Committee Moves Six Bills to Boost Vets Education, Housing, Health Care, and Disability Benefits; GI Bill Expanded for OJT and Apprenticeship Programs; VA Home Loan Guaranty Limit Increased by 39%


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America's Veterans


Washington, DC - May 19, 2004 - The House Committee on Veterans' Affairs today cleared a package of six bills that would expand and strengthen a number of education, housing, health care, and disability programs for veterans and active duty military personnel.

"The legislative package of benefits and services approved today represents a significant victory for America's servicemembers and veterans," said Committee Chairman Chris Smith (NJ), sponsor of four of the bills approved today. "These bills would not only help servicemembers in their transition from active duty to civilian jobs and housing, they would also help strengthen VA health care and benefit programs for those veterans that rely on them," he said.

Smith, prime sponsor of H.R. 1716, the `Veterans Earn and Learn Act', said that, "thousands of servicemembers who signed up for the Montgomery GI Bill program later find that traditional classroom training does not fit their career goals; instead they would rather move directly into the job market. The Veterans Earn and Learn Act will greatly enhance deserved opportunities for them to take advantage of their GI Bill education benefits when participating in on-the-job training and apprenticeship programs," he said.

"Under H.R. 1716 as approved by the Committee today, the GI Bill benefit levels payable to veterans in qualified on-the-job-training (OJT) and apprenticeship programs would be increased by about $100 per month, boosting the benefit level up to $837 per month during the first six months of training," Smith said. "In addition, H.R. 1716 would allow VA to make lump sum payments to veterans who complete competency-based OJT and apprenticeship programs early, rather than penalizing them by paying only for time spent in the program. The Veterans Earn and Learn Act would also expand VA's ability to qualify additional competency-based apprenticeship programs for inclusion under the GI Bill program," said Smith.

H.R. 1716 as passed by the Committee also contained a number of other substantive provisions concerning disability compensation, pension, housing, and burial benefits, that would:

Establish a pilot program to furnish on-job training benefits to claims' adjudicators;

Require VA, DOD and Labor to coordinate so that servicemembers receive credit for OJT and apprenticeships pursued while on duty;

Codify a VA regulation establishing cancer of the bone, brain, colon, lung and ovary as diseases for which a presumption of service connection is made for a veteran exposed to ionizing radiation;

Permit certain radiation-exposed veterans who receive payment under the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA) to be eligible for VA disability compensation;

Exclude life insurance proceeds from consideration of income for death pension benefits;

Extend vocational rehabilitation, specially adapted housing, and specially adapted automobile and adaptive equipment benefits to veterans injured in a VA hospital due to negligence, carelessness, or similar reasons;

Require a report on placement, retention, and advancement of recently separated veterans in private sector employment;

Increase to 25 percent of the Freddie Mac conforming loan rate (currently $333,700), and annually index the maximum amount of VA's home loan;

Extend eligibility for specially adapted housing grants to veterans with permanent and total service-connected disabilities due to the loss, or loss of use, of both arms above the elbow;

Make eligible for in-ground burial at Arlington National Cemetery a member or former member of a reserve component of the Armed Forces (and dependents) who at the time of death was under 60 years of age but, for age, would have been eligible for military retired pay, or who dies in the line of duty while on active duty for training or inactive duty training; and

Designate a memorial currently under construction at the Riverside National Cemetery in Riverside, California, as a Prisoner of War/Missing In Action Memorial.

Another bill authored by Chairman Smith, H.R. 4175, the Veterans Compensation Cost-of-Living Adjustment Act of 2004, as also approved that would increase disability compensation and survivor pensions based upon the Consumer Price Index increase. This legislation would also add osteoporosis to the list of diseases presumed to be service connected for former POWs.

The Committee also approved separate legislation, H.R. 4345, that would increase the maximum loan amount for loans under the VA home loan guaranty program. Under H.R. 4345, qualified servicemembers and veterans could receive a loan guaranty up to 25% of the Freddie Mac conforming loan rate (currently $333,700) to help secure mortgage financing. This legislation, sponsored by Reps. Ginny Brown-Waite (FL) and Susan Davis (CA), would also annually index the loan guaranty limit to the Freddie Mac conforming loan rate in the future.

In order to improve the delivery of health care to veterans, the Committee approved H.R. 4231, the Department of Veterans Affairs Nurse Recruitment and Retention Act of 2004. This legislation, sponsored by Health Subcommittee Chairman Rob Simmons of Connecticut, would provide VA with greater flexibility in recruiting, hiring and retaining nurses. The bill would also assist States in hiring and retaining nurses in State homes for veterans.

For veterans who have become homeless or are at risk of becoming homeless, the Committee backed legislation reauthorizing the Homeless Veterans Comprehensive Assistance Act of 2001, a landmark law that authorized almost $1 billion in new and expanded programs to help eradicate homelessness among veterans. Chairman Smith, prime sponsor of the 2001 homeless veterans law, also sponsored today's legislation (H.R. 4248, the Homeless Veterans Assistance Reauthorization Act of 2004) to reauthorize the programs for an additional three years. H.R. 4248 also increased the grant and per diem program for homeless veterans from $75 million to $100 million per year. In addition the bill contained a provision to permanently authorize VA to provide sexual trauma counseling to veterans.

The Committee also approved H.R. 3936, to authorize a permanent office for the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims near Washington, D.C. All six bills before the Committee were unanimously ordered reported to the House.