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U.S. House introduces bill to provide medical care to veterans living in Freely Associated States

Washington, D.C. — The U.S. House of Representatives on Friday introduced the Care for Compact of Free Association (COFA) Veterans Act, bipartisan legislation that authorizes the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to provide medical care to U.S. veterans living in the freely associated states (FAS) of the Republic of Palau, the Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI), and the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM). Currently, the VA is not legally permitted to provide direct care to U.S. military veterans located in the FAS.

Congresswoman Uifa’atali Amata is an original cosponsor, working with sponsor Rep. Ami Bera, M.D. (D-CA), and original cosponsors Reps. Ed Case (D-HI), Jill N. Tokuda (D-HI), and Steve Womack (R-AR).

“This is [a] common sense bill, that helps us keep our national commitment to our veterans, no matter where they live,” said Representative Aumua Amata Coleman Radewagen, who serves as Vice Chairman of the Veterans’ Affairs Committee, Vice Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Indo-Pacific, Co-Chairman of the new Indo-Pacific Task Force in the Natural Resources Committee, and as a Co-Chairman of the Pacific Islands Caucus

“Pacific Islanders, including those from the Freely Associated States much like my home in American Samoa, serve in the military at very high rates, and deserve our support and appreciation. I want to thank Congressman Dr. Bera for his dedicated leadership on this important matter and other Pacific Islands issues.

 “Despite serving in the U.S. military, veterans from the Republic of Palau, the Republic of the Marshall Islands, and the Federated States of Micronesia lack access to comprehensive VA medical benefits that are afforded to veterans,” said Representative Ami Bera, M.D., Ranking Member of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Indo-Pacific. “I am proud to stand alongside Representatives Case, Radewagen, Tokuda, and Womack and Senators Schatz, Murkowski, Hirono, and Boozman as we introduce the Care for COFA Veterans Act. This bipartisan legislation aims to extend essential medical care and health services to our deserving veterans in the Freely Associated States. We have a duty to honor our commitment to those who have served in the U.S. military.

 “For far too many veterans from the Marshall Islands, Palau and the Federated States of Micronesia, in-person medical care means finding the money to afford the fare on an infrequent flight to cross the ocean to receive VA care from the VA medical facility in my state of Hawaii,” said Representative Ed Case. “Aside from being unfair, this does not keep our Nation’s promise to adequately care for all eligible veterans. Our Freely Associated States veterans who proudly served in our United States military should not be so disadvantaged in accessing the level of benefits afforded to their fellow veterans who reside in the U.S. proper. This measure acknowledges these shortcomings and lays a foundation to begin adequately addressing access to care. It is my hope that this measure will become law so that our country can follow through on our promise to care for any veteran no matter where he or she calls home.

 “Citizens of Palau, the Marshall Islands, and the Federated States of Micronesia have served with honor and distinction in our military since World War II, and they have contributed so much to the deeply shared interests and values between our peoples as enshrined in the Compacts of Free Association,” said Representative Jill Tokuda. “Yet, for far too long, these veterans who choose to return to their home countries have been denied the dignity and health care coverage, and are forced to pay out of pocket and travel to Guam or Hawai‘i to receive any medical care from the Department of Veterans Affairs. I am proud to join my colleagues in introducing this bill that would ensure our country can fulfill its sacred vow to those who serve in uniform and begin providing the health care these veterans deserve.

 “I’m proud to cosponsor the Care for COFA Veterans Act, which would provide veterans from the Freely Associated States access to health care in their home countries. FAS citizens serve in our Armed Forces at some of the highest per capita rates. These veterans volunteered to serve our country and they’ve earned our support now,” said Representative Steve Womack.

The FAS do not have their own militaries and grant exclusive military control and strategic positioning to the United States. FAS citizens can serve in the U.S. military, which they do at the highest of volunteer rates per capita. The Care for COFA Veterans Act would encourage the VA to work with the State Department and the governments of Palau, RMI, and FSM to chart a path forward on legal issues to facilitate telehealth services and medications provided by clinicians located in the United States. One year after enactment of the Act, the VA would be required to provide a report to Congress on the options considered, chosen approaches, and resources necessary to deliver services to COFA veterans.

 “Many Palauans have served in the U.S. military and many more continue that tradition of service. In fact, we have one of the highest - if not the highest - service rates compared to U.S. States and territories. And yet, Palauans who have retired from military service can’t access in Palau the healthcare that they can receive in the U.S. This makes it difficult for them to return home where they can continue to contribute so much.  This is why I so strongly support the bill by Representatives Bera, Radewagen, Case, Tokuda, and Womack to require the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to develop a plan to provide healthcare services to U.S. military veterans from the three nations freely associated with the U.S. in their home countries,” said Palau President Surangel Whipps, Jr.

“The Republic of the Marshall Islands expresses our deep appreciation to Representatives Bera, Radewagen, Case, Tokuda, and Womack for their leadership in providing access to health services for Marshallese veterans. Our citizens serve with honor and pride in the U.S. armed forces at rates that far exceed the national average, yet they are denied the U.S. veterans benefits for which they are eligible if they return home after service.  We thank these Members of Congress for recognizing the contributions of Marshallese citizens to the United States and urge quick passage of this important legislation,” said H.E. Gerald Zackios, Ambassador of the Republic of the Marshall Islands.

“Micronesians are extremely proud to serve in the U.S. military. Unfortunately, our veterans who return home to Micronesia after serving in the U.S. military have great difficulty in accessing the health care they have earned through their service. They must leave Micronesia and travel long distances and pay for expenses out-of-pocket to receive care. With increased use of telehealth and other regional health services, Micronesian and other Freely Associated States veterans would have improved access to critical healthcare. We thank Rep. Ami Bera (D-CA) for his continued leadership for FAS veterans and commend him for reintroducing the Care for Compact of Free Association (COFA) Veterans Act, which would reduce existing barriers for FAS veterans to utilize their VA healthcare benefits,” said Jackson Soram, the Chargé d’affaires at the Embassy of the Federated States of Micronesia to the United States. 

Senators Schatz (D-HI), Murkowski (R-AK), Hirono (D-HI), and Boozman (R-AR) introduced companion legislation in the U.S. Senate.