Estate Planning Blog Articles

Estate & Business Planning Law Firm Serving the Providence & Cranston, RI Areas

Vets Closer to Toxic Exposure Benefits

Right after the Senate signed off on a military toxic exposure bill that could benefit millions of veterans, activist John Feal warned the crowd of advocates celebrating outside the Capitol about the moment they had been lobbying for and dreaming about for years: “The hard part hasn’t begun.”

Military Times’ recent article entitled “Now that PACT Act has passed, how soon will veterans see their benefits?” reports that Feal, who spent years as one of the lead advocates to award federal benefits to September 11 victims, first responders and their families, urged the crowd to make sure those payouts and resources are properly funded and administered. He cautioned that even well-written bills don’t always mean an easy transition to getting people the help they need.

“Getting a bill passed is easy, you just have to beat up the Senate and the House,” Feal said. “These people behind me, they have to take that and make sure Congress and the VA now do the right thing.”

This will be a big moment in the 13-year-old fight to expand benefits for burn pit victims sickened in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the decades-old quest to fully compensate Vietnam veterans for their exposure to chemical defoliants. Advocates say it won’t be the end of their work on the issue: the next step is delivering the benefits to veterans and their families. The estimated total is roughly $300 billion over the next 10 years.

“Veterans who were exposed to toxic fumes while fighting for our country are American heroes, and they deserve world-class care and benefits for their selfless service,” VA Secretary Denis McDonough said in a statement minutes after Feal’s speech.

“Once the president signs this bill into law, we at VA will implement it quickly and effectively, delivering the care these veterans need and the benefits they deserve.”

Apart from the congressional work, the VA has been overhauling the way that it approaches illnesses believed linked to burn pit smoke in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. In the past, the department adhered to strict scientific evidence before granting presumptive status for illnesses believed linked to military service. The VA now uses a broader set of metrics to evaluate the claims. This has resulted in adding 12 respiratory illnesses and cancers to the list of conditions presumed to be caused by burn pits (a designation that greatly speeds up the process of veterans receiving disability payouts).

Once the PACT Act is signed into law, those new processes will be codified, a move that veterans advocates say will be significant in the future to preventing long waits for department recognition of military injuries.

Other parts of the legislation will go into effect immediately. Vets currently get five years of medical coverage through VA after leaving the service, but will have that doubled to 10 years under the new law.

Reference: Military Times (Aug. 4, 2022) “Now that PACT Act has passed, how soon will veterans see their benefits?”

What’s the Latest in Legislation for Vets?

The leaders in the U.S. House and Senate had hoped to send the Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics Act (or PACT Act) to President Joe Biden’s desk for final signature by the Fourth of July, after the Senate advanced the measure by a bipartisan 84-14. The measure would cost almost $280 billion over the next 10 years and provide new medical and disability benefits for as many as one in every five veterans living in America today.

Military Times’ recent article entitled “Major veterans toxic exposure legislation delayed again, but lawmakers insist it’s not defeat” explains that vets who served in Afghanistan, the first Gulf War, Vietnam and numerous other overseas locations could see new benefits under the plan. The bill would help many vets who are victims of on-duty toxic exposure injuries — in particular, smoke from burn pits used to dispose of waste in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The House passed the bill in March, but Senate leaders amended the bill to add phased-in implementation rules and more staff to help process claims in response to Republican concerns. However, the changes ran into trouble with rules that require new revenue requirements to start in the House, not in the Senate. A planned House vote to finalize the measure was postponed, and chamber leaders scrambled to make corrections to the measure before lawmakers began their two-week recess.

Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Jon Tester (D-MT) tried to push through a fix on the Senate floor late Thursday night, but the bid was blocked by Senator Pat Toomey (R-PA), one of the 14 senators to oppose the measure last week. Tester called that a disappointment.

“There is a [technical] issue and we have to fix it,” he said. “But in the process of our debates, we shouldn’t be denying health care to veterans, which is exactly what [Toomey] is doing today.”

However, the procedural issues aren’t fatal for the future of the PACT Act, but instead represent a temporary delay.

House Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., said he still wants to get a House vote on the measure “once the Senate resolves this procedural speedbump.”

“House and Senate leadership are not shying away from passing the PACT Act,” he said in a statement. “This comprehensive package addressing toxic exposed veterans has been my number one legislative priority and I will continue to be unrelenting in getting it to President Biden’s desk.”

President Biden has already indicated he will sign the measure into law when it is finalized by Congress.

Reference: Military Times (June 24, 2022) “Major veterans toxic exposure legislation delayed again, but lawmakers insist it’s not defeat”

Will Vets Now Get a COLA Increase in Benefits?

The measure was filed by Representatives Elaine Luria, D-Virginia and Troy Nehls, R-Texas, along with Senators Jon Tester, D-Montana and Jerry Moran, R-Kansas. In joint statements, they called the proposal critical to bolstering veteran’s finances, reports Military Times’ recent article entitled “Lawmakers move to guarantee cost-of-living boost for veterans benefits.”

“We have a responsibility to take care of our veterans, many of whom rely on VA for financial support,” said Moran, ranking member of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee.

“As rampant inflation is driving up the cost of living, this legislation helps make certain that veterans are able to keep up with our changing economy and receive the benefits they have been promised.”

The bill linking the two government benefits is largely routine.  Lawmakers typically approve the annual proposal to couple VA benefits increases with Social Security benefits increases by large bipartisan margins.

However, this isn’t automatic. Even with the efforts of advocates in the past, an annual cost-of-living increase in veterans benefits requires congressional action.

Social Security benefits, in contrast, are adjusted based on an automatic formula that is triggered whether lawmakers vote on it or not.

In 2021, as inflation pressures began to impact the American economy, that increase was 5.9%. Officials haven’t said what this year’s adjustment may be. However, continued rising costs across the economy could push that figure even higher. The VA COLA increase legislation would apply to payouts for disability compensation, clothing allowance, dependency and indemnity benefits and other VA assistance programs.

“Transitioning from active duty to civilian life is not always easy, and a cost-of-living adjustment is the least we can do for the men, women and families who served our country,” said Luria, herself a Navy veteran.

Tester, who serves as chairman of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, said the bill will “ensure [veterans] benefits are keeping pace with the changing economy.”

No timetable has been set for when either chamber could vote on the proposal.

Reference: Military Times (May 23, 2022) “Lawmakers move to guarantee cost-of-living boost for veterans benefits”

What’s the VA Doing about Long Wait Times?

In his recent testimony before the House Appropriations Committee, Veterans Affairs Secretary Denis McDonough said he’s concerned about delivering accurate information on appointment timeliness to veterans as they seek to resume care that was deferred or canceled in recent years, reports Military Times’ recent article entitled “VA secretary promises improvements in medical wait time data.”

“If you look at our average wait times across the system, they’re good, but it’s a big system and we’re coming out of a pandemic,” he said. “So, I fear that there are outliers where people are waiting too long.”

Wait times at VA facilities made headlines in 2014, after whistleblowers revealed that officials were manipulating data to cover up long delays in care to meet performance metrics. During President Trump’s administration, the department began posting wait-time data online for all VA hospitals and clinics in an attempt to show more transparency into how long veterans have to wait for routine or specialty appointments.

However, in a report released Thursday, the VA Inspector General’s office said much of that data remains confusing and misleading.

“The Veterans Health Administration] has sometimes presented wait times with different methodologies, using inconsistent start dates that affect the overall calculations without clearly and accurately presenting that information to the public,” officials wrote.

In response to similar concerns raised by lawmakers, Secretary McDonough said that “we have to do a better job with that” and said he expects an announcement on changes related to the wait time issues in coming months. We’re working really hard on it because I am frustrated with it myself.”

Broad legislation has been stalled in the Senate over concerns about cost and potential workload burdens on Veterans Affairs workers. That’s raised concerns about pressure on the VA health care system, and if veterans could see a significant increase in the time it takes to schedule appointments.

Health officials have touted new pandemic telehealth options within the department as a way to help ease the burden on facilities facing increased requests.

However, lawmakers said that in rural areas — locations with some of the longest wait times already — a lack of reliable internet access may restrict the availability of those services.

Reference: Military Times (April 8, 2022) “VA secretary promises improvements in medical wait time data”

What’s Going on with Veterans Affairs Medical Centers?

In addition to closing or overhauling 35 VA medical centers, 14 new major VA hospitals would be built along with 140 multi-specialty community-based outpatient clinics, reports The Military Times’ recent article entitled “Dozens of VA medical centers slated for closure, total rebuilds under new infrastructure plan.” The plan in total would add 80 new medical buildings to the VA’s existing inventory of more than 1,200 across the country.

The proposals represent a massive overhaul of VA’s footprint in the U.S. in the near future, which may affect millions of veterans seeking medical care and hundreds of thousands of VA employees. However, the plan must also get approval from both an independent commission of veterans advocates and Congress before moving ahead, leaving any potential changes years away.

VA Secretary Denis McDonough said the changes are a critical rethinking of where VA facilities are located and how the department delivers care to vets.

“We will be shifting toward new infrastructure or different infrastructure that accounts for how healthcare has changed, matches the needs of that market and strengthens our research and education missions,” he said. “Most of all, we’ll ensure that veterans who live in [any] location have access to the world-class care they need when they need it.”

Congress mandated a reassessment of VA’s nationwide infrastructure in 2018 as part of a review styled after the military base closing rounds of the 1980s and 1990s. Under the plan suggested by McDonough, 17 medical centers in 12 states would be completely closed. They include three sites in New York state (Castle Point, Manhattan and Brooklyn), and two sites each in Pennsylvania (Philadelphia and Coastesville), Virginia (Hampton and Salem) and South Dakota (Fort Meade and Hot Springs). Other facilities recommended for closure are:

  • The Central Western Massachusetts VAMC
  • The Dublin VAMC in Georgia
  • The Chillicothe VAMC in Ohio
  • The Fort Wayne VAMC in Indiana
  • The Battle Creek VAMC in Michigan
  • The Alexandria VAMC in Louisiana
  • The Muskogee VAMC in Oklahoma; and
  • the Palo Alto Livermore VAMC in California.

Seven of the 17 sites recommended for closing are located in the northeast, where the number of veterans (and the overall population) has declined in recent decades. Services at those sites would be replaced by smaller inpatient and outpatient clinics to be added in those areas, or by construction of new VA medical centers in nearby communities.

The plan calls for the construction of two new major medical sites in Virginia (Newport News and Norfolk) and Georgia (Macon and Gwinnett County), as well as a new New Jersey facility in Camden to offset the loss of some of the New York sites. The new construction list includes:

  • A medical center in King of Prussia, PA
  • A medical center in Huntsville, AL
  • A medical center in Summerville, SC
  • A medical center in Grand Rapids, MI
  • A medical center in Colorado Springs, CO
  • A medical center in Everett, WA
  • A medical center in Anthem, AZ and
  • And a medical center in Rapid City, SD.

A total of 18 medical centers would be rebuilt, either on their existing land or at a nearby new location. Three New York state centers are on that list (Albany, Buffalo and St. Albans), as are several other major metropolitan areas: Miami, Atlanta, Phoenix, Indianapolis, San Antonio and Washington, D.C. Other replacement sites include:

  • Bedford VAMC in Massachusetts
  • Wilkes-Barre VAMC in Pennsylvania
  • Beckley VAMC in West Virginia
  • Roanoke VAMC in Virginia
  • Durham VAMC in North Carolina
  • Tuskegee VAMC in Alabama
  • Hines VAMC in Illinois
  • Shreveport VAMC in Louisiana; and
  • Reno VAMC in Nevada.

McDonough stated that the plan will not displace any VA workers or patients in the short-term. Efforts will also be made to minimize disruptions over the long-term. The plan also calls for many improvements to VA staff pay and benefits as a way to strengthen retention efforts, and improving care throughout the system.

The full recommendations would cost about $98 billion more over the next 30 years than simply maintaining the department’s current infrastructure, and about $41 billion more than modernization efforts projected to be needed over that time frame.

Reference: Military Times (March 14, 2022) “Dozens of VA medical centers slated for closure, total rebuilds under new infrastructure plan”

What Does New VA Budget Include for Veterans?

Even with many years of significant budget increases, the Department of Veterans Affairs will need billions more in funding in fiscal 2023 to keep pace with the health care and support services needs of veterans and their families, according to a new report released by advocacy groups.

Military Times’ recent article entitled “VA needs more money to keep pace with veterans’ needs, advisory group warns” reports that The Independent Budget—an advisory spending plan compiled by Disabled American Veterans, Paralyzed Veterans of America, and the Veterans of Foreign Wars — calls for a 23% increase in VA program spending over the latest White House request to add funds for priorities like mental health services, caregiver support and homeless veterans assistance.

Advocates say the administration’s plan for fiscal 2021 falls about $4 billion short of the needs of America’s veterans. In fiscal 2001, the entire VA budget totaled about $45 billion. By fiscal 2011, it was about $125 billion, almost triple that total. Ten years later, in 2021, the department’s budget was nearly double that again, at $245 billion.

The White House budget request for fiscal 2022 — which began last October — was $270 billion. Lawmakers have not yet approved a full-year budget for the VA, but are expected to advance discussion on that issue in coming weeks. The administration’s fiscal 2023 budget plan for VA is also expected to be released sometime next month.

Authors of the Independent Budget said their requests for more VA money next year are not wishful thinking but a real assessment of the challenges ahead for the department.

“As we enter into 2022, COVID’s impact remains a challenge for VA, with the spread of the virus and disruptions to health care systems continuing,” said Randy Reese, executive director of DAV’s Washington Headquarters. “In this environment, we made cautious recommendations based on historical trends to ensure the needs of our nation’s ill and injured veterans are met.”

Under the Independent Budget plan, VA officials would see a $1.8 billion uptick to health programs to “close the gap in clinical care” at department medical centers.

“The lack of adequate health care staffing has been a major driver of longer waiting times for veterans seeking VA care, and ultimately has the effect of suppressing the true level of veterans’ demand for care,” the report states. “It also forces many veterans who would prefer to receive their care from VA providers into community care providers.”

The organizations have also called for $490 million above the pending White House request for caregiver support programs, $395 million more for homeless veterans’ programs and $288 million more for mental health services and suicide prevention efforts.

Reference: Military Times (Feb. 7, 2022) “VA needs more money to keep pace with veterans’ needs, advisory group warns”

What’s the VA Doing about the Backlog in Claims?

The VA says that it’s planning to hire more people and use mandatory overtime for thousands of already-working claims staff and emergency coronavirus pandemic funding to help stem the problem.

Military Times’s recent article entitled “VA to hire 2,000 new processors to help with looming spike in claims backlog says that despite that, Veterans Benefits Administration officials expect it to take two and a half years to bring the backlog back down to pre-pandemic levels. Moreover, they’re asking veterans to wait for their claims to be processed and not to panic.

“We don’t want people to worry when they see that number,” said Mike Frueh, VA’s Principal Deputy Under Secretary for Benefits. “We want veterans to keep filing their claims.”

As of the end of September, the claims backlog (the number of cases that have been pending for more than four months) was 208,000—nearly three times the typical monthly backlog total from before the start of the coronavirus pandemic in early 2020. The VA says that office closures caused by the pandemic steadily drove up the backlog total for much of last year. In addition, the issue grew due to several court decisions and new laws mandating additional benefits for troops exposed to Agent Orange during the Vietnam War. It’s also why VA officials know another backlog spike is coming.

About 70,000 claims related to new benefits rules for Parkinsonism, bladder cancer and hypothyroidism linked to poisoning from the chemical defoliant are due to hit the four-month mark at the end of October. Frueh said officials think the backlog will reach more than 260,000 by then. However, he said officials are processing cases at a record rate, and don’t expect the backlog to reach the same challenges as in 2013, when an influx of new benefits swelled the total to more than 600,000. Thousands of those cases lingered in the VA system for years without resolution.

“We are the front door to VA benefits and services,” he said. “This is a natural consequence of people filing more claims.”

The VA processed more than 1.5 million claims in fiscal 2021, the most ever. However, they also received about 1.7 million claims and expect the number to rise even higher with the recent benefits changes. The short-term hiring of new workers will provide long-term relief to the claims processing problems. However, it will take months before those staff are fully trained and able to handle standard workload amounts.

Since May, the benefits administration required 20 hours of mandatory overtime a month to deal with the backlog spikes. Those requirements will continue for the foreseeable future, Frueh said.

In a statement, VA Secretary Denis McDonough said the department remains “committed to ensuring timely access to benefits and services for all veterans.”

Reference: Military Times (Oct. 13, 2021) “VA to hire 2,000 new processors to help with looming spike in claims backlog

Will Vets Get a Cost-of-Living Boost?

The Veterans’ Compensation Cost-of-Living Adjustment Act passed unanimously in the House and without objection in the Senate earlier in the summer. By the time you read this, President Joe Biden is expected to sign it into law.

Military Times’ recent article entitled “Veterans benefits could see a big cost-of-living boost later this year” explains that the legislation links the cost-of-living boost for veterans benefits to the planned increase in Social Security benefits. Although the Social Security increase is automatic every year, lawmakers must approve the veterans benefits increase annually.

The amount of the increase for next year is still not certain. The Social Security Administration is expected to announce the COLA rate for 2022 in October, based on economic trends over the last few months. That increase will go into effect for benefits checks sent out starting this December.

The cost-of-living bump hasn’t been above 3.0% since 2011, and has averaged less than 1.3% over the last six years.

However, officials from the Senior Citizens League predicted that next year’s rise could top 6.2%, based on recent inflation and wage data released by federal economists. If so, it would be the largest increase since 1983 for Social Security and VA benefits recipients.

Lawmakers praised the bill passage as needed support for American veterans.

“The cost-of-living adjustment to veterans’ benefits is so much more than a rate adjustment tied to inflation,” said Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., in a statement. “It is a quality-of-life guarantee in the retirement years for veterans suffering with service-connected disabilities and ailments.”

VA officials will announce the plan soon, which includes a review of service records to see if individuals’ eligibility for benefits should be approved.

Committee ranking member Mike Bost, R-Ill., said the increase is critical for veterans and families who rely on disability benefits as a primary source of income.

“Many veterans rely on disability compensation payments to make ends meet; this was especially true during the pandemic,” he said in a statement. “For millions of veterans and their families, this adjustment is more important now than ever before.”

The VA COLA increase applies to payouts for disability compensation, clothing allowance, dependency and indemnity benefits and other VA assistance programs.

Reference: Military Times (Sep. 21, 2021) “Veterans benefits could see a big cost-of-living boost later this year”

Additional Benefits for Vets?

A decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit late last week will give millions of veterans a chance for an additional year of education benefits.

Military Times’s recent article entitled “Millions of vets may be eligible for extra GI Bill benefits thanks to court ruling” explains that it was one vet’s GI Bill fight that now gives benefits to potentially millions of other students.

The case, Rudsill vs. McDonough, has been pending in federal courts for nearly six years. At its center is department officials’ belief that vets can use either the Post 9/11 GI Bill program or the Montgomery GI Bill program, but not both. However, the case could give an additional year of benefits to those who’ve used up their post-9/11 GI Bill but still have some eligibility left under the Montgomery GI Bill program.

Jim Rudsill, an Army veteran wounded in a roadside bomb attack in Iraq in 2005, challenged that policy, saying it was based on a misreading of the law by department officials. He’s attending seminary school using his additional education benefits, after a lower court order let him start collecting the money, even as the case was appealed.

This was the latest in a series of courts to support his case, agreeing that Rudsill shouldn’t have been forced to give up eligibility in either program and should be entitled to 48 months of education benefits (the existing cap on total government higher education payouts under federal statute.) The ruling affirms lower court decisions that say eligible vets can begin using the benefits as early as next semester.

Under the Post-9/11 GI Bill education benefits program, eligible veterans receive 36 months of tuition payouts, housing stipends and other financial help. The Montgomery GI Bill benefits program offers far less money, but still has several thousands of dollars annually to offer vets for tuition costs, if they paid into the program at the start of their military service. That program is expected to be completely phased out in the several years.

If they have a choice between the two programs, most veterans go with the more financially generous Post 9/11 GI Bill program. However, court decisions have allowed for the possibility of another year of lesser education stipend payouts for veterans who can’t complete their degrees in 36 months.

Federal officials have two months to appeal the ruling or start paying out potentially billions in new education benefits.

Reference: Military Times (July 12, 2021) “Millions of vets may be eligible for extra GI Bill benefits thanks to court ruling”

Can GI Benefits Be Used to Start a Business?

A proposal in Congress aims to let some recently separated service members use their GI Bill benefits to start a new business, rather than taking college classes. The legislation would establish a three-year pilot program for up to 250 veterans to pursue “educational entrepreneurial training” and receive their education payouts in the form of start-up capital, instead of the traditional tuition payments.

However, the bill hasn’t gained much legislative traction in recent years, reports Military Times’ recent article entitled “Use your GI Bill benefits to start a business? Lawmakers push pilot program.”

“Higher education is essential for many [veterans], but some have a different calling,” said Rep Ben Cline, R-Va. and a sponsor of the measure. “Veterans are seeking more options and want the choice to use their GI Bill benefit to start their own business. It’s common sense to offer veterans a choice in accessing resources, training and support to pursue the American dream to start a small business, create jobs and generate growth in our economy.”

Roughly 1.7 million veterans have some unused GI Bill benefits, and a new court ruling could provide a pathway to accessing them for the first time. Under the current post-9/11 GI Bill education benefits program, eligible veterans get 36 months of tuition payouts, housing stipends and other financial assistance. In certain situations, service members can also transfer that benefit to a spouse or dependents for their college classes.

More than 2.5 million businesses in America are veteran-owned, making up just under 10% of all American small businesses. Supporters of the Veterans Entrepreneurship Act say that individuals interested in pursuing that path after military service should not be shut out from using their earned benefits.

“By helping veterans start businesses, we are investing in America’s best and brightest,” co-sponsor Rep. Lou Correa, D-Calif., said in a statement.

“When our service members transition into civilian life, they bring considerable skills and experiences with them. Veterans know how to manage risk on the battlefield. And that’s what a successful entrepreneur does — manage risk.”

However, the bill has faced resistance in the past partly due to the fact that they are designed to help promote veteran entrepreneurship and employment, and in part because of concerns that misuse of the college benefit could result in long-term financial disadvantages for veterans.

Versions of the idea have made some progress in both the House and Senate in recent years but have not reached final approval from both chambers. No timeline has been set for a hearing or vote on the new proposal.

Reference: Military Times (July 16, 2021) “Use your GI Bill benefits to start a business? Lawmakers push pilot program”