Senator Durbin: Senate Approves Bill to Fund Department of Veterans Affairs & Military Construction

Durbin authored amendment provided a 5% increase in funding for Medical and Prosthetic Research at the VA

WASHINGTON, D.C. –(ENEWSPF)—November 12, 2015. U.S. Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) announced that, earlier this week, the U.S. Senate passed legislation to fund the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and support military construction projects in Illinois and around the country.  Differences between the Senate-passed version and the House-passed version must now be reconciled before the legislation is sent to President Obama for his signature.

“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,” said Durbin.  “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 Fiscal Year 2016 Military Construction and Veterans Affairs, and Related Agencies appropriations bill:

Department of Veterans Affairs

  • Medical & 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.  Senator Durbin included an amendment in the legislation which provided an increase in this funding to represent 5% plus inflation over last year’s levels.  The increase is consistent with the goals set forward by Senator Durbin’s American Cures Act, which he introduced in January 2015.  That legislation calls for consistent investment—5% plus inflation—over 10 years for NIH, CDC, VA’s Medical and Prosthetic Research Program, and Defense Health Programs
  • Caregivers Initiative: The legislation includes language to ensure there is a dedicated Caregivers coordinator at each VA health facility; encourage the VA to examine expansion of the program beyond the post-9/11 population; encourage the VA to engage with the Department of Defense about its caregivers program, to share best practices; and direct the VA to survey all VA caregivers to identify the number possession outstanding student loan debt and develop a plan to monitor the issue, including future data collection. 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 are leading to retention of better trained and more qualified caregivers, thus enhancing long-term care provided to veterans.
  • Orthotics & Prosthetics Workforce Improve: Report 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 to the Veterans Benefits Administration which is a full funding of the agency’s operations that include 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 that harms VA personnel who have experienced whistleblower retaliation in the form of negative personnel evaluation, 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 would also require the VA to inform all employees of their rights with respect to reporting wrongdoings and whistleblower protections.

Department of the Army

  • Army Family Housing, Rock Island 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, Sparta, Illinois: $1.9 million for a new firing range for the Illinois National Guard.  The Guard currently lacks a facility for this type of small arms training in south central Illinois.