Durbin helps shape VA-funding bill passed by Senate
The U.S. Senate passed legislation earlier this week to authorize funding for both the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and military construction projects in Illinois and across the nation, and the legislation contains several provisions that were spearheaded or influenced by U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL).
Variances among the House and Senate versions of the Military Construction and Veterans Affairs, and Related Agencies Appropriations Act of 2016 must be resolved before the bill can be sent to the president.
“The Senate came together this week to pass legislation that will deliver on the promises we have made to the men and women who have bravely served our country,” U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) said. “The bipartisan budget deal agreed to last month allowed us to provide an additional $2 billion for veterans’ health care in this bill. I am proud of the investments we have made in this bill and the standards we have set in supporting increased funding for medical research.
The following initiatives and projects were included in the legislation:
Department of Veterans Affairs
• Medical and Prosthetic Research: $630.7 million investment in the Veterans Affairs Medical and Prosthetic research program, which will help improve quality of life for veterans and quality of care. Durbin included an amendment to this item that provides an increase in funding to represent 5 percent plus inflation over last year’s levels. The increase is consistent with the goals set forward by Durbin’s American Cures Act, which he introduced in January. That legislation calls for consistent investment — 5 percent plus inflation — over 10 years for the National Institutes of Health, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the VA’s Medical and Prosthetic Research Program and Defense Health Programs.
• Caregivers Initiative: The legislation includes language to ensure there is a dedicated caregiver coordinator at each VA health facility and encourages the VA to examine expansion of the program beyond the post-9/11 population. Funding will be allocated through the legislation to expand benefits and services for caregivers to include health care and mental health services, training adapted to the veterans’ individual care needs and a direct stipend payment. The Family Caregiver Program was created by a Durbin-authored provision in the Caregivers and Veterans Omnibus Health Services Act of 2009. These initiatives have led to retention of better-trained and more-qualified caregivers, thus enhancing long-term care provided to veterans.
• Orthotics and Prosthetics Workforce Improvement: Language is included to require the VA to explore cost-effective opportunities to grow the orthotics and prosthetics workforce pipeline and report back to the Senate and House Appropriations Committees within 180 days of enactment. The language follows Durbin-authored legislation to enhance research in best practices and offer competitive grant funding to colleges and universities offering degree programs to train specialists in orthotic and prosthetic care.
• Reducing the Disability Claims Backlog: $2.69 billion in funding would go to the Veterans Benefits Administration, which fully funds the agency’s operations, including initiatives to address the backlog of disability claims, such as the move from a paper-based claims process to a digital environment. This funding level represents $163.5 million more than fiscal year 2015 funding.
• Whistleblower Protections: The bill would close a loophole to protect VA whistleblowers from retaliation, including negative personnel evaluations, giving the U.S. Office of Special Counsel (OSC) the power to investigate these reviews as part of the potential retaliatory personnel actions that OSC currently has authority over. The bill also would require the VA to inform all employees of their rights with respect to reporting wrongdoing and whistleblower protections.
Department of the Army
• Army Family Housing, Rock Island (Illinois) Arsenal: $20 million to construct 38 single-family housing units at Rock Island Arsenal. These units will replace family housing units that have exceeded their useful and economic life. Without these new homes, service members relocating to the arsenal would not be able to find adequate, affordable units within the housing market area.
• Army National Guard Firing Range in Sparta, Illinois: $1.9 million for a new firing range for the Illinois National Guard, which currently lacks a facility for this type of small-arms training in south central Illinois.