Funding, oversight and fulfillment of the landmark Honoring Our Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics (PACT) Act and heightened attention/access to mental health care for veterans are among the legislative priorities The American Legion is presenting to Congress during the Washington Conference Feb. 26 – March 1.
The PACT Act, signed into law last August, accomplished one of The American Legion’s highest agenda items for 2022. The measure expands VA health-care services and disability benefits eligibility for more than 3.5 million veterans exposed to burn pits in the global war on terrorism, along with others with health-care conditions attributable to toxic contamination during military service. Properly funded implementation and oversight are the next steps, the Legion argues.
Also on the organization’s radar for the first session of the 118th Congress are protection from predatory exploitation of veterans seeking help applying for VA benefits or Camp Lejeune Justice Act lawsuit damages. A more level playing field for National Guard veterans using their GI Bill benefits, support for Afghan allies of the U.S. military and an updated U.S. Flag Code are also included in this year’s message to lawmakers.
American Legion National Commander Vincent J. “Jim” Troiola will deliver the Legion’s testimony before a joint session of the House and Senate Committees on Veterans’ Affairs on March 1.
The following subjects are included in the testimony, which can be downloaded or printed as trifold brochure, as well:
PACT Act: Implementation & Oversight
Passage of the SFC Heath Robinson PACT Act in the 117th Congress ensured millions of toxic-exposed veterans will now have access to healthcare and compensation they rightfully deserve. VA estimates there will be up to 7 million new disability claims filed, due to eligibility expansion under the PACT Act and that the claims backlog will increase to 450,000 by October 2023. The efforts put forth by the VA workforce to reduce claims backlogs in recent years have been admirable, but substantial backlogs of hundreds of thousands of claims for sustained periods of time are not acceptable. It is imperative that VA fully leverage the resources made available in the PACT Act to assist in the continued modernization of information technology systems, as well as the hiring of additional employees to ensure veterans claims are adjudicated in a timely manner. The American Legion urges Congress to provide necessary oversight and funding to ensure VA has the resources needed to properly implement this legislation.
Mental Health & Suicide Prevention
The leading issue facing the veteran community is suicide. The suicide rate among veterans is nearly double that of their civilian counterparts, with more than 6,000 veterans taking their lives annually. It is imperative to destigmatize asking for mental health support. Simultaneously, access to such support must increase. The American Legion encourages Congress to enhance access to alternative therapies, robustly fund VA’s suicide-prevention outreach budget and continue to invest in mental-health research.
Support our Afghan Allies
Support our Afghan Allies In the U.S. military, there is a code: “no one left behind.” For two decades, members of the U.S. Armed Forces fought shoulder-to-shoulder with brave Afghan allies who served with and protected Americans, fighting for the freedom of Afghanistan and its people. The United States must honor its promises and provide genuine, lasting protection for the Afghans who have made it safely to the United States, and for those who were left behind. The American Legion urges Congress to reintroduce and pass legislation that would grant permanent legal status to Afghan refugees and improve the Special Immigrant Visa process for Afghans who served alongside U.S. servicemembers.
Military Quality of Life
The U.S. military’s greatest resources are individual servicemembers and their families. Without highly qualified and committed men and women, even the most sophisticated weaponry will not provide the deterrent necessary to defend our nation. Factors that contribute to quality of life include proper compensation, career development, appropriate housing, quality healthcare, reasonably priced commissaries and access to affordable daycare. The American Legion urges Congress to pass legislation that would increase access to child care for military families, increase appropriations to address matters involving servicemember food insecurity and increase funding to renovate military housing.
VA Healthcare Modernization
The future of VA healthcare is as a hybrid system consisting of Veterans Health Administration-provided inpatient and outpatient care, telehealth and community care. Ensuring VA is equipped to meet the unique needs of an increasingly diverse veteran population requires that VA fully leverage all healthcare modalities and ensure a seamless transition between them. Modernizing electronic health records, veteran-centric access standards, and a transparent online scheduling system for VHA-provided care and community care alike are all essential to ensuring veterans receive the care they deserve. The means by which VA delivers care may change, but one thing will not: VA should continue to provide the best care anywhere to our nation’s veterans.
Protect Veterans from Predatory Actors
America’s veterans are targeted by predatory actors that seek to profit from an array of benefits that have been rightfully earned by those who have served our nation. From claims companies that charge exorbitant fees (for services provided free by veterans service organizations) to lawyers vying for billions of dollars set aside for victims of diseases associated with contaminants, veterans and their families are met by promises of large payouts if they agree to surrender substantial portions of their benefits. Predatory actors often attempt to overwhelm veterans with aggressive marketing tactics and complicated contracts. The American Legion urges Congress to oppose legislation that elevates the standing of unaccredited claims companies or legitimizes predatory practices that target veterans and encourages Congress to impose a cap on legal services provided in association with the Camp Lejeune Justice Act.
Currently, 42,000 military retirees with combat-related injuries qualify for DoD retirement pay as well as VA disability compensation. However, for retired veterans with disability ratings less than 50%, the VA compensation is deducted from their DoD retirement pay. The American Legion strongly supports ending this unfair policy. The Major Richard Star Act would repeal this draconian offset, allowing disabled veterans to concurrently receive their retirement pay and disability compensation.
Guard & Reserve GI Bill Parity
Despite the same duties, National Guard and Reserve servicemembers are deprived of education benefits that active-duty servicemembers enjoy. According to current law, National Guard and Reserve servicemembers only accrue GI Bill entitlement when called to active duty under federal orders. When National Guard and Reserve servicemembers are activated under state orders, they do not accrue eligibility for Post 9/11 GI Bill benefits, as do their active-duty counterparts. The American Legion believes that every day in uniform counts and urges Congress to recognize the service of National Guard and Reserve servicemembers as eligible for the GI Bill.
GI Bill for Honorable Service
To receive most VA benefits, a veteran’s characterization of discharge from service must be “under honorable conditions.” However, education assistance benefits within the GI Bill, require that servicemembers receive an “honorable discharge.” If the characterization of service is “general under honorable conditions,” the Post-9/11 GI Bill remains out of reach for these veterans. The American Legion urges Congress to correct this statutory incongruity by amending U.S. Code to allow access to VA educational assistance to veterans with “general under honorable conditions” discharges.
Protect the American Flag
The American Legion urges Congress to approve an amendment to the U.S. Constitution that would allow Congress to prohibit the physical desecration of the U.S. flag. Additionally, The American Legion urges Congress to pass the Flag Code Modernization Act of 2021 to amend the U.S. Flag Code to codify multiple common patriotic customs and practices, as described in American Legion Resolution No. 19: Flag Code Amendment.
The American Legion’s Grassroots Action Center offers information to stay informed on the issues and tools to communicate online with lawmakers and the media about the organization’s priorities.