Legislative News is AUSA Government Affairs Directorate's
weekly electronic newsletter, and is published
every Monday when Congress is in session.
In this issue:
Wounded Warriors Hearing Held in Senate
Post-9/11 GI Bill Transferability Rules Explained
New Legislation Spotlight
Wounded Warriors Hearing Held in Senate
The care and treatment of wounded warriors and their families was the topic at a hearing before the Senate Armed Services Personnel Subcommittee last week.
Among the witnesses testifying was LTC Gregory Gadson, a double amputee who told the subcommittee, “Dealing with severe trauma is not easy.” He went on to say that those injuries affect the service member and family for years,and warned, “We don’t want to put families in a hardship situation.”
Kimberly Noss, whose husband, SFC Scott Noss, was severely injured in Afghanistan and remains minimally conscious at the VA’s polytrauma center in Tampa, Fla., said, “We [as a nation] were not prepared to take care of severely wounded warriors” for the likely remaining decades of their lives.
In cases similar to husband’s, Noss asked, “What will the future entail? They are non-employable, and their average age is 22.” They are probably married with a wife in her late teens “who is foregoing her education” to care for her husband. “A nursing home is not an option” for many. Noss added, “I do it because I love him.”
What the panel was looking for were specific recommendations in how to better care for the wounded warriors and their families in the short and long term.
Among the suggestions to the panel were: reimbursing family care givers in all instances, eliminating differences in TRICARE coverage between active and retired soldiers and ending concurrent receipt offsets.
Gadson, who was wounded two years ago, said that while he was at Walter Reed Army Medical Center but assigned to Fort Riley, Kan., his wife received $30 a day to help him bathe and dress himself and drive him to appointments.
Gadson testified that when the family officially was assigned to Walter Reed, the payments stopped because the care giver was now living in Washington. Yet “she had to quit her job” as a teacher in Kansas, losing years of continuing contributions to her own retirement. Even though the family was able to live off his pay because of his rank, “we lost about a third of our income.” Adding, “If I was at Fort Belvoir, she would never have gotten paid because she is here. …That person is no longer productive in society. It’s kind of a double whammy.”
Colleen Rivas, whose husband suffers from Traumatic Brain Injury, told the panel that until the hearing, she was not aware of any program which reimbursed families for caring for their wounded warriors. “We lived off his retirement pay and savings.”
That may change. Maj. Gen Keith W. Meurlin, USAF, Acting Director of Transition Policy and Care in the Defense Department, testified that the Pentagon will be sending Congress a proposal to have care givers, such as Gadson’s wife, be compensated at the rate home health care aides are in a locality.
In addition to reimbursement for care givers, Noss said, “I’m fighting to keep him on active duty” because TRICARE does not cover medically-retired veterans for cognitive rehabilitation. “He will lose some of his coverage.” At the same time, she had to file for guardianship of her ranger husband. “I have no income coming in and I have to account for every penny he receives.”
First Lt. Andrew Kinard, USMC, Ret., who also lost both legs, said, “The biggest item is case management.” During his time at Walter Reed, he had eight case managers handling different aspects of his recovery.
About to attend Harvard Law School, he said, “The burden of responsibility fell on me.” When asked why it was so cumbersome, Kinard said, “The sheer volume [of severely injured or ill with multiple courses of treatment] creates a diffusion of responsibility.” For him the coordination of care in the Department of Defense and between DoD and the VA was of critical importance.
LTC Raymond Rivas, USA, Ret., said, “We’re seeing a significant reduction in income.” He is now retired from the Army and from his civilian employment with the Army as well. But because he was a reservist and is not yet 60, the concurrent receipt law bars him from receiving disability compensation from the VA and the Army for his military service. With his kidneys failing, “I wonder if I will live long enough” to collect both, he stated.
Noss and Colleen Rivas praised the Special Operations Command’s program for wounded service members and their families. “They were there from Day 1,” Noss said, “from the most traumatic day of my life to graduating with my PhD.”
Randall Williamson, Director of Health Care at the Government Accountability Office, said Department of Defense and VA are making “good progress” in dealing with the 76 requirements specified by Congress in the wake of the problems of treating outpatients from Operations Enduring and Iraqi Freedom at Walter Reed.
The pilot Disability Evaluation System soon to be operating at 21 sites has reduced by 50 percent the time it takes to process a service member, but there needs to be careful analysis of how successful the program has been before it is being used across the board.
VA has set a goal of having a veteran receive his or her first check a month following separation.
“Electronic record sharing … remains a challenge,” Williamson said.
Part of that challenge is agreeing on definitions of common medical terminology – such as mental health. “It’s not easy,” Williamson said.
Roger Dimsdale, from the VA’s Office of Policy and Planning, said 45 terms were identified as needing agreed upon definitions and about 35 have been completed.
Williamson said that the GAO plans to do follow-on reports on the Federal Recovery Coordinator program for the catastrophically injured, and the Regional Care Coordinator program for those less severely injured or ill and the center for excellence in studying mental health and Traumatic Brain Injury.
“There are a lot of people trying to help. Sometimes, they are stepping on each other,” Gadson said.
Post-9/11 GI Bill Transferability Rules Explained
On May 1, the Department of Veterans’ Affairs started accepting and processing applications for the Post-9/11 GI Bill. The bill, passed by Congress last year, provides the most comprehensive educational benefit package since the original bill, officially called the Servicemen's Readjustment Act of 1944, was signed into law.
Many veterans, enlisted and officer, who served on or after Sept. 11, 2001, will be eligible for the cost of tuition and fees, not to exceed the most expensive in-state undergraduate tuition at a public institution. (The percentage of benefit is based on length of active duty service).
For the first time, those enrolled in the Post-9/11 GI Bill program will be able to transfer unused educational benefits to their spouses or children, a long-time goal of AUSA's.
Bob Clark, the Pentagon's Assistant Director for Accessions Policy, called the Post-9/11 GI Bill that takes effect Aug. 1, an important new benefit especially the transferability provisions. This long-sought-after provision is expected to be a boon for the military, Clark said, attracting and retaining the skilled force it needs. "The transferability is going to be a tool that will allow us to retain members who have earned that great benefit and share it with their family members and continue to serve," Clark said.
The rules for Post-9/11 GI Bill transferability are in the final stages, and Clark said the Defense Department expects few changes, if any.
In a nutshell, any enlisted or commissioned member of the armed forces serving on active duty or in the Selected Reserve on or after Aug. 1 will be eligible to transfer their benefits – as long as they qualify for the Post-9/11 GI Bill in the first place and meet specific service requirements, Clark explained.
He emphasized that, by law, anyone who has retired or separated from the service before that date – even if it's July 31 – won't be entitled to transfer their benefits. Also excluded will be members of the Individual Ready Reserve and Fleet Reserve.
Most service members who have at least six years of military service as of Aug. 1 and agree to serve an additional four years qualify, he said. But the Defense Department has proposed measures to cover several categories of service members whose circumstances don't fit neatly into this formula.
For example, those with at least 10 years of service – but who can't serve an additional four years because of a service or Defense Department policy –also would qualify, Clark said. They must, however, serve the maximum time allowed before separating from the military, he said.
"What we did not want to do was to penalize those people who had a service policy or statute that would not permit them to commit for the full four years," Clark explained.
Another Pentagon proposal would cover service members who will reach the 20-year service mark, making them retirement-eligible, between Aug. 1, 2009, and Aug. 1, 2013.
Clark explained the breakdown, which basically enables those affected to transfer benefits as long as they complete 20 years of service:
--Those eligible for retirement on Aug. 1, 2009, would be eligible to transfer their benefits with no additional service requirement.
--Those with an approved retirement date after Aug. 1, 2009, and before July 1, 2010, would qualify with no additional service.
--Those eligible for retirement after Aug. 1, 2009, but before Aug. 1, 2010, would qualify with one additional year of service after electing to transfer their Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits.
--Those eligible for retirement between Aug. 1, 2010, and July 31, 2011, would qualify with two additional years of service after electing to transfer.
--Those eligible to retire between Aug. 1, 2011, and July 31, 2012, would qualify with three additional years of service after electing to transfer.
The service member's 36 months of benefits – the equivalent of four nine-month academic years – could be transferred to a spouse, one or more children or any combination, Clark said. The family member must be enrolled in the Defense Eligibility Enrollment Reporting System to receive the benefits.
Service members also have the option to use some benefits themselves and transfer what they haven't used to one or more family members.
Even after transferring the benefits, they remain the "property" of the service member who earned them, who can revoke them or redesignate who receives them at any time.
For more details on the Post-9/11 GI Bill, visit the Defense Department website, www.defenselink.mil or the Department of Veterans’ Affairs, www.gibill.va.gov.
New Legislation Spotlight
Sens. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. introduced legislation that would give retired members of the National Guard and Reserve and their families eligibility to receive the TRICARE Standard health care benefits. The bill, S. 731, would provide “Gray Area” Retirees with health benefits.
Gray Area Retirees are those retired members of the National Guard and Reserve with 20 or more years of military service, who are eligible for military retirement pay and TRICARE Standard coverage at age 60, but who are not yet 60 years of age. Nelson and Graham’s legislation would allow eligible Reserve retirees who have not reached the age of 60 to access TRICARE coverage until age 60, by purchasing TRICARE Standard coverage for 100% of the premium.
In a press release, Sen. Nelson said, “The reserve components have undergone a significant transformation in the past 8 years from a Cold War-era strategic force to an operational force, manned and equipped to face both the traditional and asymmetric threats of the 21st century. The reserve components respond when unforeseen events require greater mobilization than the active duty can provide. Our reserve components are engaged in all fronts of our operations in Iraq and Afghanistan and now require greater vigilance on our part and delivery on our obligation to provide them with the care they require.”
“Guardsmen and Reservists are our nation’s citizen-soldiers,” said Sen. Graham. “They spend their entire careers balancing lives in the civilian and military worlds. The roles they play, both in their communities and in the defense of our nation, make their service unique. They are doing incredibly difficult jobs in the most trying of circumstances. They have earned increased benefits and it is important that Congress recognize and reward them for their service.
According to the Defense Department, as of December 31, 2008, there were 225,226 Gray Area Retirees nationwide which this legislation could potentially help get TRICARE coverage.
The Congressional Budget Office says the legislation would be nearly budget-neutral as the premiums paid by the beneficiaries would offset the costs.
Since September 11, 2001, 698,100 reservists have been activated. Currently, there are 123,843 National Guard and Reserve personnel activated and serving.