House lawmakers on Wednesday finalized a massive, sweeping veterans policy measure which includes new protections for student veterans, new aid for veterans hurt by the ongoing pandemic and long sought-after improvements to VA services aimed at women veterans.
The 337-page bill — cobbled together in recent months from dozens of smaller reform measures — easily passed the chamber by a voice vote on Wednesday afternoon. It was advanced by the Senate one week ago without any objections, and now heads to the White House for President Donald Trump’s final signature.
Lawmakers said the legislation was sorely needed in light of the pressures caused by the ongoing coronavirus outbreak.
Wilkie is facing criticism for his handling of a sexual assault complaint at a department medical center.
“I have seen veterans in my district lining up for food, heard from homeless and housing insecure veterans who couldn’t access desperately-needed resources, and met with veterans who struggled to start new careers despite services that should’ve been there for them,” said bill sponsor Rep. Mike Levin, D-Calif. and chairman of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee’s panel on economic opportunity.
“That’s unacceptable, and we must do more to help get them back on their feet across the country.”
The bill — named for former Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Johnny Isakson and retiring House Veterans’ Affairs Committee ranking member Phil Roe, R-Tenn. — is also the culmination of several years of lobbying by veterans advocates on a host of issues.
Some provisions are aimed simply at creating better oversight of hot-button issues in the Department of Veterans Affairs. New studies are mandated on toxic exposure issues, support services for homeless women veterans, veterans job licensing programs and department health care shortcomings.
But others require near-term changes to VA operations and policies, and could have a far-reaching impact on veterans in the months to come.
Deborah Sampson Act
One of the most notable sections of the bill is the Deborah Sampson Act, legislation pending for four years in Congress which would enact a series of reforms aimed at improving services for women veterans across the department.
It includes $20 million for retrofitting health care facilities “to make it safer and easier for women veterans to get care.” Many advocates say VA hospitals lack basic facilities for women such as private examination areas, maternity rooms and female-specific equipment.
“Although positive strides have been made in recent years, there continue to be large gaps in care for women veterans in our VA healthcare system,” said Jeremy Butler, CEO of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. “The passage of [this bill] takes a significant leap in providing the equal level of care and resources that the women who chose to serve this country rightly deserve.”
It would mandate an Office of Women’s Health within the Veterans Health Administration headed by a senior VA official to oversee all women’s health programs. Department leaders would also be required to establish care standards at all medical centers to ensure that facilities are inspected and improvements are made to benefit female patients.
The bill mandates that every VA facility have at least one women’s health primary care provider and authorize a new $1 million annual program for a women veterans health care residency program.
And the measure would expand military sexual trauma counseling at VA to former members of the National Guard and reserves, who are eligible now only if they are currently serving.
Department leaders would also be required to create “an anti-harassment and anti-sexual assault policy” and designate officials to take responsibility for any related complaints.
The provision comes as VA leadership was chastised by the department inspector general for working to discredit a House staffer who reported a sexual assault at the Washington, D.C. VA Medical Center in September 2019. At least 21 members of Congress (all Democrats) have called for VA Secretary Robert Wilkie to resign in reaction to the report.
President Donald Trump has vowed to block the $740.5 defense authorization bill despite bipartisan support for the measure.
A large section of the bill deals with the effects of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic on student veterans. The measure extends emergency authorities for VA to ensure that changes in class schedules and locations related to the coronavirus outbreak do not reduce payouts for any veterans currently receiving GI Bill benefits.
It would also ensure that students will not lose benefits or eligibility if their schools close or suspend classes due to coronavirus concerns. Students who withdraw from a school for pandemic-related reasons can also retain their remaining months of GI Bill eligibility.
And the measure waives time limits for Montgomery GI Bill and Veteran Readiness and Employment benefits, to ensure they do not lapse while pandemic restrictions remain in place.
Other education issues covered in the bill extend beyond the immediate education concerns.
The measure would limit deceptive advertising practices aimed at student veterans and penalize schools found violating those rules. It would create an eligibility review for schools facing financial penalties or potential closures.
And students whose schools are closed or lose eligibility could see their GI Bill benefits fully restored under the measure, in an effort to keep education officials’ mistakes from punishing student veterans.
“This landmark legislation will significantly weed out predatory colleges that seek to take advantage of veterans,” said Carrie Wofford, president of Veterans Education Success. She praised lawmakers for “stepping up to protect veterans and their hard-earned GI Bill from waste, fraud, and abuse.”
The measure would also completely phase out the Montgomery GI Bill program by 2030. That benefit has largely been overtaken by the more generous post-9/11 GI Bill.
If confirmed, Denis McDonough would be only the second non-veteran to lead the department.
Lawmakers included several provisions related to job retraining programs. One would triple the available funding for the VET TEC Program, aimed at helping transitioning servicemembers gain technology skills, from $15 million annually to $45 million.
Another initiative would create new VA grants for organizations that specialize in providing transition services for troops or spouses. Those services include resume assistance, interview training, job recruitment work and other related services. That program will be coordinated with the Department of Labor.
Labor officials will also work with VA and Defense Department leaders on a comprehensive new study examining the military’s Transition Assistance Program, to find potential challenges and improvements.
The measure provides new financial assistance programs for homeless veterans, including new payouts to individuals dealing with housing support related to pandemic complications.
And it would create a new VA Advisory Committee on Tribal and Indian Affairs to advise department leaders on matters relating Native American veterans.
For surviving spouses receiving dependency indemnity compensation benefits, the new bill will lower the age that those individuals can remarry without incurring penalties from 57 to 55.
Trump is expected to sign the bill into law before the end of the month.