Our veterans answered their nation’s call to duty and laid their lives on the line in our defense. Now, as they take off their uniforms and return home, they are calling us to duty in their defense and asking we provide them with a clear path to help navigate their return to a civilian life that holds the promise of achieving the American Dream they fought and sacrificed for.
Too often the politics of the broken system in Washington has led to broken promises to our veterans in everything from their health care and disability claims to ending homelessness to easy-to-find aid in starting up their own businesses.
We know we must do better for the 233,000 veterans who call Kansas home, and the 23 million veterans across the nation. Veterans should not finally return to the relative calm of civilian life only to fight burdensome bureaucracy or indifference that serves to deny or delay their hard-earned benefits.
My plan to support our veterans calls for:
It’s time we had Washington truly working on behalf of our veterans. The service of our veterans demands a solemn lifelong commitment that that must be met with the same sense of devotion and selflessness that they brought to their duties.
Our obligations to our troops don’t end when the last bullet is fired, yet that is how it feels to many veterans today. From the backlog of disabilities claims to the tragic healthcare scandal, it is clear that the Department of Veterans Affairs is not currently capable of handling the inflow of veterans from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Washington has not honored its sacred commitment to our soldiers and is jeopardizing veterans’ lives long after they leave the battlefield.
It took a crisis that embarrassed officials for important changes to finally be passed into law. It is now much easier for veterans in rural areas or those who have had to wait months for care to receive treatment at private facilities. Modest accountability measures have also been put into place for the most senior management of the VA. These are important changes for the short term but as funding constraints reemerge in the future we must be vigilant and ensure veterans continue to receive the care they need. We cannot simply lurch from crisis to crisis, ignoring our veterans until their plight makes it into the news cycle again.
Over the long term, we must fundamentally change the way the Department of Veterans Affairs does business and bring private sector-style accountability to the VA bureaucracy. We must ensure that all veterans receive care now and ensure that our commitment to veterans doesn’t end because combat is over.
Increase Support for Veterans Families
We need to recognize that the longest war wasn't just fought on foreign soil. A soldier’s family often worried themselves sick and felt all helpless as their loved ones fought terror into submission. They sent care packages to bases in far off places.
As soldiers return from war, more often than not our military families are battling to care for their loved ones. The stress and struggle of a wounded veterans spouse is under appreciated. We need to provide more resources for those caregivers, those brothers, sisters, mothers, and wives who are on the frontline of maintaining America’s commitment to its Veterans.
There are more than 244,000 veterans who have been awaiting a decision for more than 125 days. The overwhelming majority of these veterans will be approved for some level of disability payment but are given nothing while they wait. The fact that the VA isn’t able to process their claims in four months isn’t their fault, and veterans should not be penalized for the VA’s delays. To remedy this I propose we create a fund to provide bridge loans to troops who apply for disability to immediately pay 50% of a veteran’s claim while he or she waits. If the claim is approved then the loan is repaid automatically out of the back payments. As long as a veteran’s claim is not deemed fraudulent, he or she will not be required to pay penalties or interest.
As the American Legion notes, “Sadly, too many veterans end up in the criminal justice system as a result of their service.” Veteran’s Treatment Courts aim to help these veterans through rehabilitation rather than the criminal justice system whenever possible. Like drug courts, these programs often end up saving money over time. I will support dramatically expanding federal support to help these courts start up so that every veteran in the country who needs access has access.
Today there are more than 49,000 homeless veterans around the country. After years of increasing numbers progress is finally being made. For decades the Department of Veterans Affairs looked at solving homelessness by first addressing the symptoms. It was routine to require a Veterans to attend various rehabilitation programs or overcome other barriers all while still remaining homeless or precariously housed. This approach runs against our basic hierarchy of needs; food, water, shelter. Without those basic needs being met it was no surprise what was once just episodes of homelessness transformed into chronic homelessness for our Veterans.
In 2011, Kansas became a model for the nation. The VA partnered with local agencies who were combating homelessness daily. From this partnership it became clear that the "Housing First" model was leading to tremendous positive results and long term housing stability. The simple change of providing the financial and case management resources up front to find and secure housing led to rapid rehousing and drastic increased the chances of success.
Ending Veteran Homeless can be achieved by looking at the success we have had in Kansas and expanding that practical approach of addressing the primary need of housing and then providing short-term case management to overcome the symptomatic problems of being homeless. The federal government should partner with states and cities to follow this model and provide transitional housing and other alternatives to ensure that no veteran remains homeless.
A few weeks ago I released my plan to help jump start small business creation and it contained some reforms that could be key for helping veterans who are planning their own start-up venture. Presently the Department of Veterans Affairs maintains an office that implements and coordinates veteran-owed small businesses programs, including help locating government and corporate procurement opportunities. But this is just a drop in the ocean of government programs available for small businesses that veterans may want to take advantage of if they just knew where to start.
There are programs run by the Small Business Administration, the Economic Development
Administration and a swath of other agencies, that all have their own websites, forms, procedure and requirements. This can be maddeningly difficult to navigate for a veteran trying to return to civilian life. I have proposed creating a single website that would act as a portal for this array of programs where a veteran could sign in to one place, give their information, and see what sort of programs and financing he or she may qualify for, given their veteran status, across the entire spectrum of federal small business programs.
The GI Bill helped millions of veterans afford college, and the Post-9/11 GI Bill has extended that help to veterans of our more recent wars. These programs have been overwhelmingly successful, but now many institutions see these service members as way to cash in. Some institutions lock students in to massive debt with promises of guaranteed jobs and then actively work to force students out. The problem is so pervasive that the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America foundation has created a program to help veterans escape this crippling debt. As this issue has received attention, some progress has been made, and the most abusive practices have been reduced. But there is still more work to do.
We must increase the resources used to investigate institutions that are taking advantage of our troops, increase loan forgiveness for our troops, and consider rules that hold these institutions receiving taxpayer dollars accountable for their graduation rates.
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