Veterans’ Legislation Passed in Congress

Last week, on October 10, 2011, the House of Representatives passed five veterans bills, H.R. 2074, H.R. 2349, H.R. 2302, H.R. 1025 and H.R. 2433. H.R. 2433, the Veterans Opportunity to Work Act of 2011, introduced by House Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller (FL), offers college training to unemployed veterans. The legislation allows 100,000 unemployed veterans ages 35 through 60 to apply for benefits from the Department of Labor (DOL). Eligible veterans could choose to enhance their skills with up to a year of training for high-demand career fields. It provides an opportunity for unemployed veterans aged 35 to 60 to gain new skills by offering them a temporary education and training benefit. The program would allow these veterans to enroll in courses at community colleges and technical training schools. Education payments would only be payable to veterans enrolled in education or training courses that lead to an associate degree, certificate, or similar qualification, in a high demand occupation as determined by the Secretary of Labor. To qualify for the retraining assistance, veterans must be unemployed; at least 35, but not more than 60 years of age; discharged from active duty service under honorable conditions; and ineligible to receive any other educational assistance from VA. Approval of this legislation also makes participation in the Transition Assistance Program mandatory for most military service members. It would mandate that the DOL’s licensure and certification demonstration project to identify and to eliminate barriers between military training and civilian licensure or credentialing for military occupational specialties. Enactment of the legislation would require DOL, in concert with state workforce agencies, to implement new performances measures to evaluate the priority of services provided to eligible veterans and mandates that Disabled Veterans’ Outreach Program Specialists and Local Veterans’ Employment Representatives’ sole duty will be to assist eligible veterans in finding suitable employment. DAV is pleased to support this bill as it makes important improvements to support veterans transitioning to civilian life, especially those who return with disabilities from their service and provides greater opportunities for training for unemployed veterans allowing them to improve skills, potentially leading to employment. H.R. 2074, the Veterans Sexual Assault Prevention and Health Care Enhancement Act, introduced by Representative Ann Marie Buerkle (NY), is a comprehensive measure that requires the VA to report and track sexual assaults at its medical facilities and train employees on security issues relating to such assaults. The bill also includes provisions that authorize increased flexibility in establishing payment rates for nursing home care provided by veterans state nursing homes; improve rehabilitative services for veterans for veterans with traumatic brain injury; and clarify the use of service dogs on VA property. DAV supports these provisions in H.R 2074, under DAV Resolution Nos. 193, 184, 190, and 212 respectively. H.R. 2349, the Veterans’ Benefits Act of 2011, introduced by House Veterans’ Affairs Subcommittee on Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs Chairman Jon Runyan (NJ), requires the VA to carry out a pilot program to assess the skills and training provided to claims processors at the Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA). The bill also authorizes VBA to use electronic communication to provide notice to claimants and limits its duty to assist claimants in obtaining private medical records under certain circumstances. The bill also reinstates criminal penalties for anyone charging or attempting to charge veterans unauthorized fees for the preparation, presentation, or prosecution of a claim prior to a notice of disagreement being filed with the Department of Veterans Affairs. DAV does not have a resolution regarding this particular bill; however, we are not opposed to passage of the bill. H.R. 2302, introduced by Representative Marlin A. Stutzman (IN), directs the VA secretary to notify Congress at least 180 days before a conference sponsored by the Department that are at least three days in length, attended by 20 or more individuals and have an estimated cost of at least $5,000.00. The Committee, in its oversight role, wished to monitor such expenses more closely given the growing deficit, and scarce discretionary funding resources. DAV does not have a position on this bill as we have no applicable resolution. H.R. 1025, introduced by Representative Timothy Walz (MN), provides honorary veteran status to individuals who served at least 20 years in the reserves, are younger than 60 and were never called to active duty. DAV has no resolution on this matter, but expressed our concern that, if passed, it may lead to misunderstandings by the public about those veterans who earned the designation of veteran and their subsequent benefits as compared to “honorary veterans.” The DAV advised the Committee that if they did choose to move forward with this legislation then it should clearly specify that “honorary veterans” would not be entitled to the same benefits provided to those who served on active duty. Now that these bills have been approved by the House, they go to the Senate, where they may be considered along with other legislation that the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee has approved. The Senate passed S. 894, the Veterans’ Compensation Cost-of-Living Adjustment Act of 2011, introduced by Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Patty Murray (WA), which would direct the Secretary of Veterans Affairs to provide a cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) in the rates of veterans disability compensation, additional compensation for dependents, the clothing allowance for certain disabled veterans and dependency and indemnity compensation for surviving spouses and children. On October 18, 2011, it was announced that there would be a 3.6 percent COLA for Social Security recipients next year. The Senate immediately and unanimously passed S. 894 to apply this same COLA increase to veterans’ disability compensation payments. Earlier this year, the House approved companion legislation, H.R. 1407. Once the COLA legislation is sent to the President and signed into law, it will provide a much-needed increase for the 3.2 million disabled veterans who receive monthly disability compensation payments as a result of injuries or illnesses suffered in service to the nation. The House and Senate must now decide which bill will be sent to the President before a COLA can become effective for veterans and their dependents and survivors.