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Veterans issues spotlighted in Congress this week

Congress’ annual defense policy bill, unveiled Tuesday, calls for a 2.1-percent military pay raise.

STARS AND STRIPES

By NIKKI WENTLING | STARS AND STRIPES Published: June 12, 2017

WASHINGTON — Several key veterans issues will be the focus of congressional hearings this week, with lawmakers set to address the firing of bad employees at the Department of Veterans Affairs, the agency’s 2018 budget and benefits reform.

House to vote on VA accountability

The House is expected to pass legislation Tuesday enabling VA Secretary David Shulkin to suspend, demote or fire VA employees faster than federal processes allow now.

House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-CA,  announced the House would take up the legislation, S. 1094, on Tuesday afternoon. If passed, the bill will be sent to President Donald Trump to sign into law.

Frustration over bureaucracy at the VA has been mounting since the wait-time scandal in 2014, and many lawmakers and veterans view the legislation as a way to root out a perceived culture of corruption in the department.

“For too long, the lack of accountability has been tolerated, and that has hurt our veterans,” McCarthy said in a written statement. “One of the first things that must change to better serve our veterans is the culture at the VA.”

The House already passed a VA accountability bill in March, but the vote was split along party lines. Democrats argued it went too far to weaken employees’ due process rights.

On June 6, the revised version of the bill passed the Senate, where previous accountability bills had stalled in 2015 and 2016. The legislation, now back in the House for a vote, was a compromise between parties that added back in some workforce protections.

Federal unions are still speaking out against the revised bill, asserting managers could fire employees at-will with little proof of wrongdoing.

Shulkin has been asking Congress to pass the legislation since he took over as VA secretary in February. He said at the White House last month that it takes 51 days, on average, to fire an employee.

Review of VA budget

The Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee will listen to input Wednesday afternoon about Trump’s proposed 2018 budget for the VA.

The budget proposes to inject $2.9 billion of new funding into a revised Choice program, which allows veterans to receive health care outside of the agency. The boost comes at a cost to other programs.

Under the proposal, some veterans would be booted out of the VA’s Individual Unemployability benefit and $3.2 billion would be cut from the program in 2018.

Veterans eligible now for the program have a 60 to 100 percent disability rating through the VA and are unable to secure a job because of their disability. It allows them to receive the highest compensation rate.

The budget proposes to remove veterans from the program who are eligible for Social Security payments and have reached the minimum age to receive Social Security. Approximately 225,000 veterans aged 60 or older could be affected by the proposal. Of those veterans, 7,000 are 80 years old or older.

The country’s six largest veterans service organizations have denounced the proposal.

Leading up to the Senate committee hearing Wednesday, AMVETS members from Virginia, Maryland and West Virginia are visiting the office of every senator, said Joe Chenelly, the group’s national executive director.

Since the budget proposal was released near the end of May, AMVETS has received approximately 4,000 calls from veterans concerned about cuts to their benefits, Chenelly said. He wants veterans to receive some assurance from senators Wednesday that cuts to the Individual Unemployability benefit won’t be considered.

“These veterans are scared. Some of them are talking in suicidal ways, and we’re referring them to the Veterans Crisis Line,” Chenelly said. “All of them are talking about hopelessness if IU is taken from them. We cannot let them sit around all summer waiting to see if this will happen.”

The total VA budget exceeds $186 billion for fiscal 2018, which begins Oct. 1. It’s a nearly 6 percent increase from fiscal 2017.

Senate committee to consider 14 veterans bills

The Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee will meet again Thursday morning to consider 14 bills related to veterans’ benefits.

Some of the bills aim to expand Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits. One would grant full GI Bill benefits to all Purple Heart recipients and another would expand eligibility for the Yellow Ribbon Program, which allows veterans to attend schools or enroll in programs that cost more than the GI Bill tuition cap.

The committee will also discuss a draft of other ideas to improve Post-9/11 education benefits.

Another bill under consideration Thursday would expand benefits to Filipino fighters who served with U.S. forces in World War II.

One bill would require the U.S. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry to review every three years the link between certain illnesses and water contamination at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina.

A full list of the legislation can be found at veterans.senate.gov.

wentling.nikki@stripes.com
Twitter: @nikkiwentling

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