Kansas Common Sense

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Expanding Veteran Spouses and Caregivers’ Vaccine Eligibility

Bill to Expand the VA’s Vaccination Efforts Heads to President’s Desk
This week, the Senate and House passed my bipartisan 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 Congress moved quickly to send it to the President’s desk.

Currently, the VA is only able to vaccinate active VA Health Care System enrollees. While the VA will continue to prioritize vaccinating VHA enrolled veterans with its allocation of the COVID-19 vaccine, this legislation enables the VA to vaccinate non-enrolled veterans, veteran spouses, caregivers, overseas veterans and others with excess COVID-19 vaccine supply.

Military service is family service, and that is why the VA and this committee aim to care for both veterans and their families. I urge the President to quickly sign this legislation into law to make certain the VA has the freedom to vaccinate veteran spouses, non-enrolled veterans, caregivers, overseas veterans and others with excess COVID-19 vaccine supply. While the VA will continue to prioritize vaccinating VHA enrolled veterans with its allocation of the COVID-19 vaccine, this legislation will help further protect our veterans and their families

If you are a veteran, you can click here for more information about the VA’s COVID-19 testing and treatment resources. You can also sign up for updates about vaccine availability here.

Hearing from Veteran Service Organizations
This week the Senate and House Veterans’ Affairs Committees conducted our third and final joint veteran service organization (VSO) hearing. Though we were not able to meet in person, these virtual legislative proposals provided input that my colleagues and I benefit from each year, hearing directly from veterans and veteran advocates.

Throughout the hearing, we heard from VSOs, including Veterans of Foreign Wars, American Veterans, Fleet Reserve Association, Gold Star Wives, National Congress of American Indians and the National Association for Black Veterans. These joint hearings always provide a unique opportunity to interact with groups representing the many diverse corners of America’s veteran community, and I look forward to continuing to partner with veterans and their VSO advocates to craft solutions to problems like the harmful effects of toxic exposures, making certain veterans’ community care is robust and reliable, expanding vaccine access for veteran family members and caregivers, providing high-quality mental health care and suicide prevention services, ensuring VA’s educational benefits are best-suited to set up veterans for success after service and that our women and minority veterans have a VA that works for them. Oversight of VA’s implementation of recent legislation tackling these challenges will be crucial, and hearing from veterans on the ground is pivotal in that effort.

Calling on the VA to Expedite Vietnam Veterans’ Blue Water Navy Claims
This week I joined Chairman Jon Tester in a letter to VA Secretary McDonough to request that he renew the agency’s focus on the implementation of policy changes required by Public Law 116-23, the Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act, and Public Law 116-183, the William M. (Mac) Thornberry National Defense Authorization Act For Fiscal Year 2021 (FY21 NDAA), both of which grant long overdue health care and benefits to veterans of the Vietnam War and Korean Demilitarized Zone (Korean DMZ).

In some instances, these veterans have waited half a century for recognition that their service caused adverse health effects. As such, we asked that the Secretary provide an estimated timeline for when VA will complete initial processing of the anticipated claims under the Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act. For too long we have seen generations of veterans suffering from negative health outcomes due to hazards encountered during their service. Unfortunately, over the years and across several administrations, there continues to be a concern that VA does not take action quickly enough after research is conducted, which has led to Congress stepping in and legislating additional presumptions. I am committed to learning from veterans about the past and fixing the future process for all generations of veterans. Read the full letter here.

Examining and Combatting Veteran Homelessness
Each year, the Department of Housing & Urban Development (HUD) releases a Point-in-Time (PIT) count of unhoused people, including veterans. HUD conducted its annual count in January 2020, but never released its report—a major resource for Congress in making decisions about how to legislate and allocate resources to respond to veteran homelessness. Even before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, our veterans were facing increased challenges regarding homelessness.

After joining leaders of the House and Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committees in a letter to urge Acting HUD Secretary to release the report, HUD finally did so, releasing critical data covering veterans experiencing homelessness. This data is essential to understanding the veteran homeless population and how that number has risen over the past year. I am encouraged by the HUD and VA partnership to improve services for homeless veterans and those at-risk for becoming homeless. In order to effectively address barriers to access shelter, health care and benefits for this particularly vulnerable population, my SVAC colleagues and I must be provided with the most up-to-date information available. During the 116th Congress, I supported key provisions in the Johnny Isakson and David P. Roe, M.D. Veterans Health Care and Benefits Improvement Act of 2020, an end-of-year veterans’ package that would remove barriers to VA funding for organizations in need of critical upgrades to keep homeless veterans safe from the coronavirus. I am committed to conducting oversight to ensure these laws are implemented efficiently and provide services for homeless veterans and those at-risk of becoming homeless.

Opposing the Confirmation of HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra

This week, I voted against the confirmation of California Attorney General Xavier Becerra to be Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). In recovering from a once-in-a-lifetime public health emergency, Americans need to have confidence our HHS Secretary understands the intricacies of health care policy and has an eye to the future as we improve on our pre-pandemic vulnerabilities, protecting future generations from experiencing similar difficult situations.

While Attorney General Becerra served on a healthcare-focused subcommittee as a United States Representative, he has no further experience in public health or medicine. He also lacks the executive experience that would be useful in running a complex executive branch department like HHS, which is involved in the nationwide vaccine rollout and now the regulatory implementation of the recent $1.9 trillion package. Americans deserve to know their voices will be heard when it comes to conversations surrounding health care policy. Ideological or moral disagreements should not be met with legal challenges. Americans need to know their government is working together to find common-ground that will protect all strongly held personal and religious beliefs, including the belief in the sanctity of life.

Prior to my vote, I spoke in opposition of Secretary Becerra’s nomination on the Senate floor. Watch my remarks here or below.    

My Resolution Honoring Father Kapaun Passes the Senate

On March 5, I announced that the remains of the late Father Emil Kapaun had been identified by the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, and this week, the resolution I introduced with Sen. Roger Marshall honoring Father Kapaun unanimously passed the Senate.

Father Kapaun is an American hero whose selfless actions inspired his fellow soldiers and continues to inspire generations of Kansans today. In 2011, I introduced legislation to bestow Father Kapaun with the Medal of Honor, and I am pleased to sponsor this resolution to further recognize his tremendous service to our country.

Questioning Top Health Officials Regarding America’s COVID-19 Response

This week, during a Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee hearing, I questioned top federal health officials from the Centers for Control and Disease Prevention (CDC), National Institute of Health (NIH), Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to examine America’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

I asked CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky about the CDC’s guidelines for vaccinated individuals. Throughout this pandemic, we have seen inconsistencies and lags in updated health information surrounding public guidelines. I expressed my concern to Dr. Walensky regarding the need for current, consistent and timely safety guidelines from the CDC moving forward. As more and more Americans become vaccinated, it is important that vaccinated individuals are receiving updated and accurate information from the CDC so that friends, families and communities have a way to measure risk assessment as they decide how to adjust their lives post-vaccination and return to normal.

Additionally, NIH Director Dr. Anthony Fauci assured me that throughout this pandemic, medical research and health care falling outside of COVID-19 continue to function at their pre-pandemic levels. I look forward to assisting the NIH with this goal from my seat on the Labor-HHS Appropriations Subcommittee, which provides funding to the biomedical research department.

Opposing H.R. 5, The Equality Act

This week, I spoke on the Senate floor in opposition to the Equality Act, an infringement on the constitutional right to religious liberty. I support efforts to end unjust discrimination, but this legislation represents one of the most dramatic assaults against religious faith and conscience that I have seen in my time in Congress. If this bill is passed into law, the effects will be devastating to communities in Kansas and across the country. I will oppose the use of expansive federal power to infringe on matters of religious belief and conscience. Watch my remarks by clicking here or below.

Joining The University of Kansas Health System’s 250th Media Update

On Wednesday morning, I joined The University of Kansas Health System (TUKHS) for their 250th daily media update with Senator Roy Blunt of Missouri. I thanked the TUKHS team for their steady leadership throughout COVID-19 and their efforts to keep Kansans informed and updated throughout the pandemic.

I want to extend my sincere thanks to TUKHS Chief Medical Officer Dr. Steve Stites and TUKHS Medical Director for Infection Prevention and Control Dr. Dana Hawkinson for their dedicated work throughout the past year and for allowing me to join many of these updates to discuss the efforts I have taken at the federal level to help mitigate the effects of COVID-19 across Kansas. Watch our conversation by clicking here or below.

Supporting Kansas Manufacturers

In response to the Department of Health and Human Services’ (HHS) decision to draw down purchases of viral transport media being produced by Kansas and American manufacturers, I urged President Biden to renew the federal government’s commitment to supporting our domestic supply chain.

As the nation was in the midst of an unprecedented public health emergency last spring, Kansans stepped up, as they always do, to increase manufacturing of viral collection products necessary for widespread COVID-19 testing. Should the administration forget the lesson learned from just a year ago, Americans will pay the price for years to come as our supply chain returns to its pre-pandemic orientation. I urged the President to support American manufacturing capabilities in order to end our tenuous reliance on foreign suppliers and to abide by his promise to “Buy American” and to uphold his Made in America executive order to protect American livelihoods. The full letter can be found here.

Deploying Broadband Progress Across Rural America and Undeserved Communities

As a member of the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee, I questioned witnesses this week about the progress of federal programs aimed at broadband deployment, including broadband mapping, the stability of the Universal Service Fund (USF) and oversight of the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF).

Improving the maps that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) uses when it allocates federal broadband deployment money is critical, as a lack of specific coverage information can lead to funds being misdirected and some Americans continuing to lack broadband access. Last year, I cosponsored the Broadband DATA Act, which requires the FCC to collect more accurate and precise data that will ensure that we know exactly what areas do not have broadband service, so federal deployment funds can go to areas most in need. President Trump signed this legislation into law last year, and I helped ensure that the program was fully funded as part of the Consolidated Appropriations Act passed in December 2020. During this hearing, one of the witnesses, former FCC Commissioner Michael O’Reilly, assured me that there are no legitimate reasons left to stop the commission from completing these important coverage maps and told me about his support for maps to be used for all federal broadband programs. I will continue to work with my Senate colleagues to ensure that federal broadband deployment funds are better directed to people and areas that need the funding the most.

Supporting Small Meatpackers during COVID-19

On Monday, I led my colleagues in urging Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack to prioritize reducing U.S. Department of Agriculture Food Safety and Inspection Service (USDA-FSIS) overtime fees for very small and small meatpackers based off the provisions included in my legislation, the Small Packer Overtime and Holiday Fee Relief for COVID-19 Act. I introduced this legislation to support small meatpacking plants that are operating more than 40 hours per week during the COVID-19 pandemic to keep our nation’s food supply chain moving. It directs USDA-FSIS to reduce the fees charged to very small establishments by at least 75 percent and to small establishments by at least 30 percent.

These changes will help build greater resilience in our nation’s food supply chain by addressing the economic disincentive currently in place for small meatpackers to work longer hours. It will also help level the playing field between very small and small establishments versus large establishments capable of operating two full operating shifts and therefore able to avoid these inspection fees. Consumers will also benefit from greater access and more options for locally sourced meat products provided by small meatpackers and I will continue to work with Secretary Vilsack to continue to help local meatpackers and food processors. The full letter can be found here.

Supporting Law Enforcement in Kansas and Beyond

Introducing the Protect and Serve Act
Violence against law enforcement is unacceptable. That’s why this week, I introduced the Protect and Serve Act with my Senate colleagues to create federal penalties for attacks on law enforcement officers, whether a Capitol Police officer or a Kansas patrolman or patrolwoman. Being a law enforcement officer involves great risk, but the additional threat of ambushes and targeted attacks makes the job harder and more dangerous for our men and women in blue.

Our nation’s law enforcement professionals deserve our continued support and respect. I am grateful for all of the brave men and women who have pledged to protect our Kansas communities.

Addressing the Kansas Law Enforcement Training Center’s Graduating Class

This week, I had the honor of addressing graduates of the Kansas Law Enforcement Training Center (KLETC) during its 275th graduation ceremony.

Very little about being a law enforcement officer today can be described as easy. America is facing an opioid and drug epidemic that is ripping families and communities apart and we’re seeing an increase in violent crime in cities across the country. These factors all indicate the need for individuals who are willing to step forward and meet the challenges of our time through service as a law enforcement officer. I am thankful for each and every graduate that has chosen to take on this great responsibility. I am confident many Kansas communities have gained dedicated public servants and was pleased to be able to see these graduates move into the next phase of their career protecting and serving communities in Kansas and beyond.

As the lead Republican on the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee that funds the U.S. Department of Justice, I will continue working to ensure KLETC and other law enforcement training programs have access to the tools necessary to train law enforcement officers that will strengthen engagement and trust with the communities they serve.

Thank you to KLETC Director Darin Beck for the kind invitation and to Officer Logan Grant who received a special certificate of commendation for helping save the lives of those involved in a car crash this past January while receiving his law enforcement training.

Meeting Kansas Health Officials in Lawrence and Hutchinson

Learning More about Lawrence’s West Campus Hospital
This week, I visited the Lawrence Memorial Health West Campus to tour the recently opened facility, including its orthopedic surgery and rehab wing. LMH West is a fully outpatient health center that focuses on integrated care across specialty areas that best serve Douglas county. I also enjoyed speaking with several orthopedic surgeons to discuss the facility’s partnership with OrthoKansas. 

Thank you to LMH CEO Russ Johnson, Vice President of Service Lines Jared Abel, Dr. Neal Lintecum and Dr. Adam Goodyear for hosting me today and the informative discussion about the services offered, including their collaboration with the VA to offer care closer to home for veterans.

Touring Hutchinson Regional Medical Center

I also visited Hutchinson Regional Medical Center where I learned about their COVID-19 treatment options, as well as the facility’s vaccination process. In addition to their vaccination program, Hutchinson Regional Medical Center offers antibody infusions to patients testing positive for COVID-19. This successful process has helped reduce hospitalizations since they were first offered in November of last year. I was impressed by the skilled work of the health care professionals and was pleased to discuss more about the importance of having access to quality mental health care with hospital personnel.

Thank you to CEO Ken Johnson and Dr. Michael Hagley for their leadership, and to Director of External Affairs Richard Shank, RN and VP of Patient Care Services Amanda Hullet and CEO of Horizons Mental Health Center Michael Garrett for arranging this visit.  

Meeting with Dairy Farmers of America

This week, I met with the Dairy Farmers of America (DFA) to hear about issues impacting dairy producers. We discussed how the recent disruptions in natural gas and other energy sources caused significant losses for dairies in Kansas, both in terms of raising energy costs and forcing dairies to dump milk when processing facilities shut down. We also discussed the importance of the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program (CFAP) payments in helping producers pull through the adverse impacts of COVID-19 on the dairy industry, as well as the importance of a strong farm labor workforce for agriculture. The DFA members updated me on the operations of their milk powder plant in Garden City that has helped support industry growth in southwest Kansas by receiving millions of gallons of milk from area producers. I look forward to continue working with DFA as a strong advocate for dairy farmers in Washington, D.C.

Discussing Impacts on Domestic Travel with U.S. Travel Association Members

I met with Kansas members of the U.S. Travel Association to discuss the impact of COVID-19 on domestic travel and the industries supporting the tourism market. The Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) has been a lifeline for the travel industry, and I was pleased to support additional flexibility and support for PPP through the COVID-19 relief package passed into law in December. 

A successful, encompassing vaccine roll out is the next step towards ensuring the prosperous return of the travel industry. As Kansas moves forward with vaccinations, I will continue to foster strong communication between federal, state and local entities, as well as greater transparency surrounding the amount of doses hospitals and counties receive each week. I look forward to continuing to advocate for our travel industry and assisting the return of Americans traveling safely once again.

Thank you to Suzan Barnes of the Grand Central Hotel in Cottonwood Falls; Natalie Bright, Executive Director of the Travel Industry of Kansas; Kevin Fern, Executive Director of Visit Shawnee; Roger Hrabe, Director of Rooks County Economic Development in Stockton; Holly Lofton, Director of the City of Lindsborg; Julie Roller Weeks, Director of Abilene CVB; and Jim Zaleski, Director of Parsons CVB for your time.

Discussing Middle Eastern Stability

I visited with Bonnie Siegel, Carol Katzman, and others from American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) this week to discuss the U.S.-Israel relationship and how best to protect our shared interests in the Middle East. As a member of the Appropriations Committee, I am a strong supporter of the security assistance provided to Israel, which is necessary in a troubled region. In particular, Iran’s activities, whether through its nuclear program or its support for terrorist proxies, represent an existential threat for Israel and destabilizes the region as a whole, harming American interests. We talked about the positive development of the Abraham Accords negotiated last year and our shared hope that more Arab countries will follow in normalizing relations with Israel. Israel’s security is non-negotiable, and our own security is strengthened when we work together with Israel. I will continue to advocate for the relationship as the new Congress begins.

Announcing Water Conservation and Wastewater Management Grants for Northern Kansas

This week, I was pleased to announce that $3 million in water conservation grants and wastewater management are headed for northern Kansas to mitigate water loss across creeks and reservoirs that provide water for ranches, farms and communities in both states:

  • Almena Irrigation District will receive $227,345
  • Kansas Bostwick Irrigation District will receive $789,805
  • Nebraska Bostwick Irrigation District will receive $2,000,000
  • City of Miltonvale will receive $30,000

Water is the lifeblood of Kansas communities, and we need to do all we can to protect it for future generations. These investments will help conserve water for local communities to support their economies and a rural way of life.

Visiting Inman

I stopped in Inman this week where Harvest Cafe was the talk of the town. I was able to visit with Mayor Jim Toews and City Clerk Barb Tuxhorn to discuss the issues they face as a rural town and what I can do to help them in Washington. One of my priorities as a U.S. Senator is preserving Kansas’ rural lifestyle and the close-knit, community-based relationships of small towns across the state. Thank you to everyone who took time out of their day to speak with me while I was in town.

In Case You Missed It

Individual Tax Filing Deadline Extended
The IRS announced that it is delaying the tax filing and payment deadline for individuals from April 15, 2021 to May 17, 2021 for 2020 tax returns. The delay applies to individuals filing Forms 1040 and 1040-SR. It does not affect deadlines for corporate, partnership or nonprofit tax returns. For more information, click here.

Find Rental Assistance

The Kansas Emergency Rental Assistance program, funded through the bipartisan Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act of 2021, provided the state of Kansas over $200 million in rental assistance funding. The program provides financial assistance for Kansans who have had difficulty paying or collecting rent, utility, and internet payments as a result of the COVID pandemic. The Kansas Housing Resources Corporation (KHRC) is serving as the primary administrator of these funds. For more information on eligibility criteria and how to apply, visit the Kansas KHRC website here.

The City of Wichita will initially administer its own rental assistance program and Wichita residents can find more information here.

Honored to Serve You in Washington
It is an honor to serve you in Washington, D.C. Thank you to the many Kansans who have been calling and writing in to share their thoughts and opinions on the issues our state and country face. I appreciate the words of Kansans, whether in the form of a form of letter, a Facebook comment or a phone call, who wish to make their voice heard. 

Please let me know how I can be of assistance. You can contact me by email by clicking here. You can also click here to contact me through one of my Kansas offices or my Washington, D.C. office.

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