VA Update: Key Programs, Policies Take Shape as 2019 Dawns
There are a series of ongoing initiatives throughout the VA underway as 2018 winds down. Here's a recap of some of the key issues; many of the details are courtesy of a December webinar presented by Col. Brian Anderson, USAF (Ret), director of MOAA's Career Transition and Member Services.
(MOAA hosts webinars designed to educated members on a variety of topics, including military benefits, transition issues, veterans and survival services, and financial planning. To learn about becoming a member, visit here.)
Issue: Fixes to the Forever G.I. Bill
Status: Delayed, but in process.
After months of confusion, the VA announced in November that it would need an additional 12 months to correct glitches in its computer system that paid out housing stipends through the Forever G.I. Bill.
The VA said it will have the stipends sorted out by December 2019.
The primary issue: Changes to benefits legislation that require the VA to pay housing stipends based on the location where the student attends most of his or her classes, not the location of the school's main campus. These were supposed to go into effect Aug. 1; when VA officials saw the problems making the change would be significant - Wilkie compared the situation to “flying a plane while building it” - they pulled the plug for current recipients and reverted to the old housing-allowance calculations.
The move came after lawmakers from both parties pressed VA officials for an estimate on when the changes would go into effect and a backlog of education claims would be cleared. VA Secretary Robert Wilkie said the department plans to ensure “each and every beneficiary will receive retroactively the exact benefits to which they are entitled under the law.”
Issue: Expanded Benefits for Blue Water Navy Veterans
Status: In progress (again).
The Senate did not vote on the Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act when it received the bill from the House in late 2018. Pre-holiday attempts were blocked by senators opposed to the legislation. But just hours into the new session, the bill has been reintroduced.
In 2018, MOAA president and CEO Lt. Gen. Dana T. Atkins (USAF, Ret.) joined leaders from other military and veteran service organizations in urging President Donald Trump to help pass the bill.
The bill unanimously passed the House in June. Shortly after, Wilkie, who took lead of the VA in July, called into question the scientific evidence behind the Blue Water Navy bill, which would allow those who served aboard ships off the coast of Vietnam to claim presumptive exposure to Agent Orange. He addressed the issue in a November interview.
Issue: Changes to Survivor Benefit Plan/Dependency and Indemnity Compensation
The VA's Pension and Fiduciary team is working under a new policy to reduce delays in payment to spouses who are entitled to both the Survivor Benefit Plan and the Dependency and Indemnity Compensation.
Delays can affect these beneficiaries because the SBP process is usually started soon after a retiree's death, but the DIC claim is not always submitted immediately. Delays also occur when the death certificate is not included with the claim.
Under the new process, if a veteran is paid 10 years of SBP premiums and the survivor is receiving SBP for less than one year, then DFAS will alert the VA to begin DIC and start the offset in the same month. An audit will be conducted to determine if the recoupment is required.
The claim process has been reduced from 300 days to about 80, according to the VA.
The VA is considering putting DIC into the Decision Ready Claims process in early 2019, which could cut the time down farther.
Issue: Implementing the Appeals Modernization Act
The Veteran Appeals Improvement and Modernization Act of 2017 - known as the Appeals Modernization Act - mandates the VA to modernize the current claims and appeals process, include three review options for disagreements with decisions, require improved notification of VA decisions, provide earlier claim resolution, and ensure earliest effective date possible.
The program should be fully implemented by February 2019.
Issue: Reorganizing the Veterans Health Administration
The VA announced its plan to reorganize the Veterans Health Administration under President Donald Trump's executive order to reorganize the entire federal government in efforts to reduce bureaucracy.
The VHA will be realigned into four offices:
- The Office of Population Health will focus on health care in a particular region to promote best practices and standards.
- The Discovery, Education and Affiliates Networks (DEAN) Office combines two former offices - the Office of Academic Affiliates and the Office of Research and Development - to advance medical care and innovation.
- Engineering and Environment of Care functions will be integrated into a single office to improve coordination between related environment and safety initiatives.
- Human Resources functions will merge four headquarters-based groups into one office.
Issue: Redesigning the VA website
The VA officially launched its updated website, www.va.gov, on Veterans Day. The new website includes plain language and an action-oriented design as a portal for veterans to access a full suite of services. The website allows users to access health care, disability, education benefits, and VA records in a more straightforward fashion than previous designs; get a breakdown here.