Legislative Newsletter Update 2 November 2009 


Legislative News is AUSA Government Affairs Directorate's 
weekly electronic newsletter, and is published 
every Monday when Congress is in session. 


In this issue:

  • Medicare/TRICARE Payment Bill Introduced in the House
  • House Panel Approves Legislation to Enhance Veterans Protections
  • Bipartisan Bill to Ease Voting Process for Deployed Military Becomes Law

Medicare/TRICARE Payment Bill Introduced in the House

The House leadership introduced a bill last week that would permanently reform the Medicare/TRICARE physician payment system.  The Medicare Physician Payment Reform Act (H.R. 3961) would repeal a 21 percent fee reduction scheduled for January 2010 and replace the physician payment formula with a more stable system that ends the unrealistic cycle of threats of ever-larger fee cuts followed by short-term patches.

Under H.R. 3961, an emphasis would be placed on primary and preventive care services, which lawmakers argue are the foundation of lower spending in the future by detecting diseases early, before they become more expensive to treat.  It would also take services like lab tests and some drugs out of the calculation.  Those types of spending had contributed, in part, to the rise in spending under the old formula and, as a result, the cuts that it demanded.

Under the new formula, spending on most physician services would be allowed to grow at the rate of gross domestic product (GDP) plus one percent, but preventive and primary care services would be allowed to grow at GDP plus two percent.

Passing a permanent end to the cuts will be expensive.  The bill has no offsets, and while a formal cost estimate has not been done, the Congressional Budget Office recently estimated the total cost of an almost identical proposal at $245 billion over 10 years.  Therefore, lawmakers agreed to a deal.  In return for the one-time deficit increase required to pay for the new bill, a binding law that would force Congress to offset new spending in any bill would be passed.

H.R. 3961 will be considered in the House under a procedure which will add the text of H.R. 2920, the Statutory PAYGO Act of 2009, as passed by the House on July 22.  The "pay as you go" principle of budget discipline requires Congress to pay for any new spending, outside of an economic crisis.  The Statutory PAYGO Act would make that principle law.

“I will vote for it with that addition,” said Rep. Earl Pomeroy, D-N.D., a member of the fiscally conservative Blue Dog Caucus.  Blue Dogs see the one-time expense of the physician bill as worth it for getting statutory pay-go in place.

However, even if the House can pass the bill, it faces an uncertain future in the Senate.  Last week’s Newsletter reported that a procedural vote on similar legislation failed with 53 senators voting against it - including 12 Democrats who balked at its price tag. 

That may not be an issue, however, if House Democrats can attach the legislation to the health care overhaul (H.R. 3962) with a procedural move before it goes to conference.  Under conference rules, if one chamber includes a policy in its bill, it can be included in the conference report.

In any event, Congress needs to fix this problem once and for all.  The current law requires compounding annual cuts - forcing a 26 percent cut in Jan. 2011.  Putting off a permanent fix only increases the cost of doing it later.

House Panel Approves Legislation to Enhance Veterans Protections

The House Veterans’ Affairs Committee approved two bills last week that would improve benefits and services to veterans.

The Veterans' Small Business Assistance and Servicemembers Protection Act of 2009 (H.R. 3949) would clarify current law and require the VA to verify that firms are veteran-owned small businesses or service disabled veteran-owned small businesses in order to be listed in the Vendor Information Pages database maintained by the VA Secretary. 

Offered by Committee Chairman Bob Filner, D-Calif., the bill would also:

  • Improve outreach efforts at the VA;
  • Establish a scholarship program for students learning to care for veterans with visual impairments;
  • Permit a parent whose child gave their life in service to our country to be buried in a national cemetery with that child when their veteran child has no living spouse or children;
  • Reauthorize the Veterans Advisory Committee on Education until the end of 2015;
  • Expand the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act protections to service members seeking to cancel certain service contracts due to a change in duty station where such service is not provided; and,
  • Amend the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act to improve the equitable relief available for service members called to active duty, including allowing greater flexibility for family cell phone plans, rental leases, and motor vehicle leases when a service member has changed duty stations or been deployed.

The Veterans' Retraining Act of 2009 (H.R. 1168) authorizes the Department of Labor to pay training assistance for veterans who have been unemployed for at least four months.  The bill would provide a housing stipend ranging from $785 to over $2,800 per month for up to six months to veterans who are participating in a re-training program. It would also provide up to $5,000 in moving expenses for the veterans who complete the training to relocate to an area of the country that has jobs that fit their new skill.

“This is an important piece of legislation that represents what Congress needs to focus on, creating jobs.  We need to put hardworking Americans back to work and this can be accomplished through job training assistance programs like this,” said Rep. John Boozman, R-Ark., the bill’s sponsor. 

After the bills passed, Chairman Filner said, “This Committee passed two very important pieces of legislation that will provide needed changes for veterans and their families while addressing the unique needs of veterans and service members as they serve our country.  These bills would not be possible without the hard work of many Members of this Committee and the Congress.  It is our duty as a Nation, when we put our men and women in harm’s way, to care for them when they return, and that is what these bills do.”

Both bills will next be considered by the House of Representatives.

Bipartisan Bill to Ease Voting Process for Deployed Miltary Becomes Law

New rules that will make it easier for deployed servicemembers to cast ballots was folded into the fiscal 2010 National Defense Authorization Act that was signed into law by President Obama last week.

The Military and Overseas Voters Empowerment Act (MOVE Act) was introduced after a Senate Rules Committee survey showed that as many as one in four ballots cast by military and overseas voters went uncounted in last year’s presidential election easily passed the Senate last week. 

The bill would fix several of the flaws responsible for such widespread disenfranchisement.  It requires that all states provide military voters with ballots no later than 45 days prior to the election so that they have adequate time to complete and return them.  It would also require states to provide ballots electronically and expands the Federal Voting Assistance Program (FVAP) at the Department of Defense, which is the main source of election-related information and assistance for many members of the military.  The legislation would also bar states from rejecting military ballots for lack of a “Notary” signature—a feat difficult to achieve in the bases of Iraq and Afghanistan.

Chairman of the Senate Rules Committee Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., along with Sens. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., Ben Nelson, D-Neb., Robert Bennett, R-Utah, John Cornyn, R-Texas and 54 other senators cosponsored the bill.

In May, the Senate Rules Committee released a study showing that as many as 25 percent of troops stationed overseas went uncounted in 2008.  Sen. Schumer said the estimate was based on figures provided to the committee by election officials in seven of the states with the highest number of deployed troops.  In 2008, military personnel and some civilians hailing from these states requested 441,000 ballots in order to vote from overseas locations, as allowed by the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act (UOCAVA).  Of those, 98,633 were never received back by the election officials in the U.S. and so were declared “lost” ballots.  Another 13,504 were received but rejected for various reasons including a missing signature or failure to notarize, as is required in some states.  When combined, these two categories amount to 112,137 voters in those seven states—or 25.42 percent of the 441,000 who requested ballots—being disenfranchised, the study found.

“It is the least we can do for our troops to make sure their votes get counted when they are serving overseas,” said Sen. Schumer.  “This bill will remove the barriers that too often conspire to disenfranchise our military men and women.

“The MOVE Act represents the most sweeping reform of military and overseas voting law in a long time, and its significance cannot be overstated.  I'm proud to have worked with my colleagues on both sides of the aisle to enact these common-sense reforms, which come just in time to help our troops and their family members participate in the November 2010 elections,” said Sen. Cornyn.