The Official Voice of Vietnam Veterans of America, Inc. ®
An organization chartered by the U.S. Congress

December 2003
GOVERNMENT RELATIONS
 
 

Legislative Roundup

BY H. AVERY TAYLOR, CHAIR, VVA GOVERNMENT AFFAIRS COMMITTEE,
WITH VVA GOVERNMENT RELATIONS STAFF

During each session of Congress, several thousand bills are introduced. Most never make it very far into the legislative process of issue development, committee hearings, debate, compromise, or final mark up leading to reporting a bill to the floor of either the Senate or the House for a vote in one chamber, never mind enactment of a bill into law under the signature of the President. Scores of these bills directly address issues of concern to veterans. In this space, we will offer a rundown of relevant legislation that warrants our support - or opposition. Additional information about these bills can be found at the VVA Legislative Action Center and at http://thomas.loc.gov

H.R. 2433, Health Care for Veterans of Project 112/Project SHAD Act of 2003. Introduced in June by Rep. Ciro Rodriguez (D-TX) for himself and Rep. Rob Simmons (R-CT), this bill received bipartisan support and was passed by voice vote in the House in September. The bill would authorize the Secretary of Veterans Affairs to provide veterans who participated in certain Department of Defense chemical and biological warfare testing with health care for illnesses they may have incurred without requirement for proof of service-connection.

In the Senate, a companion bill, S. 1694 was introduced by Sen. Sam Brownback (R-KS) and referred to the Committee on Veterans' Affairs. The Senator attended the SHAD reunion in June in Topeka and was moved by what he heard and learned.

VVA strongly supports this legislation, which would provide a modicum of justice to veterans who were tested with chemical and biological agents, simulants, and decontaminants from1962-1973.

New Jersey Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen, who served in Vietnam, has long championed a bill that would establish a comprehensive program for testing and treatment of veterans for hepatitis C. The 108th Congress wasn't in session a week when he introduced H.R. 73, the Veterans Comprehensive Hepatitis C Health Care Act. In February, it was referred to the Subcommittee on Health of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, where it has seemingly languished.

On Veterans Day, Frelinghuysen's colleague, Sen. Jon Corzine (D-NJ) introduced companion legislation. This bill, Corzine said, "would fundamentally change the way the VA is addressing the growing hepatitis C epidemic, and would create a national standard for testing and treating veterans with the virus."

In June, Pennsylvania Rep. Tim Holden introduced H.R. 2587 which would direct the Secretary of the Army to issue a Combat Medevac Badge to each person who served in combat on or after June 25, 1950 as a pilot or crew member of a helicopter medical evacuation ambulance. The bill was referred to the House Armed Services Committee.

One month later, Sen. Arlen Specter, also of Pennsylvania, introduced S. 1487, similar legislation which would require the Secretary of the Army to award the Combat Medical Badge or another combat badge for Army helicopter medical evacuation ambulance (Medevac) pilots and crews. The Specter bill was referred to the Committee on Armed Services.

H.R. 1309, a bill introduced in March by Lane Evans, Ranking Member of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs, has already become de facto law. The Veterans Prescription Drug Benefits Act of 2003 would mandate that the Secretary of Veterans Affairs establish a prescription drug benefit program for veterans enrolled in the VA health care system who have prescriptions for drugs and medicines ordered by a physician or other authorized health care professional who is not an employee of the VA, subject to the payment of any applicable premium and co-payment. Secretary Principi has already put this program into effect.

In May, Sen. Specter also introduced S. 1132, the Veterans' Survivors Benefits Enhancements Act of 2003 on behalf of himself and two colleagues, Jim Bunning of Kentucky and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina. The bill would provide benefits for children of Vietnam veterans and certain veterans who saw service in Korea with spina bifida. The bill also provides for expanded educational assistance and insurance benefits for survivors, and additional compensation for surviving spouses with dependent children. In October, the bill was placed on the legislative calendar for discussion on the floor of the Senate. A similar bill, H.R. 2297, was introduced by Rep. Chris Smith, Chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee.

Also in the House, Rep. Lane Evans was the lead sponsor of H.R. 533, the Agent Orange Veterans' Disabled Children's Benefits Act of 2003, which would provide benefits to any individual who has spina bifida and is the natural child of a veteran who, while in military service, was exposed to an herbicide. Introduced in February, subcommittee hearings were held in April.

Another piece of legislation that would assist surviving spouses is S. 249, introduced in January by Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, (D-NY) for herself and Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX). This bill would mandate that remarriage of the surviving spouse of a deceased veteran after age 55 shall not terminate dependency and indemnity compensation. In July, the Committee on Veterans' Affairs held hearings on the bill. Similar language appears in H.R. 2297.

Chairman Smith introduced in May H.R. 1683, the Veterans' Compensation Cost-of-Living Adjustment Act of 2003 which would increase the rates of compensation for veterans with service-connected disabilities and the rates of dependency and indemnity compensation for the survivors of certain disabled veterans. This bill was referred to the Senate Committee on Veterans' Affairs as S.1131. In essence, this is the cost-of-living adjustment, or COLA, increase adjusted at the beginning of every December.

Companion bills that would authorize special monthly compensation to former POWs were introduced in the House (H.R. 850, by Rep. Mike Simpson, Republican of Idaho) and the Senate (S. 1239, by Sen. Larry Craig, also an Idaho Republican). VVA supported the spirit of the bills but faulted provisions that could strip ex-POWs of this compensation should they have an alcohol- or drug-related disability.

One bill VVA is not thrilled with is H.R. 2518, the Veterans Affairs Reorganization Act of 2003, introduced in June by Chairman Smith and referred to the Veterans' Affairs Committee in July. One provision calls for the transfer of the Homeless Veteran Reintegration Program to the VA from the Department of Labor. Another would call for the management by the Secretary of Veterans Affairs of the Military Personnel Records facility of the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis. Neither of these shifts, VVA believes, will increase efficiency; adding to the bureaucratic portfolio of the VA will likely have the opposite effect.

In an attempt to legislate down the long waits for appointments experienced by too many veterans, Florida Rep. Ginny Brown-Waite introduced in September the Veterans Timely Access to Health Care Act. Subcommittee hearings have already been held on the bill, H.R. 3094, which would make the standard for a veteran seeking primary care from the VA 30 days from the date the veteran initially contacted the VA. Care would be rendered at the appropriate VA medical center or at non-VA facilities should the VAMC be unable to accommodate the veteran within the specified time frame.

VVA testified in September before the Committee on Veterans' Affairs Subcommittee on Health in support of this bill.

The goal of another piece of legislation, H.R. 2379, to improve access to health care for veterans residing in rural areas, faces a struggle. Language in the bill, introduced by Nebraska Rep. Tom Osborne, the Rural Veterans Access to Care Act of 2003 attempts to curb what some see as discrimination in delivery of VA health care services to veterans residing in rural areas.

The problems these bills address are at least in part a result of inadequate resources. The Administration request for each veteran using a VA medical facility is only 60 cents on the dollar as compared to a Medicare patient. Until the veterans health care funding base in restored, admirable solutions such as those offered by Reps. Osborne and Brown-Waite cannot have the desired effect in restoring equity and reasonable standards for care at the VA.

Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-Colo.) in May introduced S. 1092, the National War Permanent Tribute Historical Database Act. A companion bill was introduced in the House by his Democratic colleague, Rep. Mark Udall. This legislation, which was referred to the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, would authorize the establishment of a national database for purposes of identifying, locating, and cataloging the many memorials and permanent tributes to America's veterans.

Sen. Campbell is also the author of S. 330, a bill which calls for severe criminal penalties for anyone who willfully injures or destroys, or attempts to injure or destroy, any structure, plaque, statue, or other monument on public property commemorating service in the Armed Forces. A related bill, H.R. 2076, sponsored by Rep. Christopher John of Louisiana, called for grants to repair veterans memorials. In May, these bills became Public Law 108-29.

Facets of several of the aforementioned bills have been rolled into the Veterans Benefits Act of 2003. H.R. 2297 passed in the House in October by 399-0; its Senate companion, S. 1132, passed in the Senate on the last day of October by unanimous consent. If signed into law by the President, the act would:

  • C make permanent the State Cemetery Grants Program;
  • C increase the specially adapted automobile grant from $9,000 to $11,000, increase the specially adapted housing grant from $48,000 to $50,000 for the most severely disabled veterans and from $9,350 to $10,000 for other disabled veterans;
  • C add cirrhosis as a presumed service-connected disability for ex-POWs;
  • C eliminate the requirement that an ex-POW must have been held in captivity for at least 30 days in order to qualify for presumption of service-connection for several specific disabilities;
  • C make permanent the VA home loan program for members of the Selected Reserve; and
  • C expand eligibility for benefits to children born with spina bifida of veterans who served near the demilitarized zone in Korea between October 1, 1967 and May 7, 1975.
Finally, several bills have been introduced with a common theme and goal: to ensure adequate funding for veterans health care. These include S.50, introduced by Sen. Tim Johnson of South Dakota; H.R. 2475, the Veterans Health Care Full Funding Actintroduced by House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Chris Smith; H.R. 2318, the Assured Funding for Veterans Health Care Act of 2003, introduced by Rep. Lane Evans, Ranking Member on the House Veterans Affairs Committee. It is the position of VVA that we must restore the funding base to at least parity with recipients of Medicare and then move to ensure that reasonable increases match increases caused by medical inflation and greater demand on the system.
 

   

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