Senate to take up major overhaul of VA benefits

Thursday - 1/23/2014, 4:30am EST

Jared Serbu reports.

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The chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee said Wednesday he has been assured the full Senate soon will take up a massive omnibus bill that veterans groups say is the most sweeping update to veterans' benefits in modern memory.

The bill, first introduced last week by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), checks most of the boxes on the legislative wish lists of veterans' advocacy groups, many of whom already have formally endorsed the legislation.

It repeals a controversial provision of the new budget agreement that ignited a firestorm in the veterans' community: a reduction in annual cost of living increases for military retirees.

"It brings together a number of individual provisions that have been passed over the last year by the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, often in a bipartisan way," Sanders told reporters on a conference call. "Within the next few days, I think we're going to have the support of every major veterans organization in the country."

The 400-page measure includes language that would fully reverse a provision of the Ryan-Murray budget agreement that was estimated to save $6 billion over the next 10 years by scaling back military retiree COLAs by 1 percent per year.

Many lawmakers already have expressed support for undoing those COLA reductions, and many have introduced bills of their own to find deficit reduction savings elsewhere. The Sanders bill, however, does not propose any offsetting spending reductions.

Bigger goal for hiring veterans

The bill would also expand various VA disability, health and education benefits and make a long-term change designed to make sure disability payments aren't threatened by Congress' inability to pass budgets.

The Veterans Health Administration already receives its appropriations a year in advance to prevent its hospitals and clinics from shutting down during budget impasses. The Senate measure would extend that practice to the Veterans Benefits Administration.

"In the last government shutdown, we were perhaps 10 days away from disabled veterans not getting the checks that many of them depend on, and checks for pensions as well would not have been forthcoming. That is unacceptable, and I don't think any member of Congress wants to see that happen," Sanders said. "So what we have done is establish advance appropriations for all the mandatory accounts at VA."

The legislation also would require the Office of Personnel Management to ensure that agencies hire at least 15,000 more veterans in addition to existing veterans employment programs in the government, though Sanders told reporters he would expect agencies merely to "do their best" to meet that requirement if they're currently keeping positions unfilled because of budget-forced hiring freezes.

Additionally, VA would have to comply with new reporting requirements with respect to its current backlog of disability claims and its progress toward its stated goal of ending the backlog by 2015. The department would have to provide quarterly updates to Congress not just on the size of the backlog, but its projections of incoming claims, how many have been completed and how many are on appeal and other data points.

On the benefits front, the bill makes dozens of changes expanding several existing veterans' entitlements and creating a few new ones, such as dental care and complementary and alternative medicine.

"We're creating a major pilot that begins the process of making dental care part of VA health care, something that I think veterans feel very strongly about," Sanders said. "VA, I think, is doing a good job with alternative and complementary medicine, but we want to expand it. The goal there is to try to deal with the issue of overmedication, and that's something that a lot of veterans groups feel strongly about."

Crackdown on for-profit colleges

Among other examples of benefit expansions, caregivers for all generations of disabled veterans would be eligible for government stipends; current law gives those payments only to people who are caring for post-9/11 vets.

The bill also would expand payments to survivors of service members who die in the line of duty and give VA the go-ahead to sign leases for 27 new community-based outpatient clinics, which have been awaiting approval for two years.

As to education programs, the measure would try to crack down on alleged deceptive practices in the for-profit college industry by making it illegal to use the phrase "GI Bill" to market their schools or loan products without explicit permission from VA. And it attempts to shore up one of the tenets of the post-9/11 GI Bill, which covers in-state college tuition for veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.