Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Veterans Rehabilitation and Training Improvements Act of 2009

Veterans Rehabilitation and Training Improvements Act of 2009
March 3, 2009
Congressional Record Statement of Senator Daniel K. Akaka

Mr. President, I am introducing today the proposed "Veterans Rehabilitation and Training Improvements Act of 2009." This measure would improve the program of rehabilitation and training for veterans who suffer from service-connected disabilities by offering an increase in the amount of subsistence allowances, reimbursing certain incidental costs, and repealing the limit on the number of individuals who may be enrolled in a program of Independent Living services.

Under current law, veterans who are enrolled in a program of rehabilitation under Chapter 31 receive a monthly subsistence allowance. This, in addition to the payment of the costs of the program of rehabilitation, is intended to offer the veteran a means of paying for basic living expenses while pursuing their training or education.

With the enactment of the new Post 9-11 GI Bill last year (P.L. 110-323) which adopted a tuition-and-fees plus a living allowance approach to the payment of benefits under the educational assistance program, I am concerned that there may be an inequity between the vocational rehabilitation and education programs and that individuals who would truly benefit from enrollment in a program of rehabilitation and employment under Chapter 31 will be tempted to enroll in the Chapter 33 education program in order to take advantage of the higher living allowance. Those who would make such an election might forgo valuable counseling, employment and placement, and other assistance from which they might benefit.

To address this concern, the measure I am introducing today would modify the Chapter 31 program by offering a subsistence allowance to enrollees equal to the national average for the Department of Defense's Basic Allowance for Housing (BAH) for members of the military at the E-5 level, adjusted for marital status. This is similar, although not identical to, the approach of the new chapter 33 program which adopted a regionalized BAH approach based on the address of the institution.

This is intended to help ensure that individuals who could best benefit from enrollment in the Chapter 31 program are not faced with a disincentive to do so.

With regard to the second issue, VA is permitted to pay certain costs associated with enrollment of an individual in a program of rehabilitation - for example, fees, equipment, and supplies. However, there are other costs that an individual might incur that are not covered by VA and these costs could represent a substantial barrier to the successful completion of a program. An example could be that of a single young mother with young children who - in order to attend classes - needs child care. Another example might be a veteran who lost both legs in service and needs a new suit in order to make the most favorable impression at the interview with a prospective employer.

Mr. President, the legislation I am introducing today would require VA to issue regulations providing for the reimbursement of incidental costs associated with obstacles that pose substantial barriers to successful completion of a program. I believe that this will substantially increase the ability of many individuals to finish their rehabilitation programs and be placed in rewarding jobs.

I also believe we need to repeal the cap on the number of individuals who may be enrolled in a program of Independent Living services under the Chapter 31 program. Current law provides that individuals for whom a determination is made that a program of rehabilitation leading to employment is not reasonably feasible may be eligible for enrollment in a program of independent living services which is designed to help the individual achieve a maximum level of independence in daily life. However, the number of veterans who in any one year may enroll in these programs is capped at 2,600.

Even though the VA has testified in the past that this enrollment cap does not present any problem for the effective conduct of the program, I remain concerned - despite the fact that last year Congress raised the cap from 2,500 to 2,600 in P.L. 110-389 - that the effect of the cap is to put downward pressure on VA's enrollment of eligible veterans in this very important program. This is of particular concern when so many of today's returning servicemembers suffer from disabilities that may require extensive periods of rehabilitation and assistance in achieving independence in their daily lives that can result from such conditions as traumatic brain injury or PTSD.

Disabled veterans are transitioning from military service into an economy that is changing, challenging, and contracting at historic rates. My bill will give these veterans more of the help they need by increasing program flexibility and boosting the living stipend for disabled veterans undergoing rehabilitation.

Mr. President, while there will be costs associated with this legislation, the veterans who are served by the chapter 31 rehabilitation and employment program are the highest priority for our Nation - individuals who have incurred service-connected disabilities in service to the country. This truly is one of the costs of war that must be borne.

I look forward to working with my colleagues in moving this legislation through the Congress.

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I look forward to the expansion of the ILP Program they do great things to make life better for totally disabled veterans.

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