Two Bills to Help Veterans Head to the President’s Desk

by Jim Geraghty

In the Thursday edition of the Morning Jolt, a bit of easily-overlooked good news…

Two Bills Aiming to Help Veterans Head to the President’s Desk

Thank bipartisan support for helping veterans, or lingering anger over the previous scandals at the Department of Veterans Affairs, but whatever the reason, Congress is managing to get legislation passed addressing veterans’ needs.

First, Congress finally worked out a deal on funding for Veterans Choice. If you believe that veterans should be able to seek out and get the best care wherever they prefer, whether it’s within the VA or from a private health care provider, Veterans Choice is a nice half-step, but hardly a sweeping change. (The booming demand for treatment through the program can be interpreted in veterans’ interest in exploring other treatment options.)

Under Veterans Choice, any veteran who lives 40 miles or more from the closest VA medical facility, or who faces a 30-day or more wait time, can seek out treatment from a private facility and the VA will handle the payment. (Veterans in Alaska and Hawaii are automatically enrolled in the program, and for New Hampshire, the distance requirement is only 20 miles.)

The accusation from some on Capitol Hill, particularly Democrats, is that Veterans Choice is some sort of step on the road to “privatizing” the VA. But the government-run health care system, for all of its flaws, is probably irreplaceable, at least for a long while. While there are VA institutions that fall far short of the public’s expectations, there are plenty of ones that offer excellent care, and plenty of veterans who are satisfied with their treatment. VA hospitals specialize in treating the types of injuries and health ailments that veterans are most likely to suffer, particularly limb replacement and PTSD.

VA Secretary David Shulkin is probably breathing a little easier, as he had estimated that the Veterans Choice program would run out of money this week. “Congress took an important step in helping the VA to continue to build an integrated system that allows veterans to receive the best healthcare possible, whether from VA or the private sector,” Shulkin said. “The $2.1 billion in Choice funding ensures there will be no disruptions to quality care for our veterans.”

Concerned Veterans for America, one of the groups most enthusiastic about promoting choice for veterans, is slightly dissatisfied that the $2.1 billion in Choice funding had to be attached to $1.8 billion in funding new leases for VA medical centers, which they would have preferred be considered separately.

 “The good news is that veterans who are able to successfully use the Choice Program won’t have to worry about lapses in their care,” said CVA’s policy director, Dan Caldwell. “The bad news is that this bill is unnecessarily costly because some veterans groups and elected officials decided to make this moment about political games instead of veterans’ needs. We saw a preview of how opponents of expanding veterans’ access to health care will try to inject their anti-choice agenda into the legislative process in upcoming months.”

The Senate also passed the “Forever GI Bill,” a series of reforms to veterans’ education benefits. The most significant change enacted by the legislation is that future service members will be use their GI Bill benefits at any point in their lifetimes, doing away with a previous 15-year limit. Members of the National Guard and Reserve who are training, deployed, or undergoing certain medical treatment related to their service will be able to accrue benefits like active duty service members; veterans who are studying science, technology, engineering or math additional benefits if their field of study requires additional credits; and if a service member dies before being able to use the benefits, they transfer to a dependent.

“This bill will launch a new era for all who have honorably served in uniform, and for the nation as a whole,” said Charles E. Schmidt, national commander of the American Legion in an issued statement. “In essence, it will help today’s GI Bill live up to the world-changing accomplishments of the original, which transformed America after World War II.”

These may not seem like the biggest pieces of legislation in the world, but to some veterans, they’re going to make a consequential difference in their lives.

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