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Legislative Notice: S. 1982 – Veterans Benefits Bill

February 20, 2014


Noteworthy

Floor Situation: Cloture has been filed on the motion to proceed to calendar number 301, S. 1982. It is yet another example of Majority Leader Reid bypassing the committee process and placing a bill directly on the Senate calendar without committee consideration. S. 1982 is mostly a compilation of other bills that have been considered by the Veterans Committee in other legislative forms. There are, however, other elements of S. 1982 that have never been considered by the committee, and S. 1982 as a whole has never passed through the committee process.

Executive Summary: CBO estimates the changes this bill makes to direct spending will require outlays of $2.3 billion over the next five years and $4.3 billion for the next 10 years. CBO also estimates the discretionary costs of the bill to be $15.2 billion over five years.

In addition to the bill’s provisions expanding veterans’ benefits and programs, section 901 repeals the changes that have been made to the annual cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) for certain military retirees. President Obama recently signed into law a bill making these COLA changes inapplicable to any person who entered into military service before January 1, 2014. Section 901 of this bill would repeal the COLA modification for all military service members, and not just those entering service before January 1, 2014.  

Section 917 takes advantage of how CBO scores provisions related to Overseas Contingency Operations to create illusory savings. That CBO process assumes funds will be required to sustain the current pace of operations in Afghanistan for many future years, and counts this bill’s limitation on the future use of those funds as savings. This assumption is demonstrably false—and thus the savings are illusory—as President Obama has said our combat operations in Afghanistan will end this year.


Bill Provisions

Title I – Survivor and Dependent Matters

Title I of this bill is similar to Title I of S. 944, the Veterans Health and Benefits Improvement Act. This title expands certain benefits for surviving spouses. For example, under current law, additional benefits are authorized for surviving spouses with a child under the age of 18. Section 101 of this bill extends the period such a surviving spouse may receive that additional benefit from two years to three.

Title II – Education Matters 

Title II of this bill is similar to Title II of S. 944, along with a provision from S. 1581, the Veterans Programs Improvements Act, concerning the public and private use of the term “GI Bill” and “Post-9/11 GI Bill.” Of note, section 201 of this bill requires a public institution of higher learning to charge in-state tuition rates for people receiving certain veterans educational benefits if the person is living in the state and enrolls in a course of education there within three years of departure from military service.

Title III – Health Care Matters 

Title III of this bill incorporates many elements of Title III of S. 944, and parts of S. 1581. It also includes many elements of S. 1604, the Veterans Health Care Eligibility Expansion and Enhancement Act, and S. 131, the Women Veterans Health Care Improvements Act. This title generally extends and expands certain health care benefits available for veterans. CBO estimates this title alone has $10.8 billion in discretionary costs over five years.

Section 301 of this bill is drawn from section 102 of S. 1604. It requires access to the veterans’ health care system for veterans who have no service-connected disability or otherwise have a service-connected disability rating of zero percent, which is therefore noncompensable, and also do not have access to health insurance except through a health exchange established under the Affordable Care Act. In other words, any veteran who has access to health insurance only through an exchange can forgo the exchange and instead enroll in the VA system, even if that veteran has no disability. It goes on to provide that if such a veteran later obtains health insurance by a means other than an exchange, he is authorized to remain in the VA system. S. 1604 was approved by the committee by a vote of 8-6 in November 2013 but has never been reported out.

Under current law, the VA provides several benefits (a stipend, health care, training, and respite care) to caregivers of certain veterans, namely those injured in the line of duty on or after September 11, 2001. Section 303 of this bill expands the Family Caregiver program to provide those same benefits to caregivers of all veterans, regardless of when the veteran served. This section comes from S. 851, which CBO estimated would cost $9.5 billion over five years in discretionary spending. Due to the way this expansion is structured in this bill, namely due to the delay in implementing this expansion, CBO has estimated this section would cost $5.6 billion over five years. During committee consideration of S. 851, Ranking Member Burr noted that the increased costs associated with these legislative provisions were not paid for in that bill and that the program itself was experiencing difficulty. He said, “Expanding a flawed program now will not only exacerbate the problems currently facing the program, but could also draw financial resources away from other VHA programs.”

Sections 312 and 313 are directed at overweight or obese veterans and promoting healthy weight in veterans.

Sections 331-334 are directed at the use by veterans of complementary and alternative medicines, to include a program on the use of wellness programs in mental health matters.

Sections 351-355 expand and enhance dental care programs for veterans.

Sections 361-364 concern the health care made available to victims of sexual trauma, to include departmental screening to detect domestic abuse.

Sections 371-379 are primarily drawn from S. 131, and extend and expand health care for female veterans, including reproductive treatment and services, and child care services. During committee consideration of S. 131, Ranking Member Burr noted his support for some portions of that bill, but also noted that the increased costs associated with these legislative provisions were not paid for in that bill.

Title IV – Employment Matters 

This title is drawn mostly from Title VII of S. 944, and S. 6, the Putting Veterans Back to Work Act. CBO estimated that S. 6 would cost $2.5 billion over five years, with changes in direct spending of $1.1 billion, and discretionary costs (subject to appropriation) of $1.4 billion.

Section 401 reauthorizes the Veterans Retraining Assistance Program for two more years. At its core, VRAP authorizes 12 months of training assistance to unemployed veterans. The VA Inspector General has assessed that of the 18,500 veterans enrolled in VRAP, more than 2,700 of them did not meet the program’s attendance requirements. The IG also found that more than 1,800 of the 2,700 were able to falsely certify their full-time student status and unlawfully received benefits under the program. CBO estimates section 401 alone will cost $1.1 billion in mandatory costs over 10 years and $150 million in discretionary costs over five years.

Section 411 requires federal agencies to develop plans to hire an aggregate of 15,000 veterans within a five-year period using existing veterans hiring authorities.

Section 412 is directed at helping veterans with certain types of military training demonstrate qualifications for certain state civilian certification or license requirements. It amends current law pertaining to two veterans hiring programs: the Disabled Veterans’ Outreach Program and Local Veterans’ Employment Representative Program. The section requires the Department of Labor to certify that states, as a condition of receiving funding under those programs, take into consideration the training and experience of a veteran when issuing licenses or making certifications.

Section 432 makes it grounds to suspend payment of federal contracts and to debar a contractor if the contractor is repeatedly convicted of violating the employment and reemployment rights of veterans.

If a veteran owner of a small business is less than 100 percent disabled, and that veteran dies for causes not related to the service-connected disability, section 442 authorizes veterans contracting preferences to be extended to that business owned by the surviving spouse for a certain period of time after the death of the veteran.

If a veteran owns at least 51 percent of a small business, and that veteran dies in the line of duty, section 443 similarly authorizes the extension of contracting preferences to the surviving spouse.

Title V – Accountability and Administrative Improvements 

This title is drawn mostly from Title IV of S. 944. It is mainly directed at administrative and organizational improvements for the more effective delivery of certain health benefits.

Title VI – Claims Processing Improvements

Title VI of this bill incorporates many elements of Title V of S. 944, and parts of S. 1581.

Section 602 directs the VA to assign a case representative to each person seeking veterans’ benefits or compensation based on military sexual trauma. The representative is to provide advice and general information regarding the claims process to such person.

Section 626 directs the Secretary of Veterans Affairs to publish the average processing time of claims for benefits that: 1) are fully developed; and 2) are not fully developed. A fully developed claim is one in which the veteran claimant submits all the relevant records in their possession and certifies that they would have no further evidence to submit on the matter. When a claim is not fully developed, it sometimes becomes the responsibility of the VA to obtain the information further required to adjudicate the claim.

Section 627 requires a quarterly report on the backlog of claims that have not been adjudicated.

Title VII – Outreach Matters 

Title VII of this bill incorporates many elements of Title VI of S. 944. It is primarily directed at improving the efforts of the department to reach veterans and other relevant stakeholders and explain the department’s programs.

Title VIII – Servicemembers Civil Relief Act

The Servicemembers Civil Relief Act provides certain protections from civil actions for service members called to active duty. It does this mainly by suspending certain claims that can be brought against them and protects them from default judgments, most notably in the areas of rental agreements, mortgages, or certain other contracts. This title expands the protections of that act, such as to licensing requirements, applications for credit, and interest rate limitations. It further expands to surviving spouses certain protections pertaining to mortgage foreclosures.

Title IX –Other Matters 

Many of the provisions of this title come from Title VIII of S. 944 and from S. 1581.

Of note, section 901 repeals the changes that have been made to the annual cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) for certain military retirees. Section 403 of the Ryan-Murray budget deal reduced the COLA by one percent for retirees under the age of 62. Then, when these retirees reach age 62, their monthly retired pay would be readjusted as if this COLA reduction had not taken place, and they would receive the full COLA thereafter. Title X of Division C (Defense) of the fiscal year 2014 omnibus made this adjustment inapplicable to certain disabled military retirees and to those receiving annuity payments under the Survivor Benefits Program. President Obama recently signed into law a bill making these COLA changes inapplicable to any person who entered into military service before January 1, 2014. The costs associated with that repeal were paid for by extending for one year (through 2024) the mandatory sequester of the Budget Control Act. Section 901 of this bill would repeal the COLA modification for all military service members, and not just those entering service before January 1, 2014.  

Section 917 lowers CBO’s exaggerated OCO spending assumptions during fiscal years 2018-21 and uses this “savings” as an offset for the remainder of the bill. Under current law, CBO is required to assume that discretionary spending that is not limited in law (including OCO) grows at the rate of inflation. As a result, CBO’s baseline for OCO funding greatly overstates the actual OCO funding need given current defense policy decisions. As a concrete example of this, CBO assumes that funding will be required to sustain the current pace of operations in Afghanistan for the future years, even though President Obama has announced our combat mission will be over there at the end of this year.

Specifically, section 917 would limit the amount of funding that can be designated as OCO in fiscal years 2018-21. However, the effect of this is that this section would not actually lower OCO spending at all, since the limits placed on OCO funding in Section 917 are $20.5 billion below CBO’s baseline, but still far too high given current defense policy. Since under current law OCO funding is not subject to the Budget Control Act’s discretionary spending caps, the process in Section 917 is intended purely as a way to get these “savings” to show up on a CBO score.

Administration Position

A Statement of Administration Policy was not available at the time of publication.

Cost

CBO published its cost estimate on February 4, 2014. It estimated that the changes this bill makes to direct spending will require outlays of $2.3 billion over the next five years and $4.3 billion for the next 10 years. CBO also estimated the discretionary costs of the bill to be $15.2 billion over five years.

Possible Amendments

As of the publication of this notice, there is no unanimous consent agreement limiting the consideration of amendments.