On Veterans Day, new initiatives aim to support veterans, reform VA

As the nation takes Nov. 11 to honor the service of military members, President Barack Obama, the Department of Justice and Congress are working to ensure that veterans are given the support and resources they need for the other 364 days of the year.

The White House on Wednesday announced that the President is renewing the call for Congress to reform the disability claims appeals process, as well as backing  a trio of bills to address veteran education and continuing to push for an end to veteran homelessness.

During a wreath-laying ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery, Obama warned that the nation’s tributes would “ring hollow” if veteran health care was forgotten.

“The good news is that in recent years we have made historic investments to boost the VA budget, expand benefits, offer more mental health care and improved care for our wounded warriors, especially those with post-traumatic stress and traumatic brain injury,” Obama said. “We’ve now slashed the disabilities claims backlog by nearly 90 percent, we’re reducing the outrage of veteran homelessness and have helped tens of thousands of our veterans get off the streets. Still, the unacceptable problems that we’ve seen, like long wait times and some veterans not getting the timely care that they need … is a challenge for all of us if we’re to match our words with deeds. And my message to every single veteran is ‘I am still not satisfied.’ We are going to keep investing in the facilities, the physicians and the staff, to make sure that our veterans get the care you need when you need it.”

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In a fact sheet provided by the White House, the backlog of disability claims that are older than 125 days currently stands at roughly 76,000 claims, an 88 percent drop from the March 2013 peak of 611,000 claims.

The White House also announced efforts to improve economic and educational opportunities for veterans by doubling the size of the Veterans Communities Initiative (VECI), a program that links veterans with economic resources in communities across the country.

The administration also announced a better GI Bill Comparison Tool and an agreement between the VA and the Federal Trade Commission to help watch out for schools attempting to take advantage of veterans. The White House also announced that now all 50 states, as well as the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico would be offering in-state tuition rates at public colleges and universities.

Cecilia Muñoz, White House domestic policy council director, told reporters during a Nov .10 conference call, that the President was also lending his support for three pieces of legislation:

  • Career-Ready Student Veterans Act of 2015
  • Veterans Education Relief and Reinstatement Act of 2015
  • Protecting Our Students and Taxpayers Act of 2015

“Taken together these pieces of legislation will really ensure veterans have the opportunities and assistance they need to grow our economy, to advance their careers, to realize the American dream,” Muñoz said.

Muñoz also said veteran homelessness was an ongoing issue the President was urging an end to, adding that the Department of Housing and Urban Development is set to release next week the results of the 2015 Point-in-Time Count of nationwide homelessness.

Muñoz said the results will show that overall veteran homeless decreased by 36 percent between 2010 and the beginning of 2015, while unsheltered homelessness decreased by roughly 50 percent.

“That means tens of thousands of fewer veterans are on the streets without a place to stay,” Muñoz said. “Tremendous progress, but we also know we have a lot of work to do, and the work isn’t finished until every veteran has a home, and every community has the tools in place to keep veterans from sliding back into homelessness.”

Giving veterans peace of mind

The Justice Department released its own legislative package under the Servicemembers and Veterans Initiative. The package includes amendments the DoJ recommends for four laws:

  • The Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act
  • Service Members Civil Relief Act
  • Military Lending Act
  • Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act

In a Nov. 10 letter from Acting Associate Attorney General Stuart Delery, he said the goal of the amendments is “to enhance the department’s ability to bring enforcement actions, but also allow these men and women to assert their rights on their own.”

The proposed changes would:

  • Require parties seeking default judgments against service members to check Department of Defense records to determine duty status, making it more difficult for unscrupulous creditors to take advantage of service members on active duty.
  • Increase penalties that employers, as well as lending and rental businesses, will face for violating laws designed to protect service members.
  • Expand the number and types of cases the United States can bring in defense of service members attempting to return to their civilian employment upon completion of their military service, and the available remedies for violations of the voting rights of service members and their families while they are overseas.
  • Affording dependent family members the same state residency rights as the service member, as well as requiring states to recognize a service member spouse’s professional licensures from other states.

Making things easier

Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) this week introduced a bipartisan bill called the Veterans Health Care Staffing Improvement Act, aimed at reducing wait times for veterans seeking medical care and providing more career opportunities for service members in the medical field.

The bill would create the “Docs-to-Doctors Program” to help medical service members transition to civilian roles. It also requires the VA to create “uniform credentialing rules for medical professionals across the Veterans Health Administration,” to help eliminate the waiting period doctors face when they “recredential” for providing services outside the VA or change hospitals. The proposed legislation would also allow advanced practice registered nurses — those with post-graduate education in nursing — and physician assistants within the Veteran’s Health Administration to have full practice authority, something not yet allowed.

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