Lawmakers focus on key veterans legislation

The House Veterans’ Affairs Subcommittee on Health conducted a hearing to consider several bills related to veterans on July 9. The bills covered a variety of topics, but three focused on homeless veterans, the transportation policies of the Veterans Health Administration (VHA), and the condition tinnitus, largely associated with hearing and characterized by a loud ringing noise in the ears.

The homelessness issue was considered by H.R. 2065, the Safe Housing for Homeless Veterans Act, which mandates that shelters receiving per diem funds for homeless veterans must be in compliance with all state, local and federal safety and fire code standards. Rep. David McKinley of West Virginia, who is a licensed professional building engineer, stated he offered the bill after observing "appalling" conditions in some shelters, with shortfalls such as lack of sprinkler systems and improper fire door barriers as the most obvious examples. The American Legion supported the bill in testimony.

In that testimony, Deputy Director for Health Care Jacob Gadd, of the Veterans Affairs and Rehabilitation Division, focused on Veterans Transportation Services (VTS) in the VHA. H.R 1702, the Veterans Transportation Service Act, would make permanent the authority to operate the program, an important component of helping veterans access their health care, according to Gadd. 

"For years, VA transportation programs and initiatives have been viewed as ancillary or secondary service areas," Gadd told the subcommittee. "But The American Legion recognizes that veterans’ transportation programs are vital and often the difference between whether a veteran is seen for care or not."

VTS was created as a VA Transformation Initiative to ensure that veterans with serious injuries or illnesses who lived in remote areas would get access to reliable transportation. In May 2012, VA’s general counsel opined that the department "only has the authority to use volunteer drivers" to provide veterans with transportation, "not paid employees."

This ruling was made soon after The American Legion issued its System Worth Saving Report on Rural Health Care. Its findings are based on nationwide visits to VA medical centers and on feedback from veterans at Legion-hosted town hall meetings. The report details some of the difficult challenges faced by veterans living in rural areas of states such as Wyoming, New Mexico, Missouri, Kansas and Maine.

Based on the findings of its report – and in response to VA’s general counsel ruling – The American Legion adopted Resolution 293: "Veterans Transportation System and Benefits Travel." It urged VA to establish a transportation department within each of its 152 medical centers to coordinate and oversee all transportation programs for a particular facility.

And finally, H.R. 1443, the Tinnitus Research and Treatment Act of 2013, focused on what Dr. Susan Shore of the American Tinnitus Association described as the "number one service connected condition of returning Afghan and Iraq veterans today." American Legion testimony noted that as recently as 2011 VA had identified the ringing in the ears as the fourth most common service connected disability throughout VA. The bill would provide for additional research into the causes of and treatments for the condition, and is supported by The American Legion.

In other news:

Homeless grants: Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki announced July 11 the award of nearly $300 million in grants that will help about 120,000 homeless and at-risk veterans and their families. The grants have been awarded to 319 community agencies in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.

Under the Supportive Services for Veteran Families (SSVF) program, VA is awarding grants to private nonprofit organizations and consumer cooperatives that provide services to very low-income veteran families living in – or transitioning to – permanent housing. The SSVF program supports VA’s efforts to prevent at-risk veterans from becoming homeless and rapidly re-house those who have recently fallen into homelessness. Thanks to the SSVF grants, those community organizations will provide a range of services that promote housing stability and play a key role in connecting veterans and their family members to VA services such as mental health care and other benefits. Community-based groups can offer temporary financial assistance on behalf of veterans for rent payments, utility payments, security deposits and moving costs.

Resolution No. 306 states that The American Legion:

• Renews its commitment to assisting homeless veterans and their families.

• Continues to support the efforts of public and private sector agencies and organizations with the resources necessary to aid homeless veterans and their families.

• Seeks and supports any legislative or administrative proposal that will provide medical, rehabilitative and employment assistance to homeless veterans and their families.

Sequestration’s threat in Pacific: Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James Amos said Thursday that the "dust hasn’t settled" yet in the Pentagon as it determines how automatic budget cuts under sequestration would affect the Pentagon’s pivot toward the Asia-Pacific region. The Asia-Pacific rebalance was a key component to the Pentagon’s new defense strategy unveiled last year, but military officials have warned it could be scuttled if the $500 billion in sequestration cuts over the next decade are not reversed.

At a forum hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), Amos said that the "cold reality of sequestration is settled in at the Pentagon" as it conducts a major review of its strategy and budget. But the department hasn’t figured out yet how much of the new Asia focus might go out the window should sequestration remain on the books.

Audio and video link from the event can be found here:

Illegal Immigration: Last Friday, staff briefed attendees at the Department of Virginia on the Legion position on border security and illegal immigration at its annual convention. A downloadable PDF brochure on the subject can be found on the Legion website.

House approves veterans legislation: On July 8, the House of Representatives voted 387-1 to pass H.R. 1171, the Formerly Owned Resources for Veterans to Express Thanks for Service Act of 2013’ or, more simply, the FOR VETS Act of 2013. This legislation will add veteran services to the list of eligible uses for surplus federal property offered to not-for-profit groups through the Federal Surplus Personal Property Donation Program. The American Legion was publicly thanked on the House floor by Rep. Benishek of Michigan for our support in the passage of this legislation.

When federal agencies no longer need surplus property like office supplies, furniture and motor vehicles, the items are eligible to be donated to public service organizations for education or health care related services. In 2010, Congress added veterans service organizations to the list of eligible organizations. However, under current law veteran service organizations cannot receive surplus property to use toward the full range of services they provide to veterans.

Social media: The Economic Division participated in another Twitter chat with the Department of Labor. Each chat has expanded in scope and brought together a greater coalition of organizations and institutions devoted to helping veterans find jobs. This time, the focus is on employment services for veterans with disabilities -- joined by the Department of Labor’s Veterans’ Employment and Training Service, its Office of Disability Employment Policy, several national veterans service organizations, employers, representatives from local American Jobs Centers, experts from the armed services and more.

Job fair: A Hiring our Heroes job fair was held at the Chicago Union Station last week, targeted toward the rail transportation industry. This was a General Electric-sponsored hiring event being held in conjunction with Amtrak’s celebration of veterans, and their announcement that a quarter of their hires in the coming years will be veterans.

A dozen employers from Amtrak, freight rail, commuter rail and rail support companies and some 115 prospective employees were in attendance. Special thanks goes to the Department of Illinois’ Assistant Adjutant, Gary Jenson, whose outreach for this event ensured that it would be a success.

Claims: During the week ending July 5, the Board of Veterans’ Appeals reached dispositions on 126 American Legion represented appeals. Of those dispositions, 69.8 percent of the denials were overturned with outcomes favorable to the veteran. In 28 cases, the board granted benefits outright after considering The American Legion’s arguments. In 60 cases, The American Legion was able to point out errors in the development of the veteran’s claims which mandated corrective action under the law. Of the total number of dispositions, 35 (27.8 percent) were outright denials.

Recently accounted for POW/MIAs:

• Sgt. 1st Class William Robinson, U.S. Army, Company L, 3rd Battalion, 31st Regimental Combat Team, was lost on Dec. 12, 1950, near Hagaru-ri, North Korea. He was accounted for on June 17, 2013. He will be buried with full military honors on Aug. 7, 2013, in Indiantown Gap, Pa.

• Sgt. Clement Thibodeaux Jr., U.S. Army, Company L, 3rd Battalion, 35th Infantry Regiment, 25thInfantry Division, was lost on Nov. 28, 1950, near the Ch’ongch’on River, North Korea. He was accounted for June 13, 2013. He will be buried with full military honors in Church Point, La.

• Cpl. Glydon E. Moyer, U.S. Army, Battery D, 15th Anti-Aircraft Artillery Automatic Weapons Battalion, was lost on Dec. 2, 1950, near the Chosin Reservoir, North Korea. He was accounted for on June 13, 2013. He will be buried with full military honors on July 25, 2013, in Luray, Va.

A complete listing of recently account-for service members can be found on the DPMO Recently Accounted-For page.