Panel Votes to Expand VA Benefits

Senate Committee on Veterans' Affairs

With no heed of a debt crisis, the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee voted Wednesday to help more veterans find work, help more injured vets to gain reproductive health services, and to pay caregivers of seriously disabled veterans who left service before 9/11 a monthly stipend plus expenses.

How to cover the $12 billion cost of these initiatives, over just the next five years, is still to be determined, conceded Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), committee chairman.  But he promised colleagues to try to find the money.

More proposals than these were approved in the catchall "omnibus" bill, S 944, forwarded to the full Senate for further debate and amendments before passage, and later, reconciliation with more modest House plans.

One initiative having no cost would grant "veteran" status to more than 200,000 Reserve and Guard retirees -- those who have served 20 years or more to earn retirement at age 60, but didn't serve at least 180 days on active duty to be viewed as a veteran under current law.

Proponents of this measure say these retirees don't seek more VA benefits.  They simply want to be able to answer "yes" when asked if they are veterans, or to rise at public gatherings when veterans are asked to stand and be recognized.

Other initiatives in S 944 would:

-- Require public or state-run colleges and universities to charge veterans who use the GI Bill their lower in-state tuition rates.

-- Require VA to report publicly once a quarter on disability claims processing goals and how those stack up against actual claim decisions.

-- Make it easier for veterans traumatized by sexually assault in service to gain VA disability compensation.

-- Increase veterans' access to alternative medicine, chiropractic care and other new approaches to care delivery.

Rep. Richard Burr (N.C.), ranking Republican on the committee, was the lone voice opposing all provisions "not paid for," he said, "so we won't continue to saddle future generations of Americans with continued debt."

He opposed Sanders' provision to expand the VA caregiver program, now limited to caregivers of seriously ill or injured post-9/11 veterans.  The program pays a monthly stipend and also caregiver needs for counseling, training, respite periods and travel expenses.

The committee agreed by voice vote to extend the program to caregivers of any severely injured veteran.  Before the vote, Burr noted the $8.5 billion cost over the first five years, and urged Sanders to find offsets elsewhere in the budget before the full Senate votes on the measure.

 "You're right," Sanders told Burr.  "This is an expensive piece of legislation.  So is giving tax breaks to millionaires.  So is having one out of four corporations in this county not paying a nickel in taxes."

After delivering his slap to Republicans who oppose any sort of tax hikes, Sanders went on to promise to do his "best to find the funding" to be able to help more caregivers.

Burr also opposed Sanders's proposal to offer new incentives to employers to hire vets and to renew for two more years the popular Veterans Retraining Assistance Program enacted under the VOW to Hire Heroes Act of 2011.  Burr offered a less costly jobs package, saying Sanders package would cost $2.5 billion over five years and shouldn't be passed unless spending cuts are identified to pay for it.  He also noted that the Government Accountability Office in 2011 urged consolidation of 47 existing federal employment and job training programs to save billions of dollars. Forty-four of these plans overlap with others in some way, Burr said, again citing GAO.

"To be consistent," Burr said, he also opposed Sen. Patty Murray's (D-Wash.) provision to improve VA reproductive assistance to severely wounded, ill or injured vets and spouses.  It too is unfunded.

Defense officials estimate that injuries from improvised explosive devices in Iraq and Afghanistan left almost 2000 veterans, male and female, unable to have children without special medical intervention, for example in vitro fertilization.  That type of treatment is available on active duty but not usually from the VA after vets leave service, Murray said.

All of these provisions cleared the committee by voice vote despite Burr's opposition.  Burr quietly changed from black hat to white on the issue of veteran status for Reserve and National Guard retirees.

For a third straight year, the House has passed The Honor America's Guard-Reserve Retirees Act, this time including the bill language in the fiscal 2014 defense authorization bill.  It would grant vet status to those who served long enough to be eligible for reserve component retired pay.

Most of the impacted retirees served during the Cold War when it was commonplace to serve full careers with no active duty except for training.  These retirees often are surprised to learn they aren't veterans for lack of a DD Form 214, "Certificate of Release or Discharge from Active Duty."

They can't claim veteran preference in applying for federal jobs.  Yet at age 60 they draw military retired pay, can use TRICARE and shop on base.

Burr had blocked Senate committee action on this issue for the past two years, fearing it would lead to expansion of benefits and higher VA costs.  His resistance held even after language was added specifically barring a change in vet status from qualifying these retirees for more benefits.

This week, however, Burr accepted a fresh compromise, which now virtually assures passage by year's end.  The revised language would confer veteran status on Guard and Reserve retirees under a general law provision rather than under Title 38, which governs VA and access to VA benefits.

It's an extra layer of protection against the possibility that these retirees, sometime in the future, will press for benefits that Congress intended as rewards for serving at least 180 days on active duty.

To comment, write Military Update, P.O. Box 231111, Centreville, VA, or email milupdate@aol.com or twitter: Tom Philpott @Military_Update

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Tom Philpott has been breaking news for and about military people since 1977. After service in the Coast Guard, and 17 years as a reporter and senior editor with Army Times Publishing Company, Tom launched "Military Update," his syndicated weekly news column, in 1994. "Military Update" features timely news and analysis on issues affecting active duty members, reservists, retirees and their families.

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