Veterans’ Benefits Bill Passes in the Senate

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A Civil War-era policy that prevents veterans from hiring attorneys moved one step closer to being removed Tuesday when the U.S. Senate unanimously approved S. 2694, the “Veterans’ Choice of Representation and Benefits Enhancement Act of 2006.” If adopted by the House, the legislation will overturn a policy that denies veterans the right to hire attorneys to help them seek benefits from the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Under current law, a veteran has to exhaust the VA process which may take years before hiring an attorney.

“I am delighted that we are closer to providing veterans and their families with the option of hiring attorneys to help them navigate the VA system. Doing away with this outdated law will allow veterans like all other adults in this nation to have the assistance of counsel if they so choose,” said the bill’s sponsor, U.S. Sen. Larry Craig (R-Idaho), Chairman of the U.S. Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs.

The legislation, which was approved by the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs last month, also would require the removal of the ashes of convicted double murderer Russell Wagner from Arlington National Cemetery. Wagner brutally murdered Daniel Davis, 84, and Wilda Davis, 80, in Maryland in 1994…

Wagner was later convicted and died in prison. His remains were then placed in Arlington as the result of a loophole in the law barring the burial of capital offenders in national cemeteries, which has since been closed. The Davis’ son, Vernon, is a veteran and testified before the committee last year along with Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD). Both asked for Wagner’s remains to be removed.

The legislation also includes changes to the Montgomery G.I. Bill and the Survivors’ and Dependents’ Educational Assistance benefits program changes that were sought by Sen. Conrad Burns (R-MT) and Mike DeWine (R-OH). If approved by the House, veterans and survivors will be eligible for accelerated educational benefits for high-cost, short-term training leading to jobs in five areas of the economy: transportation, construction, hospitality, energy and high technology.

The bill also includes a provision sought by Sen. Daniel Akaka (D-HI), the committee’s Ranking Member, that would require VA to pay full costs for certain service-connected veterans residing in veterans’ homes run by state governments, as well as provide medications for certain service-connected conditions for veterans in those state-run facilities. Under current law, the federal government only pays a portion of those costs.

The bill would also allow VA to designate beds in privately-run care centers as “state homes.”

“In large portions of Idaho and in other rural parts of America, we often don’t need a full-fledged nursing home for veterans but having a few beds available could help keep a veteran closer to home and loved ones,” Craig said.

The legislation would also:

  • Allow tribes to apply for grants to establish veterans’ cemeteries on Native lands
  • Improve efforts to prevent homelessness among veterans, especially among those who served in Iraq and Afghanistan
  • Establish an Office of Rural Health in the Office of the Under Secretary for Health



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