House panel votes to expand veterans' benefits

A House Veterans Affairs subcommittee passed a catchall bill to expand veterans' benefits Wednesday.

But Democrats on the panel, especially Rep. Vic Snyder, D-Ark., expressed concern that the Bush tax cut would make it difficult to pay for the additional benefits. Subcommittee Chairman Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, sympathized with the Democrats' concerns, but noted that the Bush Administration had requested a 12 percent increase in veterans' funding for 2002.

A Congressional Budget Office cost estimate for the bill was unavailable, but a committee aide indicated it would be "in the tens of millions per year."

The draft measure, cleared by the Benefits subcommittee on a voice vote, combines elements of seven separate pieces of legislation. The full Veterans Affairs Committee could mark up the legislation as early as next week, according to a committee aide.

The bill's first part would add diabetes mellitus (Type 2 diabetes) to the list of diseases that Vietnam veterans exposed to herbicides like Agent Orange could have contracted. This provision was originally H.R. 862.

The draft bill also expands the definition of undiagnosed illnesses for Persian Gulf veterans to include fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome, and chronic multisymptom illness. This is similar to H.R. 1406.

The panel's ranking Democrat, Rep. Silvestre Reyes of Texas, said 2,000 veterans have been denied assistance because chronic fatigue syndrome was not covered.

The legislation also authorizes the secretary of veterans affairs to protect the grant of service connection of a Gulf War veteran who participates in VA sponsored medical research.

The measure's second part provides a cost-of-living increase for payments to disabled veterans, and their dependents and survivors. The increase, which would be linked to the rise in Social Security payments, was contained in H.R. 2361.

The draft also makes adjustments in procedures at the United States Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims. The changes were apparently at the request of the Bush Administration, and were originally in H.R. 2359.

The final part of the measure allows the VA to pay unclaimed National Service Life Insurance and U.S. Government Life Insurance to alternative beneficiaries if the first beneficiary cannot be located in three years (also in H.R. 2359). It would also extend until 2005, a VA loan program on Native American trust lands, make technical changes in the language on loan assumption in loan documents, eliminate one requirement for Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims appeals, and establish a two-year pilot program for a national VA toll-free 1-800 number.

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