The House during a pro forma session Friday cleared a bipartisan bill aimed at paring down a massive backlog of appeals for veterans’ disability benefits.
Passage of the measure brings to three the number of major veterans’ bills that now await President Donald Trump’s signature. In addition to the appeals bill, Congress before leaving for the August recess cleared a $2.1 billion funding patch for a private medical care access program, and the “Forever GI Bill,” which extends education benefits to future veterans for an entire lifetime instead of the current 15-year window.
House Veterans Affairs Chairman Phil Roe praised the House action: “When it comes to putting our nation’s heroes first, there can be no doubt that Congress has been hard at work,” the Tennessee Republican said in a statement shortly after the bill was passed, following a unanimous consent request from Rep. Barbara Comstock, R-Va.
“With the House’s passage of legislation to modernize the appeals process this morning, three bills to reform and improve VA are now on the brink of becoming law,” Roe said.
The bill as amended would essentially create three “lanes” for veterans’ appeals as a strategy to reduce the time a former service member needs to wait for a decision on benefit claims. It was introduced by Rep. Mike Bost, R-Ill., with original cosponsor Rep. Elizabeth Esty, D-Conn.
Veterans’ appeals are a major issue facing the Trump administration. From fiscal 2015 to 2017, pending appeals shot up from approximately 380,000 to 470,000, according to the House veterans’ panel. And while Congress has spent hundreds of millions to try to pare down the appeals, the Department of Veterans Affairs has estimated the current backlog will take five years to clear through just the appeals currently pending.
It’s possible the bill could become law quicker than expected.
VA Secretary David Shulkin said during an interview on Fox News earlier Friday that Trump will sign the Veterans Choice Program extension bill on Saturday in Bedminster, N.J., and Shulkin will attend the signing.
Veterans’ groups have been working hard to get the bill passed Friday across the finish line.
“We have been working closely with the VA Board of Veterans Appeals and the Court, the VA Central Office, and both committees for over a year on this effort and are satisfied that this bill will enhance veterans’ rights, modernize and expedite the appeals process, and ultimately reduce costs through greater efficiency,” said Joe Plenzler, director of media relations for the American Legion, in a statement.