We are still not where we need to be in terms of counseling and doing remediation, identification and reporting of statistics and reporting of what [VA is] doing to assist these fine young people who have been subjected to military sexual trauma,” Weidman explained.
In response to the failure of passage of the bill, American Legion National Commander Daniel M. Dellinger said in a written statement that he did not know “how anyone who voted ‘no’ today can look a veteran in the eye and justify that vote.”
Still, the bill did not have universal support from all veterans’ groups. National Executive Director for American Veterans Stewart Hickey explained earlier this year on the organization’s website that the bill endeavored to be “all things to all veterans” and is “very enticing” to all Veterans Service Organizations as “the panacea for all of our legislative agendas.”
“It’s just too “pie in the sky” and lacks the power base to hold VA accountable for providing excellent care and services to veterans currently accessing the system,” he wrote earlier this year.