The American Legion's Jeff Steele listens as Alaska Sen. Mark Begich argues in favor of his "Alaska Hero's Card Act". The proposed measure would provide Alaska veterans with health care benefits from VA at non-VA facilities. The Legion has registered initial opposition to the bill as written. Photo by Craig Roberts

Legion backs bill package

The American Legion has registered its support of numerous pieces of legislation designed to benefit military veterans and their families.

In written testimony before the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee Wednesday, Legion staff endorsed nearly three dozen veteran-friendly bills now being considered. Chief among them was the Hiring Heroes Act of 2011 designed to boost job prospects for military veterans. The measure was introduced recently by Sen. Patty Murray, the committee's chairman. In oral testimony, Jeff Steele, assistant director of the Legion's Legislative Division, highlighted three other issues of particular interest to the Legion.

Prompted by actions of the Kansas-based Westboro Baptist Church - primarily members of the Fred Phelps family who stage raucous anti-gay protests near funerals of military personnel - the Legion says it strongly supports the Sanctity of Eternal Rest for Veterans Act of 2011. This bill would prohibit protests within 300 feet of a military funeral at any cemetery in the United States for two hours preceding or following a service. Additionally, the legislation would extend that zone to 500 feet for memorial services at cemeteries under control of the National Cemetery Administration and at Arlington National Cemetery.

In his testimony, Steele said, "We embrace fully a world where groups espousing varied and unpopular political messages (would) have the ability to voice those concerns in proper venues. However, in so doing it is not necessary to harm the grieving families of our heroes. This legislation will protect the families of our fallen soldiers and help preserve the dignity of military funerals from those who wish to disrupt and cause pain and suffering while respecting the intent of the First Amendment to our Constitution. There is no cost to this bill, but it will be priceless for the families of our fallen servicemembers."

Senate Bill 490, introduced by Sen. Daniel Akaka, is also favored by the Legion. This legislation would expand eligibility requirements for children who receive health care under the Civilian Health and Medical Program of the Department of Veterans Affairs (CHAMPVA). The aim of this bill is to give CHAMPVA beneficiaries the same benefits now available to other Americans as established by the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. That recently enacted law extended health insurance coverage for dependent children up to age 26, but excluded CHAMPVA and TRICARE (military health plan) beneficiaries. The law was amended to include TRICARE-covered children but still excludes those enrolled in the CHAMPVA program.

"It is only fair to afford children who are CHAMPVA beneficiaries the same eligibility," Steele said. "Surely coverage for veterans' family members in need should meet this new national standard."

The third item of pending legislation emphasized in Legion testimony was the Transition Assistance Program Audit Act of 2011. This bill calls for an independent third party audit of the Department of Labor's Transition Assistance Program (TAP) every three years to ensure that it is providing services that are up-to-date and useful to servicemembers and their spouses making the initial transition from military service to the civilian workplace.

"While acknowledging the current efforts underway to reform the TAP program," Steele said, "the fact remains that it should not have taken the Department of Labor nearly two decades to modernize this program, and they should welcome the assistance which would come from an independent audit with recommendations for improving the effectiveness of the program at regular intervals."

Other measures under consideration by the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee and supported by The American Legion include a bill to help provide housing for homeless veterans in rural areas, a measure to increase penalties for mortgage lenders who ignore or abuse laws protecting military families from home foreclosures and legislation that would increase certain veterans' benefits payments to be in line with annual cost-of-living adjustments afforded other federal beneficiaries.