The House Veterans Affairs Committee approved a bill Thursday that would require the Department of Veterans Affairs to adopt a version of its mission statement that proponents say is more inclusive than the one that currently graces most VA buildings.
In a unanimous vote, members forwarded legislation that would change the VA's motto from President Abraham Lincoln's 1865 quote, "To care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan," to a gender-neutral version: "To fulfill President Lincoln's promise to care for those 'who shall have borne the battle' and for their families, caregivers, and survivors."
The proposed bill, H.R. 3010, the "Honoring All Veterans Act," is sponsored by Rep. Kathleen Rice, D-N.Y., and has the bipartisan support of 67 other representatives, including Rep. Phil Roe of Tennessee, the committee's ranking Republican.
"Women and LGBTQ military service members have served and sacrificed for our country, and they always answered the call of duty whenever we rang," Rice said in presenting her proposed legislation. "Yet, as we all know, the current gender-exclusive motto doesn't properly acknowledge their service, and that is simply wrong."
Roe added, "[The bill ensures] that the increasing number of women serving in uniform feel welcome, respected and well cared for. ... Words matter."
Rice has introduced the bill for the past two congressional cycles, but until Thursday, it had never made it out of committee.
The VA frequently uses the newer version of the motto during official ceremonies and in correspondence. But it also is moving ahead with plans to place plaques with the statement at all VA cemeteries.
VA officials have maintained that the employment of Lincoln's quote as the department mission statement assumes "gender neutrality in historical usage and context."
Among the other bills the committee approved Thursday is one that would expand eligibility for National Guard and Reserve members activated by their states to apply for VA home loans.
Under the proposal by Rep. Mike Bost, R-Ill., Guard and Reserve members activated to respond to natural disasters and civil disturbances, including the COVID-19 pandemic and Black Lives Matter protests, could access VA home loan benefits. Currently, they can do so only if they have had 90 consecutive days of active federal service or have been members for six years.
"From COVID-19 to floods, fires and civil unrest, members of the National Guard and Army Reserves have shown that they are 'always ready, always there,'" Bost said when he introduced the proposal earlier this year. "The last thing they should have to worry about is whether or not they can receive a home loan from the VA."
At the height of call-ups for the pandemic, more than 41,000 National Guard members were supporting COVID-19 response. As of July 1, more than 37,100 National Guard members remained activated across the United States for various reasons.
The committee also approved an amendment to Bost's bill that would allow the VA to reduce home loan fees for service members and veterans whose homes are destroyed in natural disasters.
Other legislation forwarded by committee members includes a bill that would require the VA to disclose the employment status of physicians who work at VA medical centers -- employees and contractors -- in cases of medical malpractice, and for the department to inform patients about statute of limitations rules for malpractice claims in their states.
Under the bill, if the VA fails to follow this requirement within 30 days, the department would be liable and could be sued for the actions of the contracted physician.
The bill, H.R. 4526, sponsored by Rep. Mike Levin, D-Calif., is named for Brian Tally, a Marine Corps veteran who sought care at a VA medical center for debilitating back pain and was diagnosed with muscle strain and sent home.
Months later, however, Tally learned he had a potentially fatal bone-eating staph infection. He filed a malpractice claim against the VA, only to be told more than a year later that his VA doctor was an independent contractor, which meant he would have to pursue his legal case in state court.
But by the time he received the information, the statute of limitations on his claim had expired.
"It is unacceptable that any veteran would be denied the opportunity to pursue a malpractice claim due to lack of transparency by the VA," Levin said.
Legislators could consider the measures when they return to Washington on Sept. 8 after their August recess.