For too long, the needs of our nation's veterans were shortchanged and neglected by our government. In recent years, Congress has begun to reverse that trend, taking important steps to improve the care and benefits our veterans receive. Senator Sanders has been a leader in that effort. As a member of both the Senate Veterans' Affairs and Budget Committees, Sen. Sanders has worked to increase funding for the VA to make sure that the brave men and women who have put their lives on the line to defend our country receive the health care and benefits they deserve. Congress provided the VA with billions in new funding for VA programs and benefits and the largest budget increase in the VA's history. Since Sanders' arrival in the Senate, VA funding has repeatedly met the level requested by a respected group of veterans' service organizations in their annual recommendations known as the "Independent Budget."
During the summer of 2009, a new Post 9/11 GI Bill, co-sponsored by Sen. Sanders, went into effect. The new law expands educational benefits for a new generation of veterans. The new Post 9/11 GI Bill provides $63 billion over 10 years for increased college aid for military service members and veterans who served after Sept. 11, 2001. The Post 9/11 GI Bill benefit will cover a full four-year college education in most cases.
Sen. Sanders has secured major funding to develop and build upon a cutting-edge outreach program in Vermont. This program, known as the Vermont Veterans and Military Family Outreach Program, provides proactive outreach and readjustment assistance to returning Iraq and Afghanistan veterans and their families. It has served as a model for several states of how to help service members - especially those in the National Guard and Reserve from rural areas - transition back to civilian life after being at war. The program is run by the Vermont National Guard in coordination with the White River Junction VA Medical Center.
Sen. Sanders has also fought to ensure that veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan who may be suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Traumatic Brain Injuries and other health issues receive the care and support they need upon their return. For this reason, he worked to secure funding for the budget and a new building for the VA's flagship research center known as the National Center for PTSD, located in White River Junction, Vermont. Sen. Sanders has also passed into law legislation to provide over $57 million in additional federal funding to help severely disabled veterans adapt their homes with items such a wheel chair ramps, widened doorways and other changes to better accommodate their disabilities.
Sen. Sanders remains a leader in the effort to expand the number of veterans eligible for VA health care. In recent years, Congress took another major step forward in bringing back the so-called "Priority 8" veterans who were shamefully barred from using VA health care in 2003 because they were so-called "high income" veterans. In reality, they were veterans with no service-connected disabilities who could have made as little as $28,000 a year. In 2008, Congress took the first step of allowing approximately 265,000 additional veterans back in the health care system. While this is an important first step, much more has to be done. President Obama's budget promises to bring a total of 500,000 eligible Priority 8 veterans into the VA health care system under this program by 2013. Sen. Sanders is committed to working to continue opening the doors of the VA to more veterans, in a responsible way, with the ultimate goal of bringing all veterans back into the VA health care system.
Providing good health care for veterans does not mean anything, however, if those needing the care cannot afford to drive to a VA facility. After years of inaction by the federal government, Sen. Sanders and his colleagues on the Veterans' Affairs Committee successfully fought to raise the travel reimbursement rates for veterans who commute long distances to receive medical care. In 2007, the reimbursement rate was 11 cents per mile. Now the rate is 41.5 cents per mile.
In Vermont, Sen. Sanders has worked to increase local access to VA health care services for veterans. He has helped locate Community Based Outpatient Clinics in Colchester, Rutland, Brattleboro, Bennington and Newport so that veterans do not have to travel to White River Junction for timely access to quality health care. In addition, Sen. Sanders continues to explore and support tele-health programs for veterans in rural areas of Vermont that allows them to receive health care in the privacy of their home.
Over his years in Congress, Sen. Sanders has helped lead the fight for support of veterans dealing with ailments and red tape arising in the aftermath of specific military engagements. The very first legislation he introduced when he joined the U.S. House in 1991 would have reimbursed members of the National Guard and Reserve for income lost while deployed during the Persian Gulf War. He has helped lead the fight for veterans suffering from Gulf War Illnesses to receive the compensation and treatment they need. In recent years, he secured $23 million in funding to expand research into finding treatments for the 175,000 veterans still suffering health effects from that war. He has advocated for increased health coverage for illnesses connected to Agent Orange exposure in the Vietnam War. More recently, Sen. Sanders helped secure a change in government policy to accept the connection between Agent Orange exposure and Parkinson's disease, B cell leukemia and ischemic heart diseases. Sen. Sanders continues to champion ending the unfair disabled veterans' tax and has continued to push for increased and timely funding for the Department of Veterans Affairs, so that we can provide our veterans with the health care, pensions and other services that they have earned and to which they are entitled.
Unfortunately, homelessness continues to plague many military veterans. VA Secretary Eric Shinseki pledged to end homelessness among veterans. In Vermont, Sen. Sanders has supported the opening of the new Canal Street Veterans Housing Project in Winooski, the Veterans' Place in Northfield and the Veterans Inc. - Bradford Veterans' Transitional Housing Project. Each of these programs provides veterans with safe, secure housing as they transition back into the labor force. Thanks in large part to federal funding secured by Sen. Sanders, the Dodge House in Rutland now has space to accommodate transitional housing for women veterans.
Every service member and veteran deserves timely and comprehensive health care and benefits, not bureaucratic red tape that far too many encounter today. In addition, while Sen. Sanders believes it is crucial to have the best services in the world for our veterans, they are of little use if our veterans do not know about them or cannot access them. For this reason, Sen. Sanders and his staff are committed to making sure that returning service members and all Vermont veterans know about and receive the health care, mental health counseling, family assistance, transition assistance and other benefits they need to make sure they can live a healthy and productive life. Vermont veterans and service members seeking assistance in obtaining their benefits should contact Sen. Sanders' state office here.