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. Over the past several years, congressional Democrats led the effort to fill in critical funding shortfalls at the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) created by the previous Administration and championed the passage of the largest investment in veterans’ education since World War II. In addition, working with President Obama, Senate Democrats have taken significant action to improve and expand access to VA health care services, better meet the needs of returning Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans, enhance access to benefits for all veterans, and ensure more timely claims processing and efficient management at the VA. As we near the Memorial 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 each day.
This Fact Sheet outlines the relevant legislative initiatives Senate Democrats have advanced since the start of the 111th Congress.
Senate Democrats have worked to provide historic funding increases to ensure first-rate care and services to our nation’s veterans.
- Senate Democrats led the passage of the Fiscal Year 2010 budget, putting in place a blueprint for record increases for veterans’ health care and services. The Budget Resolution for Fiscal Year 2010 included a funding increase of more than 11 percent for veterans’ programs above the Fiscal Year 2009 level. According to veterans’ service organizations, the discretionary budget authority exceeded the recommendations they provided in their policy and budget plan for the year, known as the Independent Budget - for the first time in the 24-year history of the Independent Budget. The Budget Resolution also included a provision to end the previous Administration’s ban on enrolling modest income, non-service connected (part of the so-called “Priority Group 8″) veterans in the VA health care system, which, according to the VA, will effectively bring more than 500,000 additional veterans into the VA system by 2013. Additionally, it authorized advanced funding for the VA medical care program to ensure stable management of VA medical services from year to year.
- Under Democratic leadership, the Senate passed the Fiscal Year 2010 funding legislation to implement this historic budget increase. In December, the Senate passed the Military Construction and Veterans Affairs and Related Agencies Appropriations Act, 2010 (as part of the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2010), which, in line with the Budget Resolution, provided for a record increase in funding this year – $2.5 billion above the Fiscal Year 2009 level – for critical veterans programs and services. The legislation included $53 billion in discretionary funding – the largest appropriation for veterans’ programs in the VA’s history – as well as $56.6 billion in mandatory funds. For the first time, the bill provided for advance appropriations ($48.3 billion) to fund VA medical programs for Fiscal Year 2011, a measure designed to ensure a stable and uninterrupted source of funding for medical care for veterans. The bill included other key priorities that:
· Expanded the Rural Health Initiative and the Rural Clinic Initiative, effectively improving access to medical care for veterans in underserved rural areas;
· Ensured the VA has the resources to meet the health care needs of veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan;
· Increased medical and prosthetic research in key areas, including mental health, traumatic brain injury (TBI), spinal cord injury, burn injury, polytrauma injuries, and sensory loss;
· Funded vital long term care programs for aging veterans as well as severely wounded combat veterans from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan;
· Provided increased funding for health care and support services to assist homeless veterans, and established a new initiative to combat homelessness among our nation’s veterans;
· Expanded access to VA health care to disabled veterans earning modest incomes;
· Addressed critical maintenance and repair needs as well as new construction priorities at VA hospitals and clinics; and
· Allowed the VA to hire 1,200 new claims processors to improve the timeliness of claims processing.
- These increases build upon years of Democratic leadership that have ensured robust funding for the VA. Democrats have consistently worked to provide all veterans the health care and services they need and deserve. Throughout the previous Administration, Democrats in Congress fought against proposed fee increases for veterans’ health care; pushed for bolstered investments in VA medical services; led the effort to enact a post-9/11 GI bill to provide enhanced educational benefits to today’s veterans; and supported initiatives to expand services to rural veterans, better meet the needs of returning Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans, and increase housing assistance and other support services and benefits to veterans and their families. In 2007, the first year after Democratic leadership had been restored, Congress appropriated the biggest increase to veterans’ programs in the history of the Department. Congress went even further the following year, providing a $4 billion dollar increase, or $2.8 billion above President Bush’s budget, for the VA in Fiscal Year 2009.
- Democrats strongly support President Obama’s Fiscal Year 2011 budget proposal. Senate Democrats have endorsed the President’s proposal, which would provide for a 7.6 percent funding increase to support critical programs; expand VA services to veterans in need, including rural veterans; authorize advanced funding for the VA medical care program for Fiscal Year 2012; bolster efforts to end veterans’ homelessness; invest in initiatives to build a 21st century VA; and provide enhanced education benefits under the new GI bill.
Democrats worked to secure passage of landmark legislation to improve the support services and the quality of care for veterans. Last month, the Senate unanimously passed the Caregivers and Veterans Omnibus Health Services Act of 2010, a bill that combines several legislative initiatives to extend benefits to the caregivers of injured veterans and to enhance vital veterans’ health care services. The bill was signed into law by the President on May 5.
- Support for the caregivers of wounded veterans. The legislation establishes a new, permanent program that will provide the caregivers of wounded warriors with training, counseling, mental health care and key support services. It also provides a living stipend and health care to the family caregivers of injured veterans under the Civilian Health and Medical Program of the Department of Veterans Affairs (CHAMPVA) program. This legislation is critical to alleviating the many hardships that have faced caregivers and recognizing their many sacrifices in caring for our nation’s wounded veterans.
- Breaking down barriers for veterans in rural America. The legislation breaks down many obstacles that make it difficult for veterans in rural area to receive the health care they have earned. Specifically, the bill provides reimbursement for travel to VA facilities, establishes grants for veterans service organizations transporting veterans from highly rural areas, and expands VA’s telehealth program and its ability to collaborate with community organizations in rural areas.
- Expanding health care service for women veterans. The legislation helps VA adapt to the needs of the growing number of women veterans. As provided for in the bill, qualifying women veterans can count on health care for their newborn children for one week. VA is also required to train its mental health providers in the treatment of military sexual trauma, provide readjustment services for women veterans, implement a pilot program to provide women veterans with child care, and report to Congress on a comprehensive assessment of the barriers in providing health care to women veterans.
- Improvements in veterans care and services. The legislation also includes a number of provisions for enhancing veterans care, including measures that will enhance mental health care; remove barriers to care for catastrophically disabled veterans; strengthen the VA’s workforce; and expand and improve services for homeless veterans.
Senate Democrats championed 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, ensures that funding levels for veterans’ health care will be determined 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 and facilitate more effective budget planning at VA hospitals, allowing them to better meet veterans’ needs. 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 Senate 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 included provisions to 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 provided 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.
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 the 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. In addition to creating jobs, these investments helped the VA address critical facility maintenance and upgrade needs, improving care for veterans across the country.
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 to ensure that inflation does not erode veterans’ benefits. 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 would remain at the previous 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.
 P.L. 111-16.