Congressional Record Statement of Senator Daniel K. Akaka
Mr. President, as chairman of the Committee on Veterans' Affairs, I am proud to urge our colleagues to support S. 1963, the proposed ``Caregivers and Veterans Omnibus Health Services Act of 2010,'' as amended. This bill reflects a compromise agreement between the Committees on Veterans' Affairs of the Senate and the House of Representatives on health care and related provisions for veterans and their caregivers. The House passed this bill, by a vote of 419-0, on April 21, 2009.
When this bill was passed by the Senate on November 19, 2009, it would have greatly expanded assistance for veterans and family members. The bill in its current form, after being reconciled with legislation in the other body, provides even more robust services, but is also significantly less expensive than when this legislation was originally approved unanimously by the Senate.
The centerpiece of this bill is a new program of caregiver assistance for our most seriously wounded veterans. The Committee has heard over and over about family members who quit their jobs, go through their savings, and lose their health insurance as they stay home to care for their wounded family members from the current conflicts. For those family members who manage to keep their jobs, their employers, including many small businesses already struggling in these difficult economic times, lose money from absenteeism and declining productivity. The toll on the caregivers who try to do it all can be measured in higher rates of depression, and worse health status as they struggle to care for their seriously injured family members, an obligation that ultimately belongs to the Federal Government.
The caregiver program that will be established by this compromise bill will help VA to fulfill its obligation to care for the Nation's wounded veterans by providing their caregivers with vital support services and a living stipend. These vital caregiver support services include training, education, counseling, mental health services, and respite care. This measure also provides health care to the family caregivers of injured veterans through CHAMPVA. These caregivers deserve our support and assistance and this new program will begin to meet that obligation.
Another key part of the bill relates to women veterans. Women make up a significantly increasing portion of the overall veteran population. Thanks to the leadership of Senator Murray, this bill will increase funding for mental health services for women who have suffered military sexual trauma, and for medical services for newborn children. In addition, this bill requires VA to report on the barriers facing women veterans who seek health care at VA, and carry out demonstration projects for expanding care for veterans in rural areas through partnerships with other federal entities, such as the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services and the Indian Health Service. States which have an especially high number of veterans living in rural areas will benefit greatly from these programs.
This bill also expands the scope of VA's Education Debt Reduction Program to include retention in addition to recruitment so that VA can address staff shortages in rural areas. Where VA has a shortage of qualified employees due to location or hard-to-recruit positions, this legislation would increase the total education debt reduction payments made by VA from $44,000 to $60,000.
The bill also attacks another very difficult and painful problem--that of homeless veterans. On any given night, the best estimate is that more than 107,000 veterans are homeless. We know that homelessness is often a consequence of multiple factors, including unstable family support, job loss, and health problems. This bill will create programs to help ease the burden of veteran homelessness and, in so doing, support Secretary Shinseki's efforts to end homelessness among veterans.
Senator Durbin has helped keep attention on issues of overall quality management in VA, and resolving and preventing such problems as those identified at the Marion, IL, VA medical center, and other facilities. Provisions of this bill will make needed improvements in these areas.
I am grateful to all who have worked diligently on this bipartisan bill--including the committee's ranking member, Senator Burr--and the veterans service organizations, who made this one of their priorities. We are particularly indebted to the Disabled American Veterans and the Wounded Warrior Project for being in the vanguard on advocating for family caregivers and for their unrelenting support for this legislation.
Various other advocates have supported this bill as well, including the American Legion, the Veterans of Foreign Wars, the Paralyzed Veterans of America, the Nurses Organization of Veterans Affairs, the Brain Injury Association of America, the American Academy of Ophthalmology, the American Association of Colleges of Nursing, and many others.
It has taken us several years to see this legislation through to what I hope will be final passage today. As we reach this final point in the legislative process, I take a moment to thank the members of the committee staff who worked so hard on this legislation, including former committee staffers who helped craft many of the provisions in this bill, Alexandra Sardegna, Aaron Sheldon, and Andrea Buck. I also thank current committee staff, Ryan Pettit, Preethi Raghavan, Nancy Hogan, and Lexi Simpson, and all the others who, in addition to their work on specific elements of the final agreement, have worked to bring this legislation to final passage.
We have promised to care for veterans when they return from service to the Nation. The provisions in this bill will help us keep our promise by going beyond words and ceremony, and providing the care that veterans have earned through their sacrifices.
I ask my colleagues to give this legislation their unanimous support.
I ask unanimous consent that an explanatory statement developed jointly with our counterparts in the House to accompany this compromise bill be printed in the Record at the conclusion of my remarks.
April 22, 2010