(BOSTON–1/23/2024) Today, Senator Brady and his colleagues on the Joint Committee on Veterans Services and Federal Affairs heard testimony from the veterans community on Governor Maura Healey’s HERO Act, as well as other legislation relative to veterans.
An Act Honoring, Empowering and Recognizing Our Service members and Veterans (HERO Act) will have positive impacts for hundreds of thousands of veterans living in Massachusetts, including nearly 30,000 women veterans and thousands of LGBTQ+ veterans. This historic legislation marks the first time in 20 years that a Massachusetts Governor has specifically introduced a comprehensive and expansive legislative package dedicated to the welfare of veterans.
“This historic legislation, the first of its kind in two decades, will positively impact hundreds of thousands of veterans in Massachusetts, addressing critical areas such as behavioral health treatment, benefits for disabled veterans, and support for businesses hiring veterans,” said Senator Michael D. Brady (D-Brockton). “I applaud Governor Healey’s commitment to revitalizing veterans’ services, and I look forward to working with our legislative partners on this transformative bill.”
Some key provisions of the legislation include expanding access to behavioral health treatment, increasing benefits for disabled veterans, bolstering support for businesses that hire veterans, updating the definition of a veteran, expanding the scope of the Veterans Equality Review Board, initiating a pilot program for LGBTQ+ couples denied IVF reimbursement by the Veterans Health Administration, and codifying medical and dental benefits.
The HERO Act encompasses 17 spending, policy initiatives, tax credits, and statute changes organized into three categories:
- Expands access to Behavioral Health Treatment: Allows veterans to be reimbursed for visits to outpatient behavioral health providers.
- Increases the Disabled Veteran Annuity: Increases the annual annuity for veterans with a 100% service-connected disability, surviving spouses, or Gold Star Parents from $2,000 to $2,500.
- Increases the Vet-Hire Tax Credit: Increases to $2,500 a tax credit for small businesses hiring chronically unemployed or low-income veterans. Eligible veterans include those receiving SNAP benefits, chronically unemployed veterans, and unemployed service-connected disabled veterans.
- Increases access to the Active-Duty Buyback program: Lengthens the timeframe for veterans in public service to participate in the Active-Duty Service Buyback program and allows retroactive participation for veterans who missed the buyback opportunity. This program will enable veterans to purchase up to four years of active-duty service time toward their state retirement.
- Prevents the “COLA Cliff”: Ensuring that a cost-of-living adjustment in Social Security benefits will not affect veterans’ eligibility for Chapter 115 benefits in the middle of the state fiscal year.
- Increases Local Flexibility for Veterans Property Tax Exemptions: Creates two separate local options. The first allows municipalities to double the veteran property tax exemption without doubling all other exemption clauses. The second ties the annual property tax abatement amount to inflation, allowing exempted property tax amounts to increase with inflation.
- Eliminates the Fee for Specialty License Plates for Veterans: Waives specialty license plate fees on specialty veteran license plates and creates a new woman veteran license plate decal.
Commitment to Inclusivity and Greater Representation
- Broadens the Chapter 115 Definition of Veteran: Aligns the state Chapter 115 program definition of a veteran with the United States Department of Veteran Affairs definition. This change allows more veterans to be eligible for annuity, Chapter 115 benefits, access to the Massachusetts Veterans Homes, and other state-provided benefits. This only applies to EOVS programs and does not affect any other agency or entity.
- Expands the Scope of the Veterans Equality Review Board (VERB): Expands the scope of the Board beyond ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ discharges to include discharges related to Military Sexual Trauma, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, Traumatic Brain Injury, mental health conditions, or HIV discharges.
- Expands the definition of a veteran dependent: Expanding the Chapter 115 definition of “dependent” to support more dependents based on the Family Court definition.
- Updates Dependent Residency Requirements to Align with Current Practices: Updating dependent residency requirements to align with current practices.
- Implements IVF Reimbursement for Same-Sex Couples Denied Reimbursement by VA: Launching a pilot program to provide IVF reimbursement to affected veterans while establishing a working group to explore long-term solutions in response to the federal policy excluding same-sex couples.
Modernization of Veterans Services
- Codifies Dental Assistance Benefits: Ensuring veterans receive essential dental care by codifying dental benefits for Chapter 115 recipients.
- Codifies Medical Assistance Benefits: Providing consistent care to veterans by codifying medical assistance benefits.
- Codifies Authority for Veterans Cemeteries: Ensuring proper management and care of veterans cemeteries by codifying the authority for EOVS to continue administering and maintaining the state’s two Memorial Veterans Cemeteries.
- Modernizes statute language for inclusivity and standardization: Revise Chapters 115 and 115A to ensure gender-neutral and inclusive language while removing antiquated references.
- Initiates a Study on the Use of Alternative Therapies for Veteran Mental Health Disorders: Establishing a working group to study the potential benefits of alternative therapies, such as psilocybin, in treating veterans suffering from mental health disorders.
The bill will need to be voted out of committee before it can go before the legislature for a vote.