Congress Passes One VA Bill — But There Are Still Many More to Go

A long-awaited VA bill is on its way to becoming law, but more work remains to be done.

Vietnam War veteran Bernie Klemanek of Louisa County, Virginia salutes with fellow veterans during a Veterans Day event at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial on the National Mall November 11, 2013 in Washington, DC.
National Journal
Jordain Carney
July 31, 2014, 4:44 p.m.

A bill that re­forms the be­sieged Vet­er­ans Af­fairs health sys­tem headed to­ward the pres­id­ent’s desk Thursday, but oth­er vet­er­ans le­gis­la­tion re­mains stub­bornly stuck in the halls of Con­gress.

The 91-to-3 vote in the Sen­ate on Thursday comes a day after the pro­pos­al got near-un­an­im­ous ap­prov­al in the House. The le­gis­la­tion would im­prove vet­er­ans’ ac­cess to private health care, al­low the VA to lease more fa­cil­it­ies, and make it easi­er to fire staffers.

But law­makers and vet­er­ans ad­voc­ates say there is plenty more work to be done at the Vet­er­ans Af­fairs De­part­ment, which rock­eted in­to the spot­light in April amid al­leg­a­tions of data ma­nip­u­la­tion and vet­er­ans’ deaths at a VA fa­cil­ity in Phoenix. And a stack of pro­posed VA bills have yet to reach the floor for a vote.

We’ve roun­ded up a list of some of the key vet­er­ans is­sues law­makers are still at­tempt­ing to tackle, as well as de­tails on the lan­guish­ing le­gis­la­tion that goes with them.

Sui­cide: The Fort Hood shoot­ing earli­er this year high­lighted a chron­ic con­cern for the mil­it­ary: sol­diers tak­ing their own lives. But it’s not just act­ive-duty troops. The VA es­tim­ates that 22 vet­er­ans com­mit sui­cide each day, total­ing more than 8,000 a year.

Sen. John Walsh of Montana, an Ir­aq vet­er­an him­self, in­tro­duced the Sui­cide Pre­ven­tion for Amer­ica’s Vet­er­ans Act roughly a week be­fore the Fort Hood shoot­ing oc­curred.

Walsh’s le­gis­la­tion would ex­pand vet­er­ans’ eli­gib­il­ity to en­roll in VA health care from five to 15 years after leav­ing the mil­it­ary. This would help ad­dress the fear that the timeline doesn’t ac­count for the fact that some vet­er­ans have a delayed re­ac­tion to trauma.

Be­cause a ma­jor­ity of vet­er­ans’ sui­cides oc­cur among sol­diers who are 50 and older, the bill would also force the Pentagon to reex­am­ine troops who were dis­charged for be­ha­vi­ors re­lated to post-trau­mat­ic stress dis­order — which can in­clude night­mares, flash­backs, changes in per­son­al­ity, sleep­ing dis­orders, and sui­cid­al thoughts. Law­makers hope that a re­view of these dis­charges could lead to vet­er­ans, who may not cur­rently qual­i­fy for VA care be­cause of a less than hon­or­able dis­charge, get­ting help.

A bi­par­tis­an House bill, in­tro­duced by Rep. Timothy Walz, would also re­quire a re­view of dis­charged sol­diers. It also calls for a pi­lot pro­gram that of­fers fin­an­cial in­cent­ives to lure more men­tal-health of­fi­cials to the VA and re­quires an an­nu­al re­port on men­tal-health and sui­cide-pre­ven­tion pro­grams at the Pentagon and VA.

And while both bills have bi­par­tis­an sup­port, they are also both wait­ing to be brought up in their com­mit­tees.

Lauren Au­gustine, a le­gis­lat­ive as­so­ci­ate for the Ir­aq and Afgh­anistan Vet­er­ans of Amer­ica, said that while there’s sup­port for sui­cide-pre­ven­tion bills on Cap­it­ol Hill, the or­gan­iz­a­tion is run­ning in­to “par­tis­an block­age.”

Dis­ab­il­ity-claims back­log: Law­makers and vet­er­ans ad­voc­ates have been long fo­cused on the Vet­er­ans Be­ne­fits Ad­min­is­tra­tion’s pay and pen­sion work­load — in par­tic­u­lar, dis­ab­il­ity claims that have re­mained stuck in the sys­tem for more than 125 days.

The House passed le­gis­la­tion in Oc­to­ber that would cre­ate a task force to ex­am­ine and provide solu­tions for the dis­ab­il­ity-claims back­log and make it easi­er for vet­er­ans to file ap­peals.

And an om­ni­bus vet­er­ans pack­age pushed earli­er this year by Sen. Bernie Sanders would re­quire the Gov­ern­ment Ac­count­ab­il­ity Of­fice to study wheth­er VBA’s plans will im­prove timeli­ness and ac­cur­acy. It calls for le­gis­lat­ive pro­pos­als for fur­ther im­prove­ments. But while Sanders’s deal-mak­ing abil­it­ies have been in the spot­light dur­ing the re­cent con­fer­ence-com­mit­tee ne­go­ti­ations, his earli­er le­gis­la­tion is con­sidered all but dead.

Demo­crat­ic Sens. Robert Ca­sey, Jon Test­er, and Mar­tin Hein­rich, along with Re­pub­lic­an Sens. Dean Heller, Dav­id Vit­ter, and Jerry Mor­an, are push­ing a bill that in­creases the amount of back pay a vet­er­an can re­ceive for sub­mit­ting a fully de­veloped claim, and calls for the Vet­er­ans Be­ne­fits Ad­min­is­tra­tion to be audited. It also pushes for more trans­par­ency on the back­log and num­ber of ap­peals.

Heller asked for a markup and hear­ing on the le­gis­la­tion in April, and he brought it up at VA Sec­ret­ary Robert Mc­Don­ald’s con­firm­a­tion hear­ing last week. But the markup hear­ing has yet to be held.

Elec­tron­ic health re­cords: Law­makers have long lamen­ted the in­ab­il­ity of the VA and the De­fense De­part­ment to share vet­er­ans’ health re­cords elec­tron­ic­ally. And the two de­part­ments have had the goal of be­ing able to swap re­cords since 1998 — to no avail.

Dis­ab­il­ity claims are routinely put on hold as VA staffers wait to get ser­vice re­cords from the Pentagon, which are needed to help de­term­ine if an in­jury is ser­vice-re­lated.

A Pentagon in­spect­or gen­er­al re­port re­leased Thursday found that delays from the Pentagon “likely con­trib­uted to delays in [the VA’s] pro­cessing vet­er­an’s be­ne­fit claims.” For ex­ample, 77 per­cent of ser­vice treat­ment re­cords trans­ferred from the Army to the VA in 2013 took longer than 45 days, ac­cord­ing to the re­port.

Rep. Phil Roe of Ten­ness­ee is ap­peal­ing to Amer­ic­ans’ wal­lets, in­tro­du­cing le­gis­la­tion to al­low the two de­part­ments to of­fer up to $50 mil­lion to someone that de­vel­ops a na­tion­wide, fully in­teg­rated elec­tron­ic health-re­cords pro­gram.

Mean­while in the Sen­ate, Sen. Bill Nel­son wants the de­part­ments to be able to share health re­cords with­in one year, and for vet­er­ans to be able to down­load their med­ic­al re­cords with­in 180 days of his bill be­com­ing law.

The down­side? It’s still wait­ing for a vote in the Sen­ate Vet­er­ans’ Af­fairs Com­mit­tee, which won’t meet again for more than a month.

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