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Legion lends support to huge vet benefits bill

Legion lends support to huge vet benefits bill
American Legion Legislative Director Louis Celli addresses the media at Feb. 4 press conference focused on the Comprehensive Veterans Health and Benefits and Military Retirement Pay Restoration Act of 2014. (Photo by Craig Roberts)

The American Legion has declared its "full support" of a newly introduced and massive U.S. Senate bill that would, in the words of its subtitle, "improve the provision of medical services and benefits to veterans."

Legion backing of the "Comprehensive Veterans Health and Benefits and Military Retirement Pay Restoration Act of 2014" was voiced on Feb. 4 by Legion Legislative Division director Lou Celli at a Capitol Hill press conference hosted by U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt. Sanders chairs the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs and sponsored the proposed legislation.

The 352-page Act addresses a great number of concerns to veterans, military personnel and their families. If enacted, the bill would, among other things, extend VA physical and mental health care to include a number of "alternative medicine" treatment modalities and expand dental care. It would also fund pending leases to 27 VA medical facilities, mostly community-based outpatient centers (CBOCs). Higher -ducation benefits for active-duty servicemembers and veterans would also be expanded and, under a provision that replicates terms of the "GI Bill Tuition Fairness Act" – passed unanimously by the U.S. House of Representatives on Feb. 3 – grant in-state tuition eligibility to student veterans pursuing courses at state universities and colleges.

The bill also lengthens the term of automatic VA medical care for returning veterans from five to 10 years, addresses the sometimes criticized treatment (or lack thereof) of military sexual trauma victims and extends caregiver benefits to all military families. Veterans employment and judicial matters are also considered in the bill, as are benefits claims backlog issues. The act would also abolish the controversial COLA (cost of living adjustment) limits placed on military pensions, though in a pre-press conference gathering Sanders characterized the reversal of the COLA limits as essentially a "done deal." "We may address it this week…or next, but the COLA decreases WILL be reversed," he said.

Sanders spoke briefly at the outset of the press conference. Flanked by representatives of about a dozen veteran and military service organizations, Sanders made an emotionally based appeal for passage of the big bill. "If there is one thing I have learned, (it) is that the cost of war is a lot greater than most people think," he said. "I think it’s time to put our money where our mouths are. We’re not going to bring back the dead, we’re not going to bring back arms and legs, but we do have a moral obligation (to pass this bill)."

The Vermont senator then turned the floor over to several spokespersons from the veteran and military support groups. Among them was Celli, who endorsed provisions in the act that would bolster veteran employment, noting that "veterans unemployment has now been lowered to 5.5 percent from 7.7 percent...as a result of bills passed by Congress that the Legion supported and worked on at times." Celli also mentioned the Legion’s labors on the GI Bill Tuition Fairness Act and attendant support of the Senate version contained in Sanders’ bill. He concluded by saying that, "The American Legion is very proud to have worked with (the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs), and we fully support this bill."

Near the conclusion of the press conference, a small number of reporters quizzed Sanders briefly. One journalist’s question concerned funding of the great number of programs contained in the bill. Sanders proposed offsetting the cost of by employing Overseas Contingency Operations funds. These are the monies used to pay for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Another reporter asked if the sheer size and scope of the Comprehensive Veterans Health and Benefits and Military Retirement Pay Restoration Act might jeopardize its passage in the Senate and, subsequently, in the House. Sanders declared that, in his view, there is nothing in the bill that can be reasonably objected to but, "if anyone comes to me with good ideas (about that), I’ll certainly listen."

In answer to another press query, Sanders indicated that he will be assertively seeking bipartisan support. This effort will include a meeting shortly with the chairman of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs, Rep. Jeff Miller, with whom Sanders says "I have a pretty good relationship."

Toward the end of the press briefing, Sanders again pitched the act, large as it is, by saying "if the people knew of the provisions in this bill, all Americans would overwhelmingly support it."

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