The Obama administration is taking steps to reconcile ambitious campaign promises with real world budget challenges on two key issues for veterans: advance funding for VA health care and expansion of concurrent receipt for disabled retirees.
Some progress on both fronts is promised this year even if the administration and a supportive Congress might not deliver the swift and complete victories advocates expect.
Meanwhile, the Department of Veterans Affairs says it is getting 3000 applications a day for Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits from veterans and current service members. Here’s a rundown on these three efforts or programs:
ON THE POST-9/11 GI BILL: Since May 1, VA has received more than 20,000 applications and the number climbs by roughly 3000 a day. New GI Bill benefits are to begin Aug. 1, in time for fall classes. Asked at a May 13 hearing of the House appropriations subcommittee if payment would be made on time, VA Secretary Eric Shinseki sounded hopeful, not certain.
Shinseki described “a very, very tight timeline and, I won’t say lots of risk, but there is some risk to the process.”
VA has hired 530 new GI Bill claim processors, all of whom are going through training. Shinseki said he recently visited the training site.
“I asked them if they could do it and there was standing, rousing applause,” Shinseki told Rep. Chet Edwards (D-Texas), chairman of the military construction and veterans’ affairs subcommittee.
Patrick W. Dunne, VA under secretary for benefits, added that the department is “doing everything possible” to encourage veterans who hope to use GI Bill benefits this fall to apply as soon as possible.
“The sooner we get it the sooner we can act on it,” Dunn said.
Pressed for some assurance that veterans won’t have a problem getting new GI Bill benefits for fall classes, Dunn hedged on his response.
“We expect that we’ve got many challenges between now and the first of August,” Dunn said. “But we are on it every single day and if a veteran gets in his application, we‘re going to make sure they get into class.”
ON CONCURRENT RECEIPT: The administration is asking Congress in 2010 to begin to lift the ban on concurrent receipt for “Chapter 61” retirees — those medically retired for service-related conditions before they could complete 20 or more years of service.
In this first year of the phased plan, Chapter 61 retirees with 90 percent or 100 percent disability ratings would be made eligible Jan. 1, 2010, to draw both disability compensation and retirement for years served.
We will describe full details here next week. Early estimates are that 12,000 Chapter 61 retirees will benefit under this first step. Concurrent receipt gradually would be expanded to all Chapter 61 retirees.
The fly in the ointment for some retirees is special rule already set in law that will dampen, or offset entirely, the effect this change for seriously disabled Chapter 61 retirees who also have served only a few years.
The planned changes also will not impact regular retirees. Many thousands of them have service-connected ailments rated 40 percent or less but not tied to combat or combat training. They continue to see retired pay reduced by amounts they receive monthly in VA disability compensation. For this group, the ban on “concurrent receipt” of military retired pay and VA compensation won’t be relieved under the administration’s new initiative.
In 2008, Congress voted to expand eligibility for Combat-Related Special Compensation (CRSC) coverage to Chapter 61 retirees. The Obama initiative, in effect, would extend eligibility for Concurrent Retirement and Disability Pay (CRDP) to all Chapter 61 retirees by 2014.
ON VA ADVANCE APPROPRIATIONS: In April, the president announced that his administration will work with Congress on legislation to allow VA health care budgets to be funded a year in advance of other federal programs, to avoid chronic budget delays that have plagued veterans’ health facilities nearly every year for the past two decades.
Because Congress can’t discipline itself to pass VA appropriation bills by Oct. 1, the start of the new fiscal year, veteran hospitals and clinics routinely have had to operate under “continuing resolutions” for months. That means facility spending is kept frozen at previous year levels, forcing managers to delay hiring new staff, buying new equipment or making needed repairs to building for lack of new budget dollars.
In February, Shinseki had balked at endorsing advance funding legislation (HR 1016 and S 423) introduced by the House and Senate veterans’ affairs committee chairmen. But by early April, after veteran service organizations had reminded administration officials that Obama had supported VA advance appropriations in his election campaign, the president publicly endorsed the idea again. At Wednesday’s hearing, Rep. Edwards told Shinseki “if we’re going to do this, we obviously would need detailed input from the administration over the next few weeks [on] what we would propose for fiscal year 2011.”
Shinseki affirmed support for advance funding as “reasonable” given the negative effect that past funding delays have had on veterans’ health care. He noted too that the VA already has an effective computer program that can accurately project needed health spending in advance.
But the VA chief suggested that the administration and Congress might want to emphasize care over speed in shifting to an advance appropriation.
“When we did take this step we would hope that all the details had been worked out,” Shinseki told Edwards. “What I would like to do is come back and work with you and the committee and your staff on exactly what that implementation timeline would be so that it would be a good fit.”
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