September 11, 2008 – The House of Representatives gave final approval Wednesday to a veterans’ cost-of-living adjustment bill, sending it to the White House for President Bush’s signature and setting the stage for what could be major relief for thousands of service members and veterans who are facing escalating mortgage payments.
The House also passed a bill that would allow some veterans in highly rural areas to get health care from non-VA facilities.
The COLA bill, S 2617, provides for a Dec. 1 increase in disability compensation, dependency and indemnity compensation, and pensions that will match whatever increase is provided in Social Security benefits. The increase, which applies to about 2.8 million veterans and survivors, would first appear in January paychecks.
The Social Security increase won’t be known until mid-October, but is expected to be a minimum of 6 percent. The Social Security COLA automatically applies to military and federal civilian retired pay, but veterans’ disability and survivor benefits and pensions increase only through the enactment of new legislation.
The Senate passed the veterans’ COLA measure in July.
The House also passed HR 6832, a measure that approves construction and leasing for veterans facilities. It also extends expiring programs and expanded refinancing rules under the veterans’ home loan program in a way that could help service members and veterans with adjustable-rate mortgages or other high-interest mortgages.
It does this by making two changes in VA loan rules. First, it removes a requirement for a homeowner to have at least 10 percent equity in a home in order to refinance. Allowing 100 percent loans – those where the loan matches the total value of the house – makes it easier for people whose homes have not increased in value to still refinance.
Second, it allows refinancing of loans up to the maximum guaranty for a new home purchase. Under current law, refinancing is limited to loans of about $144,000, but the bill allows loans up to $417,000 in most areas, and up to $729,000 in high-cost areas.
Rep. Bob Filner, D-Calif., the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee chairman, has been pushing for the changes in refinancing rules, arguing that VA’s loan program is so restrictive that it has been of little help to veterans.
The House bill would help veterans who are pinched but are not in severe financial troubles, because qualifying for refinancing through VA would still require meeting credit standards.
HR 6832 has not passed the Senate, which means the refinancing changes and the construction, lease and program extensions in the bill are far from final.
The Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee has been working on its own home loan legislation. S 3023, passed by the committee in June, includes provisions sponsored by Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, that would raise the refinancing loan limit, similar to the increase in the House bill, but limits the homeowner to borrowing 95 percent of the assessed value, requiring at least 5 percent equity.
The rural veterans’ bill, HR 1527, creates a pilot project aimed at veterans who are 60 miles or more from the nearest VA primary care facility, 120 miles from the nearest VA acute care hospital or 240 miles from the nearest VA facility providing specialty care. They would be allowed to receive treatment at government expense at the nearest non-VA clinic or hospital, with VA also filling prescriptions ordered by non-VA doctors.
The bill, sponsored by Rep. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., is one of several measures pending in Congress that tries to expand the reach of VA care after complaints, including many from Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans who were mobilized National Guard and Reserve members, about the difficulty of getting care for service-connected health problems.
“Despite our best efforts, the reality is that some veterans live in remote areas beyond VA’s ability to construct medical facilities to care for them,” Moran said. “Too often, the distance means rural veterans are foregoing the trip to the VA.”