Panel advances Sanders’ health care measures

By:  Neal P. Goswami
Rutland Herald

MONTPELIER — The Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs approved a slate of bills Tuesday, including a measure that will expand access to VA health benefits, said U.S. Sen. Bernard Sanders, I-VT, committee chairman.

   Sanders said VA health benefits are not currently provided for some veterans with low incomes. Legislation he authored would expand access under certain criteria. 

   “One of the concerns that I have is that there are many veterans who would like to access VA health care who for one reason or another are unable to do so,” Sanders said Tuesday in a telephone interview.

   Currently, every county across the nation has its own income eligibility requirements for benefits that factor income levels with the cost of living.

   “If you’re living in Bennington County, your income eligibility will be different than if you’re living in Washington County or Chittenden County,” Sanders said. “What we have done today is say that there will be one income eligibility per state, and it will be the highest one.” 

   In Vermont, that means that any veteran without a service-related injury would be able to receive VA health benefits if he or she makes under $47,245 a year — the current rate for Chittenden County residents. For veterans with dependents, the income cap would be about $70,000.

   “It will be a lot simpler for people and they will know where they stand,” Sanders said.

   More veterans would be eligible for benefits because most counties would see higher income caps. The plan would be phased in over five years to ensure the Department of Veterans Affairs has the appropriate staffing to accommodate the newly eligible veterans. The measure was advanced along party lines without any Republican support, Sanders said.    The new benefits would be available to veterans who 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 following their discharge from active duty. 

   A separate bill introduced by Sanders and approved by the committee on Tuesday would expand veterans’ access to dental care through a pilot program. He said fewer than half of veterans eligible for VA health care benefits also qualify for dental care.

   The VA currently provides dental care for veterans with service-connected injuries that require it.

   “You could be severely hurt, you could have a purple heart, and there’s no guarantee that you will get dental care,” Sanderssaid.

   His dental proposal — this measure was approved unanimously on a bipartisan vote — would provide dental care to about 30,000 veterans across the country, and would begin a transition to dental care being included with regular health care benefits.

   “We hope that if this pilot project goes well … then it will eventually become law and dental care will become part of VA services,” he said. “If things go the way I want, it will mean that dental care will be an integral part of VA health care.”

   A third measure advanced by Sanders would shift the entire VA budget, about $150 billion annually, to “advanced appropriations,” meaning Congress would approve three-year spending plans for the Veterans Administration as a whole. Doing so would provide the VA with more flexibility in its spending priorities, Sanders said.

   Congress already budgets on a three-year cycle for VA health benefits, he said. The recent government shutdown, according to Sanders, highlighted a need to transition the entire VA budget to that system.

   “As a result of the government shutdown, we were a week or 10 days away from not being able to send out checks to veterans who had disabilities who are living on those checks,” he said. “That would have been just a disaster for hundreds of thousands of veterans.”

   All of the bills approved by the committee Tuesday have the support of the major veterans organizations, according to Sanders. The dental measure is likely to be included in a VA omnibus bill. As a result, Sanders said it has the best chance of passing the full Senate.

   Sanders also noted Tuesday that the VA hospital in White River Junction was selected as one of 32 “top performers” among the 151 VA hospitals across the country. The designation was made by The Joint Commission, a nonprofit organization that accredits and certifies health care organizations.

   “I want to congratulate the staff and management at White River Junction for doing what I know is a great job. I’ve known it and the rest of the country is learning it. Vermont should be very proud that we have a medical center with those capabilities,” he said.