Veterans and Military Personnel
Our country can never repay the debt we owe our nation’s veterans and current active duty military personnel. These are the Americans who answered the call to duty and put their lives on the line to preserve our nation’s freedoms. I have had the distinct honor of making a number of visits to our troops overseas to thank them for their service.
Throughout my tenure in Congress, I have fought to ensure that our military has the very best equipment, weaponry and training. I have also consistently voted to increase benefits to veterans. I have supported efforts to expand veterans education assistance, improve medical care, provide vocational training and job opportunities and make housing more affordable to returning veterans.
Specifically, I have sponsored the Returning Soldiers' Bill of Rights, supported the Long Island State Veterans Home, voted for veterans housing benefits, voted to keep TRICARE costs low and voted for a tax deduction on TRICARE benefits. I was also instrumental in keeping the Manhattan VA open and in blocking private development at the St. Albans VA Community Living Center campus. Based on my support of veterans’ initiatives, I was awarded an ‘A’ on the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America report card.
I have also worked to help veterans facing mental health issues. Traumatic brain injury (TBI) is one of the major causes of PTSD among these men and women. That is why I established a pilot program to enhance Department of Defense efforts on mental health in the National Guard and Reserves through community partnerships. I also supported the passage of the Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for American Veterans Act, which became law in February 2015. This law requires a third party to annually evaluate both Department of Defense and VA mental health and suicide prevention programs. This law also addresses the lack of mental health professionals by providing an education loan repayment pilot program and authorizes the VA to collaborate with nonprofit mental health organizations to prevent suicide among veterans.
I have worked to expand veterans benefits by supporting the Post 9/11 GI bill, which was enacted in 2008, and brought the GI Bill of Rights into the 21st Century and expanded educational benefits for military veterans. But there is more work to be done that is why I strongly supported the Veterans Access, Choice, and Accountability Act, which became law in August 2014 and expanded education opportunities for veterans by allowing them to attend a state-run higher-education institution of their choice at an in-state tuition rate.
Over the past year I have continued to make it a top priority to improve the Veterans Healthcare Administration. In the spring of 2016 the Northport VA faced criticism for not informing Congress about the closure of its operating rooms due to a ventilation issue. In the wake of this revelation I worked closely with the VA to ensure that Congress and the general public be notified when such closures occur and ensure that a long-term solution to the Northport VA’s ventilation problems be put into action.
In the summer of 2016 the Northport VA faced scrutiny again when a veteran took his own life on its campus after possibly being denied treatment. In light of this tragic event I asked FBI Director Comey and VA Secretary McDonald to conduct a full investigation of the events surrounding this suicide. To further ensure that no veteran is denied in-patient psychiatric care at a VA Medical Center, I cosponsored H.R. 6108, Never Again Act, which would require a VA hospital to admit any veteran enrolled in the VA health system to its psychiatric ward if a veteran requests such care.
While I have been critical of the Northport VA over the past year, it still ranks as one of the best medical facilities within the Veterans Health Administration. Additionally, I have always found the staff Northport VA to be thoroughly professional in the great work they do. I will continue to work closely with the Northport VA to ensure it has the resources necessary to provide Long Island’s veterans with the best care possible.
To improve veterans’ healthcare on a national level I recently supported is the passage of a full-year appropriations bill for the Department of Veterans Affairs. A major hindrance to the day to day operations of any government agency is uncertainty in funding. That is why I have strongly opposed lapses in government funding. It is for this reason I supported a full year of funding for the VA in last month’s Continuing Resolution (P.L. 114-223). This consistent funding is critical in assisting the VA’s efforts to improve healthcare and all services provided to veterans.
In addition to providing consistency, this law provides support to many important initiatives within the VA. This law includes an additional $9.26 billion for the Veterans Health Administration which will provide much needed funding to hepatitis C treatment, caregiver programs, services for homeless veterans and suicide prevention programs for veterans. This law also provides the VA Inspector General’s office with 17% increase in funding, enabling the Inspector General to take on additional investigations, preventing a reoccurrence of the horrible VA scandal of 2014.
Through their service on the battlefield, veterans develop unique skills and superior leadership capabilities that are extremely valuable in the civilian workforce. However, the transition from the military is difficult and veterans often face long periods of unemployment. That is why I have reintroduced the Jobs for Veterans Act, which creates a $5,000 nonrefundable tax credit for employers who hire a returning veteran for more than 10 weeks/400 hours of work. This tax credit gives employers incentive to hire returning soldiers – a win-win solution that enables veterans to find employment and business owners to capitalize on the skills veterans have to offer.
In addition to joblessness, returning veterans also face housing issues. I will continue to work with the Department of Veterans Affairs and Department of Housing and Urban Development to ensure veterans get access to affordable housing and the support network they need.