Veteran advocates say issues have been tabled in Legislature

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) - Advocates for Indiana's military veterans say their priorities are being largely ignored in the General Assembly, where dozens of proposals have been sidelined, including one that would create a $2 million program to treat those with traumatic brain injuries.

But lawmakers say veterans groups may have hurt their own causes by introducing 48 bills, at least a dozen of which required state funding. All but 10 died, and of those, two address the same issue - financial aid and tuition for National Guard members.

"It's just ridiculous," said Retired Brig. Gen. Jim Bauerle, who volunteers with the Veterans Coalition of Indiana. "We told (lawmakers) that we don't expect everything, but we do expect something."

Lawmakers said the idea of asking for "everything" and expecting a portion to succeed is part of the problem. More than 1,200 bills were filed this year - 669 in the House and 589 in the Senate. With only eight weeks until the halfway deadline, legislators cut hundreds of measures pertaining to a variety of issues, not just veteran affairs.

"We simply can't hear them all," said Veterans Affairs and Public Safety Committee Chairman Randy Frye, R-Greensburg. He said it's better to concentrate top issues into four or five proposals, rather than file dozens of bills.

Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Luke Kenley, R-Noblesville, said he killed more than 30 bills in the first half of the session that all requested state funding. The veterans group "had a pretty big wish list" that ought to have been pared down, he said, but they're not the only offenders.

"Everybody has realized that we have some money now, so the number of requests that we have is just pretty amazing," Kenley said.

Lawmakers must also consider Gov. Mike Pence's request for a fiscally responsible balanced budget and the Republican legislative agenda, which prioritizes four major categories: budget, education, ethics and public safety.

Bills that don't fall under those four categories are often turned down, lawmakers said.

That was the case with the proposal to establish a five-year veterans' recovery program to fund and provide treatment for veterans with a traumatic brain injury or posttraumatic stress disorder.

More than 50 lawmakers, including Republican House Speaker Brian Bosma, backed the plan, which would have allowed veterans to receive hyperbaric oxygen therapy. The treatment has been shown to dramatically improve TBI and PTSD symptoms but isn't covered under Medicare or reimbursable under Medicaid.

Bauerle said the legislation received a standing ovation when it unanimously passed the House public health committee, but that's the farthest got.

House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Tim Brown, R-Crawfordsville, declined to give it a hearing before the February deadline, effectively killing the bill.

Rep. Dennis Zent, R-Angola, who authored the proposal, said the program is inexpensive compared with the burden on taxpayers when veterans aren't successful after deployment.

A 2008 study by the RAND Center for Military Health Policy Research found that PTSD affects roughly 5 percent to 15 percent of all servicemen and women. With more than 450,000 Indiana veterans, approximately 22,500 to 67,500 could be suffering from the disorder.

"They require help from the government for services such as food stamps and unemployment money," Zent said. "That costs the taxpayers funds, but it costs these people their productive lives."

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