Sanders introduces veteran benefit bill

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(Host) Senator Bernie Sanders has introduced legislation he says will restore benefits and eliminate a backlog in services for the nation’s military veterans.

Sanders says the comprehensive bill was written with the help of national and local veterans groups.

VPR’s John Dillon reports:

(Dillon) Sanders says the country has broken its promise with military veterans. He says the Veteran’s Administration has a backlog of more than 400,000 claims, and that the number will increase as more soldiers return from Iraq and Afghanistan.

At a news conference where he sat side by side with several veterans, Sanders says soldiers have worked and sacrificed for their country. Now he says the country must honor that service by restoring and expanding veterans’ programs.

(Sanders) “It is not acceptable to me, and I think not acceptable to most Americans, that in the United States today we have veterans in Vermont and throughout this country who are on waiting lists to get the VA health care that they were promised.”

(Dillon) The Sanders bill makes more than two-dozen changes to benefits, including improvements to health care, insurance, housing, and pension programs.

It also targets a change made in 2003 by the Bush Administration that disqualified veterans from VA health care if they make as little as $27,000 a year.

(Sanders) “We can’t turn our backs on veterans just because they have incomes of over $27,000 a year. This legislation repeals Bush’s decision to exclude category 8 veterans. That’s somewhere around $1.5 million from VA health care. We bring them back into the system.”

(Dillon) Ed Laviletta is the Vermont national legislative officer for the Veterans of Foreign Wars. The VFW helped write the bill, and Laviletta pointed to one change – an increase in burial benefits from $300 to $745 – that he says is long overdue.

(Laviletta) “We need the support of this bill. The burial allowances – That’s a disgrace to the men in uniform. Three hundred dollars to lay a veteran away who’s been in harm’s way – That’s a total disgrace and it’s been that way for years, and it’s got to change.”

(Dillon) Sanders said he didn’t know how much the legislation will cost. But he says the money to take care of veterans has to be considered part of the ongoing cost of war.

On the Iraq War, Sanders said he’s not sure if he’ll support a bill that passed the House that funds the war through July. He said any bill that sets a timetable for troop withdrawal faces a White House veto.

(Sanders) “This war will end when a number of Republicans walk into the White House and say Mr. President, my constituents disagree with you, they want the troops home. Last week, you saw 11 members of the U.S. House of Representatives, Republicans, walk into the White House. And that could be the beginning of what I was talking about.”

(Dillon) Sanders said Senate leaders are working on their own Iraq funding bill, and he’ll make up his mind on how to vote once he sees the details.

For VPR News, I’m John Dillon in Burlington.

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