Blumenthal’s first bill aims at improving services for veterans

WASHINGTON–Sen. Richard Blumenthal introduced a sweeping veterans’ assistance bill today, making his first solo legislative foray on an issue that has earned him both deep constituent support and intense political heat in the past.

Blumenthal’s first official piece of legislation is wide-ranging, designed to tackle four intractable issues: unemployment, health care, homelessness and the bureaucratic headaches that returning service members face after leaving the military.

“We must renew our commitment to the more than 250,000 veterans in Connecticut and 22 million veterans across the country,” Blumenthal said in a speech on the Senate floor Wednesday morning, outlining his bill. “Unfortunately and unconscionably, America is still failing them and their families by tolerating unemployment, homelessness and inadequate health care.”

Blumenthal’s proposal includes 16 separate provisions aimed at making it easier for veterans to find work, shelter, counseling and benefits. It also attempts to “modernize” the Department of Veterans Affairs.

One provision, for example, would lift the cap on enrollment in the Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment Independent Living program, which helps veterans with severe disabilities live independently and return to work. On homelessness, the bill calls for raising the per diem allotment to homeless veterans and permanently extending foreclosure protection for service members.

“Gaps in the system remain debilitating and devastating for many veterans,” Blumenthal said.

Blumenthal worked on the bill with, among others, Richard DiFederico, the state commander of the Connecticut Veterans of Foreign Wars. Almost exactly one year ago, DiFederico demanded an apology from Blumenthal for his misstatements about his military service.

The New York Times had just reported that Blumenthal, a stateside Marine Reservist during the war, had at least twice referred to being in Vietnam. Blumenthal said he “misspoke” and eventually apologized.

The issue became a central line of attack in the 2010 campaign, with Republican nominee Linda McMahon using it to raise questions about Blumenthal’s trustworthiness. Blumenthal’s popularity took a hit, but he overcame the controversy, in part because of long-standing ties to veterans’ groups in Connecticut.

“He’s been a supporter of the veterans’ community throughout out his career as attorney general,” said Daniel Thurston, commander of the Connecticut chapter of the American Legion. “As far as we’re concerned, it’s water over the dam. And we’re interested in getting the best for the veterans’ community.”

Thurston was also involved in helping Blumenthal shape the bill. He said one of the most important elements of the bill would streamline the process members go through when leaving active military service with the Department of Defense, and going into the Department of Veterans Affairs.

“A lot of the problem right now is that when veterans come out of DOD, they have to reapply and gain status in the VA system,” Thurston said. “And that’s shouldn’t be.”

Service and medical records can get lost between the two agencies, causing major delays in benefit claims and other matters, Thurston said. Blumenthal’s bill would:

  • Require DOD and the VA to work together to monitor the medical evaluation process for veterans and to jointly address questions or problems that arise.
  • Create an independent board to review all DOD to VA transition issues including benefits and electronic medical records.
  • Give veterans the right to appeal a benefit claim if the VA or DOD has lost or misfiled their documents.

“That’s a significant improvement,” Thurston said.

Asked why he laid out such a broad bill, Blumenthal said: “Because the problem’s so broad.” And it   doesn’t make sense to tackle homelessness, without also addressing jobs and mental health services, he said, because the problems are “so interrelated.”

The full text of the legislation was not available on Wednesday. And the Congressional Budget Office had not yet reviewed the bill to provide a cost estimate. But the bill includes several items that are sure to be pricey.

For example, the bill would create a “comprehensive program” at the Department of Labor to help veterans who have either traumatic brain injuries or post-traumatic stress disorder. The program would aim to provide technical assistance to employers of veterans with TBI and or PTSD and give companies “best practices” for helping those veterans succeed on the job.

The bill also authorizes a study of how to help private-sector employers and educational institutions recognize the value of veterans’ military training. “The military recruits the most talented men and women in America to serve and then invests heavily in their professional development,” Blumenthal said. “Yet when they trade in their uniforms for civilian clothes, employers and professional accrediting organizations often do not recognize or understand how to make use of this military experience.”

Blumenthal said this bill was just a first step and he would be following up with additional proposals to help veterans. “This legislative proposal is a comprehensive package, but only an opening salvo in a sustained, unceasing campaign,” he said. “The goal is to give every veteran the homecoming they deserve and the services they need.”

But the prospects for even this first legislative shot are unclear. Blumenthal acknowledged as much in his speech. He said he has “no illusions about the prospects of enacting all these provisions.”

For one thing, he’s a freshman. And although his party is in the majority, Democrats hold only the slimmest of margins-53 to 47–in a chamber that requires 60 votes to break a filibuster. And such a lengthy, complex and possibly pricey bill will undoubtedly face significant hurdles.

Still, Blumenthal said he was optimistic and would make the bill his top priority.

“It’s my first bill… I’m going to fight for it,” he said. “When I’m asked to support something by someone else, my agreement’s going to be contingent on receptiveness on the part of that colleague to my interests.”

Blumenthal said he hoped the issue would be of interest and importance to lawmakers on both sides of the aisle. And it’s certainly true that politicians of all stripes are eager to appeal to veterans.

Blumenthal said his staff worked closely with the chairwoman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, Patty Murray of Washington. But he hasn’t sought out cosponsors yet. “I have some in mind and I will be approaching them,” he said.

Blumenthal said he would be willing to have the measure split up and passed in pieces, and he was also happy to tweak parts of it, if that would win support and momentum.

He also said it was by no means a way of trying to patch things up with veterans over the Vietnam flap. “The campaign issues have never been an issue in this work,” he said.