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Legislation aims to promote access to VA health benefits

CHARLESTON, W.VA. -- Rep. Nick J. Rahall, D-W.Va., said Friday he has introduced legislation to make it easier for National Guard and Reserve members to access their Veterans Administration health benefits and services.

"Members of the Guard and Reserve are more likely than their active-duty counterparts to have their VA claims denied," Rahall said, speaking at the National Guard Armory in Welch on Friday,

"My bill aims to fix that by ensuring a proper medical examination before a reservist or guardsmen separates from the service, which will help to ensure parity between reserve and active-duty components."

Major Gen. Jim Hoyer said the new legislation "is something that we in the West Virginia National Guard support. This is also an issue at the national level. The National Guard Association supports it."

Hoyer said the new legislation "doesn't sound like much on its face. But the way the system is structured right now, a Guardsman who separates off from service does not get a separation physical unless somebody specifically has the money to order that."

Separation physical examinations are "the baseline used by the military and the VA. We have had individuals who have had health issues that could have been resolved more quickly by baseline physicals. They ought to have access to these physicals," Hoyer said.

The new Guard and Reserve Equal Access to Health Act will authorize any member of a National Guard Reserve to receive "an end-of-service physical" within 90 days of leaving the National Guard.

The GREAT Health Act also requires the Department of Defense to provide service members with copies of all records from their physical examinations.

Under current law, any member of a "Reserve Component" of the National Guard must be given orders to receive a physical before leaving the service. But the law requires all members of an "Active Component" to receive a separation physical.

Separation physicals, Rahall said, provide vital records for the VA to use in documenting a disability was connected to service in the National Guard. Those physicals should also identity many injuries that were not easily identifiable when reserve units were demobilized after returning from overseas missions.

Hoyer said, "When September 11, 2001 came, we didn't hesitate to call the National Guard for both domestic missions and overseas missions.

"Why would we not offer them the same opportunities to get the physicians they need to make sure they get the appropriate level of benefits when they leave?"

National Guardsmen, Hoyer stressed, who have played such a critical role in protecting national security since 9/11, "are one of the most cost-effective assets this nation has -- a third of the cost of the active [military] component.

"We are $17 trillion in debt and we've got to reduce the overhead costs for the Department of Defense."

Hoyer said one DOD financial official recently said half of his department's costs for fiscal year 2014 "will be personnel costs. So why would we not continue to foster reserves that are cost effective and give them the same rights and privileges that the other components have?

"This is an issue that is clearly important to the Guard and reserves. We appreciate, as always, when our members of Congress, our legislature, our governor and our elected officials at all levels -- and our citizens -- step up and support the National Guard's cause. These people go out and defend the country and the state. It is up to the citizens to defend them," Hoyer said.

Rahall said, "The men and women who volunteer to serve in the Guard and Reserve are given a medical examination to determine their eligibility for service.

"They should be afforded the same opportunity as their active-duty counterparts to document their physical condition and injuries upon leaving the service."

The Veterans of Foreign Wars, American Legion and National Guard Association have all endorsed Rahall's new legislation, which has been referred to the House Armed Services Committee. Reach Paul J. Nyden at pjnyden@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5164.


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