Ian de Planque speaks to the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee on six bills being considered by the committee that The American Legion supports. Craig Roberts

Senate hears Legion testimony on 6 bills

The American Legion testified in Congress on May 19 on several pieces of pending legislation that would affect veterans if signed into law.

Appearing before the Senate Veterans Affairs Commmittee, Ian de Planque conveyed The American Legion's support for several bills being considered by the committe. De Planque is deputy director of the Legion's Veterans Affairs & Rehabilitation Division:

S. 1939: Agent Orange Equity Act of 2009The American Legion strongly supports the extension of presumption of exposure to Agent Orange for veterans who served on naval vessels located in the territorial waters of Vietnam (known as the "blue water" Navy veterans).

De Planque cited a 2008 study by the Institute of Medicine, which builds a solid case for making blue water veterans eligible for benefits linked to Agent Orange-related disabilities. He said the report "provides scientific justification for this current legislation, which admirably seeks to correct the grave injustice faced by ‘blue water' Navy veterans. The American Legion strongly supports this legislation."

S. 1940: To study the effects on children whose parents were exposed to Agent Orange

This bill directs VA to complete a study - and report its findings to Congress - on how servicemembers' exposure to Agent Orange in Vietnam has affected their children (including possible links to multiple sclerosis and asthma).

Such a study, de Planque said, "can help establish the associations necessary to allow the VA to provide entitlement to all benefits due to the child or children of any veteran exposed to a Vietnam-era herbicide agent."

S. 3035: Veterans Traumatic Brain Injury Care Improvement Act of 2010

VA would establish a polytrauma rehabilitation center in the northwestern United States. The American Legion believes this center will help VA health-care outreach to many rural areas.

The American Legion is urging the committee to consider funding additional areas of TBI studies and emerging treatments in the private sector, such as hyperbaric oxygen therapy (HBOT) and the Mt. Sinai Hospital's Brain Injury Screening Questionnaire.

"The American Legion remains concerned that the private sector uses a 100-question screening test, while DoD and VA only use a four-part questionnaire," de Planque told the committee, chaired by Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii.

S. 3234: Veterans Employment Assistance Act of 2010

Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., introduced this legislation less than a week after The American Legion testified to a House subcommittee on the seriousness of unemployment in the veterans community.

Updating the Senate committee with current data, de Planque said that 14.7 percent of OIF/OEF veterans are jobless; the rate is 30.2 percent for veterans aged 18 to 24. "The total number of unemployed veterans of the two wars is about 250,000," he said. "This legislation would provide these veterans with the training and additional skills they need in order to acquire gainful employment in today's marketplace."

The bill has several provisions The American Legion has backed for some time: extend GI Bill benefits to vocational and apprenticeship programs, more training and counseling for small businesses, and creating pilot programs to help veterans market their military experience and training more effectively.

"No mission is more critical at this time in our history - given the nation's involvement in two wars and the uncertain economic situation - than enabling America's veterans to have a seamless transition from military service to the civilian workforce," de Planque said.

S. 3368: Allows certain individuals to sign VA claims on behalf of claimants

The VA's fiduciary program is addressed in this legislation, which would give legally designated representatives the authority to sign and file VA claims for veterans who are incapable or unable to do so themselves.

The American Legion supports this bill, but emphasizes the need for proper oversight to ensure that veterans' rights are protected.

"Dedicated oversight is necessary to ensure that the veterans affected, most of whom have little ability to protect themselves in such situations, are not subject to being taken advantage of by unscrupulous individuals or institutions," de Planque told the committee.

In previous congressional testimony, The American Legion recommended that VA should allocate more staff solely to administer its fiduciary program.

S. 3348: Allows misfiled disability claims appeals to be treated as motions for reconsideration

Many veterans, unfamiliar with the procedure for filing disability claims appeals, mistakenly file their appeals with VA instead of the Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims (CAVC).

If veterans disagree with the decisions made on their disability claims by the Board of Veterans Appeals, they have 120 days after notification to appeal that decision to CAVC. This legislation would offer protection to veterans who file their cases in error.

"This legislation can serve as a safety net for veterans already confused by a complex system, such as the system for adjudication of veterans benefits," de Planque said. The American Legion also wants to extend the appeals filing period from 120 days to one year.