Improving Veteran's Benefits

March 21, 2007
Today, the House passed three bills that improve veteran's benefits: the Veterans Compensation Cost-of-Living Adjustment Act of 2007 (H.R.1284), the Joshua Omvig Veterans Suicide Prevention Act (H.R.327), and the Dr. James Allen Veteran Vision Equity Act (H.R.797). Led by Reps. John Hall (NY-19), Leonard Boswell (IA-3), and Tammy Baldwin (WI-2), these bills will provide a cost-of-living increase for veteran's benefits, reduce the incidence of suicide among veterans, and provide increased compensation to veterans who sustained significant vision loss.

All three bills passed the House unanimously and represent a strong commitment to our veterans who have made great sacrifices in defending our country.

Rep. John Hall:

"Together, these new bills reaffirm the intention of Congress to care and provide for the needs of America's veterans and their families," said Hall, Chairman of the Veterans' Affairs Subcommittee on Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs. "We must uphold our nation's commitments to veterans, and I am pleased that the House is acting to prevent inflation from eroding the purchasing power of millions of veterans and their dependents."

H.R.1284 would provide a cost-of-living adjustment to the rates of disability compensation provided to our nation's disabled veterans, their dependents and survivors. Without this bill, payments would not keep up with rising living costs resulting from inflation. The new COLA bill will provide disability compensation to 3,220,031 veterans with service-connected disabilities in fiscal year 2008.

Veterans Health Subcommittee Chairman Mike Michaud:

The Joshua Omvig Veterans Suicide Prevention Act, named for an Iraq veteran who took his own life, will improve the ability of the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to develop and implement a comprehensive program designed to reduce the incidence of suicide among veterans. A government report released in May of last year found that for calendar year 2005, the suicide rate for the Operation Iraqi Freedom area of operations was 19.9 per 100,000 soldiers. That rate is considerably higher than the national average, and the Army's overall reported rate of 13.1 per 100,000.

"Even one veteran taking his own life is tragic. Joshua Omvig was one such veteran and sadly he is not alone," said Michaud. "This bill will improve early detection and intervention; provide access to mental health services for veterans who are in crisis; and help prevent the unnecessary deaths of the men and women who have served our nation. We must do everything that we can to provide our veterans and their families with the support and care that they need to prevent more from following down this same tragic path."

More specifically, the Joshua Omvig Veterans Suicide Prevention Act directs the Secretary of Veterans Affairs to develop and carry out a comprehensive program designed to reduce the incidence of suicide among veterans. It requires the program to include: (1) mandatory training for appropriate staff and contractors of the Department of Veterans Affairs who interact with veterans; (2) screening of veterans who receive medical care at a VA facility for suicide risk factors; (3) referral of at-risk veterans for counseling and treatment; (4) a suicide prevention counselor at each VA medical facility; (5) research for suicide prevention and for mental health care for veterans who have experienced sexual trauma while in military service; (6) 24-hour veterans' mental health care availability; and (7) a toll-free hotline.

"It's been heartbreaking for me to hear about the reports of suicide," said Michaud. "Our citizen soldiers deserve a truly comprehensive approach to mental health issues. This bill is a major step in the right direction and I am pleased that the VA has signaled its commitment to this cause. Our Committee will continue to explore this important issue in addition to the effects of traumatic brain injury and PTSD that are also often hard to detect."

Rep. Leonard Boswell:

Today, the U.S. House of Representatives unanimously passed H.R. 327, the Joshua Omvig Veterans Suicide Prevention Act, by a vote of 423 to 0. The bill was introduced by Congressman Leonard Boswell, and is in honor of Joshua Omvig, a young man from Grundy Center who took his own life after returning home form an 11-month tour in Iraq.

During consideration of the bill, Boswell said, "With more and more veterans returning from tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, new issues have arisen regarding veterans mental health care that have not received attention in the past."

"Some estimates have found that almost one thousand veterans receiving care from the Department of Veterans Affairs commit suicide each year and one out of five suicides in the United States is a veteran. We must do better for our veterans, and I believe this legislation is a step in the right direction."

H.R. 327 mandates the screening of all patients at the Department of Veterans Affairs medical facilities for suicide risk factors and the tracking of at-risk veterans. It requires that each VA medical center designate one suicide prevention counselor and requires the VA to conduct outreach to veterans and their families on mental health issues. The bill also requires a 24 hour availability of mental health hotline for veterans.

Iowa Senator Tom Harkin has introduced a companion bill in the Senate. "A screening and tracking process might have provided Joshua with the counseling he needed," added Boswell. "But, the provisions in this bill will help other veterans, and that is very important."

Rep. Tammy Baldwin:

The House of Representatives today passed (424-0) legislation introduced by Congresswoman Tammy Baldwin on the suggestion of retired Madison ophthalmologist and Korean War veteran, Dr. James C. Allen.

The Dr. James C. Allen Veteran Vision Equity Act (H.R. 797) will aid veterans who sustained a significant loss of vision in one eye while serving their country. It changes existing law to allow these disabled veterans to receive greater compensation if they subsequently suffer loss of sight in the other eye.

"Our veterans have made many sacrifices for our country; their health care should be a priority," said Baldwin. "Few can imagine the trauma associated with losing sight in an eye while serving in the military, and we certainly shouldn't allow these veterans to struggle with further loss of sight and no additional assistance from the VA," she added.

Dr. James C. Allen, 78, is a retired Madison ophthalmologist who treated veterans at Madison's VA hospital from 1967-2000. Treating patients there, he recognized and researched the problem and brought the issue to Baldwin's attention in 2000, hoping she could initiate a change in the law.

"I'm very grateful to Dr. Allen for bringing this problem to my attention and for his service to his country and our veterans. The Dr. Allen bill reminds all of us of the difference one person can make in our democracy," said Congresswoman Baldwin.

"I contacted Congresswoman Baldwin because I was caring for veterans who were legally blind in both eyes but receiving compensation for injury to only one eye. This (bill) is the greatest thing that's happened in a long time for veterans. It will improve the benefits for our older veterans who have lost vision and those wounded now in action. I thank Congresswoman Baldwin for recognizing the need and fighting for this change," Dr. Allen said.

Baldwin's legislation makes a small, but practical change that allows veterans who have a complete loss of sight in one eye due to a service-connected injury to receive increased disability compensation if they begin to lose sight in the other eye, regardless of whether that loss of sight is service-connected. A 2002 federal law corrected a similar deficiency for those who suffered service-related hearing loss.

"Since I began working on this problem, the Blinded Veterans Association has identified more than 200 soldiers returning from Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan and Operation Iraqi Freedom who are blinded in one eye due to service-related injuries and could benefit from this legislation. This change in law would send a powerful signal to our nation's blinded veterans that we recognize the hardships they face and that they are not forgotten," Baldwin said.