American veterans finally benefit from years worth of legislative work on their behalf thanks to the passage of the Veterans Health Care and Benefits Improvement Act of 2020.
On December 17, 2020, a 340-page-plus law created sweeping changes in support for the United States veteran community was unanimously passed by the House and Senate–a rare thing in 2020, to be sure.
The law was sent for the President’s signature the day before Christmas 2020 and on January 5, 2021, the Johnny Isakson and David P. Roe M.D. Veterans Health Care and Benefits Improvement Act of 2020 became the law of the land.
At press time, the full text of the bill signed by the President was not available (information can be obtained from the enrolled version of the bill but the text of the Act with the President’s signature has not been released at press time), but there are many changes and improvements required under the new law.
These include a variety of upgrades in varying degrees ranging from requiring the VA to provide disability benefits questionnaires online and eliminating a 12-year deadline for disabled veterans to apply for benefits under the Veteran Readiness and Employment program, to an expansion of the Medal of Honor pension program (see below).
Highlights Of The Act
VA Mortgages For National Guard Members
The bill makes significant changes to the Department of Veterans Affairs home loan program. These alterations make it possible for National Guard members without active-duty service to obtain eligibility for a VA mortgage if they have a minimum of 90 days of service with 30 of those 90 days to be served consecutively.
Before the change, Guard and Reserve members had to serve in one of the following capacities to qualify:
“…at least six years of honorable service”, or in cases where they are “mobilized for active duty service for a period of at least 90 days,” and also in cases where the veteran is “discharged because of a service-connected disability” to qualify according to older VA documents.
An Expanded of Medal of Honor Pension
Under the Act, surviving spouses qualify to receive the pension paid to Medal of Honor awardees when the service member dies. There is a caveat; spouses who are paid VA Dependency Indemnity Compensation are not eligible.
VA Life Insurance
Thanks to the Act, starting in 2023 the Department of Veterans Affairs must offer whole life insurance to all disabled veterans under age 81. Some compare this insurance to the Veterans Group Life Insurance policy or VGLI, but unlike the VGLI program the new whole life insurance will not have a time limit to sign up. VGLI applicants only have 16 months to sign up after separating or retiring from the military.
Expanded VA Memorial Benefits
The Department of Veterans Affairs is given a two-year window (effective from the date of the law) to establish expanded memorial benefits that include the VA bearing the costs to transport the remains of veterans to state cemeteries and tribal veteran cemeteries. Before the Act, the VA was only required to pay transport costs to a national veterans cemetery.
Within this two year window the VA must also begin providing urns for veterans who wish to be cremated. Under this program, the surviving family members are offered a free urn from the VA or a free headstone, but not both. Those who opt for a free VA-provided headstone may also have a spouse’s name engraved on the headstone at no cost. Before the new law, families were required to pay for this service.
Ending VA Copays For Native American Veterans
Another VA deadline–within a year of the new law, the Department of Veterans Affairs must end VA copays for healthcare and medication. This requirement applies whether or not the patient has a service-connected disability.
Expanded Accountability At Veterans Homes
Under the Act, the 162 state-run veterans homes in the United States are required to establish a consistent and ongoing report about COVID-19 cases, deaths, and related issues. Prior to the Act, these state veterans homes were not required to furnish such data. The VA is now mandated to make public statements about the number of coronavirus cases and COVID-related deaths.
Enhanced GI Bill Protections
The Act requires more scrutiny of institutions of higher learning that have a dubious past when it comes to taking advantage of GI Bill students. One feature of the law in this area–the VA must now analyze whether schools subject to punishment or legal action from the government should have their GI Bill funds suspended.
Service-Connected Deaths Related To Coronavirus
Members of the Guard and Reserve who die of COVID-19 shall have their deaths identified as service-connected.
Help For Homeless Veterans
The coronavirus pandemic exposed a real need to expand care and assistance for homeless veterans. Part of the Act includes giving the VA enhanced abilities to provide funds to agencies that assist homeless veterans as well as expanding a federal voucher program offered to veterans without honorable discharges who are experiencing homelessness.
Help For “K2” Veterans
A report by Stars And Stripes on July 9, 2020, includes mention of “recently declassified” DoD information that apparently indicates, “the Pentagon knew troops were exposed to multiple toxins and hazards that have led to hundreds of cancer cases and dozens of dead veterans after deploying to Uzbekistan in the early days of the War on Terror.”
The same Stars and Stripes report states, “The Department of Veterans Affairs is denying most of them care and disability.” The base known as K2 is Karshi-Khanabad Air Base, described as a former Soviet air base.
American forces were deployed there from 2001 to 2005 as part of the War on Terror. The Stars and Stripes report says veterans who served there witnessed glowing water, oozing black sludge, “…and the government posted massive white and yellow signs warning troops to keep out of certain areas due to chemical agents”.
Under the new law, K2 veterans must be given access to the VA Burn Pit registry, which tracks similar problems associated with Gulf War service and beyond.
The Deborah Sampson Act
The Veterans Healthcare and Benefits Improvement Act omnibus bill also includes important changes for women veterans through something called the Deborah Sampson Act. Deborah Sampson was among the first women veterans during the Revolutionary War and the bill includes the following requirements.
- Creation of an Office of Women’s Health at the Department of Veterans Affairs
- A requirement to enact comprehensive policy to end gender-based harassment, sexual harassment, and sexual assault
- Creating dedicated women’s health care provider at each VA healthcare facility
- Enhance privacy and care for women veterans at VA facilities
- Add military sexual trauma counseling options for veterans of the Guard and Reserve
- Expanded child care for veterans getting VA care
- “Permanent” authorization for PTSD counseling for women veterans
- Provide more funding for programs that help women veterans
- Expansion of call center services for women veterans
How much is being put toward these alterations? Some $20 million is offered to remodel VA hospitals to include dedicated women’s healthcare environments; it also permanently authorizes childcare programs at VA facilities.
- Enhanced protections for vets who experience VA medical malpractice
- Expanded VA work study options, STEM scholarships for clinical training
- Reforms related to VA overpayment and debt collection
- Additional retraining help for veterans
- Extend Servicemember Civil Relief Act protections for qualifying service members and their spouses (with qualifying injuries), and Gold Star spouses.
Joe Wallace is a 13-year veteran of the United States Air Force and a former reporter for Air Force Television News
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