President Donald Trump signed legislation Saturday that will broaden options for troubled veterans in the legal system and expand a home renovations grant program for disabled and blind veterans.
The new Veteran Treatment Court Coordination Act directs the Justice Department to support the development and establishment of veterans treatment courts at the state, local and tribal levels.
At more than 400 veterans treatment courts across the U.S., vets with substance abuse issues or mental health conditions who commit nonviolent crimes may enter court-supervised medical treatment and get access to veteran-centric services and benefits in lieu of going to jail.
The law will encourage the development of a grant program to expand these courts across all 50 states.
"We've wanted this for a long time. They've been trying to get it for a long time, and now we have it," Trump said after signing the bill, proposed in the House by Rep. Charlie Crist, D-Fla., and in the Senate by Martha McSally, R-Ariz.
"With this new law, thousands more veterans across the country facing the criminal justice system will have an alternative to jail time, ensuring they get the treatment they need," Crist said in a statement following the signing ceremony.
"These courts have turned veterans' lives around in Arizona, and now they will be able to do the same for veterans across our nation," McSally said, also in a prepared statement.
The first veterans treatment court was established in early 2008 in Buffalo, New York. After noticing an increase in the number of veterans appearing in the city's drug and mental health treatment legal programs, Judge Robert Russell brought in veterans and Department of Veterans Affairs advisers to help create the specialty court.
Since 2011, the Justice Department has supported the development of veterans treatment courts, providing more than $25 million to states and localities.
Trump on Saturday also signed a law that will give more veterans access to VA grants to renovate their homes to accommodate their disabilities.
The Ryan Kules and Paul Benne Specially Adaptive Housing Act of 2019 expands the program to include blind veterans and raise the maximum funding veterans can receive from $83,000 to $98,000. The bill also will let eligible veterans access the funds six times, instead of three, and gives them access to the full amount every 10 years -- a provision that will let them change residences as their needs change.
At the start of the president's press conference Saturday, Trump sowed some confusion about which bills he had just signed, referencing two he often mentions in stump speeches: the VA Mission Act, which he consistently refers to as "VA Choice," and the VA Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act, which became law in 2018 and 2017, respectively.
"Before we begin, I've just signed two bills that are great for our vets. Our vets are special. We passed Choice, as you know -- Veterans Choice -- and Veterans Accountability," Trump said before extolling the benefits of those laws.
"We passed Choice ... they've been trying to get that passed for decades and decades and decades, and no president has ever been able to do it. And we got it done so veterans have Choice," he said. "And now you have accountability -- that if you don't love your vets, if you're in the VA and you don't love the vets or take care of the vets, you can actually get fired if you don't do your job."
The president then went on to talk about the treatment courts and adaptive housing laws before moving on to other subjects.
Trump consistently refers to the VA Mission Act as VA Choice -- the program established in 2014 by President Barack Obama to widen veterans' access to health care treatment from non-VA providers.
The legislation, the Veterans' Access to Care through Choice, Accountability, and Transparency Act, was created in response to a nationwide scandal over delays veterans encountered when making medical appointments -- for months and sometimes years -- and secret waiting lists kept by some VA facilities to hide the scope of the problem.
The VA Mission Act, signed by Trump in 2018, replaced the Veterans Choice Program and gave more veterans access to private health care paid for by the VA.
The legislation also broadened the VA's caregiver program to include disabled veterans who served before Sept. 11, 2001 -- an expansion that will begin in October -- and ordered the department to inventory its 1,100 facilities with an eye to closing or selling outdated or excess buildings.
At the end of Saturday's press conference, a reporter asked why Trump "keeps saying [he] passed 'Veterans Choice,'" when it was "passed in 2014."
Trump told the reporter she was "finished," and he abruptly ended the press conference.
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