Legislative Victory: Iraq and Afghanistan War Veterans to Get Five Free Years of VA Healthcare

Houston Chronicle

December 15, 2007 – The Senate voted Friday to authorize three more years — a total of five — of Veterans Affairs health care for Iraq and Afghanistan troops after they’ve been discharged.

The $696 billion defense policy bill contains several benefits for troops and their families as well as funding for military weapons and projects developed or produced in Texas. The House approved the bill late Thursday, 370-49. It now heads to President Bush.

There is no money in the bill, but it defines policy for future spending and dictates the acquisition and management of weapons programs.

Paul Rieckhoff, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America president, said the additional time is needed because soldiers’ conditions can worsen over time or take more time to become obvious, particularly in cases of brain injury and post traumatic stress disorder.

“This is going to make sure less people fall through the cracks and people who have later emerging injuries are taken care of,” Rieckhoff said.

All veterans are entitled to health care at VA except those at the highest income levels. But they pay different copayments for care based on the severity of their illness or condition and whether its connected to their military service.

The measure, inserted into the legislation by Sen. Daniel Akaka, a Hawaii Democrat who chairs the Senate Veterans Committee, provides three years of automatic eligibility for VA health care for veterans who served in combat.

If President Bush signs it into law, veterans who left the service at least two years but not more than five years before the measure is enacted could enroll for the health care.

Veterans Affairs estimated it would spend about $396 million over 10 years providing the five years of health care, said Lisette Mondello, VA’s assistant secretary for public and intergovernmental affairs. She said the VA supports the measure.

The bill also extends medical leave for families of wounded troops to 26 weeks. Currently those families get up to three months leave from a job. Some spouses and family members have lost their jobs because of the months of care of a husband or relative wounded in the Iraq and Afghanistan war.

For Texas defense programs, the bill authorizes $2.1 billion for 23 V-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft, produced by Bell Helicopter in Fort Worth. Several V-22’s were deployed to Iraq.

The bill also authorizes $11.2 million for construction of the Rotorblade Processing Facility at Corpus Christi Army Depot and $1 million for a local redevelopment authority to deal with the 2005 closure of Naval Air Station Ingleside and realignments at Naval Air Station Corpus Christi and Corpus Christi Army Depot. Funding was authorized for several other South Texas projects, said Rep. Solomon Ortiz, D-Corpus Christi.

A measure included in the bill by Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, calls for a study on possible sites for a Border State Aviation Training Center to assist in local, state and federal drug enforcement missions. Hutchison also called of a study on whether a National Disaster Center should be set up in the San Antonio Area to take advantage of its military personnel and facilities.

A measure sponsored by Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, authorizes a study of Carl R. Darnall Army Medical Center at Fort Hood and its funding needs.

“Much like receiving a promotion without a raise, Darnall was recently upgraded to full medical center status but has yet to receive the increased funding it needs to carry out its expanded mission,” Cornyn said in a statement.

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