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WASHINGTON — The House Veterans’ Affairs Committee passed six bills Wednesday, including a measure aimed at making it easier for victims of sexual assault and rape in the military to receive veterans’ disability benefits and a provision barring Veterans Affairs Department executives from receiving bonuses for the next five years.
The bonus prohibition is included in HR 357, a catchall benefits bill passed by voice vote that also forces public colleges and universities to charge only in-state tuition for student veterans beginning July 1, 2015.
Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., the veterans’ committee chairman, said considering the many problems faced by the VA in benefits and health care, he didn’t believe VA senior executive service employees should receive executive bonuses. Nobody stood up for the bonuses during the markup.
Miller said in a statement, “the fact that so many VA executives collected huge performance bonuses year after year while continually failing at their jobs calls into question whether department leaders even know the meaning of the word accountability.
“Unfortunately, it’s taken the national crisis that is the benefits backlog and a media firestorm surrounding the department’s bonus scandal for VA leaders to realize that rewarding failure only breeds more failure,” Miller said. “VA owes every American an explanation for why it rewarded failing executives with bonuses, and we are calling on the department to conduct a top-to-bottom review of its performance appraisal system to prevent similar outrageous payments in the future.”
The committee has considered similar legislation in the past, but it has not become law because of one wrinkle in the plan. If the VA stops paying executive bonuses but other agencies continue the payments, top-quality VA employees might switch agencies, according to representatives from veterans service organizations, who asked not to be identified.
Miller was undeterred. “Until we have complete confidence that VA is holding executives accountable — rather than rewarding them — for their mistakes, no one should get a performance bonus. Period.”
The bill also forces colleges and universities to begin charging of in-state tuition for student veterans by cutting off new Post-9/11 GI Bill tuition and fee payments to schools that continue to charge some student veterans a higher non-resident tuition if they have not established residency.
■HR 570, providing automatic annual cost-of-living adjustments in veterans disability and survivor benefits, eliminating the current need for Congress to pass and the president to sign legislation giving a cost adjustment that is automatic for Social Security and military and federal civilian retired pay.
■HR 602, a Second Amendment bill involving gun ownership that stops veterans who have been declared financially incompetent from being listed on the FBI’s criminal background check database unless they have been determined in a judicial proceeding as a danger to themselves or others.
■ HR 1405, requiring the VA to include in any benefit denial the forms needed to file an appeal.
■ HR 1412, expanding on-the-job training opportunities for federal agencies.
The sexual assault bill, HR 671, is called the Ruth Moore Act, named for a Navy veteran raped twice during her career who spent 23 years battling with the VA to receive full disability benefits.
The bill asks the Veterans Affairs Department to both expand the range of physical and mental disabilities considered related to military sexual trauma and to treat people filing for claims the same as combat veterans filing for post-traumatic stress disabilities.
Provisions are stronger than those in a measure passed one week earlier by a subcommittee but are still not legally binding. The leverage to get the VA to act is that if the agency does not update its regulations within 15 months, it would be required to send every veteran who filed a sexual trauma-related claim a monthly report detailing how claims are being handled, including the number of claims approved during the previous month, the number denied and the most common reason for denial, average processing time for claim processing by regional office, and other information.
“Trust me, the VA does not want to do these reports,” said a committee staffer who worked on the provision.