The Senate on Tuesday debated a bill that would extend Department of Veterans Affairs health care to hundreds of thousands more veterans, provide assistance for families to care for veterans at home and add new services for veterans with fertility issues.
The bill would also provide advance funding for all VA programs to prevent a potential repeat of last year when the government shutdown nearly interrupted the delivery of VA compensation checks to disabled veterans.
Senate Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., who introduced the legislation, said his bill is "important not just for the veterans but for the tens of millions of people who support our veterans."
Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., ranking member of the Senate veterans' panel, hit the bill as too expensive and said many veterans across the country do not want to see it pass. But Burr advised his fellow Republicans to vote for cloture so that the full body could begin debating the elements of the legislation.
Burr and Sanders both indicated debate may go on for a few days before a vote is taken.
Burr said he was in agreement with about 80 percent of the bill. He did not state which parts he backed, but he specifically hit a provision that would expand VA health care to veterans who do not have a service-connected disability.
These would be "veterans that are above the means testing threshold" for assistance, he said, "not people with low income or have a service-connected disability."
Under the law, veterans who qualify for health care under the Affordable Care Act through an exchange would be able to opt for VA health care, he said.
The North Carolina Republican said that expanding VA health care to so many more veterans would flood an already troubled VA system in which current veterans wait for appointments and some hospitals operate inefficiently.
Burr also said that while Sanders' bill has the support of veterans organizations, many veterans across the country probably hope it does not pass.
Sanders defended the veterans groups that have backed his legislation, pointing out that the bill was drafted in close consultation with veterans across the country.
"My hope is that every member [here] will address the needs of veterans with the respect it deserves," Sanders said. "Clearly, it's not a perfect bill ... but I hope the issues brought forth [by opponents] deal with veterans' issues, and not ones that are not germane or relevant."
The bill is an ambitious wish list of new and expanded VA programs and policies. Among other things, it would extend advance funding to all VA operations. Currently, the VA is funded two years in a row for health care.
Sanders' bill also renews the Vow to Hire Heroes Act, a program to help vets get into the civilian workforce, and extends to veterans of all U.S. wars the veterans' caregiver's act, which currently provides funding for family members to care for their disabled Post 9/11 veterans.
In addition, the bill would expand access to VA health care by authorizing the VA to enter into leases with 27 major medical facilities in 18 states and Puerto Rico. It would also open VA health care to all vets, make dental care a part of VA health care, and extend the period that Iraq and Afghanistan war vets may seek VA care to 10 years.
Sanders' bill also would provide VA health services to veterans in need of family planning assistance because of service-related wounds or injuries, improve care and services for vets who were sexually assaulted in the military, advance the use of alternative therapies and treatments, and guarantee that veterans going to school on the GI Bill pay in-state tuition.
Sanders' tried to get his comprehensive veterans' bill to the floor earlier this month. Then, lawmakers were eager to rescind a widely criticized provision of the recently passed 2014 budget deal that imposed a cost-of-living adjustment cap on working age military retirees.
The Senate was already looking at a pair of partisan bills aimed at killing the measure.
Sanders inserted in his already filed legislation a provision to repeal the cap and pay for the additional costs by using funds from the Pentagon's war funding budget, which is exempt from spending caps.
But Sanders bill was ignored by lawmakers from both parties.
The Senate voted almost unanimously for legislation sent to it by the House that yanked the COLA provision but paid for it by having the cap apply to all troops joining the military after Jan. 1, 2014.
Though veterans' organizations and military associations offered Congress some praise for killing the COLA-minus-one provision, most veterans groups have shown a preference for Sanders' bill.
-- Bryant Jordan can be reached at Bryant.Jordan@monster.com.