News

When will disabled veterans get their home loan refunds?

The Department of Veterans Affairs has been approached by lawmakers asking for a comprehensive schedule of home loan fee refunds to disabled veterans who were erroneously charged related fees.

According to an article published by Military Times, “In a June 6 report issued by the VA Inspector General, auditors stated an estimated 72,900 exempt veterans were incorrectly charged an estimated $286 million in funding fees for their VA home loans from 2012 through 2017. Veterans are exempt from paying a funding fee if they’re entitled to receive VA disability compensation. During that period, VA issued about $97 million in refunds to 19,700 of those veterans, leaving an estimated 53,200 who may still get refunds.”

A letter sent to VA Secretary Robert Wilkie last month stated, “While we recognize that VA has largely agreed to implement the [Inspector General’s] recommendations, it is unclear when veterans will see their reimbursement…” This document was signed by an array of senators and representatives, including Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., the chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, and Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., the ranking member of the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs.

According to some sources, it is believed that staff members on the committee will receive a briefing on the issue this week. In addition to a repayment plan and schedule, lawmakers have also asked for information on VA’s plan to prevent this from happening again in the future. In an earlier response, VA officials stated that they expect to implement their plan for refunds by the end of the month but did not state when the refunds would be issued.

To learn more about this news affecting veterans, click HERE.

Possible student loan debt relief for disabled veterans

More than 33,000 disabled veterans with unpaid federal student loans could possibly be granted debt relief under the new Federally Requiring Earned Education-Debt Discharges for Veterans Act (FREED Vets Act) proposed last week.

According to an article published by Military Times, “The proposal follows moves by the Departments of Education and Veterans Affairs last year to alert more veterans about debt forgiveness programs for 100-percent disabled veterans. More than 42,000 individuals nationwide are eligible for the aid, potentially dropping tens of thousands of owed dollars from their financial records. But despite a push from the agencies, only about 20 percent of the eligible pool of veterans has taken advantage of the program. And more than half of those veterans have already defaulted on their federal loans, creating additional financial problems.”

This new bipartisan legislation would erase all student loan debt for eligible veterans, regardless of whether they applied for the program or not. Rep. Connor Lamb, D-Pa. (a supporter of the bill) said in a statement, “Congress has an obligation to ease the challenges our veterans face when they come home and return to civilian life…This important bipartisan legislation provides a clear pathway for eligible disabled veterans to receive a benefit they have earned through their service and sacrifice.”

No timeline has been set for when lawmakers may vote on the measure but both would have to approve the act before it could be sent to the White House to become law. Veterans who think they may be eligible for the debt forgiveness program can visit the Department of Education web site for more information.

For more information on the Federally Requiring Earned Education-Debt Discharges for Veterans Act (FREED Vets Act), click HERE.

Big increase for VA budget

Lawmakers have approved a nearly $400 billion spending bill that includes a large increase in Veterans Affairs spending for 2020 and also restricts the President’s ability to move military construction budget allocations into southern border wall construction.

According to an article published by Military Times, “The passage — by a 227-194 party line vote — was the second major appropriations package advanced by the chamber last month, as party leaders set their priorities for fiscal 2020 spending and push back on White House demands for more military spending and less money for other domestic priorities. The measure spans seven federal agencies, including the Departments of Commerce, Justice, and Housing and Urban Development. More than half of the total would go to the Department of Veterans Affairs, which would see its budget rise nearly 10 percent to $217.5 billion in fiscal 2020 under the plan.”

The total amount is moderately more than the original allocation for the department and signifies another noteworthy accomplishment for veterans support programs. According to Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla. and chairwoman of the House Appropriations Committee’s panel on veterans issues, “(This legislation) will provide significant and enhanced funding for the VA, deliver on our promise of medical care and benefits that veterans have earned through service to our nation, and make smart investments in critical programs that make a real difference in the lives of servicemembers and veterans,”

In addition, the new legislation includes $10.5 billion in military construction funding as well as an increase of $140 million solely dedicated to improving family housing at and near military bases across the country. This decision came in response to reports of less than favorable conditions at military housing units earlier this year.

To learn more about this good news for veterans, click HERE.

‘Blue Water’ Veterans Benefits Act officially becomes law

Last week, the President signed the legislation and passed the law.  The “Blue water” Vietnam Veterans Benefits Act will now grant presumptive status for disability benefits to an estimated 90,000 Navy veterans who served in the seas around Vietnam during the war.

According to an article published by Military Times, “[Veterans] faced additional paperwork barriers to prove exposure to toxic defoliants during their deployments, even after developing identical serious cancers and respiratory illnesses. Advocates had long complained that put an unfair burden on the aging veterans, since water monitoring records from decades ago were inaccessible or non-existent. The higher proof of exposure blocked most so-called “blue water” veterans from eligibility for benefits, which can total several thousand dollars a month.

VA Secretary Robert Wilkie stated that the department has already begun processing the claims, saying “We are working with the Department of Defense and the Department of Navy to make sure that we have those adequate lists (of eligible veterans)…I cannot tell you now the numbers. I can tell you we are working on them. I will promise to come back to (Congress) if we need additional resources.”

The new law will pay for an estimated total of $1.1 billion in presumptive benefits over 10 years. In addition, the new law will extend benefits to troops who served in the Korean Demilitarized Zone, as well as to children of herbicide-exposed Thailand veterans that were born with spina bifida.

Countless advocacy groups have praised Congress for the action, including the Veterans of Foreign Wars and American Legion.

For more in this important news, click HERE.

13-year Blue Water case finally comes to a close

‘Blue Water’ Navy veteran Alfred Procopio Jr. persevered through 13 years of denials to prove that his illnesses were exposure-related and caused by the toxic chemical Agent Orange during his time of service. Procopio was 61 years old when he originally filed his claim. Next month, he’ll be 74.

According to an article published by Stripes.com, “Blue Water veterans — who served on open sea ships off the shore of Vietnam but did not step foot on land — have been blocked for decades from the same Department of Veterans Affairs benefits afforded those who served in Vietnam or its inland waterways. The government argued there wasn’t enough evidence that poisonous herbicides contaminated the water used on their ships. That changed in January when Procopio won his case. The Department of Justice decided in May to not challenge the Federal Circuit Court of Appeals ruling in favor of Blue Water veterans. Congress approved legislation last week clarifying that those veterans are eligible for VA disability benefits. Lawmakers sent the bill to the White House on Tuesday, where it’s awaiting President Donald Trump’s signature.”

Inn October 2006, Procopio filed his first exposure-related claim for diabetes. Then he filed another claim for prostate cancer in October 2007. Both claims were denied by the VA 2 years later in April 2009. Following the denial, he pursued a reversal from the Board of Veterans’ Appeals but was again denied in March 2011.

In 2014, attorney and retired Navy commander John Wells, took Procopio’s case. At that time Wells was the executive director of Military-Veterans Advocacy and had been advocating for years to extend benefits to Blue Water veterans. When he reviewed Procopio’s case, he realized its potential effects saying, “Wow, this is the case we’ve been waiting for…We thought it was the…perfect case, and that’s why I pushed him as hard as I did. We figured if we won this one, it would have the largest impact.”

Following more years of denials from the Board of Veterans’ Appeals and the Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims, Procopio continued to appeal until beginning a multiyear process through the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit. Then, on Jan. 29 of this year, the court ruled in Procopio’s favor. Kathleen M. O’Malley, a circuit judge who was in favor of Procopio’s claim, said that “The VA failed to give deference to Blue Water veterans, which Congress had intended when it wrote the law.”

To learn more about this good news for Blue Water Navy veterans, click HERE.

New program offers convicted veterans another chance

Virginian Judge Ricardo Rigual is offering former service members the choice between incarceration or rehabilitation, asking them to clean up their act under the guidance of other mentor veterans.

Service members who choose the latter are given a mentor, set free, and are asked to commit to regular check-ins with a judge. The program has been described as “intense supervision” with veterans advocates saying that this forgiving approach has assisted countless veterans – removing them from the stigma of incarceration.

According to an article published by MilitaryTimes.com, “[Federal] lawmakers are looking to expand these types of veterans treatment courts, which operate much like drug courts and other specialty courts for veterans who have committed crimes that can, in many cases, be traced back to struggles with PTSD, TBI and other issues related to military service. A bipartisan group of 112 representatives in the House have introduced a plan to provide federal support to states that have adopted these programs by setting up a national network with oversight from the Department of Justice.”

Virginian Judge Ricardo Rigual, presiding in the 15th Judicial Circuit of Virginia, was quoted as saying “They have the foundation to be successful — to take charge of their lives again…We just kind of remind them what they need to do to get their lives back on track.”

According to the National Veterans Court Alliance, there are more than 450 veterans treatment courts in 22 states. The program guides veterans through the rehabilitation program. They are then assigned a coach to help them cope with the transition. With additional funding and support, these programs could be improved and would encourage more states to adopt a similar approach.

The article continued by saying, “While the bill does not require states to stand up veterans treatment courts, the alliance is advocating for that and would eventually like to see these programs at all levels of the American court system — from district courts all the way to federal courts. They also want each veteran graduate get their criminal records expunged. Alliance Chairman Luis Quiñonez said, “It’s a tough nut to crack because a lot of people ask why should veterans get special treatment? And the answer is because a lot of veterans face things that other people don’t have to face.”

For more information on this important news affecting veterans, click HERE.

Court allows class-action lawsuit against VA

For the first time, a federal court will allow a class-action lawsuit against the Department of Veterans Affairs which legal experts say will open the door for a range of similar cases.

According to an article published by the MilitaryTimes.com, “The decision, which could affect thousands of veterans, came late last week in the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims. Last August, the same court for the first time ruled that class-action lawsuits would be allowed against VA in “appropriate cases,” but no such claims met court standards until now. This case — Godsey v. Wilkie — sought relief for veterans facing lengthy waits for the department to certify their disability benefits appeals claims. The case was originally filed in 2017 on behalf of four veterans facing lengthy delays, but lawyers argued it should be broadened to include an entire class of individuals waiting for their benefits.”

The Department of Veterans Affairs stated last year that more than 2,500 veterans had been waiting for certification for over two years. The court amended the class to include only veterans facing an excess wait time of more than 1.5 years for the advancement of their appeals.

Bart Stichman, the executive director of the National Veterans Legal Services Program said, “(The court’s) order certifying a class action for the first time in its 30-year history is a landmark moment, and will help ensure that our veterans and their families have more access to the justice they deserve…It has been a long time coming.”

Advocates have asked the courts to overturn a long-term ban on class-action lawsuits against the VA for years. This type of lawsuit allows plaintiffs to show illegal or harmful activity against a larger group.

This recent ruling requires the VA to perform a precertification review of all cases for all class members within 120 days for their initial filing. In addition, it also requires that the department provides a status update on that work back to the court before the end of the summer.

For more information on this important news affecting veterans, click HERE.

‘Blue water’ veterans bill heads for final signature

This week the Senate unanimously passed legislation that grants disability benefits to “blue water” Vietnam veterans. The bill has now been sent to the White House to officially become law.

According to an article published by MilitaryTimes.com, “The legislation, passed unanimously by the House last month, has been a focus of advocates fighting to ensure nearly 90,000 veterans who served on ships in the seas around Vietnam are granted the same Veterans Affairs benefits status as troops who served on the ground or on ships stationed close to shore. Under current regulations, those troops were assumed to have been exposed to toxic defoliants like Agent Orange, and were given special fast-track status when illnesses related to that chemical contamination surfaced later in life.”

However, VA officials ruled in 2002 that the same presumptive status did not apply to the “blue water” veterans. As a result, veterans were asked to prove their ailments were a result of exposure to toxic chemicals but found this difficult due to a lack of chemical monitoring on the ships and the decades that have passed since the exposure. Last week, it was announced by officials from the Department of Justice that they would not appeal the decision, effectively ending the fight.

The bill, which is now on its way to the White House,  will also expand certain presumptive benefits to those who served in the Korean Demilitarized Zone as well as children of exposed Thailand veterans born with spina bifida.

Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Johnny Isakson, R-Ga. was quoted as saying “It is our responsibility to make sure our veterans are provided the benefits they have earned…I look forward to President Trump signing this legislation into law, and I will work with the VA to ensure Blue Water Navy veterans begin receiving these benefits.”

To learn about this important news affecting “blue water” Vietnam veterans, click HERE.

Bill introduced to help female veterans access legal services

This week lawmakers introduced a bill addressing the need for veterans to access legal services, with a specific focus on female veterans. Military veterans have told the Department of Veterans Affairs that one of the top challenges they face is accessing legal services.

According to an article published by Stripes.com, “The Improving Legal Services for Female Veterans Act would require the VA to partner with at least one outside organization to provide legal services, such as preventing eviction or foreclosure and help with child support issues. Those were among the most common unmet needs in a 2017 Community Homelessness Assessment, Local Education and Networking Group for Veterans (CHALENG for Veterans) survey.”

The article continued by saying that an excess of more than 345,000 women have deployed since Sept. 11, 2001. As the number of women in the military has increased, so has the number of female veterans seeking care and legal support services from the VA.

U.S. Rep. Susan Wild is amongst one of the female House lawmakers that introduced the bill, saying “There is no question that the government has a duty and responsibility to take care of our veterans when they return home from sacrificing for our country — but women veterans face unique challenges that the Department of Veterans Affairs isn’t currently equipped to help them with,”.

Amongst the bill’s female co-sponsors, and part of the Servicewomen and Women Veterans Congressional Caucus, are Pennsylvania Reps. Madeleine Dean, of the Montgomery County-based 4th District; Mary Gay Scanlon, who represents the Delaware County-based 5th District; and Chrissy Houlahan, of the Chester County-based 6th District.

To learn more about this important news affecting female veterans, click HERE.

Immigration fails to give veterans special consideration

A report released last week showed that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) does not take a person’s military service into consideration before deporting them. In addition to this, ICE does not track how many veterans are deported but does require that their agents look at employment history, health, community service, deployments to war zones, military decorations, and years in service before deporting them.

According to an article published by Stripes.com, “During a study of deportations from 2013 through 2018, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that ICE did not follow these policies. Homeland Security agents told the GAO that they were unaware of the policies and don’t distinguish between veterans and nonveterans.”

As a result of failing to identify veterans, the agency effectively does not know the exact amount of veterans placed in removal proceedings or the number of veterans that have already been removed.

The Immigration and Nationality Act enables immigrant servicemembers to apply for citizenship. However, in a 2016 report released by the American Civil Liberties Union, many servicemembers did not realize that their citizenship was not automatic. Under the law, honorably discharged veterans who are not citizens of the United States may be deported if they are convicted of crimes.

According to the limited amount of data supplied by ICE, approximately 250 veterans were placed in deportation proceedings spanning 2013 through 2018, and a total of 92 had been removed from the country. The most common home countries among the 250 veterans placed in deportation were Mexico, Jamaica, El Salvador, Trinidad, Germany, and Guatemala.

To learn more about this important news affecting all immigrant veterans, click here.