Senators considered 17 veteran-centric bills Wednesday, weighing proposed legislation on subjects such as mental health and unlicensed physicians at the Department of Veterans Affairs to health care for women and newborns, as well as stipends for Medal of Honor recipients.
With Memorial Day weekend and a congressional break approaching, the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee considered three bills introduced by veterans who now serve in the Senate. The first, from Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Arkansas, would increase the monthly stipend for Medal of Honor recipients from roughly $1,300 to $3,000 per month.
Noting that Medal of Honor recipients make dozens -- and sometimes hundreds -- of public appearances each year, Cotton said the increase would go toward transportation, lodging and meals that the 70 living recipients often pay out of pocket.
Calling these veterans heroes and inspirations who contribute to military recruitment and retention, he said they deserve the increase.
"Medal of Honor citations often read like Hollywood scripts. Not only is the heroism so amazing, most people wouldn't believe it really happened," Cotton said. "This is modest change ... but it would go a long way to helping our Medal of Honor recipients share their stories."
Republican Sen. Joni Ernst, a former Iowa National Guard officer, pressed for her bill, the Ensuring Quality Care for our Veterans Act, which would require a third party to review VA medical care provided by physicians who had their licenses terminated for cause before they were hired by the federal government.
Ernst cited the case of a constituent, Anthony, who underwent surgery for a brain tumor at the hands of Dr. John Schneider at an Iowa City VA hospital, but who later learned that Schneider had previously had his license revoked and did not remove Anthony's tumor as promised.
"Dr. Schneider should have never been hired to treat our veterans," Ernst said. "VA has reformed its hiring practices, thank goodness, but there are still veterans out there who were treated by those with revoked licenses and they don't know."
Other bills designed to improve care include the Deborah Sampson Act, which would expand the number of counselors for female veterans at VA facilities, increase coverage for maternity care, and expand the number of female health care providers.
Noting that women veterans continue to avoid many VA facilities because they feel uncomfortable or are harassed, Melissa Bryant, chief policy officer at Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, said the bill is needed to encourage an environment of inclusion at the VA.
"When I've said I felt harassed walking into VA ... I was told to come in the back door. I should never have to come in the back door. My father didn't have to come in the back door," Bryant said. "We need to have privacy, and we need to feel safe when we walk in there."
Regarding services for female veterans, Sen. Patty Murray, D-Washington, introduced a bill that would increase the length of health coverage a baby delivered by a veteran has after being born past seven days to ensure care for those with health problems.
The bill also would cover the cost of transportation for the infant if extended care is needed at another facility.
The third piece of legislation introduced by a veteran is the Highly Rural Veteran Transportation Program Extension bill, which would allow the VA to provide grants to veteran service organizations for transporting vets to health care services. Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, a former Marine, is the bill's sponsor.
On Tuesday, the House passed several bills designed to address veterans' needs, including mental health measures and suicide prevention legislation. It also passed a bill that would allow members of the Coast Guard, National Guard and reserves to receive counseling and services at more than 300 Vet Centers across the nation.
The proposed legislation passed by the House must now go before the Senate before it can be signed into law by President Donald Trump. The measures in the Senate must be approved by a number of committees, as well as the full Senate, before being considered in the House.