President Biden marked the end of Veterans Month on Tuesday by signing four bills aimed at improving the lives of those who served in the U.S. military.
Leo Shane covers Congress, the Department of Veterans Affairs and the White House for the Military Times. He tells Texas Standard that these bills passed easily, with bipartisan support, and that lawmakers say a “flurry” of similar bills are expected to be taken up by Congress before the end of the year. Listen to the interview with Shane in the audio player above or read the transcript below to learn more about each bill and who they’re meant to help.
This interview has been edited lightly for clarity.
Texas Standard: All four of these bills passed by wide congressional support, right? Veterans affairs is one of the few things lawmakers on both sides of the aisle can agree on.
Leo Shane: Yeah, these weren’t that controversial, and we’ve seen a handful of veterans’ bills move through this way. It does seem to be one area where a lot of Congress can come together and find some common ground, move stuff along. I’ve actually heard from quite a few lawmakers that we should expect a flurry of more bills like this before the end of the year. There’s quite a few things that they’re looking at. So we might see another signing ceremony like this in just a few weeks.
Let’s begin with what is now law: the Protecting Moms Who Served Act – what does that do?
Yeah. This isn’t a major bill, but it is significant, because it’s going to force the VA [Department of Veterans Affairs] to take a closer look at the maternity care that they provide and what services they provide to pregnant mothers. There is some money attached to it, about $15 million, but it’s really just a sign of the change that the VA is going through.
In the past, the VA was really focused on older men and men only, [but] as women have made up a larger share of the fighting force and have transitioned to VA [services], it has had to branch out into more services that are specific to women. And maternal care is one where the VA consistently gets some criticism for not having enough prenatal classes, not enough postpartum health options. So this is aimed at just looking at what’s offered, what gaps there are and what ways the VA can start to improve that future.
What about the Hire Veteran Health Heroes Act – what is that?
More of a common sense kind of legislation, from what lawmakers said. This is basically helping medical specialists who are in the military, as they transition out, get jobs in the VA. It is a massive system; almost 400,000 health-care workers are in the Veterans Health Administration system. So, a couple of lawmakers got together and said, why aren’t we taking the skills that we’ve already got in the military and transitioning them right to VA? So, it’s really just a way to create some easier pathways, more direct recruiting of folks to get those folks still serving their fellow service members and veterans.
The VA is the largest health care provider in the country, at least I heard that once upon a time. Is that still true?
It absolutely is. And it’s one where, even if recruiting is going well, there’s going to be churn. There’s going to be people who are leaving, people who are coming. [There are] sites all over the country; some in rural areas. So, for a service member who is looking to get out but might not know exactly what they want to do, where it’s going to fit, why not take those medical skills and find a way to apply them right back to VA?
This next bill deals with higher education: Colonel John M. McHugh Tuition Fairness for Survivors Act – can you tell us more about that?
This should affect almost 150,000 surviving dependents of veterans. It basically ensures that they can get in-state tuition rates if their loved one, if the veteran, dies from service-connected injuries. This brings the law into coordination with other existing laws. We’ve seen a lot of tweaks to the GI Bill and the VA education benefits in recent years, just to make sure that families are getting the full benefits. So this is kind of a technical change, but one that is really going to put money in the pockets of a lot of families who need it.
And finally, a direction to the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to study what?
It’s to look at whether or not race and ethnicity play a role in the awarding of benefits. The disability benefits system is a pretty big safety net and support net for veterans in this country. But we’ve heard complaints over the years that different groups are treated differently. So this is the first time that someone, in this case it’ll be the Government Accountability Office, will take a really close look at whether or not veterans’ race, their ethnicity, their backgrounds are playing a factor.
Unfortunately, we’ve heard from a lot of minority groups that African American veterans, minority veterans, are having more trouble just convincing claims adjusters that they deserve disability benefits, that their conditions, their medical issues are what they say they are. It’s already a complicated process and you don’t want some inherent biases to make it even more complicated for some of these folks.