Legislative UpdateBVA Director of Government Relations Melanie Brunson

by Melanie Brunson

As 2017 drew to a close, we reached the halfway point of the 115th Congress, and the end of the first year of a new administration. This seems like a good time to take a look at what has been accomplished in Washington during the past year. This article will focus on those accomplishments that directly impact veterans.

We will begin with Congress. During 2017, ten bills aimed at improving veterans’ benefits and services have cleared both houses of Congress and were signed into law by the president. These included:

  • The Veterans Choice Program Improvement Act (S.544), extends the Veterans Choice Program and ensure veterans have access to timely care in their own communities, signed into law on April 19, 2017;
  • The Veterans Affairs Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act (S.1094), improves accountability at the VA, signed into law on June 23, 2017
  • The VA Choice and Quality Employment Act of 2017 (S.114), authorizes and appropriates funding for the VA to continue the Veterans Choice Program and strengthen VA care, signed into law on Aug. 12, 2017;
  • The Harry W. Colmery Veterans Educational Assistance Act of 2017 (H.R.3218), improves veterans’ education benefits and enhance the post-9/11 G.I. Bill, signed into law Aug. 16, 2017;
  • The Veterans Appeals Improvement and Modernization Act of 2017 (H.R.2288), modernizes the woefully outdated benefits claims appeals process at the VA, signed into law on Aug. 23, 2017;
  • The Department of Veterans Affairs Expiring Authorities Act of 2017 (H.R.3819) ensures veterans continue to have access to critical programs at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), signed into law Sept. 29, 2017;
  • The Veterans’ Compensation Cost-of-Living Adjustment Act of 2017 (H.R.1329) increases veterans’disability benefits based on rising costs of living, signed into law Nov. 2, 2017;
  • The VA Prescription Data Accountability Act (H.R.1545) allows the VA to securely share data with state prescription drug monitoring programs for patients who are prescribed opioids by VA providers, including both veterans and their dependents, signed into law Nov. 21, 2017;
  • The Veterans Apprenticeship and Labor Opportunity Reform (VALOR) Act (H.R.3949) streamlines the certification process for non-federal apprenticeship training programs for veterans, signed into law Nov. 21, 2017; and
  • The Enhancing Veteran Care Act (S.1266) allows the VA to contract with outside organizations for investigations into VA medical centers, signed into law December 20, 2017.

The Senate also confirmed ten nominees for positions at the VA, including VA Secretary Dr. David Shulkin, Deputy VA Secretary Thomas Bowman, and eight nominees for positions at the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans’ Claims and the VA Board of Appeals.

The VA also launched several key initiatives during the past year. The most recent of these initiatives was a rollout of ID cards for veterans enrolled in the VA healthcare system. See page 24 for more on this program.

The VA is also continuing its efforts to make more information available online through the vets.gov website, and to insure that that information is both up-to-date and useful.

Finally, the VA has implemented several changes aimed at modernizing the process for handling claims, and appeals filed by veterans who are dissatisfied with decisions made on their claims. Most notable of these was the introduction of the Decision Ready Claims (DRC) option, which is now available to veterans with certain types of claims. Note: we covered this program in the November-December edition of the BVA Bulletin, and there is an update on page 26 of this issue.

Looking ahead to 2018, we expect both the VA and members of Congress will devote much of their energy to modernizing VA’s information technology infrastructure. Those efforts got under way this past year, but there is still a great deal of work to do. VA has many decisions to make regarding the best way to update its own hardware and software, as well as to insure a more seamless transition for members of the military who are returning to civilian life following their service. Both the VA and the Pentagon have mandates to make transfer of medical records from the DoD healthcare system to the VA’s easier.

Both Congress and the VA are under pressure from veteran service organizations to tackle several issues related to benefits and services for caregivers. We expect legislation to address these issues to be a hot topic in the year ahead. We are also likely to see additional legislation to make further improvements to the Veterans’ Choice Program.

Secretary Shulkin wants to continue expanding this program so that veterans enrolled in VA’s healthcare system will have the option of getting more care from community providers. As this legislation moves forward, we BVA and other VSOs will work to insure that veterans who want to obtain the full spectrum of care from the VA will also have the option to do so.

As Congress, the VA, and the White House take action on any of these issues, we will provide you with updates. Please look for them in future issues of The Bulletin, as well as on the BVA website.

Before I close however, I want to introduce you to the more recent additions to our Public Affairs team.

Chet Curtis comes to us after eleven years with the Air Force Association as their Senior Director of Communications. He retired from the Air Force in 2006 as a Lieutenant Colonel after 24 years. Chet is a graduate of University of Southern Maine and Southern Illinois University and recently received his Master's Degree from Embry-Riddle University. He has his Accreditation in Public Relations (APR) and is a member of the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA). He and his wife, Brenda, reside in Manassas, VA.

Dawn Jakutowicz comes to BVA and the non-profit community after 15 years in consulting where she directed strategic communications campaigns, stakeholder engagement activities and high-profile events for military and government agencies as well as national veteran programs. Dawn has a Bachelor’s degree in English from Regis College, a graduate certificate from Georgetown University in Project Management and holds professional certificates in coaching and meeting planning with the Institute for Professional Excellence in Coaching and The Society of Government Meeting Professionals.

Audio Version Of Legislative Update