BURLINGTON -- Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., spoke with reporters across the country via teleconference Wednesday, describing and praising his most recently proposed bill.
The omnibus bill, which was introduced to the Senate last week, is titled the Comprehensive Veterans Health and Benefit and Military Retirement Pay Restoration Act of 2014, which would end recent controversial cuts to pensions of military retirees under the age of 62, as well as create numerous other increased benefits for veterans.
"This is one of the most comprehensive pieces of veterans legislation in decades," said Sanders of the bill, which he touted as largely bi-partisan effort of the Senate Committee on Veteran's Affairs, of which Sanders is the chairman.
"This bill addresses many of the concerns veterans groups have brought forward, and in a very comprehensive way," he said.
Sanders said hundreds of thousands of service members from Afghanistan have returned to the United States with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder or a traumatic brain injury. He also pointed to reports that show that almost three times as many Vietnam veterans took their own lives after returning home than died during the war.
"These service members have paid a very high price for their service. We have to do everything possible for them and their families," he said.
The bill, which Sanders estimated would cost about $30 billion over a 10-year period, would also expand VA healthcare and dental care, in what Sanders called a "cost-effective and equitable way." He also said stipends given to caregivers of veterans of post-9/11 wars would be extended to veterans of other wars as well. "If your teeth are rotting in your mouth, and you can't get into the system, we're going to help you with that," he said.
The legislation also provides provisions to improve veterans' healthcare through increased access to complementary and alternative medicine, chiropractic care, and transportation services, requires quarterly reports to congress on efforts to eliminate a backlog of VA benefits claims, expands access to education benefits for veterans and their survivors, and assists veterans who are suffering from reproductive issues, which are largely related to the use of improvised explosive devices in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"During the last government shutdown, we were a week or 10 days away from disabled veterans not receiving the checks they rely on," said Sanders. "This is unacceptable, and I don't think anyone in the Senate wants to see that happen."
Sanders said that in conversations with Sen. Harry Reid, Senate majority leader, Reid indicated that he would like the vote to occur as soon as possible, which may be as soon as next week.
When asked about how much support he thought the bill would receive in the Senate, Sanders responded, "I think we are going to have the support of the entire Democratic caucus." Sanders said he had not yet reached out to his Republican colleagues, but that many of the provisions in the bill were proposed by Republicans. "We hope very much that we will have their support," he said. He added that several of the provisions come from colleagues in the House.
Sanders hopes to raise money for the bill by utilizing the Overseas Contingency Operations fund, which was created to fund the War on Terror, and has been used recently to pay for ongoing operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Sanders said that money has been used to pay for our defense, and it was only fair that it be used for those who have been doing the defending, although he noted that, "the final decision of how we fund this is not my own. I believe there is more than enough money [in OCO] to fund this project."
"These are not just ideas that me or my staff came up with," said Sanders, "These are ideas that these men and women have been talking about for years."
Several veterans groups have expressed support for the bill. "This legislation would accomplish many of the goals for which veterans and military service organizations have been advocating for years," said Paul Rieckhoff, the CEO and founder of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, in a letter to Sanders, "including strengthening the Post-9/11 GI Bill, expanding advance appropriations for more of the VA's budget, expanding dental care coverage for veterans, expanding benefits for surviving spouses, expanding care related to military sexual trauma, instituting new rules for VA's claims processing reports, and much more."