INDIANAPOLIS — A Senate committee approved legislation Tuesday that aims to better help veterans in need by stripping the Indiana Department of Veterans Affairs of its authority to grant Military Family Relief Fund benefits to its own employees.
With an 8-0 vote, the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs and the Military advanced House Bill 1257, which would bar IDVA from approving applications for the agency’s own workers.
“We don’t want anyone working at IDVA to approve their own or a friend’s application,” said Rep. Randy Frye, R-Greensburg, author of House Bill 1257.
The Indiana Veterans’ Affairs Commission would have to approve applications from IDVA employees, according to the legislation.
Frye filed the legislation after Call 6 Investigates found employees within the Indiana Department of Veterans Affairs received benefits from the Military Family Relief Fund, above the fund’s $2,500 limit, as the agency denied other veterans.
Frye called the bill “putting up guard rails” to better structure the Military Family Relief Fund and hopefully prevent misuse of the fund, which is generated from military license plate revenue.
Frye’s bill would cap the amount any qualified service member can receive at $2,500.
Under House Bill 1257, for a veteran to receive more than $2,500, the commission would have to consider the request.
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“We don’t want anything unfair or inconsistent,” Frye told the Senate committee.
Frye’s legislation would also expedite the appeals process to 7-10 days rather than the months many veterans currently wait.
“It makes the appeals process much quicker, and we wanted it to be a timely action,” said Frye. “When folks come to the Military Family Relief Fund for assistance, they needed it yesterday and they can’t wait for 60 days or 90 days.”
The state’s new IDVA director Dennis Wimer testified in support of the bill, as well as several veterans.
The Military Family Relief Fund can be used for food, transportation, utilities, housing, medical services and other needs.
Veterans Lisa Wilken and Brigadier General James Bauerle said while House Bill 1257 is a “great start,” they believe more work needs to be done to prevent abuse of the Military Family Relief Fund.
Wilken and Bauerle are pushing for an amendment that would bar a veteran’s spouse and children from receiving benefits from the fund.
“My husband and children are eligible, so that’s $10,000 that my family would be eligible for, and that’s not the intent of the law,” said Wilken.
“This is a benefit for veterans, not for anybody in the family,” said Bauerle. “You could have a 42-year-old daughter like I have, and she could apply for the benefit, so that’s not right.”
Bauerle is also working with lawmakers on an amendment that would eliminate food as a benefit through the Military Family Relief Fund.
“We have so many organizations that provide food, and I think IDVA should direct them to a food pantry if they need the food now,” said Bauerle. “I’m suspicious when someone says they need money for food. Is that in the liquor section of the store or the milk section of the store?”
Bauerle pointed to previous misuse of the fund as a reason to tighten the reins on the Military Family Relief Fund.
House Bill 1257 now goes on to 2nd reading, and then to the full Senate for consideration.
If approved by the legislature it would take effect July 1.
Veterans are also pushing for the state to broadcast the Indiana Veterans’ Affairs Commission meetings online.
New IDVA director Dennis Wimer said they’re working on broadcasting the April 5 meeting in South Bend.
A recent audit criticized the Indiana Department of Veterans Affairs because it did not have sufficient internal controls over the Military Family Relief Fund, including no procedures to approve awards over the $2,500 lifetime maximum.
The Indiana Department of Veterans Affairs administers the fund, and it says on their website that veterans and their families can get up to $2,500.
“Grants up to $2,500 may be awarded,” read the website. “The qualified individual or family member can receive up to $2,500 one time from the Family Relief Fund.”