Congressional Record Statement of Senator Daniel K. Akaka
Mr. President, I am pleased that the Senate is acting on S. 728, the proposed "Veterans' Benefits Enhancement Act of 2009.'' This broad benefits package will help veterans young and old, as well as their survivors. The amended bill contains 6 titles and 28 provisions that are designed to enhance compensation, housing, labor and education, burial, and insurance benefits for veterans . A full explanation of the bill is available in the Committee's report accompanying this legislation, Senate Report 111-71.
I will highlight a few of the provisions that I have sponsored in the legislation that is before us today. Before I begin, let me state that the version before us today includes a manager's amendment that makes a slight modification on the version passed by the Committee. The amendment's purpose is to pay for the bill's burial provisions by extending a mandatory offset currently in the underlying bill. The amendment would also eliminate two contingent entitlement provisions in the bill which are not paid for with mandatory funds. With this amendment incorporated, this bill would save, rather than cost, the American taxpayers.
Many disabled veterans find it difficult to obtain commercial life insurance, often due to their service-connected injuries. This legislation would improve the Service-Disabled Veterans' Insurance program for totally disabled veterans , by providing the first increase in the maximum amount of supplemental insurance they can purchase through SDVI since 1992. If enacted, the maximum amount would increase from the current level of $20,000 to $30,000 for all eligible totally disabled veterans .
This legislation would also increase the maximum amount of Veterans' Mortgage Life Insurance that a disabled veteran may purchase. The VMLI program was established in 1971 and is available to those service-connected disabled veterans who receive specially adapted housing grants from VA. In the event of the veteran's death, his or her family is protected because the Department of Veterans Affairs will pay the balance of the mortgage owed up to the maximum amount of insurance purchased.
In today's housing market where, according to the Federal Housing Finance Board, the average mortgage loan in the United States in May 2009 was $221,200, the current maximum of $90,000 in VMLI insurance protection is not adequate. This bill will increase the maximum amount of insurance that may be purchased under the VMLI program from the current maximum of $90,000 to $150,000 and then, on January 1, 2012, from $150,000 to $200,000.
This benefits package also includes a provision that will expand eligibility for retroactive benefits from traumatic injury protection coverage under the Servicemembers' Group Life Insurance program, commonly referred to as TSGLI. Section 1032 of Public Law 109-13, the Emergency Supplemental Appropriations Act for Defense, the Global War on Terror, and Tsunami Relief, 2005, established traumatic injury protection under the SGLI program. TSGLI went into effect on December 1, 2005. Therefore, all insured servicemembers under SGLI from that point forward are also insured under TSGLI and their injuries are covered regardless of where they occur. In order to provide assistance to those servicemembers who suffered traumatic injuries on or between October 7, 2001, and November 30, 2005, retroactive TSGLI payments were authorized under section 1032(c) of the Supplemental Appropriations Act to individuals whose qualifying losses were sustained "as a direct result of injuries incurred in Operation Enduring Freedom or Operation Iraqi Freedom.'' Under section 501(b) of Public Law 109-233, the Veterans' Housing Opportunity and Benefits Improvement Act of 2006, this definition was amended to allow retroactive payments to individuals whose qualifying losses were sustained "as a direct result of a traumatic injury incurred in the theater of operations for Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom.''
However, without corrective action, men and women who were traumatically injured on or between October 7, 2001, and November 30, 2005, but were not in the OIF or OEF theaters of operation, will continue to be denied the same retroactive payment given to their wounded comrades. This legislation would correct that inequity.
Importantly, this legislation will also relieve the burden on certain combat veterans who seek to prove that their disabilities are service-connected. The committee bill would direct VA to promulgate regulations that direct how VA should generally consider lay evidence that is consistent with the place, conditions, dangers, or hardships associated with a particular veteran's military service. For example, in assessing lay testimony concerning a claimant's exposure to sub-freezing conditions, the regulation may acknowledge that lay evidence, such as weather reports or contemporaneous newspaper accounts of sub-freezing conditions, may provide corroboration of exposure to the cold when a servicemember was assigned to an area when sub-freezing conditions were present. Another example would be in a claim alleging hearing loss or tinnitus. Although an individual's service record might not include details of exposure to improvised explosive devices the individual may have been assigned to a particular unit at a particular location where lay evidence shows that the unit was repeatedly exposed to IEDs.
Currently, VA provides a special dependency and indemnity compensation payment to a surviving spouse with one or more children under the age of 18. However, these payments are not adjusted. This legislation would provide automatic cost-of-living adjustments for these payments.
For veterans whose injuries are so significant that employment is not an option, VA operates an independent living rehabilitation program to help them achieve a maximum level of independence in daily life. Unfortunately, under current law, the number of veterans who in any one year can enroll in these programs is capped at 2,600. While I have heard from VA that this enrollment cap does not present any problem for the effective conduct of the program, I remain concerned that the effect of the cap is to put downward pressure on VA's enrollment of eligible veterans in this very important program. This is of particular concern today, as veterans are returning from the current conflicts with disabilities that may require extensive periods of rehabilitation and assistance in order to achieve independence in their daily lives. This legislation would remove the 2,600 cap and allow all qualified veterans to enroll in VA's independent living program.
This legislation would provide many other benefits that I have not mentioned, such as improving the lives of veterans and troops with severe burn injuries and clarifying veteran and reservists' employment rights. I thank the members of the Veterans' Affairs Committee and others in this Chamber who have worked hard to craft the many provisions in this bill.
I urge our colleagues to support this important legislation that would benefit many of this Nation's nearly 24 million veterans and their families.
October 7, 2009