Election 2020

Five takeaways from the Trump/Biden Military Times veterans forum

Both President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden offered in-depth veterans policy plans in their responses to the Military Times Veteran Presidential Forum published on Wednesday. Here’s a look at some of the biggest takeaways:

Biden promises new tax credit for caregivers of veterans

Expansion of the Department of Veterans Affairs’ caregiver support programs has been a problematic task for department officials in recent years. Up until this month, support stipends for those families were only open to veterans who served after Sept. 11, 2001. Now veterans who serve before 1975 are eligible too, but the program will not open to all veterans until fall 2022 at the earliest.

In his response to Disabled American Veterans concerns about the program, Trump said that he supports the expansion and will work “quickly” to follow the law.

But Biden said the stipend expansion isn’t happening quickly enough — “it’s a failure of leadership” — and doesn’t go far enough to help those families struggling to care for a loved one.

“I’m proposing we add another $5,000 caregiver tax credit for all the informal caregivers that help keep our community strong,” he said. “And we’ll do more to make life a little easier for them by expanding access to respite care.”

Details of who would be eligible for the tax credit remain unclear. Only veterans with a disability rating of 70 percent or more are eligible for the current support programs.

Trump eyes further expansion of medical care options outside VA

Trump has made the Mission Act — which dramatically expanded community care programs in VA — a key part of his re-election campaign push, saying it has for the first time given veterans meaningful access to private-sector medical care covered by federal dollars.

Trump says the expansion has made the VA experience better, and he responded to a question from the Independence Fund that he is looking ahead at doing more to broaden the rules.

“We will do whatever we can to continue to make care more timely, such as shortening the time in future community care regulations,” he said.

Currently, veterans are eligible for the outside care program if they face a wait of 20 or more days for appointments within the VA system. Supporters of the program want it lowered to 14 days. But critics have noted that VA does not have similar wait-time standards for private practices, meaning veterans could actually wait longer for care by opting out of internal VA medical visits.

Biden, in his response, said that he wants to “provide training and standardization care guidance for community care providers” to ensure veterans are receiving equitable and adequate health care.

He also attacked Trump for insufficient planning with the Mission Act, building “an initial network of community care providers that was much too small to meet the demand” of veterans.

Biden plans a special commission on military sexual assault

In response to a question from Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America about sexual assault trauma among veterans, Biden said he would start his presidency by “immediately appointing a commission of military leaders, survivors, advocates and experts to give me — in 90 days — recommendations as to what else we should be doing.”

That work will include discussion of the Military Justice Improvement Act, legislation which would remove sexual assault cases from the traditional chain of command and assign them to specially-trained, independent prosecutors. The idea has received significant opposition from military leaders.

Biden also said the culture at VA and the Defense Department also needs additional dramatic changes to stamp out the “scourge” of sexual assault and harassment.

“To that end, we’ll make sure every VA Medical Center has enough full-time women’s primary care physicians, and that every community care center trains staff to care for women veterans too,” he said. “We’re going to help provide childcare at every VA medical center, so women vets can make their appointments without worrying about their kids.”

Trump noted that under his presidency, VA appointed a new senior advisor to handle assault and harassment prevention policy, and a new task force on sexual assault in the military has already begun examining the issue in the military ranks.

Trump promises veteran employment will rebound

Unemployment among veterans had been below 4 percent for two years before the coronavirus pandemic hit last spring. Over the spring and summer, that number jumped to more than 11 percent and has now settled at 6.4 percent for the last two months.

But in response to a question from Wounded Warrior Project, Trump said he is confident those numbers will continue to go down.

“While the impact of COVID has taken its toll, veterans maintain a better employment situation today than they did during the depths of the Great Recession and their unemployment rate today is nearly 2 percent better than that of non-veterans,” he said. "We recognize the value of veterans in the workplace and want to keep them employed, especially during these challenging times.

The president said VA and Department of Labor officials are already working on several initiatives to deal with the problem, and that “my administration created the greatest economy in human history for veterans and all Americans, and we will do so again.”

Biden reiterated his plans to revive the Joining Forces campaign from the Obama presidency. Led by first lady Michelle Obama and Biden’s wife, Jill, the program focused on veteran hiring and military spouse outreach.

“America benefits enormously from the leadership, talent, experience, and diversity (veterans) bring to work every single day in their civilian capacity as well,” he said.

Biden pledges a better focus on toxic exposure issues

Veterans advocates have expressed frustration over the slow pace of improvements to policies regarding burn pit exposure, Agent Orange presumptive benefits and a host of other toxic exposure issues.

In response to questions on those topics, Biden said he wants to change that.

“No one wants to get to the bottom of the burn pits question more than I do,” he said. "My son served a year in Iraq on bases with big burn pits. Six years later, he died from brain cancer.

“We know things burned in those pits released toxic fumes. We need more research to prove direct cause and effect. We can’t ask these vets to wait while we prove that link.”

Biden promised an “epidemiological study of post-9/11 veterans exposed to blast toxins, toxic substances and burn pits” to better understand the scope of those problems and expanding the list of Agent Orange presumptive conditions to bladder cancer, Parkinson-like conditions, and hyperthyroidism.

Trump said his administration has overseen “historic expansions of Agent Orange benefits through the Blue Water Navy implementation” — a plan his Department of Veterans Affairs opposed for several years, but was eventually mandated by the courts and Congress — and said policies on those issues will “always be guided by the science and the best interest of the veteran.”

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