by Melanie Brunson
Legislative, Executive Actions Bring Unprecedented Change
In a flurry of activity before heading out of Washington for their August recess, Members of the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate took action on several bills that contain sweeping changes to programs for veterans.
These changes included a major expansion of the Post-911 GI Bill, an overhaul of the process for appealing decisions made on claims for benefits, and an extension of the Choice Program that allows veterans enrolled in the VA healthcare system to obtain care from community providers at VA’s expense. All of these bills enjoyed broad, bipartisan support in Congress before the President signed them into law.
Additional details regarding the aforementioned legislation are worthy of note.
GI Bill Expansion
The Harry W. Colmery Veterans Educational Assistance Act of 2017, also known as the Forever GI Bill, contains sweeping changes to the educational benefits available to Post-9/11 veterans under the GI Bill as most recently constituted.
The most significant of these changes is the elimination of the arbitrary 15-year period within which veterans are required to use their GI Bill benefits. Now, veterans can use these benefits at any time in their professional careers. The bill also provides increased educational assistance to student veterans who pursue programs of study in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields, as well as computer programming, technical, or vocational training.
In addition, the bill also:
- Provides GI Bill eligibility for reservists mobilized under selected reserve orders for preplanned missions in support of the combatant commands or in response to a major disaster or emergency.
- Provides GI Bill eligibility for reservists undergoing medical care.
- Restores benefits to student veterans who received credits or training from certain educational institutions that have closed their doors.
- Provides full G.I. Bill benefits for Purple Heart recipients regardless of length of service.
- Extends Yellow Ribbon Program benefits to Fry scholarship recipients to help cover the costs of attending private universities.
- Increases G.I. Bill payments by $2,300 per year for veterans with fewer than 12 months of active service.
With guide dog Sparta at her side, Melanie Brunson addresses legislative affairs educational session at the BVA 72nd National Convention August 14.
Appeals Process Reform
The Veterans Appeals Improvement and Modernization Act of 2017 creates three separate paths from which veterans can choose when they are dissatisfied with and want to appeal a decision by the Veterans Benefits Administration on their claims for VA benefits.
The legislation would also allow certain veterans already going through the appeals process to opt into the new system. It would further require VA to provide a comprehensive plan for both implementing the new system and processing the current backlog of existing appeals. The options that will now be available to veterans wishing to appeal decisions on their claims will include:
- An opportunity to seek a higher-level review by a VA Regional Office on the same evidence presented to the original claims processors.
- A means for filing a supplemental claim that would include the opportunity to submit additional evidence to the regional office.
- An appeal directly to the Board of Veterans Appeals, resulting in a possible hearing and/or the opportunity to submit additional evidence. Veterans Service Officers would be able to help individual veterans determine which option is likely to bring the best result in the least amount of time, based on the nature of the latter’s individual claim and the evidence supporting it. Therefore, readers who have questions about the potential impact these changes may have on their particular claim may wish to contact BVA’s Field Service Resource Center.
Extending the Life of VA’s Choice Program
In June, 2017, the VA Secretary reported that the Choice program, which allows certain veterans who are enrolled in the VA healthcare system to obtain their care at non-VA clinics at VA expense, faced a major cash shortage.
The House and Senate came together to approve legislation to fund this program and ensure that veterans who need it would continue to have access to care from facilities in their own communities. Known as the VA Choice and Quality Employment Act of 2017, the bill also authorizes 28 major medical facility leases and puts in place reforms that strengthen VA’s ability to recruit, train, and retain a topnotch workforce.
The 28 major medical facility leases authorized in the VA Choice and Quality Employment Act of 2017 include Ann Arbor, Michigan; Birmingham, Alabama; Boston, Massachusetts; Charleston, South Carolina; Corpus Christi, Texas; Daytona Beach, Florida; Denver, Colorado; Fredericksburg, Virginia; Gainesville, Florida (two leases); Hampton Roads, Virginia; Indianapolis, Indiana; Jacksonville, Florida; Missoula, Montana; Northern Colorado, Colorado; Ocala, Florida; Oxnard, California; Pike County, Georgia; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; Portland, Maine; Raleigh, North Carolina; Rochester, New York; San Diego, California; Santa Rosa, California; Tampa, Florida; Lakeland/Tampa, Florida; Terre Haute, Florida; and Rapid City, South Dakota.
Additional Legislation, Future VA Funding
Several additional pieces of legislation that could have a significant impact on veterans await Congressional action, most notably legislation to provide funding for VA during Fiscal Year 2018.
At press time, current funding for the federal government was slated to run out on September 30. It is not yet clear whether Members of Congress and the White House will be able to reach agreement on a budget for the next fiscal year. However, they have passed another continuing resolution that would keep funding at current levels through December 10th, 2017.
In addition to reporting on developments in the next Bulletin, we will also post additional information on social media sites as well as via our legislative email list as the direction of these developments becomes clearer. Please feel free to check online or contact us at BVA National Headquarters for more information.
The BVA board of Directors with former Interim Deputy Secretary of Veterans Affairs Scott Blackburn at the 72nd National Convention President’s Dinner.