WASHINGTON, Nov. 19 – The Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs today advanced legislation to expand access to health care and dental care at the Department of Veterans Affairs.
The panel also approved a package of other bills, including measures to help veterans find jobs and shield veterans from benefit disruptions in the event of another government shutdown.
“I am proud that we are making good progress in improving and expanding health care and other benefits for the men and women who put their lives on the line to protect our country,” said Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), the committee chairman.
A key bill in the package of legislation sent to the full Senate would expand access to the high-quality, cost-effective health care that the Department of Veterans Affairs now provides to approximately 6.5 million veterans each year. Currently, veterans above certain income levels and without serious service-connected disabilities are unable to receive care. Sanders’ measure would reaffirm the nation’s commitment to those veterans with the most severe service-connected disabilities and lowest incomes, while expanding access to veterans currently unable to enroll in three important ways.
The bill would require VA to provide services to certain veterans previously ineligible to receive care when they do not have access to health insurance other than through the Affordable Care Act. It would also extend the period of time combat veterans are eligible to enroll in VA health care from five years to 10 years after discharge from active duty. Finally, Sanders’ measure would significantly simplify each state’s income threshold for veterans, which would allow additional veterans to enroll the system.
Another Sanders’ bill would expand access to VA dental care. Today, fewer than half of all veterans eligible for VA health care also qualify for dental care. According to the National Institute of Health, oral health should not be interpreted as a separate issue from general health. Poor oral health impacts overall health, including increased risk of diabetes, heart disease and poor birth outcomes.
The measure would require VA to expand access to dental services at several locations already providing dental care, including VA medical centers, community-based outpatient clinics, Federally-Qualified Health Centers, facilities of the Indian Health Service and through contract care.
The committee also sent to the full Senate a measure by Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) that would provide veterans the tools that could help them build on the skills, discipline and leadership that they learned during their military service in order to make the transition to the civilian workforce. The measure would address high unemployment rates among veterans, especially among the youngest generation returning from service in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The committee also recommended Senate passage of legislation by Sens. Mark Begich (D-Alaska) and John Boozman (R-Arkansas) calling for the entire annual VA appropriation to be funded one year in advance in order to improve planning and avoid service disruptions in disability compensation, pensions and education benefits in the event of another government shutdown. Congress currently funds only the medical care portion of VA’s budget – roughly 86 percent of the total discretionary dollars – one year in advance. VA hospitals and clinics continued operating without interruption during the 16-day partial government shutdown earlier this month, but other VA programs and services, including claims processing, scaled back operations.