Lawmakers passed a veterans omnibus bill in the waning hours of Congress' legislative session last week, but without many of the most sweeping and controversial provisions the two chambers had struggled with in recent months.
Instead, the measure heading to the president's desk is a collection of mostly non-controversial items, including small changes in the benefits appeals process, an extension of education benefits to some war widows and increased access to benefits for homeless veterans.
It doesn't include accountability provisions championed by critics of the Department of Veterans Affairs, who insist the bureaucracy does not have the ability to properly discipline criminal employees. It also omits a costly expansion of veteran caregiver benefits and proposed trims to the post-9/11 GI Bill, which several veterans groups had protested.
And it doesn't include an overhaul of the benefits appeals process or a consolidation of VA's outside care programs, two priorities that department leaders had pleaded with lawmakers to approve before the end of the year.
Still, House and Senate leaders hailed the passage as important steps forward in improving assistance for veterans, noting the changes should improve health care and benefits access. Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee Chairman Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., called it "a down payment on the promise and the debt that we owe to veterans."
Under the bill — named for retiring House Veterans’ Affairs Chairman Jeff Miller, R-Fla., and the Senate committee’s former ranking member Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn. — the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims will expand from seven to nine judges for the next three years, to help clear the backlog cases there.
It also mandates a host of new reports on the reasons behind that backlog, and would allow the VA to pay some survivor benefits to veterans’ family members even if they don’t formally apply for the payouts.
Burial at VA cemeteries would be expanded to include some reservists with service-connected illnesses and training accidents. Certain education benefits would be expanded to include spouses of troops killed between Sept. 11, 2001, and Jan. 1, 2006, who had previously been ineligible.
The health care provisions include new language allowing veterans who served in classified missions to seek mental health treatment without fear of security violations and to ease rules for hiring more mental health specialists.
The bill also mandates new research on the potential health effects from toxic exposures on veterans’ children, with an eye toward possibly covering those illnesses in the future.
Union officials had voiced opposition to the bill over a measure changing how the department sets pay scales for some employees. VA leaders had backed dropping review panels required to set those salaries, and lawmakers ignored those concerns in their final passage.
The full measure is available online through the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee's website. The president is expected to sign the measure into law in the coming days.
Leo Shane III covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.