Senate bill would improve health care, pensions for veterans

A new piece of legislation before the U.S. Senate would restore pensions for military retirees, among other sweeping changes designed to improve the lives of the nation's veterans.

The Comprehensive Veterans Health and Benefits and Military Retirement Pay Restoration Act of 2014 includes provisions to improve health care, reduce the backlog of disability claims, expand access to education benefits for veterans and their survivors and provide for more job opportunities.

U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., chairman of the Senate Committee on Veterans' Affairs, introduced the bill last week. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., who wrote several of the provisions, met with veterans and advocates Thursday at the American Legion Hayes-Velhage Post 96 in West Hartford to discuss it.

"It's the most comprehensive and complete veterans' bill in recent history, covering everything from health care to education to employment to disability claims," Blumenthal said in an interview.

Provisions include expanding access to chiropractic care at VA medical centers nationwide and making it easier for victims of sexual trauma in the military to file VA disability claims without a documented assault. About 85 percent of assaults are not reported at the time they occur, so veterans often do not have evidence of the assault when filing claims, according to Blumenthal.

Robert Murray, commander of the American Legion in Connecticut, said he was "absolutely thrilled that so many things are being addressed all at one time." Murray attended the meeting with about 25 Legion members.

Linda Spoonster Schwartz, commissioner of the state Department of Veterans' Affairs, spoke at the meeting in favor of the bill's provision to rescind a 1 percent cut in the annual adjustment for benefits for military retirees younger than 62. That was part of the bipartisan budget deal Congress approved late last year.

Cutting benefits that were promised, Schwartz said, sends a message that "the days of patriotic fervor and veterans being honored may be on the decline."

"I'm glad they are going to restore the pensions and the cost-of-living adjustments," said Schwartz, who has been nominated as the next assistant secretary of veterans affairs for policy and planning in the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. "I don't think people realize how much folks depend on it."

Schwartz said the bill would also help family members care for veterans because of the provision that expands eligibility for VA caregiver assistance, including monthly stipends and trainings, to caregivers of veterans from any era. Currently, only caregivers for post-9/11 veterans are eligible.

She said the idea of paying families as caregivers is very pragmatic and will provide some relief for the families, too.

Blumenthal said the omnibus bill is "big and broad" because the needs of the nation's veterans are big and broad, and urgent. And, he said, more people will be leaving the armed forces as the military downsizes, and they will need these services.

"There is always the danger that there may be objections to specific parts, but the bottom line is there is so much more for everyone to support than to nitpick," he said. "And so we're hoping that a comprehensive measure will attract the broadest possible coalition."

Blumenthal said he expects the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee to report the bill out of committee within the next few weeks.

j.mcdermott@theday.com

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