New $3T coronavirus stimulus bill includes aid for homeless veterans, VA staff

Abbie Bennett
May 12, 2020 - 3:04 pm
Coronavirus

U.S. Army photo by Sgt. 1st Class Kelvin Ringold

A new massive $3 trillion coronavirus stimulus package includes aid for veterans who lost their health insurance, homeless veterans, native veterans and Department of Veterans Affairs employees.

The nearly 2,000-page Heroes Act introduced by House Democrats Tuesday includes another $3 trillion in funding for pandemic aid.

Buried in those thousands of pages is a section dedicated to veterans and service members.

Chief among the aid headed to veterans, the bill authorizes VA to provide health care for all veterans who lost their employer-sponsored health insurance because of the pandemic. 

For 12 months after the bill passes, VA is expected to provide hospital care and medical services to veterans who are "unemployed or lost access to ... group health insurance coverage" because of the public health emergency. There will be some income limitations, however. 

The legislation also calls for increased Department of Veterans Affairs disability benefits for certain veterans. 

The temporary boost proposed in the legislation would provide a 25 percent increase to existing disability benefits for some qualifying disabled vets, such as amputees, veterans who have lost their sight or hearing, veterans with caregivers and disabled vets in nursing homes. The increase would start when the bill passes into law and end "60 days after the last day of the emergency period ... resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic," the legislation reads. 

The increase would apply to disability benefits that were in place before the bill passes into law. 

The multiple measures aimed at expanding or increasing veterans' benefits comes as veteran unemployment spikes and the Department of Veterans Affairs faces more than 11,000 COVID-19 cases and at least 923 veterans deaths from the virus so far. 

“As veteran unemployment skyrockets to 12 percent and VA steps up to serve both our nation’s veterans and civilians through its Fourth Mission, it is clear that the COVID-19 pandemic requires immediate, bold action,” House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., said Tuesday. “The Heroes Act is critical. By supporting homeless veterans, suspending debt collection, expanding health coverage, and caring for our most vulnerable, we can help ensure that those who have served our country have an opportunity to succeed.”

Estimates for the cost of the different measures in the bill, which totals $3 trillion and includes broad federal aid proposals, were not immediately clear. The massive funding package still faces an uphill climb in Congress before passage and must have support from the House and the Republican-controlled Senate to have a hope of passing into law. 

In March, VA received nearly $20 billion in emergency aid for medical, IT and other needs, which followed $60 million for VA COVID-19 testing provided by Congress previously. 

The new bill provisions aimed at veterans include further healthcare changes, help for homeless veterans, native veterans and VA employees.

Health care

In addition to providing health care for veterans who lose their health insurance because of the crisis, the stimulus package would prevent VA from requiring veterans pay "any copayment or other cost ... for qualifying coronavirus preventive services" during the pandemic. 

In emergencies, the legislation requires the VA to pay for eligible veterans to receive emergency treatment at non-VA facilities without having to seek permission from VA first, and requires the department to hire a contractor to process claims for those emergency visits so veterans aren't mistakenly left in debt. 

Homeless veterans

As shelters shut down, homeless veterans are struggling more than ever, and advocates are predicting a "huge spike" in homelessness for veterans because of the pandemic. 

The stimulus bill includes measures to provide more flexibility to the Veterans Affairs Secretary on providing food, shelter, transportation and other needs to homeless veterans during the pandemic. 

One of those measures would allow the VA Secretary to use the department's parking areas "as temporary shelter locations for homeless veterans." 

The bill includes a boost to funding available to help homeless veterans, particularly those with dependent children.

VA Secretary Wilkie is granted the ability to waive some inspection and safety requirements to provide grants to organizations that could quickly identify temporary sites for homeless veterans to live where they can social distance or isolate.

The legislation gives Wilkie the option to make telehealth available to eligible homeless veterans, too. 

To help house more veterans, the bill calls on the Department of Housing and Urban Development and VA to work together to streamline the process and make sure veterans are able to use housing vouchers to find permanent shelter while also social distancing and loosens some restrictions aiming to get more veterans housed more quickly. 

Native veterans

The bill expands covered care for native vets during the pandemic, requiring VA and the Defense Department to reimburse Indian Health Services regardless of whether the eligible veteran received care from the IHS or a contracted health provider. 

VA employees

The bill includes a provision to provide emergency paid sick leave for Department of Veterans Affairs doctors and nurses if they're exposed or diagnosed with the virus, provide hazard pay for healthcare workers and first responders and guarantee federal employees who become ill from the virus are covered when filing a workers' compensation claim. 

So far, more than 1,300 VA employees have tested positive for the virus and at least 28 have died. 

Mental health care

National Guard and Reserve members deployed in support of COVID-19 missions for more than 14 days will be eligible for mental health services at VA Vet Centers.

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Are you a veteran, family member or VA employee dealing with the coronavirus? Contact Abbie Bennett: abbie@connectingvets.com or @AbbieRBennett. For secure communications, email abbierbennett@protonmail.com.

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