As a former Chairman of the Senate Committee on Veterans' Affairs, Senator Sanders believes that we, as a nation, have a moral obligation to provide the best quality care and benefits to the veterans who have put their lives on the line to defend us. Senator Sanders is determined to ensure the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) meets that responsibility.
Senator Sanders is proud to have with worked closely with Senator John McCain to enact the Veterans' Access, Choice and Accountability Act of 2014, the most comprehensive veterans’ legislation in decades. In the wake of reports of unacceptable wait times at some VA hospitals, this legislation made several changes to improve timely access to quality care. The new law provides funding to hire additional doctors and nurses at existing VA facilities to address long-standing provider shortages, and expands healthcare options for veterans by authorizing 26 new VA health facilities in 18 states and Puerto Rico. And, it allows veterans who cannot get timely appointments with VA doctors the option of going to community health centers, military hospitals or in some cases, private doctors using Veterans Choice Cards.
The Sanders/McCain law also expanded important educational opportunities for veterans, for instance, by expanding an existing scholarship program to provide Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits to the spouses of service members killed in the line of duty. The new law also requires all public colleges and universities that accept GI Bill students to provide in-state tuition to veterans utilizing GI bill benefits.
While this legislation did not include all of the reforms that Senator Sanders would like to see, he believes this legislation is an important step towards making certain that the brave men and women who served in our armed forces receive the quality care and benefits they have earned.
Over the last several years, Senator Sanders has also fought to improve primary health care by expanding the number of Community-Based Outreach Clinics (CBOCs) across the country. In Vermont, the VA enhanced the array of medical services available to veterans at the long-standing clinics in Rutland and Bennington, and opened two new CBOCs in Brattleboro and Newport. And the Colchester clinic moved to a more convenient location and much larger facility in Burlington, allowing for a significant expansion of services and increased staffing.
Senator Sanders also applauds recent improvements at the VA Medical Center at White River Junction to meet the changing needs of Vermont veterans. These include a women’s clinic, an inpatient treatment center for substance abuse, a national PTSD center, a whole range of alternative and complementary pain treatments, and more.
Just as long waits for health care are unacceptable, Senator Sanders believes is unacceptable for when veterans have to wait months, or even years, to have their benefits claims accurately processed. Any delay in benefit processing can put a tremendous financial strain on veterans and their families, many of whom need – and deserve – help immediately.
The good news is that that the VA has made some progress reducing the outrageous claims backlog, by processing more than three million disability claims over the last three fiscal years and by creating a more efficient paperless system in support of its goal to process all disability claims within 125 days, at a 98 percent accuracy level. However, because of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, new claims have significantly increased in recent years and VA’s ability to process the larger workload has not kept pace. You can track VA’s progress towards its goal here.
And for the millions of veterans who do receive the disability benefits they deserve and have earned, Senator Sanders believes it is unacceptable they did not receive a cost-of-living adjustment in 2016 to keep up with ever increasing living expenses. At a time when CEO compensation for the top 350 firms increased by 3.9 percent last year, Senator Sanders believes that disabled veterans who bled for their country deserve a small raise, too.
That is why he is a sponsor of the Seniors and Veterans Emergency Benefits Act, which would give veterans an emergency payment of equal to 3.9 percent of the average Social Security Benefit, about $581 - the same percentage raise as the top CEOs. Senator Sanders believes we must do everything we can to make sure that every disabled veteran in this country receives a fair cost-of-living adjustment to keep up with the skyrocketing cost of prescription drugs and health care.
Homelessness among veterans is another top concern for Senator Sanders, who considers it a national disgrace that more 47,000 veterans are homeless on a given night, and 1.4 million more are considered at risk of homelessness due to poverty, lack of support networks, and dismal living conditions in overcrowded or substandard housing. While Senator Sanders applauds Obama administration efforts through the VA and the Department of Housing and Urban Development that have reduced homelessness among veterans by 35 percent since 2010, much work needs to be done.
In Vermont, Senator Sanders praised the construction and improvement of several community-based facilities that provide emergency, transitional and permanent supportive housing assistance to veterans, including the Canal Street Veterans Housing in Winooski, the Veterans’ Place in Northfield, the Dodge House in Rutland, the Veterans Inc. Transitional Housing in Bradford, and Home At Last in Brattleboro. These nonprofit programs help veterans and their families in their time of need.
Lastly, while Senator Sanders believes it is crucial to have the best services in the world for our veterans, they are of little use if veterans do not know about them or cannot access them. Senator 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 Senator Sanders' state office here.