Legislative UpdateBVA Director of Government Relations Melanie Brunson

by Melanie Brunson

House Bills Seek To Improve VA Operations

In mid-September, the House of Representatives passed two bills relating to the policies and procedures of the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). The first was H.R. 5620, the VA Accountability and Appeals Modernization Act.

There are two parts to this bill. The first contains provisions designed to make it easier for the VA Secretary to discipline and, when necessary, fire employees who engage in illegal or unethical activity during the course of their employment, or are found to be “poor performers.” The bill also revamps the claims appeal process to create more options for veterans seeking reconsideration of a decision regarding their eligibility for benefits.

The next step for this bill is review by the Senate. Unfortunately, this is not likely to occur prior to its rapidly-approaching pre-election recess. Stay tuned for more information on this bill once Congress has returned in November.

The second bill passed by the House extends VA’s authority to continue many of its programs and services into the next fiscal year, which begins October 1. At press time, the Senate had actually approved this legislation already and President Obama was likely to sign it when it reached his desk. Although the aforementioned legislation gives VA the authority it needs to continue operations, the full funding needed was still in limbo at the time of this writing.

Members of both parties from both Houses of Congress are working to negotiate a spending plan to keep the government running after October 1. With time getting away from them very rapidly, and their own plan to recess in order to campaign in their home districts throughout the month of October, there is still much quibbling about what should be included in the spending package.

Even if they did complete work on a spending package, it would be accomplished through a Continuing Resolution that would be effective only through December 9. This means that when Congress returns after the election, all of the bickering over what gets funded, and for how much and for how long, will start all over again!

Protecting Veterans With Mental Illness

Melanie Brunson, middle of photo, joined representatives of other VSOs and Members of Congress at September 13 press conference in support of veterans with mental illness due to TBI and PTSD.

Melanie Brunson, middle of photo, joined representatives of other VSOs and Members of Congress at September 13 press conference in support of veterans with mental illness due to TBI and PTSD.

On September 13, I attended an outdoor press conference just outside the U.S. Capitol Building initiated by Vietnam Veterans of America and a bipartisan group of ten lawmakers.

Dozens of Veterans Service Organizations, including BVA, were invited to attend and stand behind the speakers in support. Unitedly we called for the final version of a defense policy bill to include language aimed at protecting servicemembers and veterans with mental illness from less-than-honorable discharges.

All of the Members of Congress present delivered brief remarks. Also speaking was Tyson Manker, a Marine who was discharged dishonorably from the military in 2003 after suffering from PTSD and who found himself stripped of his GI Bill, his Illinois Veterans Grant, a signing bonus, service-related compensation, and his eligibility for VA health care.

When Manker later sought to upgrade his discharge status, he discovered that others with mental health conditions faced the same bureaucratic challenges.

The amendment in question, the “Veterans Fairness Act,” was attached to the Senate’s passed version of the National Defense Authorization Act in late summer with unanimous support. It would require Defense Department panels that review discharges to consider medical evidence from a veteran’s health care provider. Panels would have to review each case presuming that Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, Traumatic Brain Injury, or sexual assault trauma led to the discharge.

Manker is now an attorney and law professor from Illinois running for a County Attorney office.

The House is yet to pass the NDAA. At press time, the Conference Committee is on a tight deadline to pass a final bill with the Senate scheduled for recess on October 7. Manker and several Members of Congress called on President Obama to issue an Executive Order to make the reform effective in the absence of Congressional action.

Appropriations for Veterans

The goal is for Congress to pass longer term appropriations bills before the end of 2016 so that government agencies will know how much money they have as they plan for the year ahead. Once the elections are over, it is hoped they will settle down and devote some serious attention to reaching this goal. If they can accomplish it, there is a chance that the legislation BVA has supported during the last couple of years will be incorporated into the appropriations bills for VA and the Department of Defense.

Some members of Congress are still hoping to pass “omnibus” or “minibus” legislative packages. One of the packages under consideration would include several bills relating to veterans’ programs and benefits. BVA is joining other Veterans Service Organizations in trying to influence the content of such a package so that it will contain the items that most benefit veterans while maintaining a reasonable chance to make it through both houses of Congress and quickly across President Obama’s desk. Stay tuned for details as they become available after Election Day.

Same-Day Appointments Available by End of Year

Under Secretary for Health Dr. David J. Shulkin recently announced that all VA Medical Centers will soon have the ability to schedule same-day appointments for those who require them. The projected date for this milestone is December 31.

Dr. Shulkin has indicated that the priority for the change at the Veterans Health Administration (VHA) is extremely high, particularly when it comes to scheduling appointments for mental health services. Because the ability of veterans in crisis to obtain mental health services when they need them is a key component of VA’s suicide prevention campaign, the Department has ramped up efforts to ensure that medical facilities nationwide will be able to meet the needs of veterans in such. emergencies

New Center for Women Veterans

A new office staffed by women veterans will help VA better understand and address the concerns of women veterans. The staff is currently attempting to reach out to women across the country to let them know of resources that are available to them and to educate the public about the concerns and needs of women veterans.

“Effective immediately, VA has amended its enrollment regulations to allow veterans to complete applications for enrollment in VA health care by telephone without the need for a paper signature. This action also accelerates VA’s effort to enroll all combat veterans with pending enrollments as part of its ongoing Veterans Enrollment Rework Project (VERP).”

Visit their resource page on the VA website or find them on social media for further information.

Interested parties in weekly updates from BVA can also subscribe to an email list that will send a range of resources directly to their inbox. The legislative landscape can change frequently and, when such changes occur between issues of the Bulletin, we will post updates on the BVA website so that our readers do not have to wait several weeks for them. They can also contact me at BVA National Headquarters by phone or send a detailed email with their questions to mbrunson@bva.org

Audio Version Of Legislative Update