The 116th Congress passed a significant amount of legislation in 2020 addressing economic, education, employment, and health care matters for service members, veterans, and their families, including new or expanded benefits for guardsmen and reservists. We’ve gathered all the must-know information below.
Medical coverage for COVID-19 response missions
The FY2021 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) enacted a provision ensuring the presumption of service-connected contraction for military members who test positive for the coronavirus within 14 days of the completion of duty in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The NDAA also provides six months of transitional medical coverage for guardsmen and their families after the end of Title 32 coronavirus response missions. Guardsmen have long received transitional coverage after overseas assignments to cover any medical issues resulting from their service, but this has not previously been the case for a domestic mission.
And the NDAA wasn’t the only legislation that addressed COVID-19-related mitigation for veterans and their families. For example, H.R. 748 provides increased oversight of state veterans homes due to COVID-19 concerns, including infection mitigation, and required staffing levels.
Federal employment protection for guardsmen on state active duty
Federal employment protections and reemployment rights under the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA) have been extended to guardsmen who serve at least 14 days of state active duty or who are mobilized to respond to a national emergency or natural disaster. Previously, there were no federal job protections for state active duty, so this is a significant change.
Expect to hear more about protections for the reserve component under USERRA, especially concerning housing, consumer rights, and payday lending. Especially because H.R. 8354 established the Servicemembers and Veterans Initiative Act within the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice, which aims to increase awareness of protections under USERRA and Service Members Civil Relief Act and will examine whether further legislative or regulatory actions are needed.
Maternity leave for National Guard and reserves
Maternity leave has been available to pregnant and postpartum women on active duty since 2016 but not to members of the reserve component, until now. Drill-status women are now eligible for 12 weeks of paid maternity leave for those drill days or assemblies they would otherwise be required to attend. Significantly, they will also receive retirement points for the activities and drill days they miss while they are on maternity leave.
VA and healthcare
More is likely coming on women’s health services at the VA, and VA infertility services, as improvements and data collection were among the legislative initiatives enacted in 2020. For example, the VA is now required to cover the cost of emergency transportation of newborns for VA-eligible members of the reserve component.
One significant expansion of services at VA facilities for veterans is making counseling available for survivors of military sexual trauma (MST). Previously, only current members of the National Guard or reserves could receive counseling for MST. The same provision also allows the VA to treat physical health conditions arising from MST, not just mental health conditions.
Along with an increase in the availability of telehealth services (H.R. 748), legislation also detailed required improvements by the VA to their mental health care and suicide prevention programs (S. 785). No less than five other pieces of legislation passed highlighted a focus on VA system improvements, particularly increasing access to services and treatment.
Student veteran education benefits
H.R. 748 extends protections for student veterans if COVID-19 negatively impacts their studies, including deferment of student loans. This legislation also established a refund of GI Bill benefits for students hurt by school closure. For guardsmen and reservists using their GI Bill benefits, S. 3503 now requires the VA to treat educational programs converted to distance learning because of emergencies and health-related situations as equal to education programs pursued in person at approved institutions.
Expansion of VA loan eligibility
The Johnny Isakson and David P. Roe, M.D. Veterans Health Care and Benefits Improvements Act of 2020, signed into law by the president on Jan. 5, expands VA loan eligibility to more guardsmen and their families. This legislation provides that service under Title 32 (federally funded but under state control) counts toward eligibility for VA-guaranteed mortgage loans. The program’s threshold is 90 cumulative days on Title 32, with at least one period of 30 consecutive days.
Before this legislation, guardsmen qualified for a VA-guaranteed mortgage loan only if they had mobilized under Title 10 for 90 consecutive days or had six years of total service.
Military spouse licensing and MYCAA eligibility
2020 saw legislative reforms to some of the military spouse employment programs and initiatives. One significant legislative move adapted the portability of occupational licenses held by military spouses. Congress directed the DOD to negotiate interstate compacts that will allow for the designation of a “home state” for the purposes of licensing (NDAA FY 2021 Sec. 575) and an increase in maximum reimbursement of spouse re-licensing costs due to PCS to $1000 (Sec.577). These reimbursements are open to members of the National Guard and reserves on Title 10 PCS orders to a new state.
MyCAA is a program that provides a tuition grant for spouses of members on active duty orders. As a result of the FY2021 NDAA, eligible spouses can now receive financial assistance for the pursuit of a license, certification, or associate degree in any career field or occupation, and they can now maintain their eligibility even after the service member’s promotion to an otherwise ineligible rank (Sec. 576 & 580F). Finally, MyCAA has expanded eligibility to include Coast Guard members, pending Coast Guard reimbursing the DOD (Sec. 580G).
Fry Scholarship eligibility for Gold Star families
The Fry Scholarship provides educational funding for the children and spouses of troops who died on or after Sept. 11, 2001, as a result of their military service. The Fry Scholarship has provided educational opportunities to many Gold Star families. However, reserve component spouses were not always eligible. As a result of legislative changes in 2020, the Fry Scholarship’s eligibility no longer requires that the death occurred while on federal active duty, which means that deaths that occur on weekend drills and other training are now included. So, too, do those that result from a service-connected disability from the National Guard or reserves.
This article focuses on those legislative changes that will most impact reserve component members, veterans, and their families. However, the list of legislation passed by the 116th Congress far exceeds what is discussed here. Look out for more changes to VA services, COVID-19 mitigation, and the FY22 NDAA proposals coming soon.