It appears that Congress did at least get something done before their regular recess. On Friday they passed 3 measures related to the Veterans Administration.
In the First bill passed, the Congress has sent to the President a Bill which they say is intended to shorten the Appeals process for veterans. Unfortunately, it looks like this Bill is really nothing to be overly thrilled about. In return for waiving the right to a hearing AND the right to present new evidence, the veteran would receive what they are calling an "express" appeal process. What this really means, no-one knows. It could mean that instead of taking anywhere from 2-5 years to get a decision on your appeal, it might only take 1-3....but again, we just don't know. What we do know is that the veteran is expected to give up some very important rights just to maybe get a quicker decision.
Most appeals are won due to the ability to present more evidence AND to appear in front of a hearing Judge so that a face is put with a number. I would not advise any veteran to elect this "express" appeal process until we learn more.
The Second Bill has to do with reducing some of the existing restrictions on the GI Bill.
The Third Bill addresses the current Budget shortfall in the so-called "Choice" program that in theory allows veterans to seek private health care paid for by the VA when the normal VA Medical Center wait times are too long. This Bill supplies 3.9 Billion dollars to keep the program funded.
More info to come as it becomes available......
It seems like the VA just keeps saying that they must make 'hard decisions" when figuring their budget and how to assist all Veterans. Time and time again they fall back on the possibility of limiting the amount of benefits some veterans can receive as a way of meeting their own budgeting problems instead of looking at the waste within the VA itself as a way to meet budget demands.
VA Secretary Shulkin has told a House panel that continuing to provide IU/TDIU benefits to veterans above the age of 80 "isn't what makes sense to the average American". Instead, he once again proposed cutting the IU benefit once the veteran becomes eligible for Social Security Retirement benefits. This is a bit of a change in Secretary Shulkin's attitude from his earlier proposal to totally end IU benefits, BUT this new proposal should have all veterans concerned.
Shulkin went on to state that the proposed changes to the IU program would save the agency around 3.2 million in 2018 alone. The proposed changes WOULD NOT affect those veterans who were unable to otherwise collect Social Security.
One of the many problems with cutting the IU benefits based upon the ability to receive Social Security benefits is the fact that many, if not most of the veterans receiving IU have been out of the workforce for many, many years. These vets have not been paying much, if anything, into the Social Security system and would therefore receive very little monthly income from Social Security. This would result in many more vets being pushed into poverty and homelessness. Further, spouses of veterans that receive IU are entitled to health care benefits and that alone could devastate the family if the IU is lost.
The fact is that these veterans have earned the right to collect BOTH benefits. They earn the right to collect the IU benefits due to the fact that they did serve their Country and suffered as a result, plus they worked and paid into the Social Security system.
There has been heated discussions within the veterans community over the proposed assault on the IU program. Some veterans even voicing concerns that the already high suicide rate among vets could skyrocket with any such changes.
Luckily, all previous efforts to trim the IU benefits program have run into very strong opposition from veterans, veteran service organizations, veteran advocates and even some in Congress.
The VA "Choice" program was hoped to be a real life-saver for veterans. The intention was to create funds that would allow veterans to seek health care from a medical provider of their "choice" rather than have to wait for an appointment at an already overcrowded VA Medical Center or Clinic. While this sounded wonderful in theory, in practice it has been one mess after another, which is typical for a Government program.
VA Secretary David Shulkin announced in June that the finds allotted for the "Choice" program would be completely used up by mid-August unless something were done quickly.
While many U.S. House and Senate members attempted to grab headlines by spouting off how the "Choice" program cannot be allowed to end, they did little else initially to address the real problem.
The House passed a bill Friday to not only fund the "Choice" program with another $2.1 Billion dollars, but also to provide an additional $1.8 Billion dollars to be used by the VA to open a couple of new clinics, replace other clinics and trying to fill some of the 49,000 vacancies within the VA. The Senate then passed the Bill yesterday and it now heads to the desk of the President for signature.
Part of the problem with the current Bill is that the Congress is robbing Peter to pay Paul. They are funding the additional monies by extending pension reductions for Medicaid eligible veterans in nursing facilities and continuing fees on VA guaranteed home loans. These reductions and fees hurt those veterans that are often the most in need of every benefit they can obtain.
The current Bill is supposedly just a "stop-gap" measure until Congress, the VA and various veterans organizations can sit down and hash out real reform on how the VA handles private-sector care, and how it is funded by Congress.
There is no doubt but the current "Choice" program is confusing and very difficult to navigate. Even worse, it is highly likely that even if a veteran is authorized to seek private health care, the medical provider will never get paid, or will be strung along being forced to jump through hoops that ultimately are going to turn a lot of private-sector providers off of the whole system.
You should contact your U.S. Senator/Representative and let them know that as a veteran you expect the best and most timely health care available. That you expect to be able to seek care from a private-sector provider in order to avoid the never-ending waiting lists within the VA Medical Centers. Finally, that you expect the "Choice" program to be fully funded WITHOUT having to steal funds from other needed VA programs.