What Others Are Saying

Finally, bipartisanship has reared its head in Congress. Both houses have given final passage to legislation aimed at fixing major problems with veterans’ access to health care, disability benefits and education as well as help with homelessness. The Senate voted unanimously for the Veterans Health Care and Benefits Improvement Act of 2016 on the heels of unanimous approval by the House last week.

Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., chairman of the Veterans’ Affairs Committee, described the bill as a “down payment on the promise and the debt that we owe to the veterans of the United States of America.” Isakson has taken on the mission of helping veterans with persistence and zeal, seemingly not distracted even by his re-election campaign which he won handily.

The new bill provides sweeping reforms, as outlined by Isakson, and they include: streamlining the process for veterans, their families and survivors to obtain disability compensation and benefits through the Veterans Affairs Department – and of great importance – expanding the federal Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims from seven to nine to help deal with backlogs of appeals by veterans.

 Other provisions include: changing the VA policies on burial benefits and interment to expand eligibility for presidential memorial certificates to veterans who served in reserve units of the armed forces; extending education benefits for surviving spouses who lost a loved one on Sept. 11, 2001 or in the early years of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq; modifying ownership requirements for small businesses participating in the VA contract assistance programs — and mandating a Labor Department five-year study of job counseling, training and placement service for veterans.

 On the critical issue of health care and benefits, the new bill requires that preventative services include access to adult immunizations for veterans opting for them; giving priority to Medal of Honor recipients for access to health care; and ensuring that veterans of classified missions can get mental health care without having to disclose classified information.

Another key provision is a requirement that the VA submit a report to Congress each year concerning hospital care, medical services and nursing home care by the Veterans Health Administration. In addition, the qualifications for mental health care professionals are being expanded to make hiring easier; and research is to be enhanced on potential health effects from toxic exposures to veteran and their descendants. Plus, homeless veterans are to have better access to benefits.

 A few months ago, with the prospect that more than 600,000 veterans would not have health coverage next year, Sen. Isakson spoke of the challenges ahead. He said, “There is always more work to be done to help our veterans.”

 With enactment of the Veterans Health Care and Benefits Improvement Act of 2016, a lot of work will be done to fix the problems with health care and other issues affecting the men and women who have put their lives on the line for our country.

 Thanks to Sen. Isakson, his fellow senators and the House members, Republicans and Democrats doing the right thing — all with one accord, a striking example of the fact that bipartisanship is alive and well. May there be a lot more of it in the coming days on other major issues to the benefit of our country.