The House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs held a comprehensive hearing today examining the VA’s OIG report into the systemic failures in Phoenix.
For too long, the needs of America’s veterans had been forgotten or not given the attention they deserve. Even during wartime, budgets for the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) failed to keep up with the real needs of veterans. Incidents like poor care for soldiers at Walter Reed and restricted access to VA health care were wake up calls that Congress needed to do more. Democrats gained control of Congress in 2007 and responded by passing significant legislation to provide historic budget increases for veterans, expand access to VA health care, improve health services for all veterans, and modernize benefits earned by America’s servicemembers.
In the 110th and 11th Congresses, the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs conducted more than 200 hearings and passed more than 135 bills – making the Committee one of the most productive in history. The agenda was clear: address the emerging needs of veterans, as well as those needs that have lingered for years. Legislative successes include a G.I. Bill for the 21st Century, a nearly 60% increase in the baseline of the VA’s health care budget, and a program for veteran caregivers which was the top priority of many veteran service organizations. Congress also passed advance appropriations to ensure a predictable funding stream for veterans’ health care one year in advance and concentrated on providing care for veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress and traumatic brain injury.
The cost of war is high. Too many veterans remain uncompensated for their service, and there is much to be done to prepare to keep the promises made to today’s fighting troops. Meeting the needs of America’s veterans is a fundamental cost of war – and will remain a top priority.
A NEW DIRECTION FOR FUNDING THE NEEDS OF AMERICA’S VETERANS
Landmark Budgets Worthy of Our Veterans
Since 2007, Congress has provided a 60% increase in VA discretionary funding, adding nearly $23 billion for veterans’ health care and services. Although the country was involved in two major conflicts, VA health care funding had not increased, co-pay increases were proposed, and investment in much-needed research to provide the best care for veterans suffering from unknown injuries languished. Responding to a VA strained to its breaking point, Committee Members went to work to ensure that the cost of the war included the cost of the warrior and fought for budgets that honor the sacrifices of our service members and veterans.
Advance Appropriations for Veterans Health Care (P.L. 111-81)
Congress successfully secured advance appropriations for the VA, which provided a stable and uninterrupted source of funding for medical care for veterans one year in advance. This landmark legislation guarantees that the VA can better prepare for the health care needs of America’s veterans.
VETERANS’ HEALTH CARE
Immediately Addressed Needs of Returning Veterans (P.L. 110-181)
- Expanded VA Health Care Access for Returning Combat Veterans: In early 2007, the Walter Reed scandal broke and America saw first-hand the grim reality of seriously wounded service members as they struggled to get necessary care and support during their recovery. Since the majority of returning wounded enters the VA system for their medical treatment, the Committee immediately identified weaknesses in the VA’s ability to ensure a seamless continuum of care. Congress voted to provide an additional three years of VA health care eligibility for returning Iraq and Afghanistan veterans (for a total of five years).
- Improved Treatment for Signature War Injuries: Laws were passed to improve and expand the VA’s ability to care for returning Iraq and Afghanistan veterans suffering from traumatic brain injury, while also addressing the rising instances of post-traumatic stress.
- Information Sharing Saves Lives: In 2009, President Obama ordered the Department of Defense and the VA to work together to define and build a Joint Virtual Lifetime Electronic record that will ultimately contain administrative and medical information from the day an individual enters military service throughout their military career, and into the veteran phase of life.
Access, Access, Access (P.L. 111-163 and P.L. 111-117)
- Low Income Veterans: Additional funding allowed VA to open up the health care system to new non-service connected, Priority Group 8 veterans, a group of veterans shut out of the VA health care system since 2003.
- Women Veterans: The Caregivers and Veterans Omnibus Health Services Act of 2010 expands and improves VA services for the 1.8 million women veterans, anticipates the expected increase of women warriors over the next five years, provides for a much-needed study on barriers to health care access for women, provides training for mental health care professionals caring for veterans with sexual trauma, and authorizes VA to provide health care for newborn infants of women veterans.
- Rural Veterans: Congress provided an additional $30 million in funding to increase the number of Community Based Outpatient Clinics for the more than 3.2 million veterans living in rural areas who do not have ready access to VA hospitals. Congress dramatically increased the veteran’s mileage reimbursement from 11 cents to 41.5 cents – the same as a government employee. The Caregivers and Veterans Omnibus Health Services Act of 2010 establishes a grant program for veteran service organizations to provide transportation options to veterans in highly rural areas and increases the health care options provided to our rural veterans by authorizing stronger partnerships with community providers and the Department of Health and Human Services.
Increased Support for Veteran Caregivers (P.L. 111-163)
- All Veterans: Supporting veteran caregivers was the top legislative priority of many veteran service organizations. The Caregivers and Veterans Omnibus Health Services Act of 2010 provides immediate support for veteran caregivers by creating a program to offer caregiver training, access to mental health counseling, and 24-hour respite care in the veteran’s home. This allows caregivers temporary relief without having to leave the veteran at a medical facility.
- Returning Veterans: Certain veterans who served in Operation Enduring Freedom/Operation Iraqi Freedom are eligible to select a caregiver to receive a financial stipend along with travel and lodging expenses associated with the veteran’s care.
Addressed Urgent Mental Health Needs of Veterans (P.L. 111-163, P.L. 110-387 and P.L. 110-110)
- Suicide Prevention: The Caregivers and Veterans Omnibus Health Services Act of 2010 addresses the troubling reality of post-traumatic stress and troubling incidents of suicide among the veteran population by requiring a much-needed and long-awaited study on veterans’ suicide and requiring the VA to provide counseling referrals for members of the Armed Forces who are not otherwise eligible for readjustment counseling. The Joshua Omvig Veterans Suicide Prevention Act addresses the troubling increase of suicide in our veteran community. It offers comprehensive services to veterans and established a 24-hour toll-free suicide hotline which has served more than 300,000 veterans, family members, and friends.
- Service Connection for PTSD: After Congressional pressure to address the difficulties veterans encountered when required to prove stressors in order to receive service-connected compensation for post-traumatic stress incurred as a result of their military service, VA simplified the process to immediately help combat veterans get the help they need. Now, proof of service in uniform in a war zone, combined with a later diagnosis of PTSD, will be all that is required.
- Counseling for Families: The Veterans' Mental Health and Other Care Improvements Act of 2008 expands mental health services, increases research through the National Center for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, and provides much needed counseling for families of veterans.
- Substance Use Counseling: The Veterans Mental Health and Other Care Improvements Act of 2008 offers enhanced screening, counseling, outpatient and inpatient care, and other key improvements to the substance use treatment services available through VA.
Expanded Veteran Homelessness Prevention and Care (P.L. 111-163 and P.L. 111-275)
- Expanded Housing Options: Congress voted to provide funding to renovate surplus buildings on VA medical campuses to use as housing for homeless veterans. The Caregivers and Veterans Omnibus Health Services Act of 2010 expands the number of places where homeless veterans may receive supportive services. For veterans struggling without a roof over their heads, this small change in the law will make a big difference in their lives.
- Expanded Support Services: The Veterans’ Benefits Act of 2010 reauthorized the Homeless Veterans Reintegration Program through fiscal year 2011 and authorized an additional $1 million to provide dedicated services for homeless women veterans and homeless veterans with children. Grants were made available to provide job training, counseling, placement services, and child care services to expedite the reintegration of veterans into the labor force.
Invested in Research for Veterans’ Health Care (P.L. 111-163 and P.L. 111-275)
- Increased Budgets: Congress invested in healing and helping injured veterans by adding $144 million for medical and prosthetic research, an increase of more than 25% over three years.
- Gulf War Illness Research: Congressional hearings found that veterans are suffering from acute and chronic symptoms attributed to their military service in the Gulf War Region and continue to experience barriers to care and services from the VA. The Veterans’ Benefits Act of 2010 extended the evaluation of chronic multi-symptom illness by the National Academy of Sciences of veterans of the Persian Gulf War and Post-9/11 Global Operations and allowed the Institute of Medicine to carry out a comprehensive review of best treatment practices for chronic multi-symptom illness in Gulf War veterans, along with a plan for dissemination of best practices through VA.
- Expanded Research Partners: The Caregivers and Veterans Omnibus Health Services Act of 2010 authorized the establishment of multi-medical center research corporations by merging single facility nonprofit research corporations and improves accountability of the corporations.
A G.I. Bill for the 21st Century (P.L. 110-252)
The Post-9/11 G.I. Bill is the greatest overhaul of the G.I. Bill in over 20 years, covering the cost of a college education at a public university.
Enhanced Employment Opportunities (P.L. 111-275)
Congress voted to reauthorize the VA work-study program and provide on-the job training for veterans in the energy sector, by awarding competitive grants to three states that boast a diverse energy industry and have the ability to carry out such a training program.
A Modernized VA Home Loan Program (P.L. 110-245, P.L. 110-298, P.L. 110-389)
Sweeping legislation provided veterans with the necessary time to readjust from the battlefield back into their communities without fear of losing their home. New laws prohibit foreclosure for nine months after military service, provide a much needed increase to the VA loan limit to better match current home prices, and revamp the VA home loan program by enabling more veterans to refinance with VA loans. Congress also expanded homeownership opportunities by making thousands of veterans eligible for low-interest loans.
Reforms to Benefits Claims System (P.L. 110-389)
The Veterans’ Benefits Improvement Act of 2008 provides essential reforms to bring the claims processing system up-to-date for more accurate and timely delivery of benefits to veterans, families, and survivors. The Committee continues to monitor the on-going implementation and continues to focus added attention on the disgraceful claims backlog.
Better Insurance Options for Service Members and Veterans (P.L. 111-275)
Congress ensured the welfare of veterans and their families by providing increases to outdated insurance policy limits for service members and veterans, many who are severely disabled or have suffered traumatic injury. The new law provides an increase to the maximum loan guarantee amount under the Veterans’ Mortgage Life Insurance program and allows totally disabled veterans to receive free Servicemembers' Group Life Insurance coverage for two years following separation from active or reserve duty.
Honor for Fallen Service Members and Their Families (P.L. 111-275)
Congress increased burial and funeral benefits and plot allowances for veterans who are eligible for a burial at a national cemetery or who died in a VA facility from $300 to $700. Further, parents whose child gave their life in service to our country are now allowed to be buried in a national cemetery with that child when their veteran child has no living spouse or children.
Protection for Service Members Called to Combat (P.L. 111-275)
P.L. 111-275 prohibits early termination fees for certain contracts like cell phone service and residential leases after service members receive notice of military orders to relocate to a site that does not support the contract.
Better Benefits (P.L. 111-275)
P.L. 111-275 increases the number of veterans able to receive independent assisted living services, provides greater automobile and adaptive equipment to veterans with severe burn injuries, and increases the automobile allowance for disabled veterans from $11,000 to $18,900.
Dignified Burial and Other Veterans’ Benefits Improvement Act of 2012 (S. 3202)
P.L. 112-260 – January 10, 2013
Authorizes VA to furnish a casket or urn of sufficient quality for a dignified burial in a national cemetery of a deceased veteran in the case where the VA is unable to identify the veteran’s next-of-kin and determines that sufficient resources are not otherwise available.
Improving Transparency of Education Opportunities for Veterans Act of 2012 (H.R. 4057)
P.L. 112-249 – January 10, 2013
Directs the VA to develop a comprehensive policy to improve outreach and transparency to veterans seeking information on institutions of higher learning.
Veterans’ Compensation Cost-of-Living Adjustment Act of 2012 (H.R. 4114)
P.L. 112-198 – November 27, 2012
Provided, effective December 1, 2012, a cost-of-living adjustment at the same level of the increase provided to Social Security beneficiaries, in the rates of disability compensation, dependency and indemnity rates, and other benefits. The increase amounted to 1.9 percent.
VA Major Construction Authorization and Expiring Authorities Extension Act of 2012 (H.R. 6375)
P.L. 112-191 – October 5, 2012
Authorizes VA major construction projects in Seattle, Washington; Dallas, Texas; and Miami, Florida and extends certain expiring provisions of law.
To require the Transportation Security Administration to comply with the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (H.R. 3670)
P.L. 112-171 – August 6, 2012
Requires the Transportation Security Administration to comply with the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA).
Honoring America’s Veterans and Caring for Camp Lejeune Families Act of 2012 (H.R. 1627)
P.L. 112-154 – August 6, 2012
This omnibus veterans’ measure authorizes health care benefits to veterans who served at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina and their family members for any of 15 listed cancers and illnesses; authorizes the VA to waive copayments; requires VA to reimburse State veterans’ homes providing nursing home care at contractual rates; makes improvements to VA’s specially adapted housing program; makes permanent VA’s ability to guarantee veterans’ adjustable rate and hybrid adjustable rate mortgages; makes improvements to VA’s homeless grant and per diem program; and makes other benefit improvements.
Veterans’ Compensation Cost-of-Living Adjustment Act of 2011 (S. 894)
P.L. 112-53 – November 9, 2011
Provided, effective December 1, 2011, a cost-of-living adjustment at the same level of the increase provided to Social Security beneficiaries, in the rates of disability compensation, dependency and indemnity rates, and other benefits. The increase amounted to 3.6 percent.
Veterans Health Care Facilities Capital Improvement Act of 2011 (H.R. 2646)
P.L. 112-37 – October 5, 2011
Authorizes VA major construction projects in Seattle, Washington and Los Angeles, California, as well as modifying previously-authorized projects in Fayetteville, Arkansas; Orlando, Florida; Palo Alto, California; San Juan, Puerto Rico; and St. Louis, Missouri. Authorizes major medical facility leases in Mobile, Alabama; San Jose, California; Columbus, Georgia; Fort Wayne, Indiana; Springfield, Missouri; Rochester, New York; and Salem, Oregon. Modifies requirements relating to Congressional approval of projects, and extended certain expiring provisions of law.
Restoring GI Bill Fairness Act of 2011 (H.R. 1383)
P.L. 112-26 – August 3, 2011
Temporarily restores to July, 31, 2014, the original Post-9/11 GI Bill method of paying tuition and fees based on the maximum in-state, undergraduate fee schedule.
National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2013 (H.R. 4310)
P.L. 112-239 – January 2, 2013
Includes provisions strengthening VA’s mental health programs and requires a report on VA’s claims process.
To amend the Internal Revenue Code of 1986 to repeal the imposition of 3 percent withholding on certain payments made to vendors by government entities, to modify the calculation of modified adjust gross income for purposes of determining eligibility for certain healthcare-related programs, and for other purposes (H.R. 674)
P.L. 112-56 – November 21, 2011
This measure included, as title II, the VOW to Hire Heroes Act of 2011. This directs the VA to establish a program of job retraining assistance to veterans who are at least 35 years old but not more than 60, who are unemployed; makes improvements to the Transition Assistance Program; amends the Wounded Warrior Act to extend the authority of the VA to provide rehabilitative and vocational benefits; and makes other job-related improvements.