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Public Statements

Veterans' Outreach Act of 2013

Floor Speech

Location: Washington, DC

Mr. SANDERS. Mr. President, as the chairman of the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee, I have pledged to improve outreach activities to better inform our Nation's over 22 million veterans of the benefits to which they are entitled.

Legislation I introduced last week, the Veterans' Outreach Act of 2013, would authorize the Department of Veterans Affairs to carry out a 2-year demonstration project to award grants to State and local government programs and nonprofit organizations to improve the coordination and collaboration of veterans' health care and benefit services across Federal, State, and local assets. By providing State and local government programs and nonprofit organizations the opportunity to submit a grant proposal with stated goals and objectives, VA would be able to better leverage the countless services across the Nation that support veterans and their family members. Finally and most importantly, my legislation would require recipients to submit outcomes data back to VA in order to document a recipient's ability to increase awareness, efficiency, and effectiveness of Federal, State, and local outreach activities; enhance the availability of Federal, State, and local resources for veterans; and strengthen the overall culture of community-based support within a given community across our great Nation. With this 2-year demonstration project, VA will be able to examine what outreach activities work and reassess its outreach strategy accordingly.

Last month I was in Brooklyn, NY, where I met two combat veterans from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. One was a U.S. Marine Corps captain and the other was a sergeant in the U.S. Army. Both were receiving health care at VA and struggling to pay for their copays. Similarly, both were unaware of their eligibility to receive 5 years of free health care at VA following their most recent discharged from Active-Duty. Most displeasing was the lack of understanding of this very same health care benefit by senior VA officials who accompanied me that day. If senior VA officials are unaware of such a principal health care benefit available to combat veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, much more remains to be done inside and outside of VA to ensure veterans of all eras are informed and understand the benefits and services they are entitled.

I urge my colleagues to ask veterans across their State and see how many understand all of the benefits and services available to them. For instance, countless veterans across this Nation remain unaware that some of them may be entitled to one-time dental care if they apply at VA within 180 days of separation from Active Duty. Little known benefits like this, can go a long way in placing our newest generation of veterans on sound footing following their exit from military service. Other veterans may be eligible for no-cost or low-cost health care and medications if they meet eligibility requirements for VA health care. To claim this coverage they must enroll at their local Department of Veterans Affairs medical center. These uncertainties surrounding VA health care eligibility will most certainly be compounded by the additional health care options that become available as we approach implementation of the Affordable Care Act. Veterans need to know and understand their options.

The men and women who have sacrificed so much in defense of this country deserve to know about the benefits and care to which they are entitled, and it is VA's job to make sure they know. Simply knowing about benefits in certain instances is not enough. If VA is trying to reach rural veterans, knowing where and when a mobile vet center will visit your community is critical. If VA is trying to reach more and more veterans in the community, knowing when and where the local medical center or community-based outpatient clinic will hold events and activities can drive up the number of veterans in attendance. Furthermore, VA needs to do more to proactively identify outreach efforts that work locally while leveraging the countless services supporting veterans that are made available by organizations all across the country.

Highly able and willing organizations and agencies are already providing quality social services and outreach into communities across the Nation. Some of these organizations report a lack of coordination and collaboration with local VA facilities. Additionally, many small nonprofits and local organizations sometimes lack the additional resources needed to strategically develop guidance and partnerships with and across Federal, State, and local assets. More effective and localized outreach will better address the community-based needs of today's veterans and do so in a cost-efficient way.

This legislation goes beyond authorizing VA to issue grants. This legislation would also allow VA to enter into cooperative agreements and arrangements with various State agencies to carry out, improve, or enhance outreach activities for veterans. Simply put, if a State is already supporting our Nation's veterans, then this legislation would allow VA to reinforce the bond between Federal and State resources to ensure local veterans outreach activities are streamlined and cost-avoidances identified.

One thing is undeniable, and that is that VA should be making every effort to ensure veterans are aware of the benefits and services afforded to them. I recently held a committee hearing where we heard about some of the progress the Department has made in addressing the important issue of outreach. We also heard from community-based organizations that are coordinating and collaborating across Federal, State, and local levels to leverage resources in order to provide cost-effective programs. But what struck me the most was the steadfastness with which each of these community-based organizations identifies veterans and links them to the Federal, State, and local benefits and services they are entitled.

Widely available information and a clear understanding of the information are two basic components of effective outreach. If our Nation's veterans are to take full advantage of the benefits and service they have earned, effective outreach is indispensable. When our Nation's over 22 million veterans are able to take advantage of these benefits and services, they more often than not are placed on a positive path toward an encouraging future.

Mr. President, we have made a solemn commitment to aid veterans after they leave military service. We can only honor this commitment if veterans and their families are aware of the benefits and services available to them. This legislation would strengthen VA's outreach and support the organizations and agencies that seek to stand shoulder to shoulder with VA in support of our nation's heroes.

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