Issue Position: Veterans
* Since being elected to Congress, I have put taking care of Colorado's veterans at the top of my legislative priorities.
* I believe veterans are entitled to the best health care, disability, and pension benefits we can offer for the sacrifices they have made.
* We also have a duty to demonstrate our appreciation to new veterans by providing them with the services they need to reintegrate back into civilian life, including providing them the very best in health care, pension, and education benefits. That is why I support a new G.I. Bill of Rights and have co-sponsored all of the major veteran's health and benefits bills currently before Congress.
Like most Americans, I have a deep respect for the men and women who have served our country in uniform. As a World War II veteran, my father taught my family about the sacrifices veterans have made to keep our country secure and our rights preserved. Veterans deserve more than our thanks, however. They deserve action to match our words. Current veterans and those who are returning from Iraq and Afghanistan need our support to ensure that they receive the health care and other benefits they deserve.
We have a duty to demonstrate our appreciation to new veterans by providing them with the services they need to reintegrate back into civilian life. Veterans are entitled to the best health care, disability, and pension benefits we can offer for the sacrifices they have made. Just as there was no price tag on their decision to risk their lives and sacrifice their health for freedom, we cannot in good conscience, short-change their needs when they return home.
One of my first actions after being elected to Congress in 1999 was to ensure that my office provided quality constituent services for veterans. Since then, my office has strived to be constantly available to veterans as they interact with the federal government, including providing advice and aid contacting the Department of Veteran Affairs, working through the disability compensation and disability pension system, providing information on home loans available specifically for veterans, and getting copies of records or replacement medals.
Veterans health care and benefits top my list of legislative priorities. I have cosponsored a number of bills intended to improve opportunities and government services for Colorado's veterans, including:
* The Veterans Employment and Respect Act of 2007 (H.R. 898), which would allow employers to claim a work opportunity tax credit for hiring veterans returning from Iraq or Afghanistan.
* The Total Force Educational Assistance Enhancement and Integration Act of 2007 (H.R. 1102), which would increase governmental educational assistance to members of the National Guard and Reserve and make educational benefits for the National Guard and Reserve adequate and equitable to benefits received by other members of our Armed Forces.
* H.R. 1110, which would permit federal civilian and military retirees and active duty military personnel to pay Federal Employees Health Benefits Program and TRICARE supplemental premiums on a pre-tax basis, and allow them to take a tax deduction for TRICARE supplemental premiums or enrollment fees.
* The Dignified Treatment of Wounded Warriors Act (H.R. 1538), which would improve the access to quality medical care for wounded service members who are outpatients at military health care facilities; begin the process of restoring the integrity and efficiency of the disability evaluation system; and improve the transition of wounded service members from the Armed Forces to the VA system.
* The Post-9/11 Veterans Educational Assistance Act of 2007 (H.R. 2702), which would improve current educational benefits - including coverage of tuition, room and board, and monthly stipend - for all those who have served at least two years of active duty since 9/11.
* The Veterans Education Tuition Support Act of 2007 (H.R. 2910), which would require higher education institutions and student lending institutions to refund tuition if a service member is activated while in school, and would require those institutions to provide an opportunity for students who have served to reenroll in school with the same academic and lending status they had before their service started.
* The Heroes at Home Act of 2007 (H.R. 3051), which would improve the diagnosis and treatment of veterans with traumatic brain injury (TBI) and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and require that the Secretary of Veterans Affairs conduct outreach to enhance awareness of veterans and the public about the symptoms of TBI and PTSD.
* The 21st Century Service Members Civil Relief Act (H.R. 3298), which would allow individuals called to military service to terminate or suspend their service contracts with telephone, Internet, cable, or utility companies after the date of entry into service or date of military orders without fee or penalty.
* Veterans Guaranteed Bonus Act (H.R. 3793), which would require the Secretary of Defense to pay all remaining bonuses to service members who have been discharged due to a combat-related injury.
Due to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, seven-hundred-thousand veterans are expected to enter the military and VA health care systems. According to the Veterans Health Administration, approximately 5.8 million patients will request some level of care this year. That number is 54,000 more than in fiscal year 2007. To compensate for the increased demands on the veterans health care system, I voted to increase spending on veteran's medical care by $2.5 billion over the President's request.
I have also joined as a cosponsor of legislation that would allow veterans to receive both military retired pay and veterans' disability compensation with respect to any service-connected disability. Currently, approximately 33% of veterans suffering from a service-connected disability are subject to a decrease in the quantity of their retirement benefits equal to the amount of their disability payments. I have joined as a cosponsor of H.R. 303, the Retired Pay Restoration Act of 2007, which would eliminate the ten-year phase-in period for concurrent receipt for retirees with a disability rating of 50-90 percent and would extend concurrent retirement and disability payments eligibility to retirees rated less than 50 percent.
I also fully support elimination of the reduction of Survivor Benefits Plan benefits after the surviving spouse reaches sixty-two. Our servicemen and women rely on the Survivor Benefits Plan (SBP) to support their family members in the event of their death. Unfortunately, SBP benefits are reduced to 35%, from 55%, of the retiree's benefit as soon as the surviving spouse reaches age sixty-two. I have co-sponsored a bill in the 110th Congress (H.R. 1589), which would end the military family's tax that penalizes survivors.
As a Member of the House Armed Services Committee, I have had the honor of meeting and interacting with hundreds of veterans -- representing all the branches of the Armed Forces, and with service from World War II, Korea, Vietnam and the Gulf War. I am always impressed by their service and patriotism. We have not always met their needs, and in Colorado, we have the challenge of constructing a new VA Medical Facility. I am proud to say that the 2008 appropriations bill for military construction and veterans affairs included $61.3 million to be used for the new facility. The bill also directs the Department of Veterans Affairs to study the feasibility of a new outpatient clinic for veterans in rural Colorado.
Sadly, there are times when Colorado's soldiers pay the ultimate price during their service to their country. When that happens, we must make sure we recognize the sacrifice those soldiers have made. We must also do our best to comfort their families. One of the ways we can do this is to provide the families a place of honor to bury their loved ones close to home. For this reason, I am also the co-sponsor of two bills which would each establish a national cemetery for veterans in Colorado, one in the Pikes Peak region and the other in El Paso County.
Finally, we also need to keep faith with the Cold War workers who sacrificed their health at nuclear weapons plants across the country, including Rocky Flats. Since first being elected to Congress, I have worked on behalf of workers exposed to beryllium, radiation, and hazardous chemicals at Rocky Flats to ensure that they are compensated for health problems resulting from working at the plant. I introduced one of the first bills seeking to establish the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program (EEOICP), the program eventually developed to compensate workers with health issues resulting from their work at nuclear weapons facilities.
Since EEOICP was started, I have continued to work for improvements to the program. Beginning in the 109th Congress, I introduced bills to add Rocky Flats workers to the special exposure cohort of EEOICP and supported other bills to make improvements in the overall program. I also introduced H.R. 904 to amend the EEOICP Act to include individuals who worked at Rocky Flats before 2006. Recently, I won inclusion of an amendment in to the National Defense Authorization bill that will extend authorization for an independent Ombudsman to represent EEOICP beneficiaries for five years. The Ombudsman position was originally created in 2004, and has been very successful in helping employees get the compensation they deserve, but it will terminate soon without an extension. There is still work to do to improve EEOICP, and I will continue to work hard to make it easier for employees from Rocky Flats and other sites to get their benefits.