Sweeping veterans legislation including 'crown jewel' women vets bill becomes law

Airmen stand at attention during a retreat ceremony March 30, 2018, on Kadena Air Base, Japan. An all-female formation was coordinated in honor of Women’s History Month, which brings attention to the accomplishments and achievements of women throughout history.
Airmen stand at attention during a retreat ceremony March 30, 2018, on Kadena Air Base, Japan. An all-female formation was coordinated in honor of Women’s History Month, which brings attention to the accomplishments and achievements of women throughout history. Photo credit Staff Sgt. Micaiah Anthony/Air Force

A major omnibus package of veterans bills aimed at helping women veterans, Native veterans, homeless veterans, providing additional pandemic aid for veterans and more became law on Tuesday with President Donald Trump's signature.

The major package of veteran legislation -- the Johnny Isakson and David P Roe Veterans Health Care and Benefits Improvement Act -- passed out of Congress with broad bipartisan support. It features several key measures, including a landmark bill for women veterans, which House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called the "crown jewel" of the overall legislation and "the most comprehensive bill for women veterans in over a decade."

The Deborah Sampson Act, an omnibus bill in its own right, is intended to remove barriers and improve women veterans' care at the Department of Veterans Affairs and is the culmination of years of work in Congress.

The women veterans' legislation aims to address a range of issues for women veterans -- the fastest growing group of veterans numbering roughly 2 million nationwide. Women have served in the United States military in one form or another since the Revolutionary War, but still struggle to access the Department of Veterans Affairs care and benefits they've earned. Veterans Affairs lawmakers on Capitol Hill have made legislating on their behalf a focus over the last few years, especially as VA statistics show that women who receive care at VA have lower risk of suicide and other health concerns than those who don't.

The Deborah Sampson Act includes measures to:
- Establish a systemwide comprehensive policy to end gender-based harassment and sexual harassment and assault at VA, including training for employees;
- Staff each VA healthcare facility with a dedicated women's health primary care provider;
- Creates a dedicated Office of Women's Health at VA;
- Retrofit VA facilities to enhance privacy and improve care environments for women vets;
- Expand eligibility for military sexual trauma counseling to Guard and Reserve veterans;
- Improve the claims process for MST survivors at VBA;
- Expand child care for veterans receiving VA care;
- Permanently authorize PTSD counseling for women veterans in retreat-style settings;
- Provide gender-specific healthcare equipment such as mammography machines at each VA medical center;
- Establish and improve care standards for women at VA;
- Provide more funding for women veteran programs;
- Provide extended care for newborns;
- Expands call center services for women veterans;
- Require a Government Accountability Office report on homeless or at-risk women veterans;
- Study, pilot program and task force to examine intimate partner violence and sexual assault against women veterans;
- Require more reporting on women veterans' services and benefits.

The bill's passage through Congress comes in the midst of fallout from a damning report from VA's independent watchdog, the Office of the Inspector General, released last week. A nearly yearlong investigation found that Secretary Robert Wilkie and senior VA officials sought to discredit a woman veteran and senior Congressional advisory who reported being sexually assaulted at the Washington, D.C. VA hospital, repeatedly questioning her credibility and failing to properly handle her case.

Native veterans

The major legislation package also includes measures aimed at helping Native veterans, including a new advisory committee on Tribal and Indian Affairs and eliminating copays for Native vets who receive care at VA.

The Native American Veteran Parity in Access to Care Today (PACT) Act intends to help more Native veterans access VA care and ease the burden of that care by eliminating copays. Native Americans who receive health care and services through the Department of Health and Human Services and Indian Health Service already aren't required to pay copays -- a major disparity for veterans, which could also prevent some from getting needed care.

Native Americans and Native Alaskans are more likely to serve in the U.S. Armed Forces than any other group, yet they remain among the poorest and least insured veterans, with the least access to VA services.

Native veterans are more likely to live far from VA facilities, tend to have lower personal incomes, higher unemployment and lack health insurance compared to their fellow veterans, according to the National Congress of American Indians. When they do receive care, they often face major cultural and language barriers. Native veterans also struggle to form tribal veterans service organizations, which could help navigate the sprawling bureaucracy of the VA and its claims system. They also face much higher rates of post-traumatic stress disorder, suicide and other health concerns shared by fellow vets.

Native Americans, including some veterans, receiving care through IHS are not subject to copayments because of the United States trust and treaty obligations to Native peoples. But VA so far has not followed those agreements.

Last fall, Native veterans arrived in Washington, D.C. representing their tribes and organizations in a historic hearing on Capitol Hill where one of the leading issues they asked Congress to address was unequal treatment through copays.

Veteran homelessness and the coronavirus pandemic

On any given night in the United States, tens of thousands of veterans are homeless, and more than 1.4 million are at risk of homelessness. That has only worsened during the coronavirus pandemic, experts say, and homeless veterans are at elevated risk for the virus.

Part of the bill package Congress passed this week includes improving VA's ability to provide grants and other funding to groups that help homeless veterans, and expanding the federal voucher program to veterans with other-than-honorable discharges.

The legislation also requires VA to provide telehealth services to any veteran participating in housing insecurity programs at the department.

The bill also allows VA to use its land and property to provide space for homeless veterans to live during the pandemic.

The legislation package also included measures to:
- Grant K2 veterans access to the VA burn pit registry;
- Provide protections for veterans who experience medical malpractice at VA;
- Improve education benefits such as expanding VA work study options, STEM scholarships for clinical training, more oversight for schools receiving GI Bill funds and ensuring continued GI Bill payments for student veterans during the pandemic;
- Expand VA home loan eligibility to Guard and Reserve members;
- Reform VA overpayment debt collections;
- Expand federal funding for local veteran cemeteries;
- Enhance oversight for state veterans homes related to the pandemic -- facilities devastated by the virus but which fall under state authority, not direct VA management;
- Specify the circumstances under which a servicemember, including a member of the National Guard or reserves, is considered service-connected for a disability or death from COVID-19;
- Provide more retraining assistance for veterans;
- Extend Servicemember Civil Relief Act protections to catastrophically injured service members and their spouses, the Coast Guard and Gold Star spouses.

Read the full bill here.

Reach Abbie Bennett: abbie@connectingvets.com or @AbbieRBennett. Sign up for the Connecting Vets weekly newsletter to get more stories like this delivered to your inbox.

Featured Image Photo Credit: Staff Sgt. Micaiah Anthony/Air Force