VA Home Loan Changes, GI Bill Benefits Among Help for Veterans in Year-End Bills Signed by Biden

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A home is advertised for sale in Hampton Roads, Va., Jan. 3, 2017.
A home is advertised for sale in Hampton Roads, Va., Jan. 3, 2017. (Staff Sgt. Teresa J. Cleveland/U.S. Air Force photo)

A streamlined appraisal process for Department of Veterans Affairs home loans, an easier way to transfer GI Bill benefits to a new school, and more support for survivors of military sexual trauma.

Those are some of the improvements for veterans that are coming after President Joe Biden signed a batch of veterans-related bills Monday that Congress cleared in the closing days of its session this year.

The bills were passed by the Senate by unanimous consent, meaning there was no vocal opposition, last week after being approved by the House earlier this year.

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One of the bills, the Improving Access to the VA Home Loan Benefit Act, requires the VA to update its rules on appraisals of homes bought using its home loan benefit.

Lawmakers in both parties have voiced concerns that the VA home loan program is leaving veterans at a disadvantage against buyers with commercial loans amid a fiercely competitive housing market, in part because of a lengthy appraisal process. VA officials have said its appraisals can take an average of 14.8 business days to complete, compared to a couple of days for a non-VA loan.

Under the new law, the VA has 90 days to recommend ways Congress can speed up the appraisal process and 180 days to issue new guidance on appraisals.

The bill stipulates the new guidance should cover when to allow desktop appraisals, which are done through tax records and other public documents, rather than in-person inspections. The VA will need to take into account whether doing a desktop appraisal will save the borrower money and whether a traditional appraisal would slow the process enough to risk losing the home, according to the bill.

Biden also signed a bill that aims to make it easier to transfer credits to a new school or restore GI Bill benefits if the college a veteran is attending abruptly shuts down.

Under current law, students at schools that suddenly close can have GI Bill benefits restored if they transfer to a new school with fewer than 12 credits. But lawmakers and advocates have expressed concern the process is confusing and leaves veterans unable to easily transfer credits or unsure of the status of their benefits.

Under the new law, dubbed the Veterans Eligible to Transfer School Credit Act, student veterans will certify in writing that they're transferring fewer than 12 credits, and the VA will have to accept that certification as proof the full benefits can be restored. Veterans will also have to certify that, if they're transferring more than 12 credits, they are not eligible to have benefits restored.

Also now law are several bills aimed at improving the benefits claims process for survivors of military sexual trauma, or MST.

One of those bills, the MST Claims Coordination Act, requires the Veterans Health and Benefits administrations to coordinate on reaching out to the veteran making the claim about the resources available to them, including mental health appointments.

Another of the bills, the Dignity for MST Survivors Act, requires members of the Veterans Board of Appeals to have annual training on military sexual trauma. The bill also requires the VA to ensure denial letters don't retraumatize veterans through "insensitive language" and that any medical exams done in connection with a claim use "trauma-informed practices."

MST survivors will also be assigned a trained peer support specialist to counsel them during the claims process, unless they choose not to have one, under another bill signed into law, the VA Peer Support Enhancement for MST Survivors Act. And the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine will do a comprehensive review of whether the medical exams provided to veterans submitting claims related to MST are adequate under yet another new bill signed into law.

Another GI Bill-related measure cleared Congress before lawmakers left town but is still awaiting Biden's expected signature. That bill, the Veterans Auto and Education Improvement Act, will allow GI Bill protections created during the COVID-19 pandemic to be immediately revived in any future national emergency.

At the beginning of the pandemic, student veterans were in danger of losing some of their GI Bill benefits as colleges closed campuses and moved classes online, since tuition and housing benefits are typically halved for online classes compared to in-person courses. Congress passed a series of bills at the height of the pandemic to ensure student veterans continued receiving their full benefits even if classes went online, but came close several times to letting those protections lapse even as some campuses remained shuttered.

Under the new bill, the VA will be able to pay full GI Bill benefits without any further action by Congress if a future emergency forces schools to close.

-- Rebecca Kheel can be reached at rebecca.kheel@military.com. Follow her on Twitter @reporterkheel.

Related: GI Bill Benefits Wouldn't Be Cut if Classes Move Online in Future Emergencies Under House Plan

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