U.S. Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., the longest serving member of the Senate Committee on Veterans' Affairs, announced Monday that the president signed into law a major bipartisan bill that provides essential benefits to make sure our servicemembers and veterans get the support they deserve.
"Members of the military and veterans have time and time again put themselves in harm's way to protect this country and each and every one of us," Rockefeller said in a news release. "It's our responsibility to do the same for them when they return. This new law makes significant strides forward to protect veterans' health care, disability, and other benefits. It also includes legislation that I have pushed for to make sure that servicemembers' homes and families are protected while they are away on duty. Recent reports have shown that some military families have lost their homes while a spouse is on active duty. These actions are illegal, and this legislation extends current law protections against foreclosures until Dec. 31, 2014."
Specifically, the new law includes Rockefeller's provision to protect the men and women of the armed forces from losing their homes to banks and other lenders while they are deployed in Afghanistan, Iraq, and across the globe. Last summer, the Senate Commerce Committee, which Rockefeller chairs, held a forum on this issue where veterans and advocates told stories of problems under the current system, which has some protections for the military but not enough.
A 2011 report prepared in part for Rockefeller showed that multiple mortgage servicing companies illegally foreclosed on servicemembers and charged interest rates in excess of the maximum amounts allowed. Rockefeller also convened a forum to examine illegal foreclosures against servicemembers and their families.
The new law also extends health care to veterans and their families who lived at Camp Lejeune and were exposed to contaminated water, expands vital veterans health programs, improves housing programs for veterans with disabilities, improves efforts to reduce homelessness among veterans, and makes needed improvements to the disability claims system. The legislation passed in the Senate by unanimous consent on July 18.
The Honoring America's Veterans and Caring for Camp Lejeune Families Act of 2012 will:
-- Extend protections against foreclosure on homes of deployed servicemembers. The legislation broadens the laws that protect service members from foreclosure or losing their homes while they are fighting for the country or have recently returned from active duty. It provides mortgage foreclosure relief, mandates a 12-month stay of foreclosure proceedings, increases civil penalties and improves compliance with the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act.
-- Provide health care for certain individuals stationed at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina. The law will extend hospital care and medical services coverage for certain illnesses and conditions to eligible veterans and family members who served on active duty or lived at Camp Lejeune while the water was contaminated.
-- Expand critical health care programs for veterans. This law will authorize the Department of Veterans Affairs to waive co-payments for telehealth and telemedicine visits of veterans, expand beneficiary travel reimbursement for veterans living in highly rural areas, and improve reimbursement for state veterans homes. In addition, the law will enhance VA's teleconsultation and telemedicine capabilities to improve rural veterans' access to quality health care, and protect veterans from sexual assault and other safety incidents.
-- Enhance Specially Adapted Housing programs for disabled veterans. This law expands the eligibility for VA's specially adapted housing assistance grants to certain veterans with disabilities due to the loss or loss of use of one or more lower extremities that preclude ambulating without the aid of a supporting device.
-- Improve efforts to eliminate homelessness among veterans. This law will reauthorize a number of VA's programs to help homeless veterans and will expand eligibility for VA's emergency shelter services to include homeless veterans who are not seriously mentally ill. In addition, the law enhances grant programs for homeless veterans with special needs, by including dependents of veterans and male veterans with dependent children. The law also improves the grant and per diem program, which serves upward of 30,000 homeless veterans annually, by requiring VA to report on how to improve the per diem payment process for grantees. In addition, the law strengthens efforts by eligible entities to assist in case management services provided to the nearly 40,000 homeless veterans participating in the HUD-VASH program.
-- Strengthen veterans' benefits and improving claims processing. This law will improve VA's disability claims appeal processing by waiving initial review of claimants' new evidence by the agency of original jurisdiction unless specifically requested. It is estimated that this provision could prevent approximately 1,600 remands from the Board of Veterans' Appeals per year allowing the Board more time to address the backlog of appeals. Other significant improvements include improving the process of filing jointly for Social Security and dependency and indemnity compensation and clarifying the month of death payment provisions to make sure surviving spouses receive proper and timely benefit payments.