Senate fight over Zika funds sidelines VA funding bill (MilitaryTimes)
Political squabbling over funding to fight the Zika virus sidelined next year’s Veterans Affairs appropriations plans on Tuesday, leaving the department’s fiscal 2017 budget in doubt heading into the height of election season. Senate Democrats blocked a procedural move to advance the spending bill, which included $176.9 billion in VA funding starting in October, $7.9 billion for military construction projects and $1.1 billion for Zika prevention. The House approved the compromise bill a week earlier, along party lines. If the Senate had adopted the measure, it would have headed to the president to be signed into law. Instead, the spending bill now sits in legislative limbo, waiting for a vote at an unknown future date. The appropriations plan totaled $74.4 billion in discretionary spending for VA programs next year, nearly 4 percent more than what the department received last year but about $700 million less than what the White House requested in its budget plan. But Democrats’ objections focused mainly on the Zika provisions, money that was carved out from other government programs instead of supplying supplemental funding to address the public health issue. “It wouldn’t be truly an emergency funding,” said Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., “Go ahead, let’s whack Obamacare, Ebola money, veterans, Planned Parenthood … I can’t imagine how anyone would have the audacity to come to the floor and talk about what a great piece of legislation this is.” But Republicans accused Democrats of refusing to compromise and letting politics block progress on a host of critical issues. “We sit here in a partisan gridlock manufactured by the other side over issues that it’s pretty hard for the general public to understand,” said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. “Here we are, going into the 4th of July [recess], and we’ve impeded the passage of funding to deal with an impending public health crisis and in the same vote managed to vote against veterans as well.” McConnell said he plans on bringing the issue up for a vote again when the Senate returns next week, but lawmakers face a short legislative window to adopt the legislation. The chamber has only eight session days left this summer before leaving for an extended election-year break, and may shorten that workload if no progress is realistic on a host of pending bills. If the VA and military construction budget isn’t approved by mid-July, lawmakers won’t be able to finalize it until September at the earliest. VA officials have complained in the past that uncertainty over the coming fiscal year budget makes long-term planning difficult and causes undue stress for veterans dependent on many department programs. About $63.3 billion in advance appropriations for fiscal 2017 was approved by Congress last year to avoid some of the program shutdowns caused by past political fights, but that would not cover all VA operations in the event of a budget delay past September.
Report: VA often fails to reduce benefits for incarcerated veterans (The Wall Street Journal)
The Department of Veterans Affairs routinely neglects to adjust benefits payments to incarcerated veterans as dictated by federal law, according to a report released by the department’s watchdog on Tuesday. The VA has neglected, in more than 50% of cases, to properly reduce benefits payments for people incarcerated in federal penitentiaries, improperly paying millions in benefits, according to the department’s Office of Inspector General. The VA is required to slash benefits to minimal amounts for veterans incarcerated in federal, state or local penitentiaries for more than 60 days. The benefits can be reinstated after the veteran is released from custody. Since 2008 the Veterans Benefits Administration, an arm of the VA, has failed to cut benefits for 53% of vets who are federal inmates, resulting in nearly $60 million in overpayments, according to the report. It also failed to adjust benefits for 18% of those in state and local penal institutions, resulting in more than $44 million in improper payments. The system had not been effectively overhauled at the time of the report’s release, the inspector general said. The department has been focused for years on certain types of benefits processing, according to a statement, including first-time claims for benefits that have long been scrutinized by lawmakers and the public because of lengthy backlogs and long wait times. Inspectors said the VA didn’t prioritize processing what are called “incarceration adjustments” because the department focused the bulk of its effort elsewhere. The VA had an agreement with the Justice Department and the Federal Bureau of Prisons to receive a monthly computerized record of inmates in federal penitentiaries to streamline incarceration adjustments, the report said. But in 2008 the VA stopped complying with the terms of the agreement, which cut off the flow of data. In 2015 the VA resumed its agreement but for more than a year had not used the data for processing adjustments because of bureaucratic delays. “In general, VBA did not place priority on processing incarceration adjustments because VBA did not consider these non-rating claims to be part of the disability claims backlog,” the inspector general said in the report, adding that there was a lapse of almost seven years during which the VA didn’t obtain incarceration data from the Bureau of Prisons. In an official response dated mid-April, the VA said it would review data on federal incarcerations dating back to 2008 and try to recover improper payments and would focus more in the future on incarceration adjustments. “The Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA) agrees with findings and recommendations of the Office of Inspector General concerning the need to improve the current process for adjusting compensation and pension payments to Veterans incarcerated due to felony convictions,” said a VA statement released Tuesday. The VA also said veterans are responsible for notifying the department if they are serving a sentence in a penal institution, though the department is responsible for double-checking the data because “veterans do not always notify VA of their incarceration.”
Lawmakers push to restore medical marijuana language to VA bill (Military.com)
Days after lawmakers killed legislation that would have cleared Veterans Affairs doctors to discuss and make recommendations about medical marijuana to their patients, supporters are taking another swing at the proposal. A group of 11 lawmakers are asking the House and Senate leadership to restore the language to the Military Construction and Veterans Affairs bill. The medical marijuana provision was dropped during a conference committee review of the legislation — even though both the House and Senate backed the legislation. “We feel the failure of the Conferees to include either provision is a drastic misfortune for veterans and is contrary to the will of both chambers as demonstrated by the strong bipartisan support for these provisions,” the supporters wrote to congressional leaders on Tuesday. No one on the conference committee — made up of lawmakers from the Senate and House appropriations committees — has taken credit for pulling the language from the bill. Jennifer Hing, spokeswoman for the Senate Appropriations Committee, told Military.com only that the provision “was dropped as part of a bicameral negotiation in Conference Committee on the final legislation.” Rep. Earl Blumenauer, a Democrat from Oregon and one of the sponsors of the House version of the bill, slammed the move last week as outrageous. “To add insult to injury, the legislation was released in the middle of the night, not even giving members of the House an opportunity to review the language before voting on it,” he told the Stars & Stripes newspaper. Blumenauer is among the writers of the letter to Republicans Senate Majority Leader Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and House Speaker Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin. Others include Republican Sen. Steve Daines of Montana and Democrat Sen. Jeff Merkley of Oregon. All three lawmakers have sponsored legislation to free up VA doctors to talk with veteran patients about use of medical marijuana. The correspondence was also sent to the Senate and House minority leaders Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada and Nancy Pelosi of California. An earlier effort to allow VA doctors to talk to veterans about medical marijuana in those states where it is legal also failed last year, whenSenate language was dropped by the House. Only a month ago, however, theHouse passed language similar to the Senate’s reintroduced bill. The legislation they have sought and the amendment they’re now pushing to get inserted into the omnibus bill would not change current laws preventing the possession or dispensing of marijuana on VA medical centers and hospitals. The Senate legislation passed in May said the VA would not be allowed to interfere with the ability of veterans to take part in a medical marijuana program approved by the state, deny services to veterans taking part in such a program, or prevent department doctors from making recommendations and assisting veterans in taking steps required to comply with the programs. The House version would lift the same prohibitions by not allowing the VA to enforce the current directive that bars its doctors from recommending medical marijuana to patients and assisting them in taking part in state programs. Other signatories to the letter, all Democrats, include Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, Barbara Boxer of California, Cory Booker of New Jersey, Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin, Ron Wyden of Oregon, and Reps. Jared Polis of Colorado, Dina Titus of Nevada and Ruben Gallego of Arizona.
Clinton would add tens of billions to VA spending, Trump even more (Government Executive)
Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump have both proposed increasing spending on the Veterans Affairs Department by at least tens of billions of dollars over 10 years, according to an analysis of each of their plans. Trump’s proposals would come with a much heftier price tag, according to the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, a nonpartisan group advocating fiscal responsibility. The presumptive Republican nominee would add between $500 billion and $1 trillion to the deficit with his VA reforms, CRFB said, in large part due to his plan to give all veterans immediate care from any doctor who accepts Medicare. Congress in recent years has regularly boosted VA’s appropriations, though it has started to receive some pushback for failing to eradicate some longstanding problems while continuing to ask for more money. Like Trump, Clinton has proposed boosting certain VA services, though her reforms would cost an estimated $50 billion. She has proposed making permanent a tax credit to boost veteran hiring and overhauling vets’ benefits, among other changes. Unlike Trump, Clinton has said she would roll back the spending caps set by the 2011 Budget Control Act, boosting funding at all non-defense federal agencies. CRFB said that plan would cost $300 billion over 10 years, though Clinton has left the door open for leaving some caps in place, emphasizing instead her administration would target the Defense Department and civilian agencies in a “balanced way.” Trump has made little specific reference to the spending caps often referred to as sequestration, but has often discussed building up the “depleted military” and making it “bigger, better, stronger than ever before.” Rolling back just the defense portion of the budget caps would cost $450 billion over 10 years, CRFB said. Clinton’s plan could come with a similar price tag, as she too has discussed “permanently ending the damaging sequester.” All told, when factoring tax and spending policies, the think tank estimated Trump would add $11.5 billion to the debt over 10 years, while Clinton would add $250 billion. In his previously released VA reform plan, Trump said the department had excused “corruption and incompetence.” He proposed giving veterans an identification card they could take to any hospital that accepts Medicare to receive care “immediately.” He accused the VA of lacking “the right leadership and management.” The businessman said the changes would improve the department by boosting competition. “The power to choose will stop the wait time backlogs and force the VA to improve and compete if the department wants to keep receiving veterans’ health care dollars,” Trump wrote in his plan. The proposal also contained a variation on a familiar refrain, altered to apply to holding employees accountable: Trump vowed to “make the VA great again by firing the corrupt and incompetent VA executives who let our veterans down.” He added that underperforming VA supervisors would have “no job security,” modifying another of his most well known catchphrases: “They’re fired.” Clinton has advocated “reorganizing and streamlining” the Veterans Health Administration, ending the disability compensation backlog, increasing jobs for vets, and revamping the department’s employee performance evaluation system. The former State Department secretary also called for personnel management reform to “create a culture of accountability, service and excellence.” “From the top leadership to mid-level managers to entry-level employees, everyone at the VA must embody the highest workplace standards,” Clinton’s wrote in her VA platform. “Supervisors must be empowered to suspend or remove underperforming employees in accordance with due process not only for the good of the organization, but in service of our nation’s veterans.”
Bill proposing neurological treatment for veterans introduced (signalscv.com)
Congressman Steve Knight, R-Palmdale, introduced a bill today that would establish a pilot program to offer new neurological treatment for veterans. Knight said the No Hero Left Untreated Act would help veterans recover from post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury, military sexual trauma, chronic pain and opiate addiction. “We have an opportunity today to support and expand on promising technology that could bring relief to our heroes, and I am proud to be part of the effort to move forward with providing the best treatment for our veterans,” Knight said in a news release. The bill would establish a one-year pilot program with the Department of Veterans Affairs to use Magnetic eResonance Therapy, or MeRT technology. The treatment was pioneered by the Brain Treatment Center in Southern California. Knight’s bill would require the secretary of the VA to establish MeRT programs at up to five Veterans Affairs locations. “Too many of our nation’s veterans continue to suffer from the invisible wounds of war. We can honor those who have served by making the right investments in innovative and proven medical treatments like MeRT technology,” said Paul W. “Buddy” Bucha, a Vietnam War veteran and Congressional Medal of Honor Recipient. The Brain Treatment Center, an affiliate of the USC Center for Neurorestoration, has treated more than 400 veterans with the new therapy program and conducted placebo-controlled, double-blind studies. According to Knight’s office, 98 percent of veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury have responded positively to the treatment. The veterans in the study showed a 61 percent reduction in symptom severity on average. Reported benefits include reduced pain, better sleep and improved mental clarity. “MeRT technology is the only patient-specific, non-pharmaceutical, non-invasive neuromodulation strategy of which I am aware that has the potential to dramatically alter the prospects of our veterans in this way,” said Charles Liu, the director of the USC Center for Neurorestoration. The bill awaits assignment to committee.
Officials with the Navajo Nation and the State of Arizona Sign Veterans’ Services Agreement (KNAU)
An agreement has been reached between the Navajo Nation and the state of Arizona to give tribal veterans better access to services. Historically there’s been a lack of infrastructure for medical and other veterans’ benefits on the reservation. Arizona Public Radio’s Ryan Heinsius reports. The agreement is the first of its kind between a state and an Indian nation. It’ll allow the Arizona Department of Veterans’ Affairs to train and accredit Navajo VA employees to file claims on behalf of tribal veterans. They’ll work through offices on the Navajo Nation to expedite services. Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye says under the agreement veterans will no longer have to travel off the reservation to access federal benefits. “Now, with this certification it opens up the door for more services for veterans, and so anything and everything that’s provided for veterans in the state of Arizona will now be provided on Navajo,” Begaye says. There are between 10,000 and 40,000 Navajo veterans, but tribal authorities say recorded keeping by the Navajo VA has been inadequate. Legislation signed into law earlier this year requires updating the Navajo VA’s recordkeeping system.
Fort Collins, Colorado, gets $70k to help homeless veterans (Coloradoan)
Fort Collins Housing Authority will be able to help more homeless veterans find housing thanks to a boost in funding. The agency was awarded nearly $70,000 in rental assistance last week through HUD-VASH, a collaborative program that combines rental assistance from U.S. Department for Housing and Urban Development and case management and clinical services from Veterans Affairs. Six other Colorado agencies received HUD-VASH funds. Fort Collins Housing Authority will distribute the funds in housing vouchers to eligible veterans, adding 10 veterans vouchers to the agency’s existing 125 veteran housing vouchers. Recipients will supplement the vouchers by contributing approximately 30 percent of their income towards rent.