Caring for Our Nation's Veterans
As the Ranking Member on the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, I am dedicated to ensuring that America’s veterans get the care and services they deserve and have earned through their service to our country. For more information about the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, including hearings and issues in front of the committee, visit the website here.
Those who have fought and sacrificed in service to our nation return home forever changed by their experience. Some carry the obvious physical wounds of conflict, while others return home without the same sense of belonging in their communities. As time passes and the memories of past and current wars recede in our minds, we must realize that for the men and women who bore the burden of war on the battlefield, invisible scars and stress of service can often be more difficult to treat than physical wounds. We must remind ourselves that their toughest days of rehabilitation and re-integration may often lie ahead and that it is our duty as citizens to provide these men and women and their families with the respect and compassion they deserve.
On May 10, 2012, I introduced a bill designed to streamline the regional administrative offices of the Veterans Health Administration so that our focus returns to getting care to our veterans. The bill would combine the current 21 VISNs into 12 VISNs to reallocate and better target funds to improve the quality and consistency of health care for our nation’s war heroes.
In December, 2011, Senator Murray (D-WA) and I sent a letter to VA Inspector General asking him to launch an investigation into mental health care wait times. Our Committee held two hearings in 2011 on VA mental health accessibility. At the first hearing on July 14th the Committee heard the first-hand stories of two service members, who even after attempting to take their own lives, had appointments postponed and difficulties cutting through the red tape in order to get care. The Committee also heard from a VA psychologist and mental health care coordinator who testified about delays in providing mental health care treatment, including care for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
On June 29, 2011, the Caring for Camp Lejeune Veterans Act (S. 277) passed out of the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs with bipartisan support. This legislation, which I also introduced in the 111th Congress, would require the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to provide health care to veterans and their family members who have experienced adverse health effects as a result of exposure to well-water contaminated by human carcinogens at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina.
On July 14, 2011, the Veterans’ Affairs Committee held a hearing to look into why veterans with mental health needs are not getting help from VA as quickly as they need it. My opening statement can be viewed in its entirety here, and I encourage you to read a story that ran today in Politico about the hearing by clicking here.
On October 3, 2010, President Obama yesterday signed the Veterans’ Benefits Act of 2010 into law. This new law contains several provisions I authored to provide the highest level of "aid and attendance" benefits for veterans with severe traumatic brain injuries; reduce the delay severely-injured servicemembers may face in receiving VA benefits as they transition from military to civilian life; and enhance disability compensation for certain disabled veterans with difficulties using prostheses.
On April 22, 2010, the Senate unanimously approved the Caregiver and Veterans Omnibus Health Services Act of 2010, legislation that contained provisions I authored to strengthen support for family caregivers of seriously disabled veterans. This assistance for caregivers will hopefully alleviate some of the challenges families face in caring for a seriously injured veteran at home.
Improving Employment Opportunities and Preventing Veteran Homelessess
I was proud to cosponsor the Veterans Employment Transition Act of 2011, which was introduced in January 2011. This bill would provide tax incentives to employers who hire veterans who have recently separated from the military.
On April 13, 2011, I attended a hearing focused on unemployment among veterans and cited the duplicative and often ineffective efforts of the federal government to assist them in finding jobs. Despite the good will and hard work that many people are putting into helping veterans find employment, it is becoming increasingly apparent that many of the programs already in place are not working. On November 16, 2009, the Senate unanimously supported an amendment I offered to provide an additional $750,000 for services for homeless veterans.
In 2008, I authored the Services for Ending Long-Term Homelessness Act, a bill that authorized grants to address the issue of preventing veteran homelessness. This legislation was signed into law last year as part of the Veterans' Mental Health and Other Care Improvements Act of 2008. Under the Burr legislation, VA can make grants to provide supportive services that will keep low-income veterans, who are at risk of becoming homeless, in permanent housing.
Caring for Veterans and Family Members Exposed to Toxic Water at Camp Lejeune
In the past two Congresses, I have been proud to introduce the Caring for Camp Lejeune Veterans Act, legislation to provide health care to veterans and their family members who have experienced adverse health effects as a result of exposure to well-water contaminated by human carcinogens at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina. An estimated 750,000 people may have been exposed to probable and known human carcinogens in the base’s water supply between the 1950s and 1980s.
Up to date information on this issue can be found below:
On October 2, 2011, the EPA made official what we have expected for some time now - that TCE, a chemical that was present in the drinking water at Camp Lejeune for decades, is a known human carcinogen and represents a grave health risk to those exposed to it. I am hopeful additional awareness will spur those exposed to get the medical assessment and treatment they need.
On January 31, 2012, I sent a letter to Dr. Thomas Frieden, Director of CDC, regarding the legal basis for removing certain information from the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry’s (ATSDR) scientific report on water contamination at Camp Lejeune. The United States Marine Corps’ (USMC) request to the ATRSDR to redact locations of Camp Lejeune’s active installation water system infrastructure due to national security concerns is very troubling. This information has been publically available for several years, and it is unclear why it suddenly became a security threat. I fear that removing this information may jeopardize ongoing and future studies of the water contamination at Camp Lejeune, and also worry that this sets a dangerous precedent of withholding information from scientific studies for reasons of national security without adequate legal justification. For more on this issue and to read the letter, click here.
Dr. Frieden responded to the letter on February 15, 2012 and stated that he had decided to comply with the USMC’s request to redact the locations. This decision to remove critical scientific information raises concerns about the transparency, integrity and merit of the ATSDR’s report and its findings, which will be released this year.
Protecting the 2nd Amendment Rights of Veterans
Veterans who come to the VA for help in managing their own financial affairs are labeled as “mentally defective,” have their names put in an FBI database (along with criminals), and are denied their Second Amendment rights.
On October 13, 2011, I introduced a bill to stop this arbitrary practice. My bill would protect the rights of veterans by ensuring that only a judicial official can determine which names are appropriate to refer to the FBI. Our veterans took an oath to uphold the Constitution, and they deserve to enjoy the rights they fought so hard to protect.
In April, 2008, I, along with Senators McCain (R-AZ) and Graham (R-SC), introduced a bill to enhance the existing Montgomery G.I. Bill by improving education benefits for servicemembers, veterans, and members of the Guard and Reserve. The legislation will help more military personnel attend college debt-free, and allow them to transfer their education benefits to their spouse or children.
Recognizing and Honoring Our Veterans
In March, 2012, I introduced a bill encouraging the President to designate March 29 as “Welcome Home Vietnam Veterans Day” honoring the return home of our armed service members after serving in Vietnam. I introduced similar legislation in 2009, 2010, and 2011.
On May 23, 2012, Senator Baucus (D-MT) and I initiated an investigation into the potential abuses of tax-exempt nonprofit status by the Disabled Veterans National Foundation (DVNF), following reports of questionable financial ties between DVNF and Quadriga Art, a marketing firm that handles its direct mail. According to tax records, DVNF raised tens of millions of dollars over a two year period, yet reports indicate very little of the money went to directly help disabled veterans. Read more here.
On May 22, 2012, I introduced the Veterans’ Small Business Opportunity Act of 2012 which updates the Veterans Benefits Code within the Department of Veteran Affairs to further assist spouses of deceased veterans who received benefits under the VA’s service disabled veteran owned small business (SDVOSB) program.
On January 31, 2012, I introduced a bill that would require all judges of the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims to reside within 50 miles of Washington, D.C., in order to increase the overall efficiency and effectiveness of the Court. Read more here.