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VETERANS: Critical Murray Bill Supporting Women Veterans Passes Full Senate

Nov 19 2009

Omnibus bill to improve health services and support for veterans passes Senate 98-0

Listen to Senator Murray’s speech urging passage.

(Washington, D.C.) – Today, U.S. Senator Patty Murray applauded the Senate passage of the Caregiver and Veterans Omnibus Health bill by a vote of 98-0. The legislation contains Senator Murray's Women Veterans Health Care Improvement Act of 2009. Additionally, the bill would provide vital assistance to the caregivers of the most severely wounded veterans, including counseling, support, and a living stipend as well as health care to the family caregivers of injured veterans. 

“Women now make up fifteen percent of current active duty Guard and Reserve forces, and the number of women veterans enrolled in the VA system is expected to double in the next five years,” said Senator Patty Murray. “Because the conflicts of today do not have the clear front lines of past wars, women, like all of our servicemembers, are always on the front lines - riding on dangerous routes, guarding key checkpoints, and seeing the horrors of war first-hand. We simply cannot overlook the growing number of women veterans, or their unique needs, any longer.  Instead, we need to make sure that the VA is prepared to care for the needs of these honorable veterans today.”

Murray's Women Veterans Health Care Improvement Act of 2009 would assess, expand, and improve health care services to women veterans, particularly those brave women who have served our country in Iraq and Afghanistan.  This bill aims to equip the VA for the long?term needs that will be associated with a larger women veteran population.

Murray has been a long-time champion in the Senate for addressing the unique needs of women veterans.

The Caregiver and Veterans Omnibus Health bill also provides other critically important benefits for veterans, including provisions that would improve veterans’ access to care in rural areas; provide new support and outreach for homeless veterans; enhance veterans’ mental health care services; remove barriers to emergency care and care for catastrophically disabled veterans; enhance VA Medical Services; increase quality control, accountability, and transparency at VA; and fund needed VA construction projects across the country. 

“Our aging veterans and the brave men and women who are serving in Iraq and Afghanistan need our help now, and this bill is a strong step forward toward providing our heroes with the support and services they deserve,” said Senator Patty Murray. “How we treat them at this critical time will send a signal to a generation of young people who may be considering military service. Our veterans have waited long enough for many of the improvements in this bill.”

Senator Murray spoke on the floor last week on the eve of Veterans Day urging her colleagues to move quickly to support the legislation.

Murray spoke again this morning urging passage.

The full text of this morning’s speech follows:

“Mr. President, last week many of us spent time back in our home states celebrating our veterans and honoring the great sacrifices they have made for our country.

“I had the opportunity to commemorate Veterans Day at the Tahoma National Cemetery, in Kent, Washington—and it was truly an honor to stand with veterans and their families as we paid tribute to their service.

“Mr. President, this recognition is important. It is certainly deserved. But it is not enough.

“We owe it to our veterans to ensure that our commitment to them extends beyond Veterans Day—and that they have access to the health care and services they have earned.

“Growing up, I saw firsthand the many ways that military service can affect both veterans and their families.

“My father served in World War II and was among the first soldiers to land on Okinawa. He came home as a disabled veteran and was awarded the Purple Heart.

“Like many soldiers of his generation, my father did not talk about his experiences during the war. In fact, we only really learned about them by reading his journals after he passed away.  And I think that experience offers a larger lesson about veterans in general. They are reluctant to call attention to their service, and they are reluctant to ask for help.

“That's why we've got to publicly recognize their sacrifices and contributions. It's up to us to make sure that they get the recognition they have earned.

“Our veterans held up their end of the deal, now we must hold up ours.

“As a member of the Veterans’ Affairs Committee, I am keenly aware that we have a lot of work to do for the men and women who have served.
 
“Not only must we continually strive to keep up our commitment to veterans from all wars –
 
“But we must also respond to the new and different issues facing veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan – wars being fought under conditions very different from those of the past. And that is precisely what the Caregiver and Veterans Omnibus Health bill aims to do.

“Mr. President, one of the changes we have seen in our veterans’ population recently is the growing number of women veterans seeking care at the VA.

“Today more women are serving in our military than ever before - and over the next five years, the amount of women seeking care at the VA is expected to double.  And not only are women answering the call to serve at unprecedented levels, they are also often serving in a very different capacity.
 
“In Iraq and Afghanistan we have seen wars that don’t have traditional front lines - therefore all of our service members – including women - find themselves on the front lines.
 
“Whether it is working at checkpoints,  helping to search and clear neighborhoods, or supporting supply convoys--women service members face many of the same risks from IEDs and ambushes as their male counterparts.
 
“But while the nature of their service has changed, the VA has been slow to change the nature of the care they provide when these women return home.

“Today, at the VA there is an insufficient number of doctors and staff with specific training and experience in women’s health issues. And even the VA’s own internal studies have shown that women veterans are under-served.

“That is why included in this veterans health bill is a bill I introduced that will enable the VA to better understand, and ultimately treat, the unique needs of female veterans.

“My bill authorizes several new programs and studies, including a comprehensive look at the barriers women currently face in accessing care through the VA, a study of women that have served in Iraq and Afghanistan to assess how those conflicts have affected their health, a requirement that that the VA implement a program to train, educate, and certify VA mental health professionals to care for women with sexual trauma, and a pilot program that provides child care to women veterans that seek mental health care services at the VA.

“Mr. President, this bill is the result of many discussions with women veterans on the unique and very personal problems they face returning home from war.

“Oftentimes, after veterans meetings in which male veterans would speak freely about where they felt the VA was not meeting their needs - women veterans would approach me and whisper about the challenges they faced.

“Some of these women told me they didn’t even view themselves as veterans and therefore had not thought of seeking care at the VA.

“Other times they told me how the lack of privacy at their local VA felt intimidating.
Or how being forced into a care-giving role prevented them from seeking care – as they would often have to struggle to find a babysitter just in order to keep an appointment.

“To me, and to the bi-partisan group of Senators who have co-sponsored my women veterans bill these barriers to care are unacceptable.

“As more women begin to transition home, and step back into their careers and their lives as mothers and wives the VA must be there for them.

“This bill will help the VA modernize to meet their needs.

“Mr. President, another way this bill meets the changing needs of our veterans is in the area of assisting caregivers in the home.

“As we have seen in Iraq and Afghanistan, medical advances have helped save the lives of service members who in previous conflicts would have perished from the severity of their wounds.  But these medical miracles also mean that many of those who have been catastrophically wounded need round the clock care when they return home. And in many rural areas where access to health care services is limited, the burden of providing care often falls on the families of severely injured veterans. 

“For these family members providing care to their loved ones becomes a full-time job.

“They often have to quit their current jobs - forfeiting not only their source of income but also their own health care insurance.  It is a sacrifice that is far too great – especially for families that have already sacrificed so much.

“That is why this bill will provide these caregivers with health care, counseling, support and a stipend.

“Mr. President, this bill also takes steps to provide dental insurance to veterans, survivors and their dependents; improve mental health care services and ease the transition from active duty to civilian life; expand outreach and technology to provide better care to veterans in rural areas,  and initiates three programs to address homelessness among veterans at this especially difficult economic time.

“It is a bill that is supported by numerous veterans service organizations, the VA, and many leading medical groups.

“It was passed in the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee with broad bipartisan support after hearings with health care experts, VA officials, veterans,  and their families.

“Like other omnibus veterans health care bills before it – bills that have often passed on this floor with overwhelming support – it puts veterans before politics.

“It is a bi-partisan bill designed to move swiftly - so its programs can be implemented swiftly.

“A bi-partisan bill designed to ensure that our veterans do not become political pawns.

“And yet we still faced delays. These delays have been all too common this year.   Bipartisan nominations have been stalled.  Funding bills slowed.   It even took us a month to pass a simple extension of unemployment benefits for those out of work. 

“But, Mr. President, providing for our veterans used to be one area where political affiliation and partisan bickering fell by the wayside. Apparently those days are behind us.

“Our aging veterans and the brave men and women who are serving in Iraq and Afghanistan need our help now.  And how we treat them at this critical time will send a signal to a generation of young people who may be considering military service.

“It is imperative that we keep our promise to veterans – the same promise Abraham Lincoln made to America’s veterans 140 years ago - “to care for the veteran who has borne the battle, his widow and his orphan,”

“Our veterans have waited long enough for many of the improvements in this bill.

“We can’t ask them to wait any longer.

“Mr. President, I spoke here last week on the eve of Veterans Day urging my colleagues to move quickly to consider this bill.  And I’m glad that progress is being made toward making that happen.

“Because as we wait to pass this bill, our promise goes unfulfilled to so many of our nation’s heroes.

“Once again, I urge my colleagues to pass this bill quickly so that we can provide our veterans with the support and services they deserve.

“I yield the floor.”