Wounded veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan who lost a limb or have been hospitalized for more than 21 days will automatically begin receiving temporary disability payments once they file a claim with the Department of Veterans Affairs, under a provision authored by Rep. John Hall, D-Dover Plains.
Until President Bush signed the legislation earlier this month, the VA had discretion whether to award a temporary benefit to veterans with obvious disabilities before all their paperwork was processed.
If the VA didn't exercise its authority to act, it meant newly discharged veterans had to wait months without any financial support.
For Hall, a member of the House Veterans' Affairs Committee, this provision in the Veterans' Benefits Improvement Act of 2008 is part of his effort to counter claims made by his Republican challenger, Iraq war veteran Kieran Lalor of Peeksill. The two are contesting the 19th Congressional District seat.
Lalor maintains that the freshman Democrat has not been an advocate for veterans.
The Hall-authored legislation also requires the VA to develop a plan for converting the existing paper-based system into an electronic one, compatible with medical records kept by the Defense Department to speed up claim processing.
The VA has 388,345 cases awaiting a decision on what percentage of a benefit to award individual veterans, with 81,398 of those cases more than 6 months old.
Lalor is downplaying Hall's legislative achievement, noting in an interview that the bill, packaged with other veterans' measures, passed the House and Senate unanimously last month.
"John Hall has, in my opinion, exploited veterans for his own political progress," Lalor said. He said his endorsement by the Veterans of Foreign Wars Political Action Committee shows he would be a better advocate for veterans.
"If you think about it, there are 29 members of the Veterans' Affairs Committee," Lalor said. "John Hall is the only one the VFW is actively working to defeat."
Hall downplayed the VFW PAC endorsement. "It's only natural for them to endorse a member who is a veteran," he said,
The endorsement, announced last month, could play a role in the outcome of the Nov. 4 election, given that the U.S. Military Academy at West Point is part of the 19th Congressional District, and veterans make up a significant voting bloc.
Lalor got the endorsement after making a pitch for support to Karl Rhode, legislative director of the state VFW and Putnam County director of Veterans for McCain.
Rhode said yesterday that he was one of about a half-dozen VFW activists who wrote to the national political action committee urging an endorsement of Lalor. None of the local VFW members wrote letters on Hall's behalf, he said. Rhode described Hall as having "zero knowledge" in veterans issues and faulted him for not forming a veterans advisory committee in his congressional district. He also pointed to Hall's opposition to a constitutional amendment that would outlaw flag burning and his opposition to the war in Iraq as evidence he is out of sync with positions held by most veterans.
Rhode acknowledged that the new law, to ease the ability of veterans to receive disability benefits, was a "good bill as far as it went," but said it did not go far enough.
Hall, for his part, said the legislation was endorsed by the American Legion and other veterans organizations. He took credit for pestering senators to take up the bill before Congress adjourned for the year.
Kerry Baker, assistant national legislative director for Disabled American Veterans, said his organization supported the legislation.
He also credited Congress for funding the hiring of thousands of new VA employees to handle disability claims, which along with the new legislation, should help reduce the backlog.
"I don't think this is going to solve all the problems," Baker said, adding that what's needed now is better training of the VA staff, because one in every eight claims is appealed.