'Most Comprehensive Veterans Legislation in Decades' Aims to Fill in the Care Gaps

WASHINGTON -- The chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee said he believes Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) will fast-track what he called "one of the most comprehensive pieces of veterans legislation that has been introduced in decades" to the floor for a vote.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) told reporters on a conference call today that his bill is close to gathering the support of most of the country's major veterans organizations. Backers to date include Veterans of Foreign Wars, the Wounded Warrior Project, Disabled American Veterans, and Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.

Among the changes vets would see if the 352-page bill is passed are full dental coverage, the extension of the VA enrollment period from five years to 10 for newly separated service members, the restoration of full cost-of-living adjustments for retirees, and the extension of caregiver benefits -- currently offered for post-9/11 veterans -- to all wars.

"Within our lifetimes, millions of men and women have put their lives on the line to defend this country," Sanders said. "These service members have paid a very, very high price for their service. The price is a lot higher than most people perceive."

"We have got to do everything possible to give back to them and their families, do everything possible to make them whole."

Sanders cited as some of the challenges the "hundreds of thousands" of service members coming back from recent wars with traumatic brain injury or post-traumatic stress disorder. "Your life is irreparably changed," he said. "We've got to work as hard as we can protect those men and women."

Under the massive bill, veterans without a service-related disability who can only get insurance through the Obamacare exchanges could enroll in the VA healthcare system instead. Veterans would get all immunizations recommended by the CDC, would be eligible for expanded chiropractic and alternative medicine treatments, and could get fitness center memberships paid for through a two-year pilot program.

Fertility treatment would be covered and veterans whose infertility is related to military service would receive adoption assistance. Comprehensive dental care, which is currently offered on a limited basis to certain veterans but doesn't cover things like dentures, would be offered at 16 locations minimum, for starters.

"This is something I think veterans feel very strongly about," Sanders said. "…If your teeth are rotting in your mouth and you can't get into the system, we're going to help."

The bill would also activate an advanced appropriations process to ensure that budget tie-ups don't keep disabled veterans from getting their checks. Sanders said veterans were about a week away from seeing these checks stopped during the government shutdown. "That is unacceptable, and I think there is no member of Congress that I think ever wants to see that happen," he added.

Also unacceptable, the senator said, was throwing veterans into a 13 percent real unemployment rate in the civilian workforce without some assistance.

Sanders' legislation requires federal agencies to develop plans to hire 15,000 veterans within five years, though he acknowledged that many departments have frozen positions due to budgetary woes. "The intent is for the agencies to do the best that they can and give preference to veterans," he said.

Federal contractors who employ more veterans would get an edge on bids for projects valued at $25 million or higher.