A $241 billion Department of Veterans Affairs funding bill passed by the House on Friday requires VA to buy prosthetics designed to fit women veterans and conduct research on medical devices more suitable for the female frame.
The issue has been a priority for Reps. Chris Pappas, D-N.H., and Elise Stefanik, R-N.Y., who sponsored legislation to solve the issue of female veterans who have encountered pain and mobility limitations by being fitted with prostheses made for men.
“The face of our military has changed, and so have the needs of the VA,” Pappas said in introducing his original legislation. “It is incumbent upon us to ensure that women that have answered the call to service have access to the same quality care as their male counterparts.”
The proposed legislation includes $840 million for medical research that must also address military toxic exposures such as burn pits, radiation, depleted uranium, chemicals and cancer-causing agents. At $241 billion, it would give VA the second largest pot of discretionary spending funds of any federal government organization.
“This year's Military Construction and Veterans Affairs funding bill makes critical and serious investments in veterans and military families and reinforces our national security infrastructure," said Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Calif., chairwoman of the Military Construction, Veterans Affairs and Related Agencies subcommittee.
The VA funding bill, which must be reconciled with the Senate before it moves to President Donald Trump for signature, includes other provisions to improve the lives of former service members, including funding to ensure that veterans unable to have children as the result of severe combat injuries have access to adoption services or advanced reproductive technologies.
It also contains a measure that restricts the VA's use of dogs for medical research.
The bill, which passed the House 224-189, fully funds the administration's fiscal 2021 budget request and represents a 13% increase in funding for the VA above current levels.
But it also also contains measures that may delay or sink its passage. It includes language that prevents Trump from transferring funds to build a wall along the southern border with Mexico and a provision that designates money for renaming military bases currently named for Confederate officers.
Trump has threatened to veto any legislation that seeks to change the names of at least 10 military installations that honor officers who served the Confederate States of America.
The legislation also includes appropriations for military construction. Under the proposal, military housing projects would receive $1.5 billion, a nearly 9% increase from the president's budget request.
For veterans in southwestern South Dakota, the bill would preserve the place where they receive their medical care: it prohibits the department from shutting its historic Battle Mountain hospital in Hot Springs, South Dakota -- a facility that has been targeted for reconfiguration or closure since at least 2009.
A circa-1907 facility that cared for Civil War veterans of Gettysburg and Antietam, as well as those with tuberculosis, Battle Mountain, part of the VA Black Hills Health Care System, has been seen as outdated and too expensive to maintain. In 2017, the VA announced plans to downsize it to a clinic and shift inpatient services to Rapid City, an hour away.
But veterans and community leaders pushed back, saying the closure would cause the loss of 300 jobs and force veterans to either seek treatment at civilian providers or face long drive times for care. And earlier this year, VA Secretary Robert Wilkie pledged to review the decision, saying it was "vital that we maintain this place," after touring it.
“I think we have a unique, fabulous situation here with a facility that is uniquely situated, both in terms of the geography of the Black Hills but also maintains a lot of the features of these buildings of the past, and a place where our veterans can really come to heal," he said in March.
House lawmakers moved Friday to ensure Battle Mountain's preservation, at least until the VA furnishes a comprehensive report on plans to realign its medical facilities, to include a cost-benefit analysis and an assessment of the impact on veterans in rural areas.
A market assessment of VA real estate assets and services is underway, ahead of an investigation by an Asset and Infrastructure Review Commission, slated to begin in 2022. The commission will make recommendations on closures and selloff of VA facilities, as well as reconfiguring the department to serve the growing veteran population in some parts of the country, particularly the South.
Lawmakers, including South Dakota Republican Sen. John Thune, have included language in legislation every year since 2014 prohibiting the VA from closing Battle Mountain until it produces that national realignment strategy.
Protection for the Battle Mountain Sanitarium, designated a National Historic Landmark in 2011, is not the only prohibition in the bill on a VA facility closure -- the legislation also restricts the VA from closing the Bainbridge, New York, community clinic until a market assessment can be conducted.