BURLINGTON, May 18 -As the nation prepares to observe Memorial Day, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) today highlighted two important new benefits for veterans in Vermont and across the country.
A new GI Bill will dramatically boost education benefits for veterans who enlisted after the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. Another reform Sanders fought for as a member of the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee will reopen the doors of VA hospitals and clinics to many middle-class veterans knocked off the eligibility rolls six years ago.
"We are here today to talk about these new programs to make sure veterans know about them and know how to access them and where to go with questions. Veterans can have the best benefits in the world but if they don't know about the benefits or how to access them then they don't do them any good," Sanders said.
The Department of Veterans' Affairs has estimated that starting this fall 441,728 individuals will take advantage of a new GI Bill that Congress approved last year. More than 600 veterans and service members in Vermont currently use some form of VA education benefit, and that number is expected to grow.
The VA in May began accepting applications online for the new program. Already, the VA has received more than 20,000 applications, and the number climbs by roughly 3,000 a day. New GI Bill benefits are to begin in time for fall classes.
Health care benefits also are improving, especially for veterans stripped of eligibility by a policy under former President George W. Bush. "These are veterans who in 2003 were shamefully barred from using VA health care," Sanders said. "Some people referred to them as ‘high income,' but in reality they are veterans who make as little as $28,000 a year."
Congress last year provided $350 million in new funding to allow the VA to expand health care services for so-called "Priority 8" veterans with no service-connected disabilities. An estimated 265,000 veterans will reenter the system this year. In Vermont, the VA estimates that potentially 1,800 veterans may be eligible. "This is a policy that I have long fought to reverse and I am happy to say that the day is upon us when these veterans can begin to come back and get VA health care," the senator said.
Eligibility varies, but a single Vermont veteran living in Chittenden County with an annual income of $43,505 or less will once again be able to use the VA system. Those with more income and one or more dependents also could get more benefits.
President Obama has proposed a budget that would bring a total of 500,000 eligible veterans into the VA health care system by 2013, while maintaining high-quality and timely care for the lower-income and disabled veterans. "I will be working hard to make sure this legislation is approved by Congress," Sanders said.