WASHINGTON, D.C. - Today, U.S. Senator Daniel K. Akaka (D-HI), Chairman of the Senate Committee on Veterans' Affairs, and Ranking Member U.S. Senator Larry E. Craig (R-ID) offered an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2008 (NDAA). They were joined by Committee members Senators John D. Rockefeller IV(D-WV), Patty Murray (D-WA), Barack Obama (D-IL), Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Sherrod Brown (D-OH), Jim Webb (D-VA), John Tester (D-MT), Arlen Specter (R-PA), and Johnny Isakson (R-GA); and Senators Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), Joseph Biden (D-DE), and Byron Dorgan (D-ND).
The amendment was passed by unanimous consent by the Senate this afternoon, and will be incorporated into the NDAA. The provisions contained in the amendment are based on two bills Chairman Akaka introduced earlier this year, S. 383 and S. 1233, which are designed to enhance the care servicemembers receive once they transition to veteran status.
The Akaka-Craig amendment would improve the capacity of VA to care for veterans with traumatic brain injuries, expand the window of time a servicemember has to seek care from VA upon their release from active duty, ensure access to VA mental health and dental care, address potential homelessness among newly discharged servicemembers, and recognize the importance of the National Guard and Reserve in VA's outreach programs.
Attached is Senator Akaka's floor statement on the amendment:
"Mr. President, today I offer, along with my good friend and Ranking Member of the Committee on Veterans' Affairs, Senator Craig, an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2008 that would complement the outstanding work already done by the Armed Services Committee with the Dignified Treatment of Wounded Warriors amendment.
Our amendment seeks to enhance the care servicemembers receive once they transition to veteran status. It would improve the capacity of the Department of Veterans Affairs to care for veterans with traumatic brain injuries. It would also improve access to VA mental health and dental care, address the issue of homelessness among newly discharged servicemembers and recognize the importance of the National Guard and Reserve in VA's outreach programs.
This amendment is a direct outcome of the close collaboration between the Veterans' Affairs Committee and the Armed Services Committee following our April 12th Joint Hearing. I was delighted to work with Chairmen Levin of the Armed Services Committee, Ranking Member Craig of the Veterans' Affairs Committee, and others on this important amendment.
Our amendment includes provisions recently approved by the Committee on Veterans' Affairs at our markup on June 27th and represents the VA Committee's work to address the seamless transition issues in collaboration with the Armed Services Committee's work on S. 1606, the Dignified Treatment for Wounded Warriors Act. Our actions here today, Mr. President, represent true collaboration between the two Committees - a model for how the Departments of Veterans Affairs and Defense should be working together.
At the heart of our amendment are improvements to TBI care. Ranking Member Craig and I worked on these TBI provisions and they have garnered the support of many organizations, including the American Academy of Neurology, the Brain Injury Association of America, the Commission on Accreditation of Rehabilitation Facilities, and the Disabled American Veterans.
VA was caught flat-footed by the large number of devastating TBIs resulting from the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Our amendment would require individual rehabilitation plans for veterans with TBI and authorize the use of non-VA facilities for the best TBI care available. It also would require VA to implement a research and education program for severe TBI, through coordination with other federal entities conducting similar research. There is also a pilot program for assisted living services for veterans with TBI. This is comprehensive TBI legislation.
Mr. President, the amendment also addresses the amount of time a newly discharged servicemember has to take advantage of the unfettered access to VA care for which they are eligible. Under current law, any active duty servicemember who is discharged or separated from active duty following deployment to a theater of combat operations, including members of the Guard and Reserve, is eligible for VA health care for a two-year period without reference to any other criteria. Our amendment would extend this period to five years.
There are two primary reasons for allowing a greater period of eligibility: protection from budget cuts and ensuring access to care for health concerns, such as mental health or readjustment problems, that may not be readily apparent when a servicemember leaves active duty. In recent years, funding for VA health care has too often been delayed by the legislative and appropriations process, leading to delayed or denied care for veterans with lower priorities for VA care. Veterans who have served in a combat theater deserve to have their health care guaranteed for at least the five years immediately following discharge.
With regard specifically to mental health and readjustment issues, two years is often insufficient time for symptoms related to PTSD and other mental illnesses to manifest themselves. In many cases, it takes years for these invisible wounds to present themselves, and many servicemembers do not immediately seek care. Experts predict that up to 30 percent of OIF/OEF servicemembers will need some type of readjustment services. Five years would provide a more appropriate window in which to address these risks. With over 1.4 million Americans having served in OIF/OEF, and with over 600,000 of those servicemembers already eligible for VA health care because they have left active duty or, in the case of reserve forces, been demobilized, extending this eligibility will help smooth their transition to civilian life.
To further address the mental health needs of separating servicemembers, we have included a provision in our amendment that would require VA to provide a preliminary mental health examination within 30 days of a veteran's request for it. I thank Senator Obama for his work on this provision. We have learned from past wars that the longer mental health needs go unmet, the more difficult and extended the recovery.
Additionally, as servicemembers separate from active duty and become veterans, the threat of homelessness always exists as they reintegrate into society. We have all heard the sad and shocking statistic that one out of every three homeless persons on the street at any given time is a veteran. To further assist transitioning servicemembers, our amendment requires VA to conduct a demonstration project to identify those who are at risk of becoming homeless upon discharge or release from active duty. The demonstration project would provide referral, counseling and support services for these individuals. It has been proven through previous VA efforts that this process can reduce the incidence of homelessness and other problems among veterans.
This amendment also addresses the issue of VA's outreach to members of the Guard and Reserves. In the ongoing global operations, the reserve components have been used on an unprecedented scale. When these citizen soldiers redeploy and demobilize it is essential that VA include them in outreach efforts. To recognize the importance of the Guard and Reserve, and to acknowledge their contribution to the Nation's efforts, this amendment would redefine VA's definition of outreach to include specific reference to the Guard and Reserve.
Finally, the amendment also addresses VA dental care for separating servicemembers by extending the window to apply for VA dental benefits following discharge from active duty. This amendment extends from 90 days to 180 days the application period for such benefits.
Recently returned servicemembers face significant readjustment, and dental concerns may not be a top priority. In addition, members of the National Guard and Reserve are often given 90 days of leave following discharge from active duty, and upon return to their units the opportunity to apply for dental benefits has past. The extension to 180 days would improve access to care and facilitate a smoother transition from military to civilian life.
Our amendment touches on many of the issues that are affecting transitioning servicemembers and newest veterans. It truly complements the outstanding work that was done by the Armed Services Committee to take care of wounded warriors. I urge all of my colleagues to support this amendment. Thank you, Mr. President."