Washington Update for 5/20/2019
The House Committee on Veterans Affairs recently cleared several bills and sent them to the House floor for action. Summaries of each proposal are listed below.
H.R. 2045 - Veterans Benefits Agency
A new agency would be created at the Department of Veterans Affairs to manage veterans benefits programs under H.R. 2045. The current Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA) mostly focuses on disability compensation and pension claims, which has resulted in a lack of attention to other benefits such as education, job training, and home loans, according to a Committee news release.
The bill would establish a “Veterans Economic Opportunity and Transition Administration” at the VA. Starting in fiscal 2021, the office would manage the VA’s vocational rehabilitation, education, employment, housing, and veteran-owned small business programs. The new agency would be led by an undersecretary appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate. If there’s a vacancy, the VA secretary would establish a commission to recommend appointees. The commission would include members representing the VA, veterans, and the private sector.
The VA couldn’t transfer any functions to the new agency until it certifies to Congress that the transition wouldn’t harm veterans. It would have to issue the certification from April 1, 2020, to Sept. 1, 2020, or provide an explanation and estimated date to Congress. The VA would also have to report to Congress annually on the new office’s expenditures, number of employees, and administration of benefits claims.
The VBA would remain responsible for veterans’ pensions and disability payments. The bill would authorize $3.03 billion in fiscal 2020 for VBA general operating expenses, including efforts to reduce the backlog of disability claims. That would be a slight increase from the funding level provided in fiscal 2019 under Public Law 115-244.
Unlike a similar bill passed in the 115th Congress (H.R. 5693; see BGOV Bill Summary), the measure wouldn’t cap the number of employees at the VBA and the new administration. It includes language that would preserve any labor rights, inclusion in a bargaining unit, and collective bargaining agreements of employees transferred to the new administration. The House passed H.R. 5693 in the 115th Congress by voice vote on July 25, 2018, while the Senate did not take action.
Implementing the bill would cost about $2.9 billion from fiscal 2019 through 2024, subject to appropriation, according to a May 16 cost estimate from the Congressional Budget Office. Most of the $2.9 billion would go toward general operating expenses of the VBA, while it would cost $30 million to establish and operate the new benefits agency, including relocation, IT, and administrative expenses. CBO said the measure wouldn’t affect revenue or mandatory spending and doesn’t contain intergovernmental or private-sector mandates.
VA does not support the bill as they stated in testimony on April 9, that the current VBA structure adequately supports employment, education, and housing programs for veterans. The Senate has not acted on similar legislation (S. 1003) introduced by Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.).
House leaders listed H.R. 2045 for possible floor consideration during the week of May 20 under suspension of the rules. A two-thirds majority would be required for passage.
H.R. 1812 - Expand Vet Center Eligibility
Additional veterans and service members, including those who served during a national emergency, would qualify to receive counseling at community-based Veterans Affairs Department facilities under H.R. 1812. Vet Centers provide social and psychological services to veterans, active-duty service members, and National Guard and Reserve members who meet certain criteria, including:
- Serving in a combat theater or area of hostility.
- Experiencing military sexual trauma.
- Providing emergency care or mortuary services to a casualty of combat operations.
- Serving on an unmanned aerial vehicle crew in support of combat operations.
The bill would allow additional veterans and members to access Vet Centers if they served:
- On active duty in response to a national emergency or major disaster declared by the president.
- In the National Guard under a governor’s order responding to a disaster or civil disorder.
- In the Coast Guard as part of a drug interdiction operation.
The VA would also have to submit a plan to provide Vet Centers in areas that don’t currently have them, including U.S. territories. Vet Centers plan an important role in reducing the number of suicides among those who served our country.
An average of 20 veterans die by suicide every day, according to the VA’s analysis of suicide data. That includes as many as four former National Guard or Reserve members who served but were never deployed, according to a Committee fact sheet.
House leaders listed H.R. 1812 for possible floor consideration during the week of May 20 under suspension of the rules. A two-thirds majority would be required for passage.
H.R. 2372 – Study of Veterans Suicide Services
The Government Accountability Office would have to study the effectiveness of agreements between the Veterans Affairs Department and outside groups to provide suicide prevention and mental health services under H.R. 2372.
The assessment would have to cover:
- Each entity’s staffing, accreditation, and target population.
- Any limitations providers may face in carrying out their work.
- The VA’s oversight of service outcomes.
- A breakdown of how providers serve female and minority veterans, veterans older than 55 and between 18 and 34, veterans who live in insular areas such as Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands, and veterans’ families.
GAO would have to conduct its study within 270 days of the bill’s enactment, and report to Congress within 270 days of completing it. An average of 20 veterans die by suicide every day, according to the VA’s analysis of suicide data.
The bill is estimate to cost $1 million from fiscal 2020 through 2024, subject to appropriation, according to the Congressional Budget Office. CBO said the measure wouldn’t affect revenue or mandatory spending and doesn’t contain intergovernmental or private-sector mandates.
House leaders listed H.R. 2372 for possible floor consideration during the week of May 20 under suspension of the rules. A two-thirds majority would be required for passage.
H.R. 2340 – Veterans Suicide Notifications
The Veterans Affairs Department would have to notify Congress about veterans who died by suicide at its facilities under H.R. 2340. VA would have to provide notice of each suicide or attempted suicide within seven days, along with the name and location of the facility.
Within 60 days, the VA would have to provide the following information, if available:
- The veteran’s enrollment status in the VA’s health-care system and most recent encounter with the Veterans Health Administration.
- Whether the veteran had other medical insurance, including TRICARE, Medicare, or Medicaid.
- The veteran’s age, race, gender identity, and sexual orientation, as well as marital, employment, and housing status.
Each notice would have to include a copy of VA guidance designed to deter the sensationalism of suicide, provide information on warning signs, and advertise resources such as the Veterans Crisis Line and readjustment counseling.
VA would have to respect the privacy and dignity of veterans and their families when collecting and reporting information.
An average of 20 veterans die by suicide every day, according to the VA’s analysis of suicide data. At least four veterans
House leaders listed H.R. 2340 for possible floor consideration during the week of May 20 under suspension of the rules. A two-thirds majority would be required for passage.
H.R. 2333 – Veterans Suicide Prevention
The Government Accountability Office would have to assess the Veterans Affairs Department’s support for its suicide prevention coordinators under H.R. 2333. Suicide prevention coordinators work at VA medical centers and are responsible for conducting outreach and identifying high-risk veterans to ensure they receive appropriate care.
The bill would require GAO to assess the coordinators’ responsibilities, workload, training, and vacancy rates. It would have to evaluate the VA’s oversight and determine whether the use of coordinators varies among department facilities. GAO would have to submit a report with its findings to Congress within one year of the bill’s enactment.
Many coordinators report being overworked and unable to keep up with their many responsibilities, according to a Committee. An average of 20 veterans die by suicide every day, according to the VA’s analysis of suicide data. Implementing the bill would cost $1 million from fiscal 2020 through 2024, subject to appropriation, according the Congressional Budget Office. The study would require four full-time GAO employees and take about one year, according to the estimate. CBO said the measure wouldn’t affect revenue or mandatory spending and doesn’t contain intergovernmental or private-sector mandates.
House leaders listed H.R. 2333 for possible floor consideration during the week of May 20 under suspension of the rules. A two-thirds majority would be required for passage.
H.R. 1947 – Veterans’ Education and Headstones
Educational benefits for veterans who receive flight training would be capped by H.R. 1947. The measure would also authorize the Department of Veterans Affairs Department (VA) to provide an inscription for spouses and children on veterans’ headstones.
Educational Benefits for Flight Training
The post-9/11 GI bill (Public Law 110-252) offers educational benefits to members who served for at least 90 days in active duty or in a reserve branch of the armed forces since Sept. 11, 2001. Payments can be used to cover tuition and fees, housing costs, and other expenses.
Members who served for at least 36 months — or who were discharged for a service-connected disability after serving for 30 continuous days — can qualify for full benefits over a 36-month entitlement period. Those who served for less time receive a smaller percentage of benefits. Spouses and children of service members who were killed on active duty since Sept. 11, 2001, can also receive full benefits.
The maximum benefits for the 2019-2020 academic year include the full amount of in-state tuition and fees at a public institution of higher learning, and as much as $24,476.79 a year at a private school. Under the Yellow Ribbon Program, VA and approved institutions can offer additional assistance for tuition and fees that aren’t covered by post-9/11 benefits.
Some public colleges have contracted with third-party schools for flight or helicopter training. Those programs can incur significant costs for aircraft purchases, equipment maintenance, aviation fuel, and insurance. As a result, VA has paid some veterans more than $100,000 for flight training programs, according to a July 2018 cost estimate by the Congressional Budget Office on a measure with similar provisions from the 115th Congress (H.R. 5649).
Under the bill, VA tuition payments for veterans who receive flight training at a public institution would be subject to the annual cap for tuition and fees at private institutions. The change would take effect for a quarter, semester, or term that begins after the bill is enacted. If a student is currently taking flight training at a public institution, the change would be delayed by two years.
The bill would also allow flight training students to receive as much as twice the capped amount for tuition and fees if they choose to receive payments for half as many months. They would be charged two months of benefits for every month they choose to receive an accelerated payment. Total payments couldn’t exceed the actual tuition and fees charged by the institution.
Monthly housing stipends under the post-9/11 program couldn’t be accelerated. Students who exhaust their tuition payments after 18 months would forgo their remaining stipends. Students who wish to receive accelerated payments would have to receive educational counseling. The bill would also repeal a requirement that flight training students have a valid private pilot certificate and meet the medical requirements for a commercial certificate.
The VA can provide a headstone or marker for eligible veterans, including those buried in private cemeteries. The bill would allow VA to replace government-issued headstones or markers in a private cemetery to add an inscription for a spouse or dependent child who died before or after the veteran. The provision would apply to veterans who die on or after Oct. 1, 2019.
The VA is authorized to establish nonprofit corporations within the department’s medical centers to provide a flexible funding mechanism to support research and education. Certain funds received by VA — such as public and private gifts, grants, and fees — can be transferred to the corporations. The bill would exempt transfers made after fiscal 2016 from a requirement to spend funds by the end of an appropriated period.
The Congressional Budget Office hasn’t published a cost estimate for the measure. Implementing similar flight training provisions from H.R. 5649 in the 115th Congress would have included the following effects on mandatory spending over 10 years, according to CBO’s cost estimate:
- A $246 million reduction from capping tuition and fee payments for flight training.
- A $55 million increase from some affected students qualifying for additional benefits from education institutions under the Yellow Ribbon Program, which the VA would match.
- A $54 million increase from allowing flight training students to receive accelerated payments over a shorter entitlement period. CBO said some students, such as those at two-year institutions, would be able to receive tuition and fee payments equal to a 36-month entitlement, even though they typically finish their courses in less time.
VA supported some of the flight training provisions, though it opposed removing the requirement for flight training students to have a private pilot certificate and meet medical requirements, according to April 9 testimony from an official in the Veterans Benefits Administration. VA also opposed accelerated payments and that the tuition cap should be broadened.
VA generally supported the headstone language according to May 1 testimony from an official in the National Cemetery Administration.
House leaders listed H.R. 1947 for possible floor consideration during the week of May 20 under suspension of the rules. A two-thirds majority would be required for passage.
H.R. 2359 – VA “Whole Health” System
The Department of Veterans Affairs Department would have to report to Congress on an initiative to offer massage, acupuncture, yoga, and other services to veterans under H.R. 2359.
VA’s Whole Health System is designed to give veterans more control over their own care, taking into account their physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual well-being. The department deployed the system at 18 “flagship” facilities and is planning to expand it to additional sites. The system is part of the VA’s campaign to reduce opioid abuse and veteran suicides. An average of 20 veterans die by suicide every day, according to the department’s analysis of suicide data.
The bill would require VA to report to Congress on implementing a Feb. 1 memorandum to expand the Whole Health System across the Veterans Health Administration (VHA). VA would have to analyze the accessibility and availability of existing services at its medical facilities, including massage, chiropractic care, acupuncture, healing touch, guided imagery, meditation, hypnosis, yoga, tai chi, and equine therapy.
The report, which would be due within 180 days of enactment, would also have to assess related health outcomes and the resources needed to expand those services throughout the VHA. It would have to include a plan to provide whole health services to veterans who don’t live near medical or community living centers. VA supported the draft measure, according to April 30 testimony.
House leaders listed H.R. 2359 for possible floor consideration during the week of May 20 under suspension of the rules. A two-thirds majority would be required for passage.