WASHINGTON (AP) – The Senate on Nov. 19 unanimously passed legislation that would provide monthly stipends and medical benefits to family members who stay home to care for severely injured veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The bill also includes travel expenses and training for the caregivers, improved health services for women veterans and rural areas, and nearly $1 billion for veterans medical facilities.
Another section of the bill provides specifically for Native American veteran services and for integration of electronic health records between the VA and Indian Health Service and permits the transfer and installation of surplus medical equipment to IHS from the VA. The secretaries of the VA and Health and Human Services must also report on the feasibility of a joint establishment and operation of health clinics on Indian reservations to serve those populations, including Indian veterans.
The Congressional Budget Office estimates the measure would cost nearly $4 billion over the first five years, most of it to pay for the new caregiver benefits.
Although the bill had bipartisan support, Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., held it up for weeks trying to persuade senators to pay for the new spending by making cuts in other programs. He tried without success Thursday to amend the bill to cut funding for the United Nations.
“If, in fact, we want to honor our veterans ... we ought to have the courage to make hard choices about how we pay for it,” Coburn said.
But Coburn ultimately supported the bill after his amendment failed. The measure passed on a 98-0 vote.
Supporters, including veterans groups such as the Wounded Warrior Project, argued that the spending is part of the cost of war. Democrats said Coburn and others who were quick to support the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan without paying for them up-front should be just as eager to deal with the consequences.
“We cannot now turn our backs on the obligations to those who fought,” said Sen. Daniel Akaka, chairman of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee and the bill’s sponsor.
Supporters also argued that the caregiver benefits will save money in the long-run as more veterans stay home instead of moving into expensive nursing facilities.
Lawmakers limited the new caregiver benefits to Iraq and Afghanistan veterans to keep down the cost.
The House has passed similar legislation, but it has more limited benefits – covering only the most severely wounded veterans. The next step is for a House-Senate conference committee to resolve differences between the two bills.
The bill is S. 1963.
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