Veterans groups have earned significant legislative wins for their causes over the last few years.
With the major battles over, they plan to dedicate themselves in 2019 to implementing these hard-fought bills and finding solutions for problems that have arisen with some of their provisions.
These 2019 legislative priorities include taking care of “blue water” veterans, ensuring that Congress implements the VA Mission Act, improving the Department of Veterans Affairs’ ability to accommodate the conditions of the Forever GI Bill, restarting the conversation about the toxic effects of burn pits and other organization-specific goals.
“We saw major legislative victories in omnibus bills that got passed in the last Congress,” said Melissa Bryant, chief policy officer for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. “That was a good start … But there’s still a lot that needs to be done with all those pieces.”
Lauren Augustine, Student Veterans of America’s vice president of government affairs, said that with legislation like the Forever GI Bill and VA Mission Act passed, her group has been freed up to tackle smaller but still vital issues.
“I think VA-wide, the community has seen some phenomenal landmark bills passed in the last couple of years,” Augustine said. “We’ve got some detail and less sexy work we can also do to make sure we’re really applying services for veterans. Now we have the time to do that now that the big landmark bills are behind us.”
Bryant said that one of IAVA’s most pressing concerns this year is providing “vigorous oversight” on the Forever GI Bill. The VA seems to be having trouble keeping up with the demands of that particular bill.
“It just showed that there was so much put into the Forever GI Bill that VA infrastructure, frankly, couldn’t handle it,” Bryant said. “They were woefully ill-equipped to be able to handle the compensation and benefits.”
Augustine agreed, saying that ensuring the VA “sticks to the plan” laid out in the Forever GI Bill is one of her organization’s top 2019 priorities.
Then there’s the VA Mission Act, which Congress passed in summer 2018. It promised expanded health care options for veterans, though it did draw the ire of those who believed President Donald Trump was overreaching his authority in an effort to privatize VA health care.
Carlos Fuentes, Veterans of Foreign Wars’ national legislative service director, said the VFW will be monitoring how well that legislation is enacted and enforced.
“We all worked very closely with Congress and the VA to craft the VA Mission Act,” he said. “Congress will have to keep a close eye on implementation. We will do the same.”
Another issue that Fuentes said has the VFW’s attention is the plight of “blue water” Navy veterans. In early 2018, the House passed a bill giving disability benefits to Vietnam veterans exposed to toxic Agent Orange chemicals that has yet to be ratified into law due to roadblocks in the Senate.
“The issue that we continue to hear about the most is ‘blue water’ Navy,” Fuentes said. “And, frankly, it’s just an injustice this issue has not been addressed … Our view is that Congress could put an end to this discussion of whether 'blue water’ veterans deserve benefits.”
On a similar note, some of these groups also hope to tackle the dangers posed by open-air burn pits, exposure to which has been linked with fatal illnesses like cancer. In January, the Supreme Court rejected an appeal trying to hold private companies accountable for burn pits that allegedly gave more than 800 veterans health problems.
Both Fuentes and Bryant said that the VFW and IAVA were going to work on behalf of veterans suffering from burn-pit-related diseases.
“We recognize it as the Agent Orange of our generation,” Bryant said.
Another common mission many of these organizations will attempt to complete in 2019 is expanding health care for female veterans.
“We want to ensure that the VA, which was designed at first as an all-male care facility, is beginning to modernize its footprint for veterans,” said Matthew Shuman, the American Legion’s national legislative director.
Shuman said the AL’s other 2019 priorities included pursuing initiatives to curb the veteran suicide rate, launching a pilot program for veterans interested in starting small businesses and stopping the deportation of immigrant veterans.
For Augustine and the SVA, she is hoping to modernize how the VA approaches helping student veterans. That will consist of, among other things, improving the VA’s work-study program, upgrading its IT capacities and increasing its ability to aid student veterans affected by natural disasters.
The VFW, according to Fuentes, will do its best to help veterans past their five-year care window get the support they need and push for legislation that increases access to “concurrent receipt,” or the ability of veterans to receive retirement payments and disability compensation at the same time.
Finally, Bryant highlighted other IAVA-specific priorities like mental-health awareness among veterans and putting their legislative clout behind the VA Medicinal Cannabis Research Act, which would force the VA to more thoroughly explore the possible benefits of marijuana for ailing veterans.
Bryant summed up what’s at stake for the large, diverse constituent bases of all these veteran-service organizations.
“We represent an entire statistical generation at this point,” she said. “We represent everyone from retirees to kids who were infants on 9/11. It’s really heavy when you think about it from that context.”