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Kilili: New laws to increase veterans’ health care access

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(Office of the CNMI Congressional Delegate) —  Two veterans bills —  S. 785 and H.R. 1812 — that include amendments introduced by U.S. Congressman Gregorio Kilili Camacho Sablan were signed into law last week.

Sablan’s proposal to give all veterans health care for one year after they separate from active service will be the subject of a strategic plan by the Department of Veterans Affairs under terms of the Commander John Scott Hannon Veterans Mental Health Care Improvement Act of 2019. And the VA will be required to report to Congress on how it will provide equivalent services in the Marianas and other areas that do not have a Vet Center as part of the now-enacted Vet Center Eligibility Expansion Act.

“The enactment of these two laws is good news for veterans everywhere and one more step toward greater healthcare accessibility for veterans in the Marianas,” Congressman Sablan said. “The VA is now required by law to take concrete action to expand healthcare services to newly discharged veterans and to veterans living in areas, like the Marianas, that do not have Vet Centers.”

Sablan originally offered his proposal to provide all veterans one year of health care after discharge in H.R. 5024, which he introduced last November. Senate Republicans resisted immediate implementation and a compromise was worked out for the strategic planning requirement to be included in the Mental Health Care Improvement Act, S.785.

“Providing one year of health care after discharge would greatly help veterans and their families make the transition to civilian life,” Sablan said. “By removing the worry of health care, they are able to focus on their next steps in education, employment, and housing, and ultimately make the transition successfully.”

Enactment of the Vet Center Eligibility Expansion Act, H.R. 1812, is another step in Sablan’s continuing work to upgrade services to veterans in the Marianas. Even though the Department of Veterans Affairs has not been willing to open a full-fledged Vet Center in the Marianas and in other more remote locations nationwide, the agency is now required to explain to Congress how it will provide equivalent services to veterans in those areas.

“Guam Vet Center staff periodically conduct outreach for our veterans, but our Marianas veterans deserve more frequent and regular access to the full range of Vet Center services,” Sablan said.

The Vet Center Eligibility Expansion Act provides more servicemembers access to Vet Center services — specifically, readjustment counseling and other mental health care — which underscores the need for the department to explain how they will make sure Marianas veterans are treated equally. Those now eligible under the law include those who served in the Reserve, National Guard or Coast Guard who never deployed but served during emergency situations in the wake of disaster, civil disorder or in support of drug interdiction operations.

Still teed up for action in this Congress is a provision Sablan included in the House-passed Fiscal Year 2021 VA funding bill report that mandates an assessment for increasing VA staff and establishing a Vet Center in the Marianas.

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