Wednesday, July 18, 2012. Chaos and violence continue, Joe Biden's National Security Adviser tries to make nice in Iraq, the political crisis continues, Josh Rogin continues his journalistic malpractice and misses the big story (as usual), while the US is in the midst of The Great Recession and unemployment remains at record highs the VA is handing out $10,000 and higher bonuses to senior executives, the VA's Allison Hickey continues struggling with how to answer a question (hint: respond to what was asked), and more.
"It's unacceptable the federal government is doing nothing but continuing to promise what they promised before," declare House Oversight Committee Chair Darrell Issa this morning. He was attending the House Oversight's Subcommittee on National Security, Homeland Defense and Foreign Operations. US House Rep Jason Chaffetz is the Subcomittee Chair. Appearing before the Subcommittee were VA's Undersecretary for Benefits Allison Hickey, the VFW's Gerald Manar and Disabled American Veterans' Joseph Violante.
Darrell Issa: 42 years ago this November, I raised my right hand and became a soldier. I have no claim today before the Veterans Administration. But for those 42 years, soldiers, sailors and Marines have served and need our support. It's unacceptable the federal government is doing nothing but continuing to promise what they promised before. 183 days the average processing time for a claim. It's unacceptable. More unacceptable is that the fact that the error rate is 16%and perhaps higher in some regions. Veterans who appeal the system face multiple years 883 days, three years in order to be adjudicated. The system was broken during the Vietnam war when I enlisted. The system has never been fixed so today we're going to concentrate in this Committee on hearing what you're going to do. But understand, we've heard it before. Today, you will be judged by what you say and what you do. You will no longer be allowed to come back again with promises of reform a year away. Today, I understand, you will be talking about getting better over the next year -- perhaps talking about ways in which you have improved recently. In 1970, the system was paper and the system failed veterans miserably. Today the system is computerized but not harmonized. Today the Veterans Administration continues to claim that they will get better be but they have not.
Jason Chaffetz: Madam Under Secretary, Mr. Manar, I think accurately points out in his testimony that in order to solve the problem, you need to know exactly what the problem is. And I see a major discrepancy in some of the numbers and I want to help clarfiy that. In youre testimony in talking about the integrated disability evaluation system, you say, "We went from 240 day average in the legacy system to 56 days" and it goes on. And there's a definition of the backlog. The House Armed Services Committee staff and the House Veterans Affairs Committee staff on July 13 of this year which was not too long ago gave a briefing to these two Committees. It says in here that the current monthly average completion time is 408 days. You say it's 56 days -- 54 days -- yeah, 56 days -- and they say it's 408 days. Can you help clarify that for me please?
Allison Hickey: Thank you, Chairman Chaffetz for your question. First of all, allow me to clarify by stating a few basic definitions so also, as I say things, you can understand what words I'm using and their context We have, in the inventory and pending an overall number of 854000. That's not backlog. Those are claims that even as we've been sitting here for the last ten to fifteen minutes, more claims have come into us from veteran service members and
Chair Jason Chaffetz: Okay, let me stop you -- let me stop you right there. Let me stop you right there. On July 16th, which is not very long ago, the Monday morning workload report says there are 919,461 claims. You say that number is -- what did you say that number is? 860,000 something?
Allison Hickey: The numbers I'm using are 854,000 --
Chair Jason Chaffetz: Okay, so we're off by about 50 or 60 thousand. And we're talking about something that is just couple of days old. Why the discrepancy on those number?
Allison Hickey: Chairman Chaffetz, our backlog -- I mean our inventory is a dynamic inventory.
Chair Jason Chaffetz: I know but that's less than ten days so --
Allison Hickey: Chairman, I'm happy to answer the questions if I'm allowed an opportunity.
Chair Jason Chaffetz: Sure I want to know. You're saying that that number is 800 and something thousand and I'm just saying that the VA's report says it's 919,461. That's of July 16th --
Allison Hickey: Chairman, I'm happy to answer the question if I'm allowed an opportunity.
Chair Jason Chaffetz: Ma'am, just answer the question. Yes.
Allison Hickey: Thank you very much.
Chair Jason Chaffetz: -- That's why I asked the question.
Allison Hickey: Thank you very much, Chairman. The numbers that I'm using are from the endpoint of a month. Probably the end of May. So you probably are using the end of this week's report. I chose not use a floating number that continues to change over time and over dates and over weeks. So I used an end of month number to be able to to talk to you, to be able to have a solid number to hvae a discussion around.
Chair Jason Chaffetz: If you --
Allison Hickey: Regardless of what it is -- Regardless of what it is, I will tell you that our inventory and our pending is not our backlog. And typically, the statistics show 61% of that backlog are supplemental claims that people -- veterans who are already receiving compensation from us are coming back with a second, third or a fourth claim in that process. So of the number I will use 854,000, I could use your number as well. And I could use the weekly reports number in backlog it would be exactly the same thing which is about 65 to 66% of our claims are in -- they are more than 125 days old.
Chair Jason Chaffetz: Okay --
Allison Hickey: That is the --
Chair Jason Chaffetz: Okay, that's great. More than 125 days old. You say in your testimony -- I mean, to hear your testimony, these things are getting so much better. We went from a 240 day average in the legacy system to 56 days?
Allison Hickey: Chairman Chaffetz, I'd be happy to answer the question in the disparity for the briefing which you just handed out. I have different processes that have different standards. The process you described is our end of b -- our integrated disability evaluation system that we work with DoD for our most wounded and ill -- injured service members.
Chair Jason Chaffetz: In your testimony --
Allison Hickey: The numbers that you are --
Chair Jason Chaffetz: I'm sorry --
Allison Hickey: -- describing are the VA -- the 56 days are the VA numbers in that complete process --
Chair Jason Chaffetz: I'm -- I'm --
Allison Hickey: -- where VA has the responsibility for --
Chair Jason Chaffetz: Hold on. Hold on. Let's tackle them one at a time. This is your testimony, "We are closely collaborating with DoD through the Integrated Disability Evaluation System." You say that's 56 days. This report, this briefing that went to another Committee just last week says it's 408 days. That's not exactly close. Which --
Allison Hickey: Chairman Chaffetz --
Chair Jason Chaffetz: -- one is it? Is it --
Allison Hickey: The VA days for those 10,000 we have done in FY12, the VA days, the days that I have responsibility for doing them are 56 for those 10,000.
Chair Jason Chaffetz: Are you saying this is accurate or inaccurate?
Allison Hickey: I'm saying I do not know what's on that slide. If you were to give me that slide and give me some time to digest that slide I'd be happy to do that, Chairman. You have access to that information right at this moment, I do not.
Chair Jason Chaffetz: We will make -- we will make --
Allison Hickey: I will be happy to take that for the record and respond to you.
Chair Jason Chaffetz: How -- In it's simplified format here, how bad do you think this problem is? I'm trying to quantify it and I'm concerned because we're not off by a couple of 100 people here, we're talking about hundreds of thousands of people. And in your testimony, you would lead the American people to believe that it's getting much better. But if you look at it over the course of time, it's getting worse. It's --
Allison Hickey: Chairman, I have clearly stated --
Chair Jason Chaffetz: It's getting worse.
Allison Hickey: -- in my testimony that two -- that -- that, uh, 65% of people in more than 125 days, from a VA perspective, is unacceptable. I've clearly stated that.
Chair Jason Chaffetz: And you say that this is a decade's old problem --
Allison Hickey: It is a decade's old problem and for the first time we have an integrated plan that goes after the way we're organized and trained to do the work, the processes that we've done that we have streamlined, the technology that we're bringing in that under this administration and this Secretary [of VA Eric Shinseki], VBA has never had an emphasis on it's IT infrastructure to get from a paper bound process to a paperless system that we have right now. We are implementing it right now.
Chair Jason Chaffetz: Okay, my time is far expired. The numbers and the discrepancies here are absolutely stunning.
I let that run through so that Hickey -- who was very defensive and very loud in the hearing -- had her say such as it was. But there's a ton of nonsense in there. First off, if you're using a figure, you need to know what month the figure is from. She chose not to use the most recent numbers, that was her decision. Having made that decision, she needs to know what period of time the number she's using are from. But she stated, "The numbers that I'm using are from the endpoint of a month. Probably the end of May." Probably?
Probably's not good enough. Chair Chaffetz was using 919,461. He explained his numbers. More to the point, this morning at the Washington Post's blog Federal Eye, Steve Vogel was addressing numbers noting that the 919,461 was the number "as of Tuesday." Vogel notes that the claims stood at 903,000 in April.* Did the numbers fluctuate in May and June? We don't know because Hickey seems to believe she can use any numbers she wants. Up to date numbers were available, she chose not to use them. If she didn't want to use July because the month is still ongoing, then she should have fallen back to June. And this wouldn't require new reports, these figures are kept weekly. [In Vogel's report he says "backlog stood at 903,000" -- he most likely meant claims. In the hearing, Hickey was repeatedly talking about the difference between the two. If you use the link in Vogel's report for that number, you're taken to an earlier report he did where he refers to that number as "pending claims." I understand what he means and would call it "backlog" myself. It is backlog, any claim that's not been determined today is now backlog. But since she made such a huge deal out of the terminology, I'm noting this.]
She needs to be better prepared. US House Rep Bob Filner has clearly put a scare and to her and good for that. But she needs to know that the VA will be held responsible. And she speaks about that but time and again things keep happening in hearings that if she didn't know about it, she should have. And if she did know about it, she's playing dumb with the Committee. At a recent hearing, Filner wisely noted that Hickey was hired to a do a job and did not need her hand held but she did need to do her job. It would be nice if everyone could remember that.
Chair Jason Chaffetz: Madam Undersecretary, the VA had reported that it awarded $2.8 million to 245 senior executives. How do we justify that? I mean, that's a very small group of people. We've got hundreds of thousands -- close to a million -- veterans waiting in line and 245 people got $2.8 million in bonuses? How do we justify that?
Allison Hickey: Chairman Chaffetz, thanks for the question. First of all, I will tell you in VBA, since 2009, we have actually decreased by a full third the number of our SESs that are getting outstanding ratings. So we have done what this administration's asked us to do which is to really scrutinize the ratings that we are giving to our senior executives and bring them down. I'll tell you from a VBA perspective, I have 98 metrics, performance metrics, that I rate every one of our senior executives against. They are performance based.
Chair Jason Chaffetz: How --
Allison Hickey: They are production and quality based.
Chair Jason Chaffetz: How many --
Allison Hickey: And in those environments where I do have outstanding leaders, I need to keep those outstanding leaders. They're making a difference for our veterans, their family members and survivors.
Chair Jason Chaffetz: How many of them -- How many of the people that worked for you go those bonuses?
Allison Hickey: Congressman, I'll have to bring you the explicit information. I wasn't prepared to come and talk about bonus structure.
If all 245 got approximately the same amount of bonus, they got a bit over $10,000 each. How does anyone working for the federal government deserve that?
They did a great job? Good. They were supposed to. I don't understand when the American people are being told that drastic cuts are needed how 245 employees of the VBA are getting not just their nice salaries but bonuses of $10,000 each for . . . doing their job? Long before Senator Patty Murray and others were called for the Super Congress panel to address the deficit, the White House should have notified all cabinets that all bonuses were suspended. I'm not joking on this. A month ago there was a hearing that I knew nothing on -- record retention, record digitizing, etc. -- and I had to speak to a number of people who were kind enough to speak with me (that friends were kind enough to hook me up with) to get repeat walk throughs on this (because that's how I am, I have to over-saturate to feel comfortable talking about a topic) and I was speaking to government employees on all levels. I heard about pay freezes and hiring freezes. This is not uncommon across the country right now due to The Great Recession which continues. And for state and municipal employees, this comes as layoffs have already demanded that they do their jobs and the jobs of two or three other people that were let go. In some instances, they've also had pay cuts. And yet at the federal level, senior executives, whose job it is to run the VA, are getting $10,000 bonuses?
That's disgusting. The White House, if they understood a damn thing about the current economy, should have let senior execs know -- especially for VA -- that there were no more bonuses until the economy turned around. Especially VA? The backlog's not gone. And the service isn't there.
Let's demonstrate the quality of service via statements in the hearing by two members of the Subcommittee.
US House Rep Peter Welch: [. . .] one family that contacted our office. And this woman, the mother of Howard Hoy, the son who had contacted us, they had a claim that just wasn't answered for years and it wasn't until after the mother died -- and this was her trying to get pension benefits from what she was entitled to as the survivor -- it wasn't until after she died that they adjudicated this. [. . . ] After this woman died, she got a condolence letter. So one part of the system was working but the part that would have been beneficial to her while she was alive was not working.
US House Rep Jackie Speier: [In San Francisco at her "VA Fix-It meeting"] over 250 veterans showed up. They were angry, they were hostile and they had every right to be. I'm just going to tell you a few of these stories. Sgt Ari Sonnenberg had multiple tours in Iraq. He was facing eviction from his apartment while he waited for over a year for a disability ruling. He was unable to work -- a fact that took Oakland VA months and months to verify. He needed treatment for PTSD. He was ordered by the VA actually to go to the VA Medical Center in Oakland. The breaking point came the day before I took his wife and mother to meet with the director at Oakland. Until that meeting was set up, the Oakland Office was unaware that Mr. Sonnenberg was hospitalized at the VA facility for the next several months. At the "VA Fix-It meeting" that we had, he told the packed room that he almost committed suicide. Now the good news is that he will be boarding a plane for home tomorrow, he's had his surgeries, he's had treatment for PTSD and he has his disability benefits. Had we not intervened, Mr. Sonnenberg would probably be dead today. Another gentleman, a 92-year-old WWII vet who was confined to a wheel chair showed up at the "Fix-It meeting." He waited for over two years to have his claim adjusted, he had a service connection of 60%. He was there, in his condition, his caregiver said, "It's been two years and now you're telling us that we've got to go back to a doctor to determine what his status is even though we've already done that. Now the good news there is because we had that "Fix-It meeting," within a week, he was given retroactive payment of $32,000 and is now receiving $2000 a month. He's 92-years-old. Michael Cortez argued that his Parkinson's Disease was caused by exposure to Agent Orange. He, again, waited two years. As it turned out, because we had that "Fix-It meeting," his claim was recently resolved. He's got a one-time retroactive payment of $92,000 [. . .] and now he's receiving $3,400 a month.
Does that sound like quality service? And when the Congress funds VA, are they aware that so much money is going to bonuses?
Tomorrow, we'll note US House Rep Jackie Speier on another aspect of the hearing.
If someone didn't get noted? There's not time or space to note everyone in most cases. If I'm ignoring someone that I ignored at the last hearing? I don't like kiss asses. I never have. If you're not there to serve veterans, why are you there? To kiss ass for one Democrat and I'm not interested in noting him. I'm not interested in helping him put his embarrassing scandal behind him. I feel the House Ethics Committee -- under Democrat control first, not under Republican control -- has carried out a non-stop witch hunt on US House Rep Maxine Waters. I like Maxine and think she works very hard. I'm not sure how you look the other way for a man whose own family members -- just convicted -- say he was in on it. I don't understand when that happens, how you don't immediately launch a House Ethics Committee investigation. I have no interest in helping the ass kiss.
We'll come back to veterans issues at the end to note two things.
All Iraq News reveals that Antony Blinken, US Vice President Joe Biden's National Security Adviser, is in Iraq and led a delegation that met with Nouri. AFP adds that he also met with Speaker of Parliament Osama al-Nujaifi "and was set to hold talks with other top politicians on a trip to Baghdad and later in the Kurdish regional capital Arbil." Why is Blinken there?
Because of the ongoing political crisis and the White House's fear that it's starting to get traction -- people are starting to notice Iraq. Blinken's not expected to solve anything, just to put a band-aid on it -- a band-aid that will, the White House hopes, last through the November elections. Today Sally Painter contributes a column to POLITICO about how things are going in Iraq. Excerpt.
But although Iraq has made significant strides since the dark days of 2006 and 2007, after the U.S. withdrawal, the country has seemed on the verge of spiraling violence and political chaos. Withdrawal cannot mean abandonment -- but unfortunately, it's unclear whether Washington has an effective strategy to remain positively engaged with Iraq's future.
Since December, Iraq has lurched from political stalemate to rumors of Sunni succession to talk of civil war. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite, has wasted no time in accelerating his efforts to concentrate power in the executive, ignoring parliamentary prerogatives and, according to Human Rights Watch, overseeing a secret prison for his political opponents. Political accommodation over the most fundamental issues, including how to divide oil revenue between regions and ethnic groups, remains more remote than ever. Meanwhile, renewed terrorist bombings killed hundreds of people in June.
The central government is more deadlocked than ever. Calls for Maliki's resignation have increased, and erstwhile allies like Moqtada al-Sadr have joined the opposition in threatening a vote of no confidence. Maliki has responded by threatening early elections, before their scheduled date in 2014. Key cabinet positions, including defense and interior, remain unfilled.
As noted in yesterday's snapshot, Nouri al-Maliki is not pleased with comments about him made by the former Syrian Ambassador to Iraq who defected last week and has decided to sue the diplomat. In no-surprise news, Al Mada reports that State of Law began insisting the ambassador needed to be arrested yesterday. He's also not pleased with Turkey.
Nayla Razzouk (Bloomberg News) reports that Nouri is threatening "to take action" if Turkish 'flights' continue -- Razzouk notes that Ali al-Dabbagh (Nouri's spokesperson) was short on details of what 'flights' were being referred to (it's assumed, due to the use of the term "war planes" yesterday that the flights refer to the bombing raids Baghdad has allowed over the KRG). al-Dabbagh stated that that a formal complaint will be filed with the UN Security Council. Nouri's also not pleased with the Kurds. And, with all of this, is it really smart to arm him with F-16s, let alone to rush the order?
Al Mada notes the belief that Nouri's latest war of words is motivated by a desire to punish the KRG over their energy policy which is independent of Baghdad. They also point out that as the war of words escalate, dialogue gets harder and harder. Dialogue, of course, being what Nouri claims to currently want as he attempts to circumvent efforts to withdraw confidence from him.
Al Mada notes Iraqiya spokesperson Maysoun al-Damalouji explains that they are going through with their efforts for a vote of no-confidence in Nouri and that they have passed their decision on to Deputy Prime Minister Saleh al-Mutlaq (who is also a member of Iraqiya). In another article, they note Nouri's flurry of activity with the Parliament -- including last Thursday's meeting with Speaker of Parliament Osama al-Nujaifi. Alsumaria notes that KRG President Massoud Barzani's spokesperson raised the issue yesterday of Nouri's attempts to militarize Iraq society for his own political ends. AFP adds, "The F-16 deal has raised alarm bells in the northern Kurdistan region, with Barzani saying earlier this year he was opposed to the sale of the warplanes while Maliki was premier, fearing they would be used against Kurdistan."
Monday's snapshot noted the decision to yet again delay findings by the Iraq Inquiry -- an investigation led by John Chilcot in England. Rose Gentle's son Gordon Gentle was killed while serving in Iraq with British forces. For the Guardian, she explains what the latest delay means:
He was a lovely boy: he looked such a grown-up man in his Royal Fusiliers uniform, but I could still see the little boy in him. He was just 19: Iraq was his first posting, straight out of training. He'd been there less than three weeks when he was killed by a roadside bomb in Basra.
But this year, on the anniversary of his death, I had a bit of hope in my heart. My hope was that, during this summer, I'd at last be able to read the results of the Chilcot inquiry, which I've been waiting for since 2009 when Gordon Brown announced it was going to be set up to look into why we went to war in Iraq, and to "learn the lessons" from the trail of events that led to the deaths of young men like Gordon.
This week, though, we've learned there's yet another delay. It's going to be the middle of next year, we're now told, before the report sees the light of day. 2013 – 10 whole years after the war started. And why? I've listened as keenly as Sir John Chilcot to this inquiry – any mother who lost her son would, to find out why he died. What does he still need time for?
Two points for consideration now. First, what has happened to the Iraq inquiry? We were told last year that it would take "until at least summer 2012" to complete its report. An important reason for taking so long is the need "to negotiate the declassification of a significant volume of currently classified material with the government". Very well, but it is time to say that enough is enough.
Secondly, we are told that Tony Blair is wondering whether it is time to offer his services to the nation again. Iraq is one reason why I think we can manage without him. Oliver Miles Oxford
On War Criminal Tony Blair, Matthew Norman (Independent) observes, "Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water, here he is encircling the upper echelons of public life once again - and if his dream of rehabilitation is to be harpooned, we're going to need a bigger boat."
The United States needs something in order to stop the whisper attacks on citizens -- the government's whisper attacks. For some reason -- journalism isn't the reason -- Foreign Policy has again allowed Josh Rogin to write another article where he allows an unnamed State Dept official to attack people by name and their character. That's not how journalism's supposed to work so clearly Foreign Policy doesn't believe in journalism. What has him breaking all the rules? As always it is his hate for the residents of Camp Ashraf.
This one may cause waves -- might even splash on Baby Cum Pants Josh. See, in the article he's trashing like crazy. And it would appear that US House Reps Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Brad Sherman will next be on the trashing list (the two wrote Secretary of State Hillary Clinton asking for the conditions at Camp Liberty to be improved -- Camp Liberty is where the US is trying to relocate Camp Ashraf residents). What Baby Cum Pants Josh apparently doesn't know -- or one of the many things he apparently doesn't know -- is that despite Ros-Lehtinen being a Republican and Hillary being a Democrat, the two woman have strong respect for one another. If he had even a clue about the beat he's supposed to cover, he would have realized he could tailor the story as: "Is this what turns things around for Camp Ashraf? Or will Secretary Clinton blow off a friend?" But, as usual, Rogin's typing on autopilot.
Yesterday, we noted Senator Patty Murray was pushing for a floor vote on the Camp Lejeune issue. The US House Veterans Affairs Committee issued the following.
"This legislation brings together nearly two years' worth of work on behalf of America's veterans. From streamlining and adding increased accountability to the disability claims process, to protecting our veterans from sexual assault, and providing for the future of Arlington National Cemetery, the Honoring America's Veterans and Caring for Camp Lejeune Families Act of 2012 is a tribute ensuring our veterans, their families, and survivors are guaranteed the benefits earned through their service to our Nation.
"With Senate passage today of H.R. 1627, our veterans are one step closer to receiving healthcare and improved services from VA. I would like to take this opportunity to thank Chairman Murray and Ranking Member Burr for their leadership in the Senate, as well as Ranking Member Filner's support here in the House, to make this legislation a reality. Finally, I want to thank Senator DeMint for working with us to ensure that resources are focused on veterans and family members in need of VA healthcare.
"I look forward to the House passing this legislation as soon as possible."
To learn more about the Honoring America's Veterans and Caring for Camp Lejeune Families Act of 2012, click here.
Senator Patty Murray, as noted above, is the Chair of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee and we're closing with this from her office (and I'm not in the mood for whines about the font size, I'm told that it can't be reduced without making the snapshot wider which will throw off the site for the next three entries so it is what it is):
In the face of threatened delays, Murray brokers compromise to finally deliver health care to Camp Lejeune Veterans and their families
Omnibus includes comprehensive health care, housing, homelessness, education and benefits legislation for veterans
(Washington, D.C.) – Today, Wednesday, July 18, 2012, U.S. Senator Patty Murray, Chairman of the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee helped ensure passage of the Honoring America's Veterans and Caring for Camp Lejeune Families Act of 2012 by unanimous consent. Thisbipartisan, bicameral, and comprehensive legislation combines provisions of the Veterans Programs Improvement Act of 2011(S. 914, Report No. 112-088) and Honoring American Veterans Act of 2011 (H.R. 1627, Report No. 112-084 Part 1), as well as provisions from other Senate and House legislation. This comprehensive package extends health care to veterans and their families who lived at Camp Lejeune, expands critical health programs, improves housing programs, enhances programs for homeless veterans, and makes needed improvements to the disability claims system. In the face of threatened delays on the bill, Senator Murray brokered a compromise today that allowed the bill to move forward.
"This comprehensive legislation makes improvements to almost every aspect of care and services for veterans, and I am proud of the work my committee put into bringing this omnibus bill together,"Senator Murray said following passage of the bill."This bill will finally provide health care to veterans and family members exposed to contaminated water at Camp Lejeune, expand eligibility for housing adaptation grants to more seriously injured veterans, and make help for homeless veterans more widely available."
Specifically, the Honoring America's Veterans and Caring for Camp Lejeune Families Act of 2012 would:
·Provide health care for certain individuals stationed at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. This bill will extend hospital care and medical services coverage for certain illnesses and conditions to eligible veterans and family members who served on active duty or lived at Camp Lejeune.
·Expand critical health care programs for veterans. This bill will authorize VA to waive copayments for telehealth and telemedicine visits of veterans, expand beneficiary travel reimbursement for veterans living in highly rural areas, and improve reimbursement for state veterans homes. In addition, the bill will enhance VA's teleconsultation and telemedicine capabilities to improve rural veterans' access to quality health care, protect veterans from sexual assault and other safety incidents, and expand TBI services.
·Enhance Specially Adapted Housing programs for disabled veterans. This bill expands the eligibility for VA's specially adapted housing assistance grants to certain veterans with disabilities due to the loss or loss of use of one or more lower extremities that preclude ambulating without the aid of a supporting device. Senator Murray recently heard from a veteran who is severely injured with an above the knee amputation and an injury to his hip. His combination of injuries made it incredibly difficult for him to live comfortably in his home, yet despite his serious injuries and mobility challenges, he did not meet current eligibility criteria for VA's adaptive housing programs to get the benefits that he so critically needed. Senator Murray wrote aletterto Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki asking that eligibility criteria be adjusted accordingly, so that veterans in similar situations can get the benefits they deserve.This bill authorizes increased assistance to those disabled veterans who reside temporarily with family members and indexes levels of such assistance on an annual basis. The bill also provides adaptive housing assistance grants to veterans with a lesser degree of vision impairment than what is required by current law.
·Improve efforts to eliminate homelessness among veterans. This bill will reauthorize a number of VA's programs to help homeless veterans and will expand eligibility for VA's emergency shelter services to include homeless veterans who are not seriously mentally ill. In addition, the bill enhances grant programs for homeless veterans with special needs, by including dependents of veterans and male veterans with dependent children. The bill also improves the grant and per diem program, which serves upward of 30,000 homeless veterans annually, by requiring VA to report on how to improve the per diem payment process for grantees. In addition, the bill strengthens efforts by eligible entities to assist in case management services provided to the nearly 40,000 homeless veterans participating in the HUD-VASH program.
·Strengthen veterans' benefits and improving claims processing.This bill will improve VA's disability claims appeal processing by waiving initial review of claimants' new evidence by the agency of original jurisdiction unless specifically requested. It is estimated that this provision could prevent approximately 1,600 remands from the Board of Veterans' Appeals per year allowing the Board more time to address the backlog of appeals. Other significant improvements include, improving the process of filing jointly for social security and dependency and indemnity compensation and clarifying the month of death payment provisions to ensure surviving spouses receive proper and timely benefit payments.