Eight Bills Clear Committee in Busy Markup Session

New Benefits for Veterans and Surviving Widows: New VA Hospitals and National Cemeteries To Be Built

June 26, 2003

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America's Veterans

(Washington) - Comprehensive legislation (H.R. 2297) to expand and extend benefits to veterans and their surviving spouses cleared the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs in a markup session today. The Committee also approved legislation (H.R. 1720) to authorize $1.1 billion in new VA health care construction projects, legislation (H.R. 1516) to open five new national cemeteries for veterans and their Chairman Chris Smith with members of the Gold Star Wives of America families, and five other bills (H.R.116, H.R. 2357, H.R. 2433, H.R. 2595, H.Con.Res. 159) to assist and honor America's veterans.

"The package of bills approved today will make a tangible difference in the lives of millions of veterans and their families," said Congressman Chris Smith (NJ), Chairman of the Committee on Veterans' Affairs. "The new investments in health care facilities and national cemeteries authorized today are long overdue and much needed," he said.

Smith, who sponsored H.R. 2297, the Veterans Benefits Act of 2003, highlighted several provisions of that bill, including one for widows of veterans who want to remarry. "This legislation would correct an injustice for our Gold Star Wives, those who lost their husbands through service to our nation. This provision, which Rep. Michael Bilirakis of Florida has championed for years, would finally allow surviving spouses of veterans to be able to remarry after age 55 without being penalized with the loss of widow benefits, such as widow's pension or burial rights," said Smith.

H.R. 2297, as amended, would also:

  • Expand the Montgomery GI Bill program for self-employment training programs;
  • Make permanent the State Cemetery Grants Program;
  • Reinstate a VA pilot program to provide vocational training to newly eligible VA nonservice-connected pension recipients;
  • Increase the specially adapted automobile grant from $9,000 to $11,000;
  • Increase the specially adapted housing grant from $48,000 to $50,000 for the most severely disabled veterans and from $9,350 to $10,000 for other severely disabled veterans;
  • Add cirrhosis of the liver as a presumed service-connected disability for former POWs;
  • Eliminate the requirement that a POW be held for 30 days or more to qualify for presumptions of service-connection for several specific disabilities;
  • Expand benefits eligibility to those children with spina bifida born to Vietnam-era veterans who served in Korea near the demilitarized zone between October 1, 1967 and May 7, 1975;
  • Make the VA home loan program for members of the Selected Reserve permanent;
  • Adjust the funding fee charged to Selected Reserve home loan applications to the same amount as that paid by active duty servicemembers;
  • Reinstate the Department of Veterans Affairs' vendee loan program;
  • Mandate that the Department of Labor place staff in veterans' assistance offices at overseas military installations 90 days after date of enactment; and
  • Extend certain compensation and burial benefits to certain Philippine WWII-era veterans residing in the U.S.

Smith praised Veterans Health Subcommittee Chairman Rob Simmons (CT) and Benefits Subcommittee Chairman Henry Brown (SC) for their "the hard work and dedication of their respective Subcommittees in bringing forth such comprehensive packages of bills to expand benefits and improve the delivery of services to veterans."

"Chairman Simmons' bill to invest in VA's health care infrastructure, H.R. 1720, is absolutely vital to properly maintaining the VA health care system," said Smith. As amended and approved by the Committee, H.R. 1720, the Veterans Health Care Facilities Capital Improvement Act, would authorize $1.1 billion over two years for major medical facility construction projects to improve, renovate, replace, update or establish VA patient care facilities, including:

  • $98 million for an inpatient tower at West Side Division in Chicago;
  • $48 million for seismic corrections in San Diego;
  • $50 million to renovate inpatient wards and research facilities in West Haven, Connecticut;
  • $90 million for a new medical facility in Columbus, Ohio;
  • 45 million for a joint VA-DOD clinic in Pensacola, Florida; $6.5 million for a lease of an outpatient clinic and benefits office in Clark County, Nevada.

In addition, H.R. 1720 would require the Secretary to develop a specific plan for meeting the future inpatient hospitalization needs of veterans who live in southern New Jersey and certain counties in the state of Texas, as well as consider a joint VA-Navy medical facility proposal in Charleston, South Carolina. The Committee also approved H.R. 116, to authorize a new major medical facility - possibly a joint venture with the Air Force - at the site of the former Fitzsimons Army Medical Center on the University of Colorado campus at Aurora. H.R. 116, sponsored by Rep. Joel Hefley of Colorado, authorizes $300 million for this project.

H.R. 1516, the National Cemetery Expansion Act of 2003, sponsored by Rep. Jim Gerlach (PA), and as amended by the Committee, directs VA to establish five new national cemeteries in the following areas: southeastern Pennsylvania; Birmingham, Alabama; Jacksonville, Florida; Bakersfield, California; and Greenville/Columbia, South Carolina. This legislation would require the Secretary of Veterans Affairs to submit a report to Congress within 120 days of enactment setting forth the five areas where those cemeteries will be established, a schedule for establishment, the estimated cost associated with establishment, and the amount of Advance Planning Funds obligated for this purpose. The bill would also require the Secretary to submit to Congress an annual report that updates the information included in the initial report until the five cemeteries are completed.

During the Committee's markup session, the following bills were also approved:

  • H.R. 2357 would expand VA health care services by requiring the appointment of chiropractors. Although VA has previously been directed to develop chiropractic care programs, to date they have failed to appoint a single chiropractor. H.R. 2357 also extends health care services to Filipino WWII veterans residing in the United States.
  • H.R. 2433, sponsored by Rep. Ciro Rodriguez (TX), would authorize VA to provide prioritized health care to veterans were who participated in Project 112/Project SHAD tests. These tests, which involved exposure to chemical and biological toxins or simulants, were conducted by the Department of Defense at their Deseret Test Center from 1962 through 1973. In the past year, the Department of Defense has released information about these secret Cold War-era tests and has worked with VA to identify and notify those veterans who participated in the tests, most of them unknowingly. H.R. 2433 will ensure that those veterans who did participate in these tests are able to receive medical evaluation, and if necessary, treatment at VA health care facilities. H.R. 2433 also authorizes premium pay for Saturday duty to health care workers with direct patient-care responsibilities.
  • H.R. 2595, sponsored by Chairman Smith and Ranking Member Lane Evans (IL), would restore the operation of the Native American Veteran Housing Loan Program during fiscal year 2003 to the scope of that program as in effect on September 30, 2002. In June, the Department of Veterans Affairs stopped making loans under the Native American Direct Loan Program because of a $5 million limitation contained in the 2003 Appropriations Act, resulting in a number of new home construction projects being stopped. H.R. 2595 will allow both new home construction, as well as refinancing to resume for Native American veterans at the levels authorized in prior years.
  • H. Con. Res. 159, sponsored by Rep. Jerry Moran (KS), declares Emporia, Kansas, to be the founding city of the Veterans Day holiday, and recognizes the contributions of Alvin J. King and the Honorable Ed Rees for their role in the enactment into law of the national observance of Veterans Day on November 11 of each year.

All eight bills approved by the Committee will be reported to the full House of Representatives for further consideration and possible floor action in July.