On April 16, 2013, the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs (HCVA), Subcommittee on Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs held a hearing on pending veterans’ legislation. The wide-ranging legislation included: cost-of-living (COLA) adjustments to veterans’ compensation, compensation evaluation procedures for military sexual trauma and claims appeals, designating retired military reservists as veterans, granting access to veterans’ case-tracking information to members of Congress and certain other government employees and improvements to fiduciaries of certain veterans. While Paralyzed Veterans of America did not testify, staff members monitored the hearing for issues affecting our members.
Two bills dealt with the COLA adjustments. The first, H.R. 569, the “Veterans’ Compensation Cost-of-Living Adjustment Act of 2013,” is standard legislation introduced each year to provide a COLA to the rates of compensation for veterans with service-connected disabilities and the rate of dependency and indemnity compensation for the survivors of disabled veterans.
The second bill, H.R. 570, the “American Heroes COLA Act,” aims to provide for an annual COLA adjustment to be automatic, rather than having to pass a law each year. While Paralyzed Veterans supports the intent of the legislation, we have voiced concerns with similar legislation in the past because eliminating the COLA bill from consideration each year would also eliminate legislation that is often used to pass other important veterans measures that may be stalled in Congress.
There has been an ongoing struggle for those service members who have suffered from military sexual trauma (MST). With this thought in mind, H.R. 671, the “Ruth Moore Act of 2013,” aims to improve disability compensation evaluation procedures of the VA for veterans with mental health conditions related to MST. As MST has affected both male and female soldiers, the standard of proof for service-connection has often been hard to establish. Soldiers who have suffered MST may not report it due to embarrassment, circumstances, or because the assailant is a member of their chain of command. This legislation will allow a service member to establish service-connection through medical opinion of mental health professionals as well as other satisfactory evidence even if there is no “official” record.
One great challenge for those working to help veterans who have submitted disability claims is the ability to get answers about the status of their claims. While VA continues to encourage veterans to use the internet based “e-benefits” system, many veterans, especially older veterans, often prefer to speak to a person who can help them. H.R. 733, the “Access to Veterans Benefits Improvement Act,” will provide certain employees of Members of Congress and certain employees of State or local government agencies, access to case-tracking information from the VA. This will allow them to directly help their constituents when they contact their member of Congress for action. It is important to note that these employees will only be able to view tracking information and will not be able to modify or make entries on a claim.
The Subcommittee also considered H.R. 894, legislation that is meant to improve the supervision of fiduciaries of veterans under laws administered by the VA. This can be critical to the well-being of a veteran. In the case of possibly incompetent veterans who are unable to make decisions for themselves, the Secretary of VA may appoint one or more “temporary” fiduciaries for a period of not more than 120 days. The appointment is only while a competency decision is being made by a court. If a final court decision has not been made, the Secretary may not continue the appointment without obtaining a court order for appointment of a guardian, conservator, or other fiduciary. The legislation does provide the opportunity for the veteran to request the Secretary remove a VA appointed fiduciary or appoint a new one and requires the Secretary to comply with the request, unless the Secretary determines that the request is not made in good faith.
Other legislation considered included H.R. 602, the “Veterans 2nd Amendment Protection Act,” that clarifies the conditions under which veterans may be adjudicated as mentally incompetent for purposes of owning a firearm. H.R. 679, the “Honor America’s Guard-Reserve Retirees Act,” is meant to recognize service in the reserve component and allow those who are collecting Reserve retirement pay to be honored as a “veteran,” but not be entitled to any additional veterans benefits. Currently you can only technically be identified as a veteran if you serve on active duty for 180 consecutive days. H.R. 1405 would improve the ability of veterans to appeal claims decisions by requiring the Secretary to include an appeals form in any notice of decision issued for the denial of a benefit the veteran is seeking.
Paralyzed Veterans' National Legislation program will continue to monitor this legislation and will reach out to members if specific action is needed to advance these bills.
Learn more about Paralyzed Veterans of America's efforts on Capitol Hill