By Debbie Gregory.
Senate lawmakers approved the Veterans First Act, a veterans benefits bill that expands programs by reworking the GI Bill housing payments.
The Senate bill would reduce the annual increase to the monthly housing allowance for all recipients of the Post-9/11 GI Bill, including veterans themselves, by 1 percent for five years, mirroring the payment received by active-duty service members.
The Senate package also adds new protections for whistleblowers, includes provisions intended to make it easier to fire employees who engage in wrongful behavior, and places caps on bonuses. This, in an effort to safeguard against certain issues in the VA healthcare system from repeating.
These issues include unauthorized wait-lists for veterans seeking appointments, executives manipulating the system to retain or earn bonuses or accepting gifts, and retaliation against whistleblowers who have brought problems to the attention of leadership.
The bill would expand a department program that allows seriously injured veterans to receive care in their own homes; enhance mental health care programs; and halt the over-prescribing of opioids to veterans.
The bill also would direct the VA to commence research into potential health problems of children and grandchildren of veterans who were exposed to toxins, including the chemical defoliant Agent Orange.
Other provisions included in the Senate bill include:
Expanding the VA’s Comprehensive Assistance for Family Caregivers program to all generations of veterans. Currently, only Post-9/11 veterans are eligible.
Establishing standards for the prompt payment to non-VA health care providers who treat veterans under the Choice Act.
Making it possible for mobilized reservists to earn GI Bill eligibility.
Expanding research on the potential health effects from toxic exposure to veterans and their descendants.
Strengthening programs to combat veteran homelessness.
Improving the disability claims and appeals process by requiring the VA to launch a pilot program that will cut down the massive backlog of appeals awaiting action.
The bipartisan Senate bill must still be reconciled with the House version and a final package approved by both chambers.