29 April 2014 Legislative News Update 

4/29/2014 

weekly electronic newsletter, and is published
every Monday when Congress is in session.




In this issue:

  • We're Hearing:

★★★
 

WE’RE HEARING:

--that Congress’ return from a two-week recess spells the beginning of a busy hearing season.  Army leaders will testify on their portion of the fiscal 2015 defense budget before the Senate Defense Appropriations Subcommittee on Wednesday.  In addition to the Secretary of the Army and the Army Chief of Staff, leaders from the National Guard Bureau, Army Reserve and Army Guard Bureau are also testifying.

Controversy had bubbled in recent weeks about the Army’s plan to retire its fleet of Kiowa Warrior scout helicopters and replace them with the Guard’s Apaches.  In return, the Guard would receive several hundred Black Hawk and Lakota multi-use helicopters.  The Army also plans to reduce the size of the Army Guard to 335,000 soldiers from the current level of 352,000.  If budget caps remain in place for fiscal 2016 and beyond, the Army Guard would get as small as 315,000.

According to a CQ report, a growing number of lawmakers are quietly pushing back against National Guard leaders who oppose the Army’s cost-cutting proposals and who are storming the Hill to rally support.  Lawmakers are suggesting that the Guard must bear at least some of the burden of the Pentagon’s budget cuts.

The CQ report continued, “With its presence in every state and U.S. territory, the National Guard is a perennial lobbying powerhouse on Capitol Hill that has benefited from billions of dollars in congressional add-ons and new policies that give the force greater authority over its own affairs.

“But there is a growing sense on Capitol Hill that tasking Congress to shield the Army Guard from cuts even as the rest of the military makes painful decisions to adhere to mandated budgetary caps is simply too much.

“The Army is making budget-driven decisions and they made a strong, good-faith effort to inflict the cuts pretty equally across the active and guard components,” said a Senate aide who has been tracking the issue closely.”

In a recent hearing, the National Guard Bureau chief, Gen. Frank Grass told lawmakers that “As a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, we have fought, and we have discussed many, many times, these topics.  And I provided my best military advice.  I’ve assessed the risk.  I’ve given the cost.  But the decision’s been made,” he said. “And my job now is to begin to look at the effects across the states, and figure out how we’re going to execute this plan.”

It is still unclear if Congress will allow the Army’s plan to proceed.  However, this week’s markup of the defense authorization bill by the House Armed Services subcommittees should shed some light.

Also meeting this week is the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee who will examine an emerging problem of overmedicating veterans. 

A records request of VA data by CBS last September revealed that while the number of patients at the VA had risen by just 29 percent in the last 11 years, narcotics prescriptions written by VA doctors and nurse practitioners rose 259 percent.

Shortly thereafter, a report by the Center for Investigative Reporting found that the number of VA prescriptions for four major opiates – hydrocodone, oxycodone, morphine and methadone – had spiked by 270 percent in the past 12 years.

--that the Military Construction/Veterans’ Affairs spending bill will hit the House floor this week.  The measure provides $71.5 billion in discretionary funding – a cut of $1.8 billion below the fiscal year 2014 level.  The reduced funding is in line with the President’s budget request. 

The report accompanying the bill stated that while the Defense Department acknowledged the budget reduction in the military’s construction program assumed some risk, the Services chose to take the risk in order to protect readiness accounts.  The report stated that, “The Services also noted that many factors are currently under review, such as force structure and European basing, which may impact construction needs.  The Committee, while concerned by the reduction, acknowledges the merit of these issues.  The Committee also acknowledges that the success of the Housing Privatization Program has dramatically reduced the need for family housing construction.  Additionally, Congress has provided substantial funding in recent years through BRAC construction projects in excess of $24,000,000,000 and through funding initiatives for Guard and Reserve construction, barracks, hospitals and schools.”

--that a Government Accountability Office report obtained by USA Today outlines why an arsenal of ammunition valued at $1.2 billion, including missiles and bullets, is set to be destroyed by the Pentagon.  Because the Defense Department’s inventory systems cannot share data effectively, it's impossible to know what portion of the arsenal slated for destruction — valued at $1.2 billion by the Pentagon — remains viable for troops to use.

In response to the report, Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., and the chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee said, “There is a huge opportunity to save millions, if not billions of dollars if the (Pentagon) can make some common-sense improvements to how it manages ammunition.  Despite years of effort, the Army, Navy and Air Force still don't have an efficient process for doing something as basic as sharing excess bullets.  This Government Accountability Office report clearly shows that our military's antiquated systems lead to millions of dollars in wasteful ammunition purchases."

The Army and Pentagon, in a statement, acknowledged "the need to automate the process" and will make it a priority in future budgets. 

--that both chairmen of the House and Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committees vow to conduct a full investigation into reports that 40 veterans seeking care from the Phoenix VA Health Care System died while awaiting treatment and may have been placed on a secret waiting list.  Senate VA Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., said “I am troubled when I hear that any veteran may have received substandard service from VA.  We, as a nation, have a commitment to provide timely, quality health care to veterans, and I am determined to assist VA in meeting this responsibility.”

Sanders said he had urged the inspector general to expedite an investigation already underway in Phoenix and vowed to hold hearings after the IG’s investigation is complete. 

Sanders’ counterpart in the House, Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., said that “These are extremely disturbing allegations.  If proven true, these charges will only add to the growing pattern of preventable veteran deaths and patient safety incidents at VA medical centers across the country that are united by one common theme:  VA’s extreme reluctance to hold its employees and executives accountable.”

--that the Obama Administration announced the launch of a new integrated employment tool to connect veterans and service members with employers, and to help translate military skills into the civilian workforce.  The Veterans Employment Center is the first interagency tool to bring a wealth of public and private job opportunities, a resume-builder, military skills translator and detailed career and training resources together in one place.  It is an integrated solution providing veterans, transitioning service members, and military spouses with the tools they need to connect to employers.

The Veterans Employment Center will provide employers with access to a targeted pool of resumes from veterans and transitioning service members, allowing them to search resumes to identify veterans with skill sets applicable to civilian employment at their organization, and to track progress towards reaching their veteran hiring goals.  Resumes are visible to all employers with an active LinkedIn or Google profile.  To prevent spam, an applicant’s name and email address are redacted and only visible to employers verified by the VA as registered companies with the IRS.  The site is also built using open data and an open application programming interface to attract private-sector innovation.

The Veterans Employment Center can be found at: https://www.ebenefits.va.gov/ebenefits/jobs

--that May is National Military Appreciation Month.  Congress designated May as National Military Appreciation Month in 1999 to ensure the nation was given the opportunity to publically demonstrate their appreciation for the sacrifices and successes made by our servicemembers - past and present.  AUSA salutes all servicemembers all of the time for all they have done for our country.

--that the Defense Department awarded Express Scripts a seven-year contract to administer the TRICARE Pharmacy Program (4th Generation) covering 10 million beneficiaries.  Express Scripts has been providing home delivery to the DoD since 2003 and retail pharmacy services since 2004.  Defense added specialty pharmacy in 2009.  The company will now provide pharmacy services to all the military worldwide including Military Treatment Facilities. 

The contract will take effect May 1, 2015.