'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.

Sanders said he talked to Reid this morning and said the Democratic leader "wants to see this bill get up to the floor of the Senate as quickly as he possibly can."

He acknowledged that the bill won't get 100 percent bipartisan support, though he has the impression right now that "virtually all of the Democratic caucus" will be on board, as well as an unknown number of Republicans. Sanders stressed that the legislation includes provisions that have been introduced by GOP members, including Veterans Affairs Committee members Richard Burr (R-N.C.) and John Bozeman (R-Ark.).

"All of the Republicans as well as Democrats feel very strongly about veterans'  needs," Sanders said.

And that should garner at least tepid support for the bill heading into a debate process. Though the expansive legislation, including many provisions that veterans groups testifying before Congress have asked for, has something for everyone, the greatest dilemma facing the most ardent supporters of men and women in uniform will be the pay-for.

"This is an expensive program, but Reid sees addressing many, many important issues facing the veterans community as a very high priority," Sanders said. "These are ideas that these men and women have been talking about for years."

The senator said the funding source is not completely up to him, and a "definitive decision" has not been made -- though he expressed a desire to skim off the Overseas Contingency Operations fund as the war in Afghanistan winds down and funding exceeds current Congressional Budget Office estimates. "The final decision of the pay-for is not mine alone," he added, noting the OCO is "a reasonable source."

The second half of the 113th Congress could also see a battle of the veterans' bills, as Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) plans to unveil his own "historic, comprehensive" veterans legislation Thursday at an American Legion post. Blumenthal's office said his bill would "reduce the disability claims backlog, restore retirement benefits, improve health care services, and prevent discrimination against veterans among other reforms."

Sanders said he's just starting to reach out to colleagues on both sides of the aisle about supporting his bill. The senator lauded the work that Rep. Jeff Miller (R-Fla.) has done at the helm of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, adding, "I'm optimistic we can work with our friends in the House."

"Yeah, it costs money -- but these are provisions that are sensible provisions," and something to which veterans are entitled, Sanders said. "I think the majority of the American people would agree with me."