Virginia is as connected to the military as any state in the country, and our map is rich with military history, from Yorktown, to Appomattox, to the Pentagon. With nearly 800,000 veterans residing in the Commonwealth, Virginia has one of the highest state populations of veterans in America. We have a responsibility to support our men and women in uniform and our commitment continues when they return home.
Our veterans deserve timely access to quality health care and the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) must restore their trust. After discouraging revelations of issues at the VA- including data released that revealed unacceptable wait times at VA medical facilities in Virginia - I joined a bipartisan group of Senators to introduce The Veterans’ Access to Care through Choice, Accountability and Transparency Act of 2014, legislation to improve veterans’ access to health care and address serious problems facing the VA. The bill, which passed in 2014, allows veterans to see private doctors outside the VA system if they experience long wait times or live more than 40 miles from a VA facility for a two year period, provides the VA Secretary authority to immediately dismiss poorly performing administrators and employees who manipulated wait-time data, and helps the VA swiftly hire staff to decrease the scheduling backlog. I will continue to work to ensure that veterans receive timely access to quality healthcare.
As I travel around Virginia, I hear from families, employers, and first responders about the harmful impacts of opioid abuse. I’m particularly troubled by reports of opioid overmedication for our veterans who are struggling with pain management. In the hopes of combatting this epidemic among our nation’s veterans, I cosponsored the Jason Simcakoski Memorial Opioid Safety Act, bipartisan reform legislation aimed at providing safer and more effective pain management services through the VA. The bill, crafted in close consultation with medical professionals and veterans’ service organizations, focuses on strengthening the VA’s opioid prescribing guidelines and improving pain management services by putting new reforms in place. I believe this bill will help ensure that there is more oversight and coordination among medical experts at VA facilities when prescribing pain medication, which can help prevent future tragedies.
This year, I teamed up with Sen. Warner to introduce a bill with several Senate colleagues that would better protect servicemembers, veterans and their families from abusive financial practices. Despite protections enacted by the Servicemember Civil Relief Act (SCRA), the enforcement of these protections have been found to be inconsistent and subject to the discretion of financial regulators. In 2014, the Office of Servicemember Affairs at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) received more than 17,000 complaints from servicemembers, veterans, and their family members and in response, the CFPB helped provide more than $94 million in refunds and relief. Our bill, the Military Consumer Protection Act, would build on this by empowering the CFPB to oversee and enforce compliance with certain existing provisions of the SCRA.
During the Vietnam War, the U.S. military sprayed approximately 20 million gallons of Agent Orange in Vietnam to remove jungle foliage. This toxic chemical had devastating effects for millions serving in Vietnam. Unfortunately, servicemembers in Vietnam who were located in the territorial waters are not currently included in important VA coverage for Agent Orange. These veterans are known as “Blue Water” Vietnam veterans, and I have heard from many Virginians and veterans service organizations on this important issue. I introduced the Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act, which would clarify existing law so that Blue Water veterans would be fully covered by the VA if they served within the “territorial seas,” or approximately 12 miles offshore, of Vietnam. The bill would make it easier for the VA to process Vietnam War veterans’ claims for service-connected conditions and alleviate a portion of the VA’s backlog by reinstating presumptive coverage of Agent Orange benefits to these veterans.
One of my top priorities is to ensure that we ease the transition for our military members as they enter the civilian workforce. I was proud that important provisions of my first Senate bill, the Troop Talent Act of 2013, which improves and streamlines the credentialing process by aligning skills acquired in the military with civilian certifications or licenses required for post-service employment, were signed into law as part of the Fiscal Year 2014 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). In November 2013, I introduced a companion bill to the Troop Talent Act, the Servicemember Education Reform and Vocational Enhancement (SERVE) Act, to improve the quality of educational programs for servicemembers and veterans.
While some servicemembers transition out of the military and decide to pursue a degree at a college or university, countless others are ready to immediately enter the workforce with the skills they obtained through military training. That’s why I introduced the Credentialing Improvement for Troop Talent (CREDIT) Act of 2014 to help servicemembers acquire credentials that would ease their transition into the civilian workforce. The CREDIT Act will provide servicemembers with the resources they need to obtain civilian credentials while on active duty, easing their entry into the civilian workforce and improving their chances of getting quickly hired by a private sector employer.
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