Congress has passed a massive bill, nicknamed the VA Mission Act, to streamline veterans' access to non-VA community care when clinically appropriate, create a new VA benefit of commercial walk-in clinics and end an indefensible inequity by opening the VA comprehensive caregiver program, on a phased schedule, to older generations of veterans severely injured while in service.
The bill, which features many initiatives and officiallyis titled The John S. McCain III, Daniel K. Akaka and Samuel R. Johnson VA Maintaining Internal Systems and Strengthening Integrated Outside Networks Act, cleared the Senate on 92-5 vote Wednesday and the House a week earlier by a 347-70 margin.
Such widespread support should ensure that an appropriations bill to be passed later will fully fund the package, which the Congressional Budget Office estimates will cost $46.5 billion over just the next five years.
The bill's primary architects are Sens. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., and Jon Tester, D-Mont., chairman and ranking member of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, and their House counterparts Reps. Phil Roe, R-Tenn., and Tim Walz, D-Minn., though Walz voted against the bill after late-hour amendments to better protect VA health care against future attempts to privatize the system failed.
A tenacious Sen. Patty Murray , D-Wash., and thousands of caregivers of veterans severely injured before 9-11, including back to the Vietnam War era, argue that the highlight of the bill is its expansion of caregiver benefits, including a monthly stipend, health insurance, respite care and training, to older generations.
These benefits, first enacted in 2010, have been available only to caregivers of severely injured post-9/11 veterans. Since then Murray has championed corrective legislation to extend caregiver help to any qualified veteran. The senator said she felt enormous relief for these families the day the VA Mission Act passed.
"I can't tell you the countless number of families I've talked to who, with tears in their eyes, told me how they had to quit their jobs, lost income, ended up putting veterans they care for into some other living arrangement," Murray recalled.
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