On Thursday, 1 August 2013, the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee (HVAC) passed 7 bills along with 34 other legislative provisions intended to fund, reform, and support the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and the Veterans they assist into one larger VA Omnibus Bill. The provisions inside the Omnibus Bill address such issues as VA Appropriations, the VA Compensation Claims backlog, VA Accountability, and other Legislative issues affecting Veterans.
VA Advanced Appropriations
Among the most important aspects of the Omnibus Bill is the continuity of advanced appropriations for the VA under the bill H.R. 813: Putting Veterans Funding First Act of 2013, sponsored by HVAC Chairman, Representative Jeff Miller (R-FL-01), which provides 86 percent of the VA’s budget to be provided in advance. This bill will affect VA funding for Fiscal Year 2016 (FY16) as funding through FY15 has been secured through Congressional approval. In addition to this legislation the Committee also notes that providing a further 14 percent in VA advanced appropriations would better serve Veterans who utilize VA programs.
Providing appropriations for the VA in advance supports Veterans and their families by securing VA funding at the time that procedures are carried out. As stated by HVAC Ranking Member, Representative Michael Michaud (D-ME-02), these measures would protect the VA “from the threat of funding gaps,” ensuring that Veterans have access to treatment and support programs regardless of funding shortfalls or delays resulting from Congressional impasse.
VA Compensation Claims Backlog
Also introduced by Chairman Miller was H.R. 2189 which aims to ease the significant backlog of compensation claims at the VA through the establishment of a commission responsible for analyzing the VA’s strategic plan. Despite the VA’s assertion that they will illuminate the backlog by 2015, the Committee voiced concerns that over 540,000 Veterans are still waiting on settlement after more than 125 days.
This Omnibus Bill was supported by further legislation accepted by the Committee including H.R. 1623, VA Claims Efficiency Through Information Act of 2013, where AUSN also sent a letter of support for, introduced by Representative Negrete McLeod (D-CA-35), which requires the VA to maintain an online mechanism for tracking the progress of claims. Also included in the omnibus bill was H.R. 1805, the Veterans Claims Efficiency Through Automation Act introduced by Representative Ann Kuster (D-NH-02), which directs the Secretary of VA to report on the progress and success of the VA’s automation process for handling compensation claims.
In regards to VA accountability in the Omnibus Bill was legislation introduced by Representative Grace Meng (D-NY-06), H.R. 1824 which directs the Secretary of VA to include in his annual report each regional VA office that failed to reach administrative goals regarding Veterans’ compensation claims. An amendment offered into the omnibus bill, text of H.R. 2072, offered by Representative Dan Benishek (R-MI-01) permits the VA to enter contracts with medical foster homes and would require Veterans homeless shelters that receive federal funds to abide by relevant building safety codes.
Much of the emphasis on VA accountability comes after the realization of the VA’s failure to handle compensation claims in a timely manner. In order to streamline the VA, Congress has assumed oversight of the claims backlog issue and has ordered the Government Accountability Office (GAO), VA Inspector General, Comptroller General, and other organizations to ensure the VA succeeds in other projects.
Other bills included in the Omnibus Bill markup provisions are:
H.R. 1443: Tinnitus Research and Treatment Act introduced by Representative Michaud ensures that the VA dedicates resources to the treatment of this condition.
H.R. 1804: Foreign Travel Accountability Act introduced by Representative Tim Huelskamp (R-KS-01) that requires semiannual reporting on business-related foreign travel expenses for VA employees.
H.R. 1842: Military Family Home Protection Act introduced by Representative (D-MD-07) provides foreclosure and mortgage security to servicemembers.
H.R. 2011: Veterans’ Advisory Committee on Education Improvement Act of 2013 introduced by Representative John Delaney (D-MD-06) that extends the Veterans’ Advisory Committee by two years until 31 December 2015.
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