December 10, 2018

Ranking Member Walz Applauds House Passage Of Veterans Benefit and Transition Act

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Today, House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs Ranking Member Tim Walz (D-MN) released the following statement after the House of Representatives passed S. 2248, the Veterans Benefit and Transition Act of 2018:


“Today’s legislation includes over 20 provisions that will make meaningful improvements to the lives of veterans across the country, including my bill the Veterans’ Electronic Health Record Modernization Oversight Act of 2017, which will ensure Congress has the authority and tools it needs to provide effective oversight over the Department of Veterans Affairs’ (VA) $16 billion dollar effort to modernize its electronic health record (EHR) system,” said Ranking Member Walz. “This bill also included provisions that will make life easier for student veterans who have been negatively affected by the G.I. Bill housing payment delays, require VA to inter deceased spouses and dependents of active-duty servicemembers in national cemeteries, expand eligibility for Guard and Reserve component members so they can access VA’s Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment (VR&E) program, and much more. As the Ranking Member of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, and as a veteran myself, I am proud of the legislation the House passed today and I thank Chairman Roe and my colleagues on both sides of the aisle for contributing toward these bipartisan successes.”


Provisions in the House passed legislation include:


Title I – Education


Sec. 101. Inclusion of certain additional periods of active duty service for purposes of suspension of charges to entitlement during periods of suspended participation in Department of Veterans Affairs Vocational Rehabilitation Programs: This provision would authorize that time spent by Guard and Reserve component members serving on active duty orders under 12304 of title 10, U.S.C. would qualify as active duty time for establishing eligibility for VA’s Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment (VR&E) program and the subsistence allowance that servicemembers may receive while using that program.


Sec. 102. Provision of monthly housing stipend information under post-9/11 Educational Assistance Program: This provision would require the Secretary to provide electronic proof to a veteran that they will be receiving housing payments from VA under the G.I. Bill as a source of income so that the veteran can provide this proof to a landlord when applying to rent a home.


Sec. 103. Disapproval for purposes of educational assistance programs of Department of Veterans Affairs of certain courses of education that do not permit individuals to attend or participate in courses pending payment: This provision would require that in order for a school or training program to be approved for G.I. Bill benefits they must adopt a policy that disallows the school or training program from imposing a late fee, denial of access to facilities, or other penalty against a veteran or eligible dependent due to a late payment of tuition and/or fees from VA. This would only apply if the payments have not been received within 90 days of the beginning of the term and the Secretary would have the authority to waive this requirement. Schools would be allowed to require students to provide documentation to ensure that they are entitled to G.I. Bill benefits.


Sec. 104. Provision of information on required additional actions to allow individuals to stay enrolled in courses of education pending receipt of educational assistance from Department of Veterans Affairs: This provision would require that VA provide information to GI Bill beneficiaries about any actions they need to take to stay enrolled at a school in the event of a late payment of tuition and/or fees from VA.


Sec. 105. Calculation of monthly housing stipend under high technology pilot program based on location of campus where veteran attends classes: This provision would provide a technical change to section 116 of the Harry W. Colmery Veterans Educational Assistance Act of 2017 to align the policy for calculation of the monthly housing allowance paid to students participating in the VET-TEC pilot to align with section 107 of the law which requires VA to calculate the housing payments based on where the student was taking the majority of their classes.


Sec. 106. Clarification regarding applicability of authority to use educational assistance to pursue independent study programs at certain educational institutions that are not institutions of higher learning: This provision would provide a technical amendment to ensure that section 302 of the Harry W. Colmery Veterans Educational Assistance Act of 2017, which provides increased flexibility to use G.I. Bill funds for independent study, extends to all G.I. Bill programs and not just the Post-9/11 G.I. Bill.


Title II – Memorial Affairs


Sec. 201. Eligibility of spouses and children of veterans buried in tribal cemeteries for certain Department of Veterans Affairs burial benefits: This section would authorize VA to expand authority to provide headstones and markers to eligible spouses and dependents in tribal veterans cemeteries.


Sec. 202. Department of Veterans Affairs provision of headstones and markers for, and interment in national cemeteries of, spouses and dependent children of members of the Armed Forces serving on active duty: This section would require VA to inter deceased spouses and dependents of active-duty servicemembers in national cemeteries through September 30, 2024. This section would also require a general court-martial convening authority to provide a statement that the active-duty servicemember is serving under conditions other than dishonorable.


Title III – Civil Relief


Sec. 301. Termination of leases of premises of deceased servicemembers who die while in military service: This provision would amend the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act (SCRA) to allow the spouse of a servicemember who dies on active duty to terminate a residential lease within one year of the servicemember’s death without penalty.


Sec. 302. Residence of spouses for servicemembers for tax purposes: This provision would amend SCRA to allow the spouse of a servicemember to elect to use the same state of residence as the servicemember for state or local tax purposes regardless of when or where the two individuals were married. These changes would apply with respect to any return of state or local income tax filed for any taxable year beginning with the taxable year that includes enactment.


Sec. 303. Residence of spouses of servicemembers for voting: This provision would amend SCRA to allow the spouse of a servicemember to elect to use the same residence as the servicemember for state and local voting purposes, even if they are absent from that state due to military orders and regardless of when or where they got married.


Sec. 304. Termination of multichannel video programing and Internet access service Contracts: This provision would amend SCRA to allow a servicemember to terminate a commercial mobile, telephone exchange, Internet access, or multichannel video programming service contract at any time after the date the servicemember receives military orders to relocate for at least 90 days to a location that does not support such service contract. (Currently, such provision applies to a cellular telephone service or a telephone exchange service contract only.) Additionally, this provision would require a servicemember to return any provider-owned consumer equipment to the service provider not later than 10 days after the service is disconnected.


Title IV – Transition Assistance


Sec. 401. Study of community-based transition assistance programs for members of the armed forces after separation, retirement, or discharge: This provision would authorize VA to contract with a non-Federal entity to conduct a study to identify community-based programs that provide transition training. VA would be required to place the list created by this study online and submit the list to the Department of Defense so they can provide it to transitioning servicemembers.


Title V – Departmental Administration


Sec. 501 the VA Purchase Card Misuse Mitigation Act: VA is now able to make purchases up to $10,000 using government purchase cards rather than by awarding contracts. This helpful convenience also poses risk for misuse. This section requires the VA Secretary to revoke the purchase card or purchase card approval authority from any employee who is found to have knowingly misused it. This is a safeguard designed to stop further misuse while existing penalties, ranging from suspension to demotion to removal, are considered.


Sec. 502. Updating dependent information: This section would require the Secretary to make changes to the Department’s information technology systems so that the claimant is able to review and revise information about dependents electronically.


Sec. 503 the Veterans’ Electronic Health Record Modernization Oversight Act of 2017: This section directs VA to provide Congress with the EHR Modernization program’s key planning and implementation documents, in addition to copies of the contracts, to indicate the effort’s progress and how the money is being spent. The legislation also requires VA to notify Congress in the event of any significant cost increase, schedule delay, loss of veteran health data or breach of privacy.


Sec. 504. Department of Veterans Affairs notice relating to debt collection activities: This section would mandate that VA work with VSOs to develop a new standard format for notification letters that, in plain language, clearly explain why such alleged debt was created, and the steps the veteran can take to dispute or mitigate the debt. The bill would require VA to notify Congress when the development of such letter is complete. If such letter is not complete within 90 days of the date of enactment, VA shall notify Congress and detail the progress of developing the letter and explain why such letter is not complete. Furthermore, VA shall submit a report to Congress every 30 days thereafter, until development of such letter is complete.


This section would also require the Secretary to develop an option for individual to choose to receive notice of a debt by electronic means. Those individuals who do not elect to receive electronic notification will receive their letter by standard mail. Sec. 504 would also require the Secretary to coordinate with the Secretary of the Treasury to to research the number of veterans who do not receive debt notification letters and provide a report to Congress detailing the steps VA (working with the Treasury) can adopt to reduce the number of notices sent to incorrect addresses and provide a timeline for adopting such options. The report would also include an estimated cost of sending debt collection letters via certified mail, and an analysis of the effectiveness of sending notices by certified mail, among other considerations.


Title VI – Medical Facilities


Sec. 601. Authorization of major medical facility projects for fiscal year 2019: Authorizes the appropriations to carry out the construction of: a community living center and renovation of facilities in Canandaigua, NY; the renovation of space for a simulation training education center in North Chicago, IL; the construction of a surgical intensive care unit and renovation of the operating room suite in Oklahoma City, OK; and the initial construction of a new medical facility in Louisville, KY.


Sec. 602. Plans to improve medical facilities of the Department of Veterans Affairs: This provision requires that each director of a medical facility submit, to their respective network directors, plans as to how that facility can be approved. VISN Directors are then required to create and submit to the Secretary a plan, incorporating facility plans, as to how all facilities in the network can be improved to increase quality and efficiency of care. Regular reports as to the actions being taken by directors to improve facilities are required. The provision includes a sense of Congress that the Secretary should make full use of the authority to contract with a nonprofit organization that accredits health care organizations and programs to assess and report deficiencies in any of these facilities.


Title VII – Other Matters


Sec. 701. Homeless Veterans Reintegration Programs: This provision would clarify and expand the definition of homeless veterans who are eligible for assistance under the Homeless Veterans Reintegration Program to ensure that all recently homeless veterans and participants in other VA and Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) homeless prevention and grant programs would be eligible for services under this program. These programs would include: the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development-VA Supportive Housing (HUD-VASH); Supportive Services for Veteran Families; the HUD-VASH program for Native American veterans; veterans who are transitioning from incarceration; and other recently homeless veterans.


Sec. 702. Technical Corrections: This section makes technical corrections to title 38 and P.L. 104-275.


Sec. 703 the VA Medical-Surgical Purchasing Stabilization Act: This section directs VA to correct problems with its medical-surgical formulary using input from medical professionals with relevant expertise rather than administrative staff, and to report the clinical expertise of those professionals. This section also prevents VA from outsourcing the creation of the formulary.


Sec. 704. Report on expanding access to dental care for veterans eligible for health care from the Department of Veterans Affairs: This provision requires a report on the feasibility and advisability of expanding access to dental care for eligible veterans. The report shall include analysis of: access and affordability via VA care, the VA dental insurance plan, Medicaid, or private dental insurance; the oral health needs of eligible veterans; the financial impact to the department of providing dental care to include a cost-benefit analysis; and the numbers of providers needed to provide such care. The report shall be disaggregated by priority group enrollment eligibility.