Last Wednesday, reporters across the country spoke with Senator Bernie Sanders via teleconference as he described and praised his most recently proposed bill. The omnibus bill is entitled the Comprehensive Veterans Health and Benefit and Military Retirement Pay Restoration Act of 2014. The bill, which was introduced last week to the Senate, would end recent controversial cuts to pensions of military retirees under the age of 62, as well as create numerous other increased benefits for veterans.
“This is one of the most comprehensive pieces of veterans legislation in decades,” said Sanders of the bill. He also touted that the bill was a largely bi-partisan effort of the Senate Committee on Veteran’s Affairs, of which Sanders is currently the chairman. He continued to say, “This bill addresses many of the concerns veterans groups have brought forward, and in a very comprehensive way.”
According to Sanders, hundreds of thousands of service members from Afghanistan have returned to the United States with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), or even a traumatic brain injury. Sanders also points to another example of vets in need with the reports that show that almost three times as many Vietnam veterans took their own lives after returning home than died during the Vietnam War.
“These service members have paid a very high price for their service. We have to do everything possible for them and their families,” Sanders said.
Over a 10 year period, the bill is estimated to cost about $30 billion. With this cost, the bill would expand the VA healthcare and dental care, in what Sanders called a “cost-effective and equitable way.” Also included in the bill is an extension of the stipends given to caregivers of veterans of post-9/11 wars. In the extension, the stipend would be offered to caregivers of veterans of other wars as well. “If your teeth are rotting in your mouth, and you can’t get into the system, we’re going to help you with that,” he said.
The legislation in the bill also provides provisions to improve veterans’ healthcare in many different ways. The legislation would include chiropractic care, increased access to complementary and alternative medicine, and transportation services. It would also require quarterly reports to congress on efforts to eliminate a backlog of VA benefits claims, expanding access to education benefits for veterans and their survivors, and assistance to veterans who are suffering from reproductive issues which are related to the use of improvised explosive devices in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“During the last government shutdown, we were a week or 10 days away from disabled veterans not receiving the checks they rely on,” said Sanders. “This is unacceptable, and I don’t think anyone in the Senate wants to see that happen.”
In referring to conversations about the bill with Senator Harry Reid, Sanders said the Senate Majority Leader indicated that he would like the vote to occur as soon as possible, which may be as soon as the next few weeks. When Sanders was asked about how much support he thought the bill would receive in the Senate, Sanders said, “I think we are going ot have the support of the entire Democratic caucus.” As of now, Sanders said he has not reached out to his Republican colleagues, but feels confident they will back the bill because many of the provisions in the bill were proposed by Republicans. “We hope very much that we will have their support,” he said. He adds that several of the provisions did not only come from Republican colleagues, but colleagues in the House.
Sanders hopes to raise the $30 billion needed for the bill by utilizing the Overseas Contingency Operations fund, which was created to fund the War on Terror. This fund has recently been used to pay for ongoing operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. The way Sanders sees it, this money has been used to pay for our defense, so it’s only fair that it be used to help pay for those who have been doing the defending, although he noted that, “the final decision of how we fund this is not my own. I believe there is more than enough money [in OCO] to fund this project.”
“These are not just ideas that me or my staff came up with,” said Sanders, “These are ideas that these men and women have been talking about for years.”