What the federal government has done for veterans in 2021

November 11 was first celebrated as “Armistice Day” in 1919 and became a national holiday in 1926. Since 1954, it has been known as Veterans Day.

It’s customary for American politicians to release statements on this day thanking veterans for their service to the country. But what has the government done concretely to return the favor to veterans? This year, more than usual.

AMERICAN RESCUE PLAN FUNDED MANY VETERANS’ PROGRAMS

The last major COVID-19 relief package, which Congressional Democrats approved and President Joe Biden signed, included $17 billion in funding for veterans’ programs. A March 16 blog post by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs broke down the spending as follows:

  • $14.5 billion for COVID-19 related health care, including information technology and facility requirements, ensuring access for 9.2 million enrolled Veterans who may have delayed care or have more complex health care needs as a result of the pandemic. It also provides resources for Veterans currently receiving housing support, including an estimated 37,000 homeless Veterans.
  • $1 billion for debt forgiveness related to copayments or other cost sharing that Veterans paid for VA health care, and to reimburse Veterans who paid a copay or other cost sharing for care and prescriptions provided from April 6, 2020 through Sept. 30, 2021.
  • $750 million for both construction grants ($500 million) and payments ($250 million) to State Homes to greatly improve the living conditions of our most vulnerable Veterans.
  • $386 million to initiate a COVID–19 Veteran Rapid Retraining Assistance Program that provides up to 12 months of training and employment assistance for unemployed Veterans to enter high demand occupations.
  • $262 million to reduce the backlog of compensation and pension claims, which has grown from 76,000 in March 2020 to more than 212,000 in March 2021. The ARP funding will enable the Veterans Benefits Administration to reduce the claims backlog to around 100,000 by September 2022.
  • $100 million to facilitate the modernization of VA’s badly antiquated supply chain system by accelerating the Department’s transition to the Defense Medical Logistics Standard Support.
  • $80 million to establish the Department of Veterans Affairs Employee Leave Fund, which provides funds for paid leave for COVID-19 related causes.
  • $10 million to decrease the Board of Veterans’ Appeals hearing requests (currently 87,499) and intake (35,000 appeals) backlogs. These efforts help Veterans economically by resolving their VA appeals and, if granted, allowing them to begin receiving compensation and services.

Other portions of the American Rescue Plan weren’t earmarked for veterans, but could benefit them or their families, such as pandemic-related unemployment benefits, stimulus checks, or child tax credits.

In addition, the Veterans Affairs Department noted, “Veterans are prioritized for the $28.6 billion Restaurant Revitalization Grants in the Small Business Administration’s Restaurant Revitalization Fund. During the initial 21-day period in which the Small Business Administration (SBA) awards grants under this program, SBA will prioritize awarding grants to eligible entities that are owned and controlled by Veterans.”

The COVID-19 relief package also closed “what is known as the ’90/10 loophole’ to protect the integrity of the GI Bill and Veterans in receipt of their well-earned education benefits.” Some background on that loophole:

Closing the loophole has long been a top priority of veterans and military service organizations. On March 5, more than 30 leading veterans and military serving organizations sent a letter to all Senators (and The American Legion sent a similar message to the Senate). Veterans and military organizations also made clear the priority in a 2019 letter from 37 such organizations.

Many for-profit colleges have been sued by federal and state law enforcement for illegally deceptive and aggressive recruiting of veterans, servicemembers, their families, and survivors, including “pain-based” recruiting, as the US Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions detailed in a groundbreaking report in 2012. Since then, numerous former recruiters and for-profit executives have detailed the emphasis on recruiting servicemembers and veterans, to access the “military gravy train.”  During COVID, many for-profit colleges increased their social media advertising — some by close to 15,000 percent. […]

The 90/10 Rule in the Higher Education Act was intended as a market viability test: to ensure for-profit colleges are able to secure at least 10% of their revenue from sources other than federal education funds, but an inadvertent loophole was created when the definitions failed to include student aid from the US Departments of Defense (primarily, Tuition Assistance and Military spouse career advancement accounts (MyCAA)) and Veterans Affairs (primarily, the GI Bill).  Senate staff who wrote the loophole said it was accidental.

Incidentally, Iowa’s own Senator Tom Harkin (a Navy veteran) chaired the HELP Committee when its staff spent two years investigating for-profit higher education, leading to that “groundbreaking” 2012 report.

SUICIDE PREVENTION

The veteran suicide rate is substantially higher than for U.S. adults who are not veterans. While veteran suicides dropped slightly since peaking in 2017, the latest statistics (from 2019) still show far more veterans are taking their own lives each year than was true during the 2000s. An estimated seventeen service members or veterans die by suicide every day. Even one is too many.

Congress has passed several bills designed to address military and veteran suicides. President Donald Trump signed one such measure in 2020. In June, President Joe Biden signed legislation to improve mental health care for veterans, which was named after Sgt. Brandon Ketchum, an Iowan who had served in the Marine Corps. All four of Iowa’s U.S. House members co-sponsored that bill, which Bleeding Heartland covered in more detail here. The main focus is to provide better services to veterans in rural areas; most of Iowa would fall under that designation.

In early October, the Senate unanimously approved a bill co-sponsored by Iowa’s Senator Joni Ernst, which is modeled on an American Legion program. It “would direct the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to designate one week per year as ‘Buddy Check Week’ to organize outreach events and educate veterans on how to conduct peer wellness checks.” The House has not yet acted on the bill.

BUILD BACK BETTER ACT WOULD SUPPORT VETERANS

The larger spending bill Democrats hope to pass through the budget reconciliation process also funds veterans programs. From a November 11 White House news release:

The Build Back Better Act includes a significant $5 billion investment to improve health care delivery for veterans by modernizing Veterans Affairs (VA) health care facilities, leasing medical facilities, and speeding up claims processing. More than 9 million veterans are enrolled in VA’s health care system, and as a result of their military service, many face significant health care needs. To help meet these needs, VA operates the largest integrated health care system in the nation, with more than 1,700 hospitals, clinics and other health care facilities, but far too many of these facilities are in desperate need of renovations. The median age of U.S. private sector hospitals is 11 years; however, the median age of VA facilities is 58 years, with 69 percent of VA hospitals over the age of 50. These investments will offset the growing costs of older facilities while helping to meet the health care needs of the veterans of yesterday’s wars, today’s wars, and the future.

Veterans would benefit from other Build Back Better Act provisions not specifically targeting that group, the news release noted, including investments in expanding Medicaid and Medicare coverage, affordable housing, child care support, child tax credits, earned income tax credits, and education and training programs.

IOWA OFFICE-HOLDERS WHO ARE VETERANS

Finally, I want to acknowledge the service of Iowa’s current federal and state officials who are veterans or active members of the military. Please let me know if I have inadvertently omitted anyone.

U.S. Senator Joni Ernst (R)

U.S. Representative Mariannnette Miller-Meeks (R)

State Senator Jim Carlin (R)

State Senator Bill Dotzler (D)

State Senator Dan Dawson (R)

State Senator Zach Nunn (R)

State Senator Jeff Reichman (R)

State Senator Jason Schultz (R)

House Majority Leader Matt Windschitl R)

State Representative Dennis Bush (R)

State Representative Dennis Cohoon (D)

State Representative Martin Graber (R)

State Representative Stan Gustafson (R)

State Representative Steven Holt (R)

State Representative Dave Maxwell (R)

State Representative Charlie McClintock (R)

State Representative Todd Prichard (D)

State Representative Sandy Salmon (R)

State Representative Henry Stone (R)

State Representative Phil Thompson (R)

Several 2022 candidates for Iowa state or federal offices are also veterans, including:

U.S. Senate candidate Mike Franken (D)

U.S. House candidate Kyle Kuehl (R, IA-01)

U.S. House candidate Zach Nunn (R, IA-03)

Secretary of state candidate Joel Miller (D)

Top image: Statue of Iwo Jima at the Welcome Home Home Soldier Monument in Albia (Monroe County). Photo by YuniqueB, available via Shutterstock.

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