Washington, D.C. — U.S. Senator Susan Collins questioned leadership from the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) on the Administration’s fiscal year 2020 budget request for the VA.
During the hearing, Senator Collins discussed her work with former Senator Elizabeth Dole to expand resources for military caregivers and how she was pleased to hear that the VA had concurred in principle with all twelve recommendations of the Veterans’ Families, Caregivers and Survivors Federal Advisory Committee, a panel that includes Senator Dole and many other experts on military caregivers.
“The number one issue identified by caregivers did not surprise me—the need for more respite care,” said Senator Collins. “Could you give us an update on how the VA intends to increase the utilization and the effectiveness of its respite care programs?”
“A recognition of the stressors that go into providing care cannot be overstated. The average caregiver has a dramatically higher incidence of illness in themselves as they go through this process,” said Dr. Richard Stone, Executive in Charge, Veterans Health Administration. “We absolutely believe in the provision of respite for that caregiver. And we have a number of programs through our caregiver program to help train them to recognize the need to take a break… So I think it is about establishing this ongoing partnership with the caregiver [and it’s] one of the reasons we asked for regular interaction and recertification of the caregiver’s interaction with the veteran to make sure that everybody remains healthy as the years go by.”
VA Secretary Robert Wilkie added, “I would also say that one of the most important aspects of the [VA] MISSION Act for me, because my mother fell into that category, is that it finally closes the loop on the Vietnam era and redresses a wrong that has existed for decades.”
This caregiver program, which supported caregivers of post-9/11 veterans, will be expanded in the coming years to include pre-9/11 veterans and their caregivers with the enactment of the VA MISSION Act, a reform which was championed by Senator Collins.
Senator Collins also discussed the low utilization rate of the GI Bill’s apprenticeship and on-the-job training programs. In fiscal year 2018, only 1,490 veterans participated in apprenticeships and 1,384 participated in on-the-job training out of more than one million beneficiaries of VA’s education programs.
“An underutilized element of the G.I. Bill is its apprenticeship and on-the-job training programs,” said Senator Collins. “One obvious benefit of apprenticeship and on-the-job training programs is that these veterans are going to get jobs upon completion with the people running these programs in many cases. What can the VA do to increase awareness of and participation in these programs?”
“We've scratched our head as well and we agree with you,” said Dr. Paul Lawrence, Under Secretary for Memorial Affairs. “We've done an awful lot of [communications] and the like. We actually think there are some things in the program that might be worth talking about in terms of what we can do together.”
Earlier this month, Senator Collins hosted Secretary Wilkie in Maine to visit a veteran-owned small business, participate in the groundbreaking for a new veterans residential care facility, and tour an organization that provides housing for homeless veterans. As a member of the Appropriations Subcommittee, Senator Collins has pushed for policies that reinforce our nation's commitment to members of our military, veterans, and their families, such as supporting military caregivers, improving health care for veterans, and fighting to ensure continued funding for veterans homelessness programs.
Following Senator Collins’ advocacy, the fiscal year 2019 Military Construction and Veterans Affairs (MilCon-VA) Appropriations bill that was signed into law last September included $865 million for the VA Caregiver Program.