An arm of the Veterans Affairs Department in Atlanta eliminated 208,272 applications from across the country for health care early this year amid efforts to shrink a massive backlog of requests, saying they were missing signatures or information about military service and income, according to records reviewed by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Veterans groups say the VA should have done more to communicate with the veterans before closing their applications, some of which date back to 1998. Troops face additional challenges in applying for VA health care, they said, as they grapple with reentry into civilian life, change addresses following overseas deployments and suffer from combat stress.
In the middle of the controversy is the VA's Health Eligibility Center, the Atlanta office that oversees the process by which veterans seek access to the VA medical system. It and its parent agency have come under intense scrutiny in recent years for mismanagement and delays in providing medical care, presenting a thorny challenge for the administration of President Donald Trump, who focused on veterans' care during his presidential campaign.
The Pentagon has agreed to hold off on changes to some GI Bill benefits that would have impacted long-serving troops, a congressman's office said.
The Department of Defense will delay the policy change, which was scheduled to go into effect Friday, until Jan. 12, according to a statement released Friday by U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney. The change would have prevented soldiers and other service members with more than 16 years of service from transferring their Post-9/11 G.I. Bill benefits to eligible family members.
With overwhelming support in Congress, two senators hope this is the year a dollar-for-dollar offset in compensation to surviving military spouses of military personnel and retirees — known colloquially as the "widow's tax" — is eliminated.
Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Sen. Doug Jones, D-Alabama, took to the Senate floor Monday urging for a vote on their proposed amendment to the national defense policy bill to overturn the offset.
Addressing an audience at a House Veterans Affairs Committee hearing Thursday in Spanish, Committee Chairman Rep. Mark Takano, D-California, pressed for legislation that would require all VA fact sheets to be published in English and Spanish. A bill sponsored by Rep. Gil Cisneros, D-California, would do that.
As a Medal of Honor recipient, former Army Staff Sgt. David Bellavia will also be eligible for retroactive monthly pension payments stretching back to 2004.
All Medal of Honor recipients receive a pension starting on the date they formally receive the Medal of Honor, which is currently $1,329.58 per month, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs.
But Medal of Honor recipients are also eligible for a retroactive payment for monthly stipends that technically took effect on the "date of heroism," said Gina Jackson, a spokeswoman for the Department of Veterans Affairs.