Congressman Bilirakis has always demonstrated an unwavering commitment to advocating on behalf of Veterans and their families in Congress. He has worked throughout his tenure to ensure veterans receive quality and timely services while promoting transparency and accountability throughout the VA.
Congressman Bilirakis has been a long-time advocate for the Veteran community and has always strived to work on a bipartisan basis to increase educational opportunities for Veterans. The Harry W. Colmery Veterans Educational Assistance Act, or the “Forever GI Bill,” was signed into law with Congressman Bilirakis’s strong support. It improved and extended GI benefits past the original 15 year timeframe. It contained a bill Congressman Bilirakis sponsored that modernizes the VA information technology systems. Unfortunately, the VA has not done a good job implementing this portion of the new law, but through consistent oversight on the Economic Opportunity Subcommittee, which Congressman Bilirakis previous served as the Lead Republican, the VA has been making progress. One additional change to the GI Bill happened through passage of Congressman Bilirakis’s SIT-REP Act, which holds the Veteran harmless for 90 days if the VA or institution is late in processing GI Bill payments to the school.
Congressman Bilirakis also introduced legislation signed into law which expands eligibility for the Fry Scholarship, which currently provides GI Bill benefits to surviving children and spouses of active duty Members who die in the line of duty. His bipartisan bill provides parity and expands the scholarship benefit to include Reservists and National Guard Members who die as a result of their service but not while on active duty.
Another legislative success by Congressman Bilirakis is enactment of the Ryan Kules Specially Adaptive Housing Improvement Act, which he authored. This law improves and expands the VA’s Specially Adapted Housing (SAH) Grant Program. This program provides grants to the nation’s most severely disabled Veterans. The Student Veteran Empowerment Act, also authored by Bilirakis and signed into law at the end of 2020 will protect student Veterans using the GI Bill from predatory practices of certain schools and restore benefits if a school closes mid-semester.
Veterans are still waiting far too long for the VA to process benefit applications. However, we have made some progress in recent years. Congressman Bilirakis was an original cosponsor of the Veterans Appeals Improvement and Modernization Act of 2017, which was signed into law. It is designed to streamline the process and get Veterans the benefits they have earned more quickly. Congressman Bilirakis is committed to continuing to work with his colleagues to streamline the Veterans appeals process even further. He is also glad to see the VA has made this issue a priority and is working to eliminate the number of legacy appeals as soon as possible.
The VA Committee held multiple implementation hearings to ensure the VA is on track to fully addressing its claims and appeals processing reforms. The Congressman has been pleased to learn that much of the backlog of legacy appeals was being worked down by the VA, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.
CHOICE Program/Community Care
Congressman Bilirakis was proud to cosponsor the VA MISSION Act, which became law in June 2018. The MISSION Act was fully implemented in June of 2020. This landmark bill made significant reforms and improvements to the Veterans Choice Program, which allows Veterans to seek private care when the VA can’t see them in a facility near their home in a timely manner. It is critical that we care for our Veterans and that they have the option to receive speedy and high-quality care from their local community providers. The VA MISSION Act streamlines and consolidates the Choice Program with other duplicative VA community care programs to create one new cohesive Veterans Community Care Program. Congressman Bilirakis was proud to support its passage and will continue to advocate for our Veterans’ health care needs.
There is still more work to be done to ensure that our Veterans receive the care and benefits to which they are entitled. Congressman Bilirakis is particularly concerned about the transition process for Veterans as they reintegrate into civilian life. Our nation spends at least six months preparing military personnel for their service and less than a week preparing them for successful transition. Congressman Bilirakis was an original cosponsor to the Navy SEAL Chief Petty Officer Bill Mulder Transition Improvement Act, which was signed into law in January of 2021. President Trump had also signed an Executive Order to help with the transition process, specifically granting mental health treatment for one year after a service member separates from the military. Congressman Bilirakis commended that action and believes it is a positive step in the right direction. It is essential to reduce the suicide rate among Veterans, and so many of the 20 veterans who commit suicide daily are within that transition window and thus are not yet eligible for VA care.
Congress also increased funding for local programs that assist with ending homelessness for Veterans and increasing suicide prevention initiatives in the most recently adopted budget. Congressman Bilirakis was proud to host an oversight hearing with his Democratic colleague and Subcommittee Chairman on the issue of Veteran homelessness here in New Port Richey in Pasco. It was a productive conversation to learn more about how to continue to reduce homelessness across our area. Congressman Bilirakis then worked with the VA Committee to make reforms to the Transition Assistance Program at the Department of Defense, enacting a portion of this bill in the National Defense Authorization Act. With the help of Congressman Bilirakis, Congress also created a more individualized process for servicemembers to undergo counseling and training for civilian life well before their discharge.
Veterans Suicide/Alternative Treatments
The VA, in coordination with the DoD, must do more to combat Veterans’ suicide. In particular, Congressman Bilirakis firmly believes that one size does not fit all when it comes to addressing Veterans mental health needs. The VA’s Whole Health Initiative, created in part by his PROMISE Act legislation, is beginning to integrate alternative therapies into the VA health care model, and he is hopeful that they will continue to examine additional integrative therapies that will help our Veterans mentally thrive.
Congressman Bilirakis is also greatly looking forward to reviewing the findings and recommendations of the COVER Commission, which was created by his bill, the COVER Act, in 2016, to establish a nonpartisan independent Commission to look at evidence-based, alternative therapies for PTSD and TBI mental health treatments. This Commission is instrumental in recommending new, non-drug and transformational integrative treatments for Veterans getting care at the VA.
Congressman Bilirakis also plans on reintroducing his VET CARE Act, to expand Veterans’ access to dental care, while saving the VA money. Many people do not realize that very few Veterans receiving health care through the VA qualify for dental care. Oral health is an important part of overall wellness and studies show that preventative dental treatment of patients with certain chronic illnesses provides long-term savings in health care costs for treating the medical illness. He hopes to demonstrate those potential savings in a pilot project that can be replicated for all Veterans in the years to come. The Health Subcommittee held a Legislative Hearing that included the VET CARE Act, and the VA Full Committee passed the bill unanimously out of markup in spring of 2020, but unfortunately the bill was held up by the Speaker. Congressman Bilirakis remains hopeful that this bipartisan bill can advance again this Congress.
Accessing the Veteran’s healthcare system is difficult for some of our Veterans who have been exposed to dangerous conditions during their service. Veterans who were exposed to toxic chemicals in burn pits during their deployments are battling illness. The VA has begun a database of exposed Veterans, but that does little to help those Veterans who are suffering now and need access to healthcare and compensation. This is especially heartbreaking given the fact that other federal agencies have already determined that exposure to many of the chemicals that were in burn pits and polluted air do contribute to many of the diseases with which these Veterans are being diagnosed.
To honor this commitment, Congressman Bilirakis introduced the Protection for Veterans’ Burn Pit Exposure Act, which would mandate a determination of presumption of service-connection for disability benefits at the VA for diseases discovered by the National Academies of Science & Medicine shown to have an association connected to toxic exposure. The National Academies are currently looking at the available valid medical research amongst our scientific federal agencies and educational institutions to develop these connections, and we must ensure we do our part to provide the benefits our Veterans have earned and deserve. Congressman Bilirakis has also been working with his Senate colleague, Senator Tillis, on the TEAM Act, which would provide a process for Veterans to access these disability benefits, and also provide them with VA healthcare in the meantime. Congressman Bilirakis strongly supports these efforts and will continue to work with his colleagues to provide burn pit-exposed Veterans the benefits they have earned.
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Contact: Summer Robertson 727-232-2921
Washington, DC: Congressman Bilirakis is proud to announce passage of his bill to extend eligibility for the Fry Scholarship to spouses and children of members of the National Guard and Reserve who died of service-connected causes but whose deaths did not occur when the member was on active duty. The Fry Scholarship provides Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits to the children and surviving spouses of servicemembers who died in the line of duty while on active duty on or after September 11, 2001. Originally filed as H.R. 2221, this provision passed the U.S.
Washington, D.C. – U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis (FL-12) reintroduced the Veterans Early Treatment for Chronic Ailment Resurgence through Examinations (VET CARE) Act, to require the Veterans Administration (VA) to put in place a four-year pilot program providing dental care for Veterans with certain chronic health conditions. Right now, dental care through the VA is limited to those who are 100% disabled or have a direct service connected injury.