Over Veterans Affairs Department objections, the House passed a bill Monday night creating a commission to evaluate new ways of reducing the backlog of veterans benefits claims, including new claims awaiting an initial decision and those where a veteran has appealed the decision.
VA officials argued, unsuccessfully, that a new commission or task force created by HR 2189 would slow down progress already being made.
Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., the House Veterans Affairs Committee chairman, said the bill that passed by a 404-1 vote is a shining example of how our legislative process is supposed to work. “Republicans and Democrats came together to support a range of legislation with two overarching goals: helping veterans, while improving accountability and efficiency at the Department of Veterans Affairs.”
Rep. Mike Michaud of Maine, ranking Democrat on the veterans’ committee, had similar praise for the House vote. While warning there is “no easy quick fix to the claims backlog,” Michaud said the bill “provides the VA with the additional tools it needs to help reach its goal of ending the backlog by 2015.”
In addition to creating the task force, the bill includes a provision to speed payments to veterans with more than one disability by providing partial payments as soon as any disability issue is decided, requiring the VA to provide information to veterans about the fastest way of getting a decision and requiring publicly available information to track claims and compare the performance of VA regional offices.
The fate of the bill is unclear. Sen. Bernie Sanders, the Vermont independent who chairs the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, remains unconvinced a new task force is needed to look at a long-studied problem with slow claims processing, but he might support some of the provisions of the bill.
The House also passed several veterans bills by voice vote. These include:
■ The Vulnerable Veterans Housing Reform Act of 2013, sponsored by Rep. Joe Heck, R-Nev., prevents Veterans Affairs Department aid and attendance payments from being counted as income when considering eligibility for housing grants from the Department of Housing and Urban Development. “The men and women who have worn the uniform should not be sleeping on the streets,” said Heck of HR 1742.
■ The Veterans Economic Opportunity Act of 2013, sponsored by Rep. Bill Flores, R-Texas, expands mortgage and foreclosure protections for service members and survivors. About 175,000 would receive extra protection under HR 2481, according to estimates prepared by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office. Among those helped would be service members who are convalescing, those who are medically retired or transferred to the temporary disability retired list and surviving spouses who jointly owned property with a service members who die of a service-connected cause.
■ There are three key provisions to HR 1405, sponsored by Rep Dina Titus, D-Nev. Her core bill required the VA to provide an appeals form along with any notice to a veteran that their benefit claims has been denied, a most that she says would be a “simply courtesy” to veterans. Additionally, the bill expands the legal definition of “veteran” to include National Guard and reserve members eligible for retired pay, without providing them any new benefits to go with the title, and overhauls rules for fiduciaries appointed to handle financial matters for veterans.