Senate lawmakers on Thursday approved an omnibus Veterans Affairs bill they say expands programs without paying for them at the expense of others by reworking the GI Bill housing payment to mirror that received by active-duty members.
The nearly 400-page Veterans First Act approved by the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee does not, for example, include a provision to cut the housing allowance for children going to college on a parent's GI Bill -- a controversial measure that is part of the House Veterans Affairs Committee package.
"The way this is being paid for doesn't damage the benefits of veterans who receive in other areas," Sen. Jerry Moran, a Republican from Kansas, said during a group press conference on Thursday morning. "So we're not taking away a benefit to pay for another benefit."
However, a source told Military.com on Thursday the legislation does roll back spending elsewhere.
The Senate bill would reduce the annual increase to the monthly housing allowance for all recipients of the Post-9/11 GI Bill, including veterans themselves, by 1 percent for five years, causing it to eventually mirror the payment received by active-duty service members.
Service members' BAH is currently on track to cover only 95 percent of housing costs by 2018 due to measures included in the annual National Defense Authorization Act, while the GI Bill payments have been exempt from that reduction. The new measure would remove that exemption, bringing a 5 percent reduction to GI Bill housing payments by the end of five years, said the source, who agreed to speak on background.
The House veterans' bill would cut in half the housing allowance given to veterans' children, using the savings -- about $750 million over 10 years -- to pay for new or expanded veterans programs. The measure is opposed by some veterans groups and reluctantly backed by others.
The bipartisan Senate bill must still be reconciled with the House version and a final package approved by both chambers.
The Senate package also includes provisions intended to make it easier to fire employees, including senior executives who engage in wrongful behavior, places caps on bonuses and adds new protections for whistleblowers.
In recent years, the VA has reeled from a series of scandals, including unauthorized wait-lists for veterans seeking appointments and executives manipulating the system to retain or earn bonuses or accepting gifts. At the same time, there has been a pattern of retaliation against whistleblowers who have brought problems to the attention of leadership, lawmakers have said.
One way senior executives and others would be held accountable would be to change their employments status, so that they could be removed by VA Secretary Bob McDonald without some of protections they currently enjoy, including appealing to the Merit System Protection Board.
"The numerous scandals at the VA and the outrageous examples of employee mismanagement and misconduct have got to stop," said Sen. Johnny Isakson, chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee. "Our bill will begin to change the culture of corruption at the VA by giving the VA the tools it needs to hold bad actors accountable."
The omnibus bill also proposes to expand a department program that allows seriously injured veterans to receive care in their own homes; enhance mental health care programs; and halt the over-prescribing of opioids to veterans.
Sen. Joe Manchin, a Democrat from West Virginia, one of the sponsors of the Jason Simcakoski Memorial Opioid Safety Act incorporated into the legislation, said it includes new guidelines for prescribing opioids for outpatient treatment, as well as for patient case management, and options for alternatives.
"Veterans have been condemned a lot for bringing the pain threshold -- the fifth element of wellness -- in and opening the onslaught of opiate addiction that we have," Manchin said. "If you want to blame that part, let's look at the person taking the lead for the cure -- the veterans, the veterans committee, and Secretary [Bob] McDonald" of the VA.
The bill also would direct the VA to commence research into potential health problems of children and grandchildren of veterans who were exposed to toxins, including the chemical defoliant Agent Orange.
Moran said the Senate committee had worked closely with Vietnam Veterans of America on the bill, as well as with veterans of the most recent wars.
"But what is now prevalent is we're seeing those kinds of symptoms in the next generation, the children and grandchildren," Moran said. "I'm quite certain that while our military men and women recognized there would be some sacrifice to be paid by their experience in war, none of them would have expected their children or grandchildren to pay a price for their service."
This bill, he said, not only begins to recognize that's what happened, but seeks to ensure they get the care they require.
Other provisions included in the Senate bill include:
-- Expanding the VA's Comprehensive Assistance for Family Caregivers program to all generations of veterans. Currently, only Post-9/11 veterans are eligible.
-- Establishing standards for the prompt payment to non-VA health care providers who treat veterans under the Choice Act.
-- Making it possible for mobilized reservists to earn GI Bill eligibility.
-- Expanding research on the potential health effects from toxic exposure to veterans and their descendants.
-- Strengthening programs to combat veteran homelessness.
-- Improving the disability claims and appeals process by requiring the VA to launch a pilot program that will cut down the massive backlog of appeals awaiting action.
McDonald, in a statement Thursday afternoon, said there is "much to support in the bill," but believes the Senate's proposal to run an alternative pilot plan to address the appeals process falls short of the mark.
The Senate suggests the fully developed claims process that the VA is advocating be done on a pilot basis only, and that veterans may opt for the standard process. The department maintains the existing process is the problem, because it allows for a claim to be appealed without end.
The Senate bill also includes language capping the total amount of money that the VA may award in bonuses in the coming years. For the current fiscal year, the aggregate amount may not exceed $360 million. For the period 2017 through 2021, it may not total more than $300 million.
Lawmakers also included language stipulating that low-wage employees should not be disproportionately hit by the caps, and that the VA should use bonuses as incentives for high-performing workers in areas where retention is a problem.
Correction: This story initially reported the wrong amounts for the proposed caps on bonuses.