WASHINGTON, D.C. - Today, U.S. Senator Daniel K. Akaka (D-HI), Chairman of the Veterans' Affairs Committee, introduced the proposed "Training and Rehabilitation for Disabled Veterans Enhancement Act of 2008." If enacted, this bill will improve the Department of Veterans Affairs' Independent Living program, which serves veterans whose disabilities render them unable to work, by removing a cap on the number of enrollees in the program and making an official objective of the program to improve veterans' quality of life.
"These small but important changes will enable VA to provide rehabilitative services to more veterans who are severely disabled, and clarify that improving a veteran's quality of life is an important objective of rehabilitation," said Akaka.
The bill stems in part from a February 5, 2008, hearing on vocational rehabilitation, as well as Committee oversight. In addition, it responds to a December 2007 VA Inspector General report which found that the current enrollment cap is delaying rehabilitation services for severely disabled veterans.
Chairman Akaka's floor statement is copied below:
I am introducing today the proposed "Training and Rehabilitation for Disabled Veterans Enhancement Act of 2008." This measure would make two small but, I believe, necessary changes in the Department of Veterans' Affairs program of Independent Living services conducted under the authority of chapter 31 of title 38, United States Code.
VA's IL Program was first established in 1980 by Public Law 96-466, the Veterans Rehabilitation and Education Amendments of 1980. Initially, that law provided for the establishment of a four-year pilot program designed to provide independent living services for severely disabled veterans for whom the achievement of a vocational goal was not reasonably feasible. The number of veterans who could be accepted annually into the pilot program was capped at 500. In 1986, the program was extended through 1989 and then, in 1989, it was made in Public Law 101-237, the Veterans' Benefits Amendments of 1989. In 2001, the 500 annual cap on enrollees was increased to 2,500.
The measure I am introducing would remove any cap on the number of enrollees in any year. In earlier years, as a pilot project, the cap may have been appropriate in order to give VA an opportunity to manage the program in the most effective manner possible and in 2001, it made sense to increase that cap in light of the increased demand and need for the program.
Now, however, it makes sense to lift the cap altogether. This is especially so since this important program is designed to meet the needs of the most severely service-connected disabled veterans and more and more of those returning from combat have suffered the kind of devastating injuries that may make employment not reasonably feasible for extended periods of time.
The VA's Inspector General found, in a report issued in December of last year, that "the effect of the statutory cap has been to delay IL services to severely disabled veterans." This delay happens because VA has developed a procedure that holds veterans in a planning and evaluation stage when the statutory cap may be in danger of being exceeded.
The bill I am introducing today would eliminate the cap entirely as recommended by VA's IG. It would also make the program mandatory rather than a discretionary pilot effort and would include improvement in quality of life an objective of training and rehabilitation for veterans with service-connected disability who are participating in programs of IL services. For these veterans - with respect to whom it has been determined that employment is not a present, reasonably feasible option but one that may be feasible in the future - it seems appropriate to look not only at future employment prospects but also toward improving the individual's quality of life. Such an approach may very well lead to bettering an individual's chances of rehabilitation and future employment.