WASHINGTON, DC: Today, Congresswoman Jen Kiggans’ (VA-02) bipartisan Caregiver Outreach and Program Enhancement (COPE) Act was passed by the U.S. House of Representatives. The COPE Act would increase mental health resources available to caregivers of America’s veteran population by establishing Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) grant programs for entities that support caregiver mental health and well-being. Congresswoman Chrissy Houlahan (PA-06) joined Congresswoman Kiggans in introducing the bill.
Included in the COPE Act is another bipartisan piece of legislation introduced by Congresswoman Kiggans: H.R. 3504, the VA Medical Security Report Act of 2023, which helps the VA police force and its officers have the resources they need to ensure the safety of VA medical centers. Congressman Chris Pappas (NH-01) joined Congresswoman Kiggans as the lead Democratic sponsor of this legislation.
This is Congresswoman Kiggans’ first standalone piece of legislation to be passed by the House andis endorsed by the AARP.
“Improving the lives of our nation’s heroes is one of my top priorities in Congress,” said Congresswoman Kiggans. “With the passage of my COPE Act today, we are taking several important steps to ensure our veterans are receiving the quality healthcare they have earned and deserve in a safe environment. As the granddaughter of a veteran, the daughter of a veteran, the wife of a veteran, the mother of future veterans, and having served 10 years in the Navy as a helicopter pilot, I will always fight to provide our former servicemembers with a VA care system they can depend on.”
“We are lucky to have the Coatesville VA Medical Center in my community and other VA health systems nearby in Lebanon and Philadelphia. Sadly, many veterans across the country don’t have a VA health system nearby, meaning those veterans’ family members have to step in and help provide care,” said Rep. Chrissy Houlahan. “These family caregivers often require support of their own to perform what can be a physically, emotionally, and mentally taxing job of veteran caregiving. I am proud to see our bipartisan bill establishing a grant program to expand access to and availability of mental health resources for caregivers passed by the House! The program will provide counseling, treatment, and other support to benefit veterans and their families in Pennsylvania and beyond.”
“Veterans risked their lives to serve our country and we must ensure that VA medical centers are a safe environment for them after their service is over,” said Congressman Pappas. “This bipartisan legislation will improve our understanding of how to improve the security and safety of VA medical centers and ensure law enforcement has the resources they need to prevent crime. I’m pleased that this bipartisan legislation has passed the House, and I urge the Senate to swiftly take it up to ensure our law enforcement are supported in their efforts to keep veterans safe.”
“AARP, which advocates for the more than 100 million Americans age 50 and over, is pleased to endorse H.R. 3581, the Caregiver Outreach and Program Enhancement (COPE) Act,” said Bill Sweeny, Senior Vice President of Government Affairs for AARP. “We applaud Congresswoman Kiggans’ bipartisan efforts to support military and veteran family caregivers by improving their access to mental health counseling and treatment.”
“The American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) and its National Veterans Affairs Council (NVAC) are proud to endorse the ‘VA Medical Center Security Reporting Act,’ introduced by Rep. Jen Kiggans and Rep. Chris Pappas. This bi-partisan legislation, appropriately introduced during police week, will better enable congress to perform oversight over the VA Police force, and help ensure that VA police departments are fully staffed, and officers are fully trained to protect veterans and the VA employees who serve them. AFGE and the NVAC are proud to represent thousands of VA Police Officers in facilities across the country, 90 percent of whom are veterans themselves, and will continue to advocate for legislation to help recruit, retain, and train this critical group of dedicated VA employees,” said M.J. Burke, First Executive Vice President of AFGE’s NVAC.
The Caregiver Outreach and Program Enhancement (COPE) Act
The VA maintains several programs that provide certifications and resources to veterans’ caregivers, including the Program of General Caregiver Support Services (PGCSS) and the Program of Comprehensive Assistance for Family Caregivers (PCAFC). The PFCAC is a more robust program specifically targeted toward family members or close friends who decide to take on caregiver responsibility for veterans.
Under these programs, caregivers are defined as any person who provides personal care services to a veteran enrolled in VA healthcare who either needs assistance with one or more activities of daily living, or needs supervision or protection based on symptoms or residuals of neurological impairment or other impairment or injury.
The COPE Act authorizes the VA to provide grants to organizations whose mission is focused on the mental healthcare of participants in the PFCAC. It also requires the VA to provide outreach to registered caregivers and requires both the VA and the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to provide Congress with research on the program and its outcomes. The full text of the bill can be found here.
The VA Medical Security Report Act of 2023
The VA Medical Security Report Act of 2023 aims to increase safety and security at VA Medical facilities by requiring VA leadership to provide reports that accurately detail the health of VA police forces and security at VA Medical Centers. These reports – which will be shared with Congress over the next five years – will detail staffing vacancies, security weakness, and data on criminal activities, training, vacancies, and security weaknesses. Additionally, the bill requires that these reports include input from police leaders on the ground.
The number of violent crimes committed at VA medical facilities increased from 3,141 in FY 2018 to 6,505 in FY 2021, despite the number of people at these facilities decreasing by 25-50% between FY 2020 and FY 2021.
The VA currently operates 144 police units at VA medical centers, consisting of approximately 3,700 officers and 430 chiefs of police, deputy chiefs of police, and physical security specialists, making it one of the top ten largest federal law enforcement organizations. In a preliminary staffing model given to the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee during the 117th Congress, the VA proposed increasing their security force to as many as 5,640 officers and 524 chiefs of police, deputy chiefs of police, and physical security specialists.
The VA Medical Security Report Act of 2023 is endorsed by the American Federation of Government Employees’ (AFGE) National Veterans Affairs Council (NVAC) and the National Federation of Federal Employees (NFFE). The full text of the bill is available here.