The Act provides expanded health care and support benefits to veterans and homeless veterans, much of which would be implemented at the discretion of the Secretary of Veterans Affairs, Robert Wilkie. But the legislation contains no new appropriations of funds. Instead it states that the Secretary “may use amounts appropriated or otherwise made available” elsewhere to the Department of Veterans Affairs, or (as in the case with providing accommodations for homeless veterans) may access VA revolving funds.
Veterans Medical Care
Under Sec. 80005 of the Act eligible veterans could receive any emergency treatment at non-VA facilities at no cost and without seeking prior authorization. This benefit would be retroactive to cover any emergency treatment during the COVID-19 emergency period.
Sec. 80014 of the Act ensures that veterans unable to cover the costs of necessary healthcare due to unemployment or the loss of private health insurance during the 12-month period following the enactment date of this Act and are below a certain income level would receive free VA hospital care and medical services. The Act also limits “out of pocket” expenses for veterans. Veterans receiving VA preventive services for COVID-19 or hospital or medical services to treat the virus would not have to pay copayments or other cost sharing for their care. [Sec. 80003, Sec. 80015]
Benefits for Homeless Veterans
Sec. 80006 of the Act permits the Secretary to provide homeless veterans with any assistance deemed necessary including food, shelter, basic supplies (such as clothing, blankets, and toiletry items), transportation, and communications equipment capabilities (such as smartphones, disposable phones, and phone service plans). The Department could use VA parking facilities as temporary shelter locations for homeless veterans and partner with other organizations to manage sleeping facilities on VA property. The Act specifically does not obligate the VA to provide homeless veterans with “outdoor equipment necessary for sleeping” on VA property. While the language is somewhat opaque, presumably, this means that homeless veterans looking to sleep at VA parking facilities or elsewhere on a VA campus must bring their own sleeping bags or tents. This seems in jarring dissonance with the fact that the Secretary is specifically authorized to provide “shelter” and “blankets”.
The Act also gives the VA Secretary discretion to fund additional housing and services provided to homeless veterans, and to waive inspections and life safety code requirements to quickly identify sites suitable for habitation or promote social distancing or isolation needs.
Sec. 80007 of the Act requires public housing agencies participating in the “HUD–VASH” rental assistance program to prevent veterans exposure to the COVID-19 virus by developing application processing procedures that do not require in-person contact or identity verification by social security number or photo ID when government office closures prevent confirmation by these means. It also allows waiving requirements for housing quality standard inspections of rental units receiving HUD-VASH assistance.
Under Sec. 80004 of the Act, homeless veterans with dependent minor children would receive a 50 percent increase in their current cost of care per diem.
Other Veterans Provisions
Sec. 80012 of the Act provides a grace period for repayment of certain VA loans or accrual of interest without penalty until 60 days after the end of the COVID–19 emergency period. Sec. 80013 extends the deadlines for making certain VA benefit claims and appeals for the duration of the COVID–19 emergency plus an additional 90 days. And under Sec. 80016, the Act also expands access to VA center services to any individual who is a veteran or member of the Armed Forces (including the reserve components), who, in response to the COVID-19 emergency, performs active service or State active duty for a period of at least 14 days.
One very unusual provision [Sec. 80001-80002] has to do with compensation for top VA staff caught our eye and stopped us in our tracks. Under the Act the Secretary is given authority to waive salary limits of certain current “high-level employees and officers” hired after November 1, 2010. In fact, this is not what it appears to be on its face. The provision is a technical correction clarifying a conflict in the law that caused senior VA health care leaders to be paid at a rate above a statutory pay cap for over 10 years.
Service Member Benefits
Division H (Sec. 80008-80011) also provides financial protections for active duty servicemembers, their dependents, and members of the Reserve and National Guard from liability for certain costs of living incurred during the COVID-19 emergency period. Servicemembers who receive permanent change of station orders or long-term temporary duty assignments (greater than 90 days) who enter into residential rental agreements, but who’s reassignment is either cancelled or significantly delayed due to a “stop movement” order are generally not responsible for any more than two months of rent on their new residence. It allows service members to cancel vehicle leasing contracts or new contracts for telephone, cable tv and internet services without penalty, and extends the protections regarding communications technologies to spouses or dependents of military personnel or members of the reserve components in certain circumstances. The Act also provides similar protections to servicemembers or members of the National Guard or Reserve serving full-time who experience “catastrophic injury or illness” as a result of military service.