Legislation passed by the House on Thursday would expand veterans' treatment for substance abuse and mental health care, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), as well as provide counseling for families of veterans.
The House approved by voice votes the Veterans' Mental Health and Other Care Improvements Act and the Veterans' Benefits Improvements Act.
The Senate is expected to pass both measures before Congress wraps up its work this weekend.
The benefits package would provide a faster system to process claims, expand pilot programs that offer adjustable rate loans and offer legal help to military reservists who lose their jobs because they are deployed overseas.
"It's a disgrace that veterans have to wait months or years for the benefits they have earned because of a bureaucracy that simply doesn't work," said Rep. John Hall, New York Democrat.
"A nimble, responsive VA claims system could go a long way to help our nation live up to its commitment to care for wounded veterans and their families. It could prevent suicides, bankruptcies, poverty, family disruptions and homelessness among our nation's disabled veterans," Mr. Hall said.
Rep. Bob Filner, California Democrat and chairman of the House Veterans' Affairs Committee, said the bills would help modernize the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to become a "21st-century world class entity that reflects the selfless and priceless sacrifices of those it serves - our veterans, their families survivors."
The health care bill includes a pilot program to establish rural health care for veterans who must travel hundreds of miles to get treatment and expands benefits to children of Vietnam and Korean war veterans who are born with spina bifida.
Chris Needham, senior legislative associate for the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW), called the legislation "tremendous" and said his organization is "highly supportive."
"We hope the Senate will pass it quickly. We've been waiting a long to get a veterans health care package passed this session," Mr. Needham said.
"The treatments for veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder are just wonderful, and this will greatly improve care for thousands of returning service members," Mr. Needham said.
Rep. Michael H. Michaud, Maine Democrat and chairman of the Veterans Affairs subcommittee on health, pushed for more treatment for veterans suffering from substance-abuse disorders but said it needs to be included with treatment for veterans who also have PTSD.
"Substance-use disorders frequently co-occur with other mental health conditions, and the need for services is increasing," Mr. Michaud said. "VA needs to rededicate itself to providing comprehensive services that can address both substance-abuse and other mental health conditions such as PTSD."
As lawmakers were wrapping up the legislation Thursday, the VA building in downtown Washington was closed for two hours due to an anthrax scare. A suspicious package and a letter warning of anthrax inside was investigated and determined to be a hoax.