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Veterans Policy and the Trump Administration

President Trump claimed he was “putting veterans first” this past Veterans Day—then his Administration went back to work rolling back critical protections for America’s veterans:

—The Administration is attempting to make it easier for banks that illegally foreclose on service members to avoid punishment. In October, the Trump Administration handed Wall Street another win by making it easier for banks to avoid rating downgrades under the Community Reinvestment Act (CRA). Breaking with past practice, the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC) will no longer downgrade a bank’s CRA rating by more than one level, regardless of how egregious its conduct. In addition, according to lawyers representing major financial firms, the OCC “will now limit downgrades” under the CRA, and if their reading is right, will now assign CRA ratings on the basis of a narrower set of consumer protection law violations. One such law: the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act (SCRA), which offers financial protections to active duty service members, including protection from foreclosure for a “grace period” when servicemembers arrive home and from property repossession without a court order.

SIDEBAR: Previously, banks that ignored SCRA protections for veterans have faced consequences under the CRA. For example, Wells Fargo recently received a double-downgrade due, in part, to SCRA violations for which the bank paid over $50 million to settle illegal foreclosures and automobile repossessions against service members. Because a poor CRA rating can prevent a bank from securing approval for branch expansion or business acquisitions, Bloomberg claimed Wells Fargo’s rating “threatens far reaching effects on the bank’s business.” The OCC’s new guidelines send a message to banks that they can violate the SCRA without having to worry about it affecting their CRA rating.

—President Trump eliminated requirements that federal contractors disclose violations of labor laws protecting veterans. The Vietnam Era Veterans’ Readjustment Assistance Act (VEVRAA) makes it illegal for federal contractors to discriminate against disabled veterans and recently separated veterans when making employment decisions. In 2014, President Obama signed an Executive Order requiring companies competing for federal contracts to disclose whether they violated VEVRAA and other labor laws protecting veterans. In March, President Trump revoked the E.O. without providing any justification for stripping veterans of its protections.

SIDEBAR: The theory behind the 2014 E.O. was simple: Not only should it be illegal for federal contractors to discriminate against veterans, as VEVRAA provides, but the federal government should also ensure new contracts are not awarded to companies that have previously violated labor laws. This was a significant problem. For example, a 2010 Government Accountability Office report found that almost two-thirds of the 50 largest wage-and-hour violations issued between FY 2005 and FY 2009 were at companies that went on to receive new government contracts. In rescinding the E.O. the Trump Administration no longer requires all companies to make such disclosures, meaning that billions of federal dollars will be awarded without these critical protections.

—President Trump made it harder to sue nursing homes that abuse or defraud veterans. In June, the Trump Administration reversed a 2016 rule designed to protect nursing home residents by banning the use of binding pre-dispute arbitration agreements in nursing homes. Such agreements are favored by the nursing home industry because they hide egregious violations from public scrutiny, allow corporations to avoid sympathetic juries, and result in average awards that are about 35% lower than if a case had gone to trial. Nearly half of military veterans are age 65 or older, making them particularly vulnerable to the poor and negligent conditions the rule was designed to guard against.

SIDEBAR: The 2016 rule was opposed, in part, by corporations that own long-term care facilities that serve veterans. In fact, one such corporation had consistently used pre-dispute arbitration agreements to keep seniors out of court.

—The Administration is making it easier for insurers to eliminate coverage for veterans suffering from mental health disorders. The VA is a worldclass health care provider, especially in the area of mental health. More than half of America’s veterans get their health care from outside the Veterans Affairs system. In part, that’s why the ACA decreased the number of uninsured veterans by 42% between 2013 and 2015. Medicaid expansion was a major driver in providing veterans access to care—but so were ACA subsidies for purchasing insurance on the individual market. For these veterans, the ACA helped ensure access to mental health care by requiring insurance plans offered through the marketplace to cover “essential health benefits,” including treatment for mental health disorders. But in October, HHS proposed a new rule that would allow states further leeway in designating what minimum essential health benefits insurers must cover, opening the door for insurers to offer plans that provide little to no coverage for veterans in need of mental and behavioral health services.

SIDEBAR: We did the math: As of 2015, roughly 260,000 nonelderly veterans were enrolled in marketplace plans. At a time when one-third of returning service members from Iraq and Afghanistan are experiencing mental health or cognitive issues, the last thing veterans need is the Trump Administration gutting access to important mental health coverage. But that’s exactly what they’re doing, and they’re doing it while simultaneously attempting to privatize, chronically understaff, and dismantle the VA.

—The Administration tried to dismiss a suit brought by Paralyzed Veterans of America to block the removal of protections for air travelers with disabilities. In November 2016, after five years of negotiations, the Department of Transportation issued a rule requiring airlines to report data on checked wheelchairs they break or lose during flights. The Wheelchair Rule, which was designed to help passengers with disabilities make informed travel choices, was set to take effect in January 2018 until an airline lobbyist asked the Trump Administration to block it. The Administration did exactly that—the same day the lobbyist asked.

SIDEBAR: According to Paralyzed Veterans of America, the group repeatedly attempted “to educate DOT officials on the importance of these protections, but were forced to sue to have them restored.” Now the Trump Administration is attempting to dismiss the suit and deny Paralyzed Veterans their day in court.

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