Bills Would Expand VA House Renovation Program for Disabled Veterans

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  • Retired Army Capt. Ryan Kules and his family. (Courtesy of Ryan Kules)
    Retired Army Capt. Ryan Kules and his family. (Courtesy of Ryan Kules)
  • Retired Army Capt. Ryan Kules. (Courtesy of Ryan Kules)
    Retired Army Capt. Ryan Kules. (Courtesy of Ryan Kules)

Retired Army Capt. Ryan Kules was just 24 when his Humvee rolled over an improvised explosive device in Taji, Iraq.

The blast on Nov. 29, 2005, killed two soldiers -- Sgts. Jerry Mills and Donald Hasse -- and upended Kules' life, taking his right arm and left leg and breaking nearly every bone in his body.

Having just celebrated his first wedding anniversary in Iraq, he spent the second recovering at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., with his wife Nancy.

When Kules medically retired two years later, the couple bought a home and started a family. With a grant from a little-known benefit at the Department of Veterans Affairs known as the Specially Adapted Housing (SAH) program, the Kules widened the hallways of their ranch house, installed ramps, revamped the kitchen and changed bathrooms to accommodate a wheelchair.

But the renovations weren't cheap: Despite watching their budget, the Kules spent $100,000, $36,000 more than SAH covered at that time.

This year, to accommodate their growing family, the Kules are moving, and their new house needs similar renovations. Having used the maximum allowed under the SAH grant, however, the couple will pay the estimated $90,000 for the changes out of pocket.

"One of the unfortunate realities I have to face is that while I'm pretty active [now] and get around pretty well ... I know that's not always going to be the case," Kules said. "There may be a time when I have to transition into a power wheelchair."

Related: Specially Adapted Housing Program Must Expand to Meet Vets’ Needs

Kules is among the veterans fighting to expand the SAH program to give seriously injured service members more flexibility in deciding where they live. His name is on proposed legislation that would expand the SAH grant program to meet the changing housing needs of severely disabled veterans.

The Ryan Kules Specially Adaptive Housing Improvement bill, introduced last month in the House by Rep. Gus Bilirakis, R-Florida, and co-sponsored by Rep. Mike Levin, D-California, would increase the number of times veterans could tap into the program and give access to the full amount every 10 years.

A similar measure was introduced in the Senate on Wednesday by Sens. Jerry Moran, R-Kansas, and Kyrsten Sinema, D-Arizona.

"Many veterans carry wounds from their service that make everyday life more challenging," Sinema said in a news release.

"That is why our bill is so important; it breaks down barriers and helps veterans access the specially adaptive housing benefits they've earned."

Under the current program, veterans who have lost at least two limbs to amputation can access funds up to three times to pay for housing renovations to accommodate their needs.

The current cap on these grants is $83,000 per veteran. The proposed legislation would increase that cap to $98,000 per veteran and allow eligible veterans to access the pool of grant money up to six times.

The bill would also allow the VA to determine who is eligible for the program and expand the number of grants available each year from 30 to 120.

The number of veterans who have used the program isn't large -- 1,926 in fiscal 2017, up from 1,709 in fiscal 2015 -- but for those who need it, SAH grants are life-changing, Kules said.

"Peace of mind is what it's about ... just knowing that wherever we choose to live, just like anybody else would want that flexibility, we would have that opportunity," he said during a meeting with reporters Wednesday in Washington, D.C.

The Congressional Budget Office has not issued a "score," or cost, for the measure, but Wounded Warrior Project Legislative Director Derek Fronabarger estimated it to be $120 million over 10 years. It would be paid for with a temporary increase in VA home loan funding fees, he added.

Moran and Sinema's bill is named for retired Army Col. Paul Benne, who retired after 23 years and was rated 100% disabled, the result of a medical condition that requires him to use a wheelchair. Benne also has used the SAH grant.

"This legislation will serve veterans who may need similar assistance to that received by Colonel Benne by expanding SAH eligibility qualifications for seriously ill or injured veterans," Moran said in a news release. "This modernized and expanded grant program will allow veterans to utilize vital SAH grants in a way that best fit their needs."

-- Patricia Kime can be reached at Patricia.Kime@Military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @patriciakime.com.

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