5 ways Congress can help veterans in the New Year

Matt Saintsing
December 31, 2018 - 3:20 pm

ID 37796939 © Zimu Liu | Dreamstime.com

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2018 was quite the year when it comes to passing meaningful legislation for veterans, but the fact remains, Congress could have done a whole lot more to help our brothers and sisters “who have borne the battle” (more on that in a bit). 

While it’s true that the House and Senate Veterans' Affairs committees have been a welcome island of bipartisanship in an era known for intense ideological brawls, these are critical bills we’re disappointed to see didn’t pass, but hopeful the 116th Congress can get it done.  

Burn Pits

Introduced by Reps. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) and Brian Mast (R-Fla.) in May, the Burn Pits Accountability Act would increase research efforts into the health impacts of toxic burn pit exposure on service members in combat zones.

USMC photograph by Cpl. Samuel D. Corum

The bill would also produce better data on how best to treat ailments associated with breathing in those billowing noxious fumes. 

About 164,000 names are on VA’s burn pit registry, but advocates say millions of vets and active duty troops could be impacted. 

Tom Porter, legislative director for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA), says they’re hoping to re-introduce the bill after the New Year and confident they can get it to pass. 

Blue Water Navy Vets

Currently, any Vietnam veteran who served on the ground is entitled to VA benefits and disability compensation if they were exposed to Agent Orange. 

But the same isn’t true for sailors who served aboard ships off the country’s coast. Many say they were exposed to Agent Orange, but they don’t have the same presumption of exposure their Army, Marine, Air Force, and other Navy counterparts who have served on the land.

US Navy Photo by Civilian Public Affairs Officer Max Lonzanida/Released

Especially enraging for the nearly 90,000 so-called “Blue Water Navy” Vietnam veterans who stand to benefit from the Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act, is that they had a chance to get that same presumption. 

RELATED: "What next?": Blue Water Navy Veterans prepare to start over

However, Sens. Mike Enzi (R-Wyo) and Mike Lee (R-Utah) opposed Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand’s request for unanimous consent to approve the bill earlier in December. 

There’s a rapidly closing window the Senate has to pass the bill, but advocates are increasingly worrisome time will run out in 2018. If a deal can't be reached by Dec. 31, 2018, the bill will have to start from scratch. 

Women Veterans

The word “veteran” is often synonymous with men, but women are the fastest growing demographic among vets. The Deborah Sampson Act would improve the VA in several ways that are explicitly aimed towards female veterans, including updated maternity care, and ensuring each VA medical facility has at least one full-time or part-time women’s health primary care provider. 

It would also expand peer-to-peer counseling and services for survivors of military sexual assault. 

Another symbolic, but crucial element the legislation would do is update Abraham Lincoln’s famous quote on display at the entrance of VA clinics nationwide" “To care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow, and his orphan.” 

Reading that quote as a woman may signal that VA services aren’t meant for them. This bill would change that by updating VA’s motto to be more inclusive.  

Cannabis For Vets

As states continue to lead the charge with expanding marijuana access, the federal government, so far, hasn’t kept pace. But the only piece of national legislation to ever make its way out of a Congressional committee is the VA Medicinal Cannabis Research Act of 2018. While clearing a committee is an important milestone, House leaders have failed to put it on the floor for a vote.  

Photo by Mark Mirko/Hartford Courant/TNS/Sipa USA

The bill would clarify VA’s authority to research marijuana’s effects of veterans with a variety of service-connected ailments, like post-traumatic stress and chronic pain. It would also require the agency to update Congress on their research progress regularly. 

The politics of marijuana prohibition is rapidly ending, but it's taking way longer for the government to catch up to popular public opinion. Cannabis and veterans advocates are hopeful the next Congress would be the green light they’ve been looking for when it comes to the VA researching marijuana more fully. 

The “Tally Bill”

The Brian Tally VA Medical Care and Liability Improvement Act was introduced by Rep. Dave Brat (R-Va.) at the end of October, so to be fair to Congress they haven’t had a lot of time to act. Still, what happened to Marine Corps veteran Brian Tally is reprehensible, and Congress must ensure future veterans don’t have to deal with the same runaround. 

Tally says a VA physician botched his diagnosis in 2016, leaving him with a staph infection that ate away at his spine. He only found out about it when he paid for medical tests outside of VA. By the time the VA placed blame on the doctor, an independent contractor, it was too late. Had the doctor been a VA employee, however, Tally would have had more legal options. His bill would place independent contractors on the same legal plane as VA employees. 

With Brat losing his re-election bid, Tally will have to find a new sponsor in the 116th Congress, which goes to work Jan. 3, 2019. But there is hope since AMVETS has signed on to help advocate for his cause. 

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