Senate Democrats have a long record of working to ensure that our nation’s veterans receive the care and benefits they have earned through their service. For the past several years, congressional Democrats have led the effort to fill in critical funding shortfalls at the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) left behind by the previous Administration and taken significant action to enhance VA health care services; meet the needs of returning Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans; and improve veterans’ access to critical benefits. On the Veterans Day holiday, we honor the service of the men and women who have sacrificed for our country and pledge to continue our commitment to the heroes that have served and continue to serve.
This Fact Sheet outlines the legislative initiatives Senate Democrats have advanced since the start of the 111th Congress.
Senate Democrats led the effort to pass a Fiscal Year 2010 Budget that provides a record increase for veterans’ health care and services. The Budget Resolution includes a funding increase of more than 11 percent for veterans programs above the Fiscal Year 2009 level. According to veterans’ service organizations, the budget authority “surpasses” the recommendations they provided in their policy and budget blueprint this year, known as the Independent Budget. This investment truly reflects our commitment to ensure that veterans get the care and benefits they have earned. Specifically, the Budget Resolution will:
- Continue to provide historic increases to VA. In 2007, the first year under Democratic leadership, Congress appropriated the biggest increase to veterans’ programs in the history of the Department. Congress went even further in 2008, providing a $4 billion dollar increase, $2.8 billion above President Bush’s budget. This year’s budget resolution would continue Congress’s strong commitment, by including additional funding for VA to expand research and improve treatment for mental health, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and traumatic brain injury (TBI). The increased funding for health programs critical to meeting the needs of returning Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans.
- Expand access to VA health care for modest income veterans. The Budget Resolution includes a provision that would end the previous Administration’s ban on enrolling modest income veterans in the VA health care system. According to the VA, this measure would effectively bring more than 500,000 additional veterans into the VA system by 2013.
- Ensure efficient, timely, and predictable funding for veterans health care. The Budget Resolution includes an advanced funding provision, which will allow Congress to provide funding for veterans’ medical care one year ahead of the regular appropriations process. By providing advance appropriations, the Budget Resolution will put an end to funding delays for the VA and ensure timely and predictable funding for the veterans health care system, critical to ensuring that veterans have access to quality health care.
Senate Democrats are on the verge of passing Fiscal Year 2010 funding legislation to implement this historic budget increase for VA health care and services. The Senate is currently considering S.1407, the Military Construction and Veterans Affairs and Related Agencies Appropriations Act, 2010, which, in line with the Budget Resolution, would provide for a record increase in funding – $2.5 billion above last year’s level – for critical veterans programs and services. The legislation includes $53.2 billion in discretionary funding, $150 million above the President’s request as well as $55.8 billion in mandatory funds. For the first time, the bill provides for advance appropriations to fund medical programs for the Department of Veterans Affairs for Fiscal Year 2011, to ensure a stable and uninterrupted source of funding for medical care for veterans.
Specifically, the bill would:
- Expand the Rural Health Initiative and the Rural Clinic Initiative, effectively improving access to medical care for veterans in rural and highly rural areas;
- Ensure the VA has the resources to meet the health care needs of veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan;
- Increase medical and prosthetic research in key areas, including mental health, TBI, spinal cord injury, burn injury, polytrauma injuries, and sensory loss;
- Fund vital long term care programs for aging veterans as well as severely wounded combat veterans from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan;
- Provide increased funds for health care and support services to assist homeless veterans as well as establish a new initiative to combat homelessness among our nation’s veterans;
- Expand access to VA health care to disabled veterans earning modest incomes;
- Address critical maintenance and repairs as well as fund new construction at VA hospitals and clinics; and
- Allow the VA to hire 1,200 new claims processors to improve the timeliness of claims processing.
Democrats worked to provide $1.4 billion in reinvestment and recovery funding for VA hospital and medical facility construction and improvements. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 included $1.4 billion for VA, with funding directed primarily for infrastructure repairs at existing Veterans Health Administration (VHA) hospitals and capital infrastructure needs at state VA long-term care facilities. Specifically, the bill provided: $1 billion for nonrecurring maintenance for VA medical facilities; $150 million in funding for grants and construction of state extended care facilities; $50 million for information technology systems for the Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA); $150 million for VBA to decrease waiting times for claims surge processors; and $50 million for the National Cemetery Administration for monument and memorial repairs.
Under Democratic leadership, the Senate passed a bill to ensure the value of compensation for veterans and their survivors is protected from potential inflation. The Senate passed the Veterans’ Compensation Cost-of-Living Adjustment Act of 2009 in June to offset a potential rise in inflation. The bill stipulated that, if the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates an increase in inflation based on the Consumer Price Index (CPI), the Secretary of VA would be required to increase veteran and survivor compensation by that rate. It also stated that if the CPI decreases, veteran and survivor compensation will remain at last year’s rate. Effective December 1, 2009, the cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) would be applicable to veterans’ disability compensation, dependency and indemnity compensation for surviving spouses and children, and additional related benefits. The President signed the bill into law on June 30, 2009.
Senate Democrats helped champion a bill to ensure timely and predictable funding for the veterans’ health care system. The Veterans Health Care Budget Reform and Transparency Act, passed by the Senate in August, will provide funding for veterans’ health care one year in advance of the regular appropriations process. By reforming the current year-by-year funding process, the bill will put an end to funding delays for medical care programs for veterans. Additionally, it will ensure transparency in VA funding by requiring public reports and Government Accountability Office (GAO) audits on the VA’s funding projections. In the words of President Obama, “For the VA, this means timely, sufficient and predictable funding from year to year. For VA hospitals and clinics, it means more time to budget, to recruit high-quality professionals, and to invest in new health care equipment. And most of all, for our veterans it will mean better access to the doctors and nurses and the medical care that they need: specialized care for our wounded warriors with post-traumatic stress and traumatic brain injuries, and the staffing to welcome back to the VA those half-million ‘Priority 8′ vets.” The President signed the bill into law on October 22, 2009.
Democrats led the passage of legislation to enhance benefits for veterans and their families. On October 7, 2009, the Senate unanimously adopted the Veterans’ Benefits Enhancement Act of 2009, to provide expanded compensation, housing, employment, education, burial, and insurance benefits to veterans and their families. Specifically, the bill will strengthen life insurance and mortgage insurance programs for disabled veterans; remove the enrollment cap on the number of veterans allowed in VA’s Independent Living Program; and ease the burden of proof on veterans seeking to establish that their disabilities are related to their service. Further, the legislation will provide for retroactive payment to service members who suffered from traumatic injury while on active duty on or between October 7, 2001 and November 30, 2005 – a benefit that previously was available only to those service members who were injured while serving in Operation Iraqi Freedom or Operation Enduring Freedom during that time.
Senate Democrats are leading the fight to overcome Republican obstructionism on a critical veterans’ health bill. One Republican Senator is currently blocking consideration of the Caregivers and Veterans Omnibus Health Services Act of 2009, a bipartisan veterans’ health bill that is supported by more than a dozen major veterans’ service organizations and military groups. The legislation would provide vital assistance to the caregivers of the most severely wounded veterans, including counseling, support, and a living stipend as well as health care to the family caregivers of injured veterans. This assistance is fundamental to meeting the VA’s obligation to care for our nation’s wounded warriors. Further, the bill would provide other critically important benefits for veterans, including provisions that would: expand health care services for women veterans; improve veterans’ access to care in rural areas; provide new support and outreach for homeless veterans; enhance veterans’ mental health care services; remove barriers to emergency care and care for catastrophically disabled veterans; enhance VA Medical Services; increase quality control, accountability, and transparency at VA; and fund needed VA construction projects across the country. Democrats will continue to push for the immediate consideration and passage of this bill.