MOAA urged the VA to implement needed reforms to better serve veterans in distress, help those exposed to environmental hazards, and improve care for women veterans in March 3 testimony before a joint session of the House and Senate Veterans Affairs Committees.
Transformation within the VA will move mandates forward to improve quality of life for veterans, Cmdr. René Campos, USN (Ret), MOAA’s senior director of government relations for veterans-wounded care, told the joint panel while sharing MOAA’s top VA-related legislative priorities.
[RELATED: Read MOAA’s Written Testimony to Congress]
“At the center of MOAA’s priorities … is VHA’s transformation,” Campos said of the Veterans Health Administration. “The next two years are pivotal for VHA transformation, and it will take a village of stakeholders to help implement these mandates. MOAA looks forward to working together with the committees and VA to successfully implement these mandates.”
MOAA’s top three legislative priorities related to VA programs are the expansion of suicide prevention and mental health care, the recognition of service-connected health conditions and toxic exposure, and the expansion of programs for women veterans.
A Synchronized Approach to Suicide Prevention
Fighting veteran suicide has long been an important issue for MOAA. Earlier this week, Campos visited the White House to meet with the head of the President’s Roadmap to Empower Veterans and End a National Tragedy of Suicides (PREVENTS), a task force formed in 2019.
The VA has made substantial progress to enhance suicide prevention and mental health programs, Campos said, but finding the proper resources can be a confusing process. Programs should be synchronized to ease a veteran’s path through the system, she told committee members, but can be challenging with the already stretched-thin VA workforce in mind.
“Change is slow, and many facilities still deliver one-off care – or move veterans out of care before they are ready,” Campos said. “MOAA believes many of the suicide prevention and mental health bills before the committees can really make a difference, however these efforts should be synchronized and coordinated – if not, VA will be tasked with delivering yet another program to its already full plate.”
MOAA is supportive of several bills to target suicide prevention and mental health care. Among them: the Improve Well-Being for Veterans Act (which boasts more than 253 House cosponsors), the Commander John Scott Hannon Veterans Mental Health Care Improvement Act (with 45 Senate cosponsors), and the Veterans Acute Crisis Care for Emergent Suicide Symptoms Act, which was introduced in the House on Jan. 28.
Several committee members asked the panel of advocates – representatives from MOAA, the American Ex-Prisoners of War, the Fleet Reserve Association, Gold Star Wives of America, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, Paralyzed Veterans of America, and Student Veterans of America – about the VA’s suicide prevention programs, including how to bolster community outreach and where the VA is failing.
Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., ranking member of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, said insight from MOAA and the other groups is critical because they know better than anyone how the VA is performing.
“When it comes to mental health, I need to know where the VA is doing a good job, and where they need to improve,” Tester said. “It’s imperative … the VA needs to better understand how a decision it makes impacts veterans.”
Battling Toxic Exposure
Another of MOAA’s top priorities is taking care of veterans who have been exposed to environmental hazards from burn pits in combat zones to contaminated water and to chemicals in military housing.
In February, MOAA joined other veterans groups to send a letter to the president asking him to add four scientifically connected presumptive diseases to the list of veterans’ diseases associated with Agent Orange. The four presumptive diseases are bladder cancer, hypothyroidism, Parkinson-like symptoms, and hypertension, which could affect as many as 83,000 veterans.
The letter followed previous efforts by MOAA and other groups to work with the VA to add the presumptive diseases. During congressional hearings last year, top VA leaders said they were considering adding the four diseases, but no decision has been announced.
An estimated 900,000 veterans have been exposed to Agent Orange, an herbicide sprayed from the air to destroy vegetation used by enemy fighters as cover during the Vietnam War.
“Each day new exposures and illnesses surface while VA continues struggling to collect data and records to connect exposures to health conditions – critical information only DoD can provide,” Campos said. “It’s time for Congress to establish a legislative framework to address these and future exposures. MOAA asks the committees to assure veterans that they will receive the appropriate health care and benefits they earned for their service-connected conditions.”
The VA must do more to eliminate barriers and strengthen care and support services for women veterans, Campos told lawmakers.
"Women transitioning out of uniform face unique challenges because of their experiences in service, which often makes the adjustment to civilian life more difficult. For VHA, making sure women are welcomed and feel safe in medical facilities that can accommodate their needs continues to be a major challenge," she said in her written testimony.
More specific priorities for improving care for women include:
- Signing the Deborah Sampson Act into law and/or incorporating a number of other House and Senate bill provisions which would provide equal access to earned benefits and care for women veterans, including enhancing access to and availability of gender-specific programs to serve women.
- Funding for infertility services.
- Research funding for women veterans with catastrophic health conditions.
- And ending sexual harassment in VA medical facilities.
MOAA has also pledged to push for implementing the VA MISSION Act and preserve VA burial benefits.