Air Force Times
Impasse broken on veterans’ benefits bill
Sun Dec 10, 2006 08:29

Impasse broken on veterans’ benefits bill

By Rick Maze
Staff writer

Lawmakers reached an end-of-session agreement on veterans’ legislation Friday that includes a controversial provision allowing attorneys to be hired to help veterans with all stages of filing disability claims.

The Veterans Benefits, Health Care and Information Technology Act of 2006 is an collection of House and Senate initiatives that had been sitting in limbo for months while lawmakers tried to reach a compromise. One of the final issues to be resolved was the study of a possible veterans’ hospital in Charleston, S.C., that would be a joint venture between the Department of Veterans Affairs and a local medical university.

The attorney representation provision, opposed by some veterans’ groups and endorsed by others, allows — but does not require — veterans to be represented by an attorney or some other agent when filing claims. Under current law, an attorney cannot be paid for representation until a claim has made its way through the entire administrative process, but Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee chairman, has argued claims today are so complex today that veterans should not be precluded from getting help.

Disabled American Veterans, one of the top four veterans’ service organizations, has strongly opposed the change in law because it could forever alter what has been a mostly nonadversarial claims process.

Health care provisions in the bill include allowing marriage and family therapists to be hired to provide mental health counseling as part of treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder, and requiring the Defense Department and VA to work on pre- and post-deployment programs with an eye toward trying to minimize mental health problems. It also includes bereavement counseling for immediate family members as a service to be offered at Vet Centers when a member dies on active duty.

Another provision requires the VA to hire 35 specialists in rehabilitating the blind within 30 months, filling a need pointed out earlier this year in congressional testimony from Blinded Veterans of America who said some combat-wounded service members were not getting proper treatment.

Under other provisions, the veterans’ home loan guarantee program would be expanded to include buying into cooperative housing units where a person owns membership or a share of a building instead of a unit, and the Labor Department would be required to issue rules clarifying the priority of preference for veterans and dependents seeking help in federal job placement programs.

A key part of the bill involves construction. It authorizes $300 million for the restoration, new construction or replacement of the New Orleans VA medical center; $310 million for the restoration of the VA medical center in Biloxi, Miss.; and consolidation of services performed at the VA medical center in Gulfport, Miss.; and $98 million for the replacement of the Denver, Colo., VA medical center.

The bill has $36.8 million for advance planning and design of a co-located and joint-use medical facility in Charleston, S.C., the issue that had held up the bill for weeks.

Several leases for outpatient clinics are also included.

“Congress worked in a bipartisan effort to pass this important bill and the winners are veterans and their families,” said Rep. Steve Buyer, R-Ind., the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee chairman. “This bill makes meaningful improvements in the VA system.”


Veterans suffer as Congress drags feet
Sarasota Herald-Tribune, FL - 1 hour ago
... Some critics might call this a bureaucratic snafu. But for military veterans needing health care, the foot-dragging can have real consequences. ...

Main Page - Sunday, 12/10/06

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