WASHINGTON - In an effort to ensure America’s disabled veterans receive all of the care they need to make sure their lives are of the best quality, Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., along with Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., introduced in the Senate the Vulnerable Veterans Housing Reform Act of 2013. Similar legislation passed the House in October.

The act changes the way the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development calculates disabled veteran’s income, by subtracting their veterans’ pension from their income.

“For the most part, we’d like to keep our veterans in their homes as long as we can,” said Lonnie Wangen, commissioner of the North Dakota Department of Veterans Affairs. “This would be a little less expensive and have less chance of losing their property and savings.”

While the pension isn’t a very large amount, it can push some veterans over the line for qualifying for some state and federal housing assistance programs, such as utility allowance, Wangen said.

Allowing disabled veterans in need of aid and attendance - home health care - to stay in their homes keeps them out of VA housing, which in turn might make room for those more in need, Wangen said.

“If you can stay in your own home and be happy and be around your family, that’s probably the best,” Wangen said. “If you have no family around, moving to a home may be better because you’re going to be around other veterans, other people more often.”

Heitkamp was inspired to co-sponsor the bill after hearing stories from veterans across North Dakota this summer.

“It’s just trying to fix some of the VA rules and regulations that really limit access to adaptable housing for our returning veterans,” Heitkamp said. “What we’ve been trying to to here is really focus our attention … is trying to anticipate what the needs are of our returning vets and how we can better accommodate those needs.”

The technology and care available today has made it easier to recognize traumatic brain injuries and post traumatic stress disorder in veterans coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan, Heitkamp said. They are issues that have always been there, but that might have been missed in the past.

“I think those of us who grew up in rural communities who knew our neighbors very well, you could tell - I could tell you any - at least three men who came back from World War II who (suffered) serious damage from that war and never got treatment,” Heitkamp said. “In fact, one gentleman lived in a chicken coop in Mantador.

“That was a different time and we don’t want to go back to those times when we have homeless vets and we have veterans whose needs aren’t identified.”

The Vulnerable Veterans Housing Reform Act is just the beginning of veteran’s care reform. Heitkamp is also working to collect stories about other veterans’ needs that aren’t being met by current VA care, like darkening shades for burn victims.

“If we don’t live up to our commitments, if we don’t treat our veterans right, that is a national security risk,” Heitkamp said.

There is support in the Senate from both sides for the bill, Heitkamp said.

“I do believe this is a step in the right direction because it’s another tool in our toolbox to help our veterans,” Wangen said.

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