In 2019, Veterans Affairs leaders in Congress focused on expanding Agent Orange benefits, addressing suicide, toxic exposures from burn pits and overturning measures that limit other veteran or family benefits.
Their goals for 2020 are in a similar vein.
Members of Congress who serve on the committees dedicated solely to veterans made suicide prevention a major priority, passing multiple bills in 2019 aimed at stemming the 20 veterans who die by suicide daily, according to VA data -- a number that has only increased recently. Leaders of those committees spoke to Connecting Vets about their plans for 2020.
A series of veteran suicides on VA campuses prompted House Veterans Affairs Chairman Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., to make suicide prevention his committee's number-one priority in 2020.
"I want to hear from you," Takano said. "I want to know what we can do to make things better for you."
“It really sets heavy on my heart,” Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tenn., ranking member of the House committee, told Connecting Vets. “If you just look at the numbers … In Afghanistan this year, with combat casualties and accidents there were 21 deaths. That’s equal to one day of what we have in suicides … When you step back and think of it like that, it’s almost overwhelming. That’s going to be a big focus.”
Part of the solution, Roe said, is the Improve Wellbeing for Veterans Act that recently passed out of his committee after causing significant division between the minority, majority and VA leadership. But Roe said he’s pleased the bill moved forward and is headed to the House floor for a vote. The bill provides grants to community groups working to combat veteran suicide.
“Sometimes these things become about you and me, not who we’re here to serve,” he said. “This is about taking care of our veterans.”
Helping veterans with traumatic brain injuries, post-traumatic stress and other mental health concerns -- the signature injuries for post-9/11 veterans, but also seen in many older vets -- must be a priority for both chambers of Congress in the new year, Sen. Jon Tester, ranking member of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, told Connecting Vets.
“We have to think outside the box on how we deal with mental health for veterans,” Tester said, mentioning specifically the Commander John Scott Hannon Veterans Mental Health Care Improvement Act he introduced. The omnibus bill includes grants for organizations to provide mental health services to veterans, calls for studies of complementary and alternative care (such as animal therapy, yoga, meditation and acupuncture), and studying how effective VA efforts to combat suicide have been and hiring more VA suicide prevention coordinators.
The legislation is named in honor of John Scott Hannon who was a leader of SEAL Team Two, a member of SEAL Team Six and a special operations and policy officer at U.S. Special Operations Command. Six years after retiring after 23 years of military service, he died by suicide.
Women vets and veterans of color
“The military’s changed over the last 30-40 years,” Tester said. “We’ve got a high number of women veterans who have seen combat, who have served in the military and we have to make sure the VA recognizes that and accommodates them.”
Tester pointed to the Deborah Sampson Act, recently passed by the House, an omnibus bill that aims to expand and improve women veterans’ care and perhaps the most significant piece of women veterans’ legislation passed so far this Congress.
“It’s a step in the right direction,” he said. “It’s a bill that is long past the time to get through the process.”
The VA must be ready to handle an increasingly diverse veteran population, Takano told Connecting Vets, whether by gender, race or sexual orientation.
"We really need to up our level of diligence in terms of the climate (at VA) and level of expertise and training that VA employees have" to care for more diverse veterans, he said. "We need to ensure that women feel safe and welcome at all our VA facilities."
While taking what he described as a "victory lap" after the Blue Water Navy Act passed, Takano said veterans asked him "What about me? What about my exposures?"
He said he's tasked the subcommittee on Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs with holding roundtables and hearings on the issue to "gather all the data we need" since "part of what always gets used as the reason for denying claims is the lack of scientific validation."
"We're beginning to build the information base to address this in the most fair and rational way," he said, adding that he's sending all member bills on toxic exposures to be scored by the Congressional budget office to determine the cost to cover care for those veterans. "We want to make sure all the voices get heard on all the different types of exposure and try to come up with a consensus" of how to move forward.
Takano called it a "powerful issue," saying he thinks most Americans "believe we need to take care of the health effects" caused by veterans' service.
That was all driven home, Takano said, when he led a delegation to Afghanistan over Thanksgiving break and experienced "toxic exposure first-hand."
"The air quality ... the particulates, you could almost feel them graining up in your eyes as they burn whatever's combustible," he said. "I was amazed. It was just horrible."
Army Gen. Austin Scott Miller, commander of the Resolute Support mission, told Takano doctors at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center are tracking "respiratory ailments that should not be occurring in younger service members" who served in Afghanistan.
"We came away with a sensitivity to toxic exposure," Takano said.
Unsurprisingly, most of the issues members said they planned to focus on were directly tied to VA.
VA is in the midst of a major overhaul of veteran records, aiming to create a universal electronic health record (EHR) with the Defense Department. Roe said he’s hopeful that multi-year effort will get off the ground smoothly.
“They’re driving an A-Model Ford,” Roe said. “They’re driving an antique IT system. This new system is so important for quality of care and benefits.”
Roe said he also intends to put an overall focus on improving veterans’ relationship with the VA and mentioned the Improve Act specifically.
“I’m totally agnostic about where you get care, I just want you to get the best care,” he said. “I think veterans are like that too … Not all of them want to go to VA. Some will say they won’t ever go; we can’t forget them. They’ve earned the right to get that care.”
The Improve Act could help, Roe said, by “casting a wider net” and making more resources available to veterans where they live, especially since more than 60 percent of the veterans who die by suicide have not had VA care in the two years prior.
“We’ve got to reconnect with them,” he said.
Part of that means reaching more veterans in rural or more remote areas, including Indian country, Takano said.
"We have to reach those veterans in more insular areas," he said.
An ever-expanding VA, including a larger budget, means more oversight, members said.
“It’s really incumbent upon (this committee) to do that oversight, especially since there are so many new programs out there,” Tester said.
But that doesn’t mean Congress won’t continue to strengthen the VA, he said, especially when it comes to staffing.
“We want to make sure VA has the capacity ... and fills those 43,000 vacancies,” Tester said. “We want to be making sure VA has the tools it needs. Our focus is going to be making sure the VA is all it can be.”
Takano said he wants to ensure that VA's new promise of same-day emergency care is being met.
"I want to work with the minority to remove any doubt in a veteran's mind that if they go to an emergency room outside (VA), that VA is going to pay for it ... No matter where they are," he said. "If we can communicate that to veterans, I think that can have an impact on reducing the number of veteran suicides for veterans."
Senate Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., is set to retire at the end of the year. Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kansas, is set to replace him as chairman. Isakson’s staff referred Connecting Vets to Moran for comment, but the senator was not available for comment before the deadline for this article.
This year, Congress passed the Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act in the summer to expand benefits to veterans who served aboard some ships off the coast of Vietnam who were exposed to Agent Orange more than 60 years after the start of the war.
The Department of Veterans Affairs will begin processing those benefits claims on Jan. 1, 2020.
Also in 2019, the MISSION Act went into effect, replacing the Choice Act and expanding opportunities for veterans to receive care outside the VA, paid for by the department.