Issue Position: Veterans
As a member of the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee, Senator Obama is committed to helping the heroes who defend our nation today and the veterans who fought in years past.
Illinois has a large proportion of aging veterans. Unfortunately, Illinois ranked 50 out of 53 states and territories in disability benefits for at least 20 years. In light of this troubling reality, Senator Obama led efforts to uncover the reasons for this disparity and correct it. As a result of his involvement, the VA has increased the number of claims reviewers in the Chicago office, providing for a faster processing of claims. The VA has also increased training to ensure more consistent decisions. Senator Obama has worked with Senator Durbin to require the VA to provide veterans in six states, including Illinois, with notification of their rights to appeal any benefit decisions. As a result of these appeals, Illinois veterans are starting to see larger benefit checks.
The Bush Administration's approach to handling veterans' health care ignores the reality of increasing demands on the VA, and the additional burden placed on veterans. The Administration has established a means test for VA health care eligibility, and it has banned hundreds of thousands of veterans - some who make as little as $30,000 a year - from enrolling in the system. These changes affect both older and younger veterans, and Senator Obama has opposed them, fighting instead for greater funding for veterans' health care.
Greater Funding for Veterans Health Care
As early as February 2005, Senator Obama warned of a shortfall in the VA budget. Four months later, the VA reported that in fact it had more than a $1 billion shortfall. Senator Obama cosponsored a bill that led to a $1.5 billion increase in veterans' medical care. During the debate on the Fiscal Year 2007 budget, Senator Obama cosponsored measures that would have provided additional funding increases for veterans.
In January 2007, Senator Obama reintroduced the Lane Evans Veterans Health and Benefits Improvement Act to improve the VA's planning process to avoid budget shortfalls in the future. The bill requires the VA and the Department of Defense to work together and share data so that we know precisely how many troops will be returning home and entering the VA system.
Every year, 400,000 veterans across the country, including an estimated 38,000 in Chicago, spend some time living on the streets. Senator Obama has been a leader in fighting homelessness among veterans. He authored the Sheltering All Veterans Everywhere Act (SAVE Act) to strengthen and expand federal homeless veteran programs that serve over 100,000 homeless veterans annually. During the debate on the Fiscal Year 2007 budget, Senator Obama passed an amendment to increase funding for homeless veterans programs by $40 million. These funds would benefit programs that provide food, clothing, mental health and substance abuse counseling, and employment and housing assistance to homeless veterans.
Working with Senators Akaka and Craig, Senator Obama passed legislation in December 2006 to provide comprehensive services and affordable housing options to veterans through the Department of Veterans Affairs, Department of Housing and Urban Development and nonprofit organizations. This legislation was signed into law and is modeled on parts of the SAVE Act and the Homes for Heroes Act, a measure that Senator Obama had previously authored.
Food for Recovering Soldiers
Senator Obama introduced an amendment that became law providing food services to wounded veterans receiving physical therapy or rehabilitation services at military hospitals. Previously, service members receiving physical therapy or rehabilitation services in a medical hospital for more than 90 days were required to pay for their meals.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI)
Senator Obama fought a VA proposal that would have required a reexamination of all Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) cases in which full benefits were granted. He and Senator Durbin passed an amendment that became law preventing the VA from conducting a review of cases, without first providing Congress with a complete report regarding the implementation of such review. In November 2005, the VA announced that it was abandoning its planned review.
Senator Obama passed an amendment to ensure that all service members returning from Iraq are properly screened for Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI). TBI is being called the signature injury of the Iraq war. The blast from improvised explosive devices can jar the brain, causing bruising or permanent damage. Concussions can have huge health effects including slowed thinking, headaches, memory loss, sleep disturbance, attention and concentration deficits, and irritability.
Easing the Transition to the VA
Senator Obama passed an amendment that became law requiring the Department of Defense (DOD) to report to Congress on the delayed development of an electronic medical records system compatible with the VA's electronic medical records system. DOD's delay in developing such a system has created obstacles for service members transitioning into the VA health care system.
Part of the Lane Evans Veterans Health and Benefits Improvement Act, which Senator Obama reintroduced in January 2007, would help veterans transition from the DOD health system to the VA system by extending the window in which new veterans can get mental health care from two years to five years. The Lane Evans bill also would improve transition services for members of the National Guard and Reserves.