Updated September 02, 2012
"We are dealing with veterans, not procedures -- with their problems, not ours," stated famed WWII General Omar Bradley as he completed his service as Administrator of the Veterans Administration (VA) in 1947. Sixty-five years later, on August 6, 2012, President Obama signed one of the most comprehensive laws ever enacted intended to help U.S. veterans deal with their problems.
Passed without a single recorded dissenting vote in either the House of Representatives or Senate, the Honoring America's Veterans and Caring for Camp Lejeune Families Act of 2012 (H.R. 1627), represents a truly bipartisan initiative designed to help meet the challenges veterans face today by providing improved healthcare, housing, education, and memorial services.
The Camp Lejeune Families
The bill requires the VA provide ongoing hospital care and medical services for veterans and the family members of veterans who served at served at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, for at least 30 days between January 1, 1957 and December 31, 1987. During that period, it has been proven that Marines and their families stationed at Camp Lejeune drank, bathed in and were otherwise exposed to water contaminated with extremely high concentrations of more than 70 toxic chemical solvents, including degreasers and dry cleaning solvent. Despite orders issued in 1974 requiring that all potentially toxic materials be safely disposed of, evidence showed that the solvents continued to be disposed of near base water wells for years.
Today, veterans and family members who lived at Camp Lejeune during the 30 years from 1957 to 1987 suffer from a higher than normal rate of cancer and other diseases. In 2009, the U.S. government officially withdrew a 1997 public health assessment that had denied any relationship between the Camp Lejeune toxins and illness.
"This bill ends a decade-long struggle for those who served at Camp Lejeune," said President Obama as he signed the bill. "Some of the veterans and their families who were based in Camp Lejeune in the years when the water was contaminated will now have access to extended medical care."
Protection of Veterans' Memorial Services
Largely in reaction to the disruptive demonstrations staged by members of the Westboro Baptist Church, a provision in H.R. 1627 prohibits protest demonstrations within 300 feet of military funerals during the two hours before and two hours after the services.
"The graves of our veterans are hallowed ground," said President Obama. "And obviously we all defend our Constitution and the First Amendment and free speech, but we also believe that when men and women die in the service of their country and are laid to rest, it should be done with the utmost honor and respect."
Other Highlights of the Act
Some other important provisions of the Honoring America's Veterans and Caring for Camp Lejeune Families Act (H.R. 1627) include:
Help for Rural and Elderly Veterans
For the 41% of all veterans living in rural areas, H.R. 1627 waives co-payments for veterans who utilize VA Telehealth services. The bill also requires the VA to evaluate the feasibility of reimbursing the travel expenses of rural veterans who choose to receive care at their nearest VA Vet Center.
State Veterans Homes in all 50 states to provide nursing home care.
Traumatic Brain Injury
As a result of service in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, an estimated 250,000 veterans have experienced Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) in the last decade. Under H.R. 1627, the VA will expand rehabilitation services for veterans suffering a TBI in order to increase their independence and quality of life.
Adaptive Housing for Wounded Veterans
To deal with the influx of wounded warriors from Iraq and Afghanistan, H.R. 1627 temporarily expands VA's program for specially adapted housing. Veterans suffering lower limb loss and vision impairment will be eligible for adaptive housing grants. In addition, assistance support for disabled veterans living in a family member's home will be increased through at least Dec. 31, 2022.
Preventing Sexual Assault at VA Facilities
In response to a 2011 GAO report finding rampant, unreported sexual assaults occurring at VA facilities, including at mental health care facilities, H.R. 1627 requires the VA create and implement procedures to prevent acts of sexual assault from going unreported and unpunished in the future.
VA Home Loan Guarantee Program
Under H.R. 1627, the surviving spouses of veterans and POWs will be eligible for VA home loan guarantees for a period of ten years past the death of the servicemember. In addition, both the VA's adjustable rate mortgage loan guarantee program (ARM) and hybrid adjustable rate mortgage loan guarantee (HARM) program are made permanent.
Helping Veterans Avoid Foreclosures
According to the House Veterans Affairs Committee, thousands of servicemembers and their families have been evicted from their homes or foreclosed upon due to errant banking practices over the last two years. In response, H.R. 1627 incorporates amendments to the Servicemembers' Civil Relief Act (SCRA) which extend the period of time that banks will be prohibited from foreclosure/eviction of servicemembers due to late payments from 9 to 12 months.
Housing Homeless Veterans
H.R. 1627 authorizes grants for construction of new transitional housing projects for homeless veterans. The bill also extends fully funded VA programs aiding homeless veterans, including programs and support services for very low-income veteran families.
Since many homeless veterans also need special medical care, H.R. 1627 instructs VA to provide treatment and rehabilitation services to those veterans, but who are not considered seriously mentally ill. Additionally, male homeless veterans with minor dependents would be classified as special needs veterans to receive grants and per diem payments for services.
Education Benefits for Survivors and Dependents
Under H.R. 1627, survivors and dependents of veterans will be allowed to use up to 81 months of VA educational assistance.
Streamlining the Disability Claims Process
According to the House Veterans Affairs Committee, more than 900,000 claims for veteran's disability benefits are waiting for decisions, half of which have been pending more than 125 days. Despite repeated promises from the VA to break the backlog, it continues to grow. Hoping to break the logjam, H.R. 1627 contains several provisions intended to help veterans in filing all claims for benefits and streamline the manner in which the VA processes those applications.
[Related: VA Hopes to Speed Benefit Claims Processing]Veterans' Employment
In November 2011, President Obama signed into law two new tax credits intended to encourage businesses to hire veterans and veterans with service-connected disabilities. Under H.R. 1627, Department of Labor will be required to publish data for government contractors, indicating their record of hiring veterans. Additionally, VA will establish a "VetStar" program to recognize companies that have made significant contributions to veteran employment.