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Expanding the VA’s Vaccination Efforts to Spouses and Caregivers
This week, President Biden signed into law my legislation to expand COVID-19 vaccine eligibility to veterans, their spouses and their caregivers under the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). I introduced the Strengthening and Amplifying Vaccination Efforts to Locally Immunize All Veterans and Every Spouse (SAVE LIVES) Act with my colleagues on the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee on March 11 and am pleased President Biden quickly signed this critical legislation into law to protect veterans, their spouses and caregivers.
Prior to passage of the SAVES LIVES Act, the VA was only able to vaccinate VHA enrollees. While the VA will continue to prioritize vaccinating VHA enrolled veterans with its allocation of the COVID-19 vaccine, the new law authorizes the VA to vaccinate non-enrolled veterans, veteran spouses, caregivers, overseas veterans and CHAMPVA beneficiaries with excess COVID-19 vaccine supply. The law also urges the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to adjust VA’s vaccine allocation based on this increased eligibility pool, as much as the supply chain allows.
Military service is family service, and that is why the VA and our House and Senate VA Committees aim to care for both veterans and their families—especially as we navigate this unprecedented crisis. Veterans, caregivers, spouses, and CHAMPVA beneficiaries made eligible for VA vaccination under the new law should click here to register their interest in receiving the vaccine at the VA. Registered users will also receive regular updates on the VA’s vaccine rollout process and on the timing of when the VA will begin to offer vaccines to these newly authorized groups.
Honoring Deputy Robert Kunze III
On Friday morning, I had the honor of presenting the Congressional Badge of Bravery to the family of Sedgwick County Sheriff’s Deputy Robert Kunze III, who died in the line of duty on September 18, 2018.
There is no higher calling than to devote yourself to the protection of others. Deputy Robert Kunze wasted no time before stepping up to serve his community. He joined the Shawnee Sheriff’s department immediately after graduating from Washburn University with a degree in criminal justice – the perfect example of a committed individual that law enforcement needs. As a six-year veteran of the Shawnee Sheriff’s Department and a 12-year veteran in Sedgwick County, he was an exceptional deputy who dedicated his life to public service.
The Congressional Badge of Bravery was established by Congress in 2008 to honor exceptional acts of bravery performed by federal, state and local law enforcement officers in the line of duty. It deeply reflects the courage and heroism of those who receive it. Deputy Kunze made the ultimate sacrifice to protect his community, and his actions personify bravery. He was a man committed to making a difference in Sedgewick County, and I was honored to be a part of this ceremony.
Improving Care and Expanding Resources for Veterans
Reviewing the Implementation of Veterans’ Mental Health Legislation
On Wednesday, the Senate VA Committee held a hearing regarding the VA’s mental health and suicide prevention response for veterans during the COVID-19 pandemic. In addition, this oversight hearing was the first to focus on the VA’s implementation progress of my comprehensive veterans’ suicide prevention law, the Commander John Scott Hannon Veterans Mental Health Care Improvement Act, signed into law last year. During the hearing, members of the committee heard valuable testimony from officials, key staff of the VA and the Department of Defense, as well as VSOs and veteran-serving organizations including the VFW, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America and America’s Warrior Partnership. Each testimony conveyed important information on how our veterans’ mental health has been impacted during the pandemic and highlighted ways Congress can provide better oversight of the VA to ensure America’s veterans are receiving the best care and services.
Additionally, this hearing provided an opportunity to ask VA pressing questions on its initial implementation of several key provisions contained within the Hannon Act. I will continue to perform close oversight of the VA to ensure the lifesaving programs, research and improved mental health and suicide prevention services are all carried out quickly and with Congressional intent so veterans receive the care they deserve.
Providing Care to Veterans Exposed to Toxic Substances During Service
This week, I joined my Senate colleagues to introduce the Toxic Exposure in the American Military (TEAM) Act, bipartisan legislation that would fundamentally reform and improve how veterans exposed to toxic substances receive health care and benefits from the VA. For too long veterans have had to rely on Congress for patchwork fixes to address the needs of multiple generations of veterans suffering negative health outcomes due to toxic hazards encountered in uniform. It is incumbent on us to fix this process and make certain that those who served can rely on an enduring framework, supported by science, that is designed to identify, research and address cases of toxic exposure in a timely manner. I remain committed to fixing this process so veterans affected by toxic exposures can get the care and benefits they need.
Improving the VA’s Access to Emergency Supplies
This week, I introduced legislation to include the VA in the Department of Defense’s (DoD) Warstopper program to ensure the VA has access to critical health care supplies in future pandemics. The VA Supply Chain Resiliency Act would add the VA to the Warstopper program to improve the VA’s access to critical supplies in future emergencies.
This pandemic taught us the devastating consequences of a weak supply chain. The VA provides health care to our nation’s veterans and, in times of emergency, the general public. As one of the largest integrated health care systems in the country, it is common sense to require the VA to be part of the Warstopper program to ensure the VA has a strong supply chain for future pandemics.
Honoring the last WWII Medal of Honor Recipient
I also joined the Kansas Congressional Delegation in urging President Biden to authorize a state funeral for the last World War II Medal of Honor recipient. This state funeral would serve as a final gesture of farewell, respect and admiration for the decorated veteran and for America’s “Greatest Generation.” Medal of Honor recipients from WWII represent the bravery and sacrifice of the millions of servicemembers who served in Europe and in the Pacific. This generation gave the ultimate sacrifice in defense of freedom and democracy and saved our world from the tyranny of the Axis Powers. They deserve a farewell that conveys our most profound respect and gratitude. This state funeral will be one small gesture to that end, and I am humbled to support this cause. Read the full letter here.
Focusing on Health Initiatives for Kansans
Extending Medicare Sequestration Cuts
On Thursday, the Medicare Sequester Relief Act, legislation I cosponsored to delay federally mandated Medicare cuts that would reduce resources to hospitals and health care providers, passed the Senate. The delay was originally included in the CARES Act, and this legislation, if passed by the House and signed into law, would prevent the Medicare payment cuts from being implemented during the COVID-19 pandemic. Now is not the time to be pulling resources away from hospitals as they continue to respond to and recover from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Meeting with Kansas Hospital Association
Earlier in the week, I joined members of Kansas Hospital Association’s (KHA) executive committee to share updates regarding the Medicare sequestration moratorium, where I explained my opposition to this sequestration due to my belief that our hospitals should not be facing a 2% cut at a time when their revenues are already being stretched. I cosponsored the Medicare Sequester Relief Act to prevent these cuts from taking place, and I was pleased to talk with KHA about how this legislation will be beneficial to hospitals and patients across Kansas.
Thank you to President Chad Austin, Vice President of Government Affairs Director Audrey Dunkel and Landon Fulmer for organizing and hosting our discussion. I was pleased to be able to report back to the KHA at the end of the week that this legislation had passed the Senate.
Discussing Prescription Drug Price Reductions with 340B Health
Kansas hospitals and community health centers depend heavily on the 340B Drug Pricing Program to provide prescription drugs at significantly reduced prices for Kansans. Unfortunately, recent actions of the drug manufacturers to provide the required discounts to 340B covered entities is threatening the integrity of the program. This week, I met with 340B Health to discuss the need for legislation to ensure HHS has the authority necessary to ensure the program works as Congress intended. I also intend to work with HHS Secretary Becerra to find solutions to the problems facing the program, which he agreed to do during our discussion at his confirmation hearing. As a member of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee, I will work to protect patients and health care providers who rely on 340B discounts.
Health Grants Reach Medically Vulnerable Kansans
I announced eight U.S. Department of Health and Human Services grants totaling $19.5 million for primary care facilities and Kansas health centers in economic and medically vulnerable areas:
- GraceMed Health Clinic: $5,218,544
- Health Partnership Clinic: $2,486,617
- United Methodist Western Kansas Mexican- American Ministries: $2,372,377
- Prairie Star Health Center: $2,326,368
- Salina Health Education Foundation: $1,989,080
- Kansas Department of Health: $1,847,836
- Heartland Medical Clinic: $1,794,329
- Health Ministries Clinic: $1,448,337
While this grant program operates each year, it’s imperative that local health care centers are equipped to continue providing primary care services, easing the burden the pandemic has placed on our hospitals. These grants are an investment into the health care clinics that keep Kansas families healthy.
America’s Next Space Race
This week, I wrote an editorial on America’s next space race, one that we have entered for the Moon and beyond.
On April 2, 1958, President Dwight D. Eisenhower called on Congress to form the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). The Soviet Union was succeeding in the space domain, and President Eisenhower knew it was imperative the United States win the space race or face severe national security consequences. Congress met that call 12 days later when both the Senate and House of Representatives introduced legislation that would create today’s NASA. Almost a decade after President Eisenhower made that initial call to action, Neil Armstrong was taking his giant leap for all mankind. Russia and China have again stepped into the arena, with both countries recently signing a memorandum of understanding to create a joint lunar space station.
We cannot simply revel in our past accomplishments in lunar exploration. It is imperative we continue to build upon the foundation laid for Artemis, which will ultimately move us beyond returning to the Moon, and on toward a goal of landing astronauts on Mars. As the top Republican on the Appropriations Subcommittee that has jurisdiction over NASA, I urge President Biden and Senator Nelson to fully support the Artemis mission not only through words but action.
Click here to read my full editorial in Space News.
Introducing The Financing Our Energy Future Act
This week, I introduced the Financing Our Energy Future Act with Senator Chris Coons, bipartisan legislation to level the playing field for companies in the energy sector by increasing their access to capital. This legislation will allow companies across the full spectrum of the energy sector to utilize the advantageous tax structure of Master Limited Partnerships (MLPs) for project development. MLPs combine the business development advantages of a corporation with the tax advantages of a partnership to facilitate easier access to capital markets. MLPs have been largely responsible for the growth in our country’s energy infrastructure. In order to grow our economy and increase our energy security, sound economic tools like the MLP should be expanded to include additional domestic energy sources. Allowing emerging technologies in the energy sector to access this structure, American investors can drive development and commercialization as we seek opportunities to make our country more energy independent. This legislation builds on a successful model, and I look forward to working with my Senate and House colleagues on policies that will drive innovation, create American jobs and grow our economy in the wake of COVID-19’s economic effects.
Developing a Comprehensive Iranian Diplomatic Strategy
This week, I joined 42 of my Senate colleagues in urging President Biden to outline a comprehensive diplomatic Iran strategy that will garner bipartisan support in Congress to ensure Iran has no doubt about America’s policy. Moving forward, there must be bipartisan focus and consensus on preventing an Iranian nuclear weapon and addressing the wide range of illicit Iranian behavior. It is important that President Biden consults with allies and security partners on a path forward to address national security concerns beyond Tehran’s nuclear program, including the prioritization of human rights and the release of American citizens unjustly detained in Iran. The full letter can be read here.
Questioning Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen
On Wednesday, the Treasury Secretary, Janet Yellen, testified before the Senate Banking Committee regarding COVID-19 relief legislation. During my questioning, I raised to Secretary Yellen the distressing circumstances many Kansans are facing with unprecedented utility bills as a result of the February cold snap and stressed the need for flexible use of federal funds provided to states and local governments to address these challenges for individuals, businesses and other Kansas entities that have been impacted. The latest relief legislation requires the Department of Treasury to develop guidance and begin sending out the state and local funds within 60 days of it being signed into law on March 11. I will continue to work with the Treasury Department and my Senate colleagues to ensure that a permissible use of this funding is alleviating the financial burdens created by February’s extreme weather.
Celebrating National Ag Day with the Kansas Farm Bureau
Tuesday was National Ag Day, and I met with the Kansas Farm Bureau (KFB) board of directors to thank the farmers and ranchers who are responsible for harvesting and managing the nearly 46 million acres of farm and pastureland across Kansas. Agriculture is the backbone of Kansas’ economy, and I enjoyed celebrating the unique role of those who feed and fuel America and the world with KFB. During the meeting, I was presented with the Friend of the Farm Bureau award, and we discussed the important role that agriculture can play in climate and environmental discussions. I continue to make certain Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack and other administration officials understand the importance of voluntary, incentive-based solutions for agriculture.
Assessing Amtrak Service with Newton-Area Leaders
On Friday afternoon, I met with Newton-area leaders concerning Amtrak service as part of the Southwest Chief, as well as the Heartland Flyer route. Since October of last year, service to travelers in Lawrence, Topeka, Newton, Hutchinson, Dodge City and Garden City has dramatically dropped as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Our conversation provided a useful reminder of how essential long-distance passenger service routes like the Southwest Chief are for connecting rural Kansas communities to major cities and economic opportunities. Last October, I questioned Amtrak CEO and President William Flynn about Amtrak’s reduction from daily long-distance passenger services to triweekly services as a result of the the pandemic. As our economy continues to open up thanks to increasing vaccination rates, I will continue to push Amtrak leadership to increase Southwest Chief service in the timeliest manner possible.
Thank you to the Newton-area leaders who took time out of their busy schedules to meet with me. Their active leadership plays an important role in preserving passenger rail service in Kansas. Special thanks to Newton Mayor Rich Stinnett for hosting the meeting and to Newton City Manager Kelly McElroy for arranging our informative conversation.
Speaking at the Kansas Fraternal Order of Police Yearly Conference and Awards Ceremony
On Saturday, I spoke to Kansas law enforcement professionals at the Kansas Fraternal Order of Police Conference and Awards Ceremony. Very little about being a law enforcement officer today can be described as easy, and I appreciated the opportunity to speak with those who attended. As the lead Republican on the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee, which funds the Department of Justice and related agencies, I have made it my priority to make certain that police officers have the resources they need to protect our communities, including allocating resources to enhance officer safety and wellness, addressing violent crime and drug trafficking and modernizing policing technology. I remain committed to working with my colleagues to ensure our law enforcement is equipped with the tools they need to keep communities across Kansas safe.
Addressing Blocked Railroad Crossings
Many Kansans have experienced the frustration of waiting at a blocked railroad crossing, and in some cases, this interruption can be much more damaging than just a delayed arrival home. Whether you are a first responder answering a call or a rancher transporting livestock, blocked railroad crossings can become costly or even hazardous barriers for road traffic. That is why I have introduced bipartisan legislation that allows the Federal Railroad Administration to continue collecting important data on blocked railroad crossings to make certain our roads are safe and efficient for travel. By authorizing the blocked crossing portal and examining the results, Congress can better understand the scope and severity of blocked crossings and develop targeted solutions to address them.
Discussing Voluntary Conservation with Kansas Association of Conservation Districts
I met with the Kansas Association of Conservation Districts (KACD) this week to discuss the importance of voluntary conservation efforts by landowners. Conservation Districts work closely with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) across the state to administer working land conservation programs. While farmers and ranchers are naturally good stewards of the land, farm bill conservation programs such as the Environmental Quality Incentive Program (EQIP) and Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) help producers be more sustainable and environmentally friendly. As a member of the Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee, which oversees funding at USDA, I prioritize investments in conservation programs and technical assistance for farmers and ranchers. Each year, I host a Conservation Tour in Kansas to highlight conservation programs across the state, and I look forward to working again with KACD.
Meeting with the Kansas Soybean Association
This week, I met with the Kansas Soybean Association to discuss issues important to soybean farmers, including trade and biofuels policy. Soybeans are an important export for our state, making it critical to work to find new markets and to grow existing international markets. I support programs such as the Market Access Program (MAP) and Foreign Market Development (FMD) to help expand Kansas agricultural exports. Kansas biofuel producers also serve as an important market for soybean farmers. I recently urged Secretary Vilsack to complete a full lifecycle assessment of soybean oil-based biodiesel, including direct and significant indirect emissions, before the end of the year. Updated modeling will likely recognize increased greenhouse gas reductions from biofuels, making a strong case for the inclusion of biofuels in ongoing energy and climate discussions. I look forward to continuing to work with Kansas soybean farmers as agricultural policy issues arise.
Wishing You a Happy Passover
Happy Passover to the families and friends who gathered for seders around the world over the weekend. Chag Pesach Sameach!