Legislative Newsletter Update 8 March 2010 

3/8/2010 

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



       
 

In this issue:

  • AUSA Provides Testimony for Joint VA Hearing
  • Medicare/TRICARE Physician Payment Cut Delayed 30 Days
  • No COLA for 2010, No $250 Either
 
 

★★★


AUSA PROVIDES TESTIMONY FOR JOINT VA HEARING

AUSA’s Vice President for Education, LTG Theodore G. Stroup, Jr., USA, Ret., provided testimony for a joint hearing held last week by the Senate and House Veterans’ Affairs Committees on AUSA’s legislative priorities. 

The testimony touched on many issues including the need to:

* Adjust the New GI Bill to authorize benefits for Title 32 Active Guard Reserve (AGRs) with post- Sept. 10, 2001 service; provide a living allowance for full-time distance learners; adopt Montgomery GI Bill (Chap. 30, 38 USC) program eligibility rules for nondegree vocational, OJT, apprenticeship and flight training programs; and, merge separate “tuition” and “fees” caps per state to a single “cost of attendance” metric in each state.

* Increase Survivors and Dependents Educational Assistance (DEA) to a minimum of 20 percent to match the increases in Montgomery GI Bill benefits Congress passed in 2008.  Also, ensure that the benefits in the DEA program are adjusted proportionally whenever Congress raises MGIB and New GI Bill benefits.

* Increase the monthly stipend issued under the Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment (VR&E) program to reflect the basic allowance for housing (BAH) payments under the New GI Bill.  VRE helps equip disabled veterans to transition back into the work force.

* Raise education benefits for National Guard and Reserve service members under Chapter 1606 of Title 10.  For years, these benefits have only been adjusted for inflation.  Currently, Reserve GI Bill benefits have fallen to less than 25 percent of the active duty benchmark giving them much less value as a recruiting and retention incentive.  This also sends a signal to Reserve Component personnel that their service is undervalued.  Further, a transfer of the Reserve MGIB-Select Reserve authority from Title 10 to Title 38 will permit proportional benefit adjustments in the future. 

* Revisit the need to dock volunteer force recruits $1200 of their first year's pay for the privilege of serving their country on active duty.  Government college loan programs have no upfront payments; thus, it is difficult to accept any rationale for our nation's defenders to give up a substantial portion of their first year's pay for MGIB eligibility.

* Consolidate and deconflict the MGIB and New GI Bill into one educational benefits program for active and reserve components.  The coexistence of the MGIB alongside the New GI Bill is causing considerable confusion.  Benefits available in the MGIB such as pilot training, licensure/certification tests and distance (online) course work are not available in the New GI Bill, while a tuition reimbursement indexing mechanism, housing benefits, and a book stipend are available in the New GI Bill but not the MGIB. 

* Address the inequity between members of the National Guard called to active duty under Title 32 and those called to active duty under Title 10.  Those members under Title 32 do not receive veteran's status for their active duty military time while those under Title 10 do.  Similarly, Army Reserve personnel who are not called to active duty can complete a full reserve career and yet not be entitled to be called veterans. 

* Build on the inclusion of more Category 7 and 8 veterans, so that ultimately all Category 7 and 8 veterans can receive care from the VA.  

* Support full concurrent receipt for those with disabilities of 49 percent and below.  AUSA urges that the thousands of disabled veterans left out of previous legislation be given equal treatment and that the disability offset be eliminated completely. 

* Allow members who were forced to retire short of 20 years of service because of a combat disability be “vested” in the service-earned share of retired pay at the same 2.5 percent per year of service rate as members with 20+ years of service.  This would avoid the “all or nothing” inequity of the current 20-year threshold, while recognizing that retired pay for those with few years of service is almost all for disability rather than for service and therefore still subject to the VA offset.

* Amend the U.S. Code appropriately to allow terminally ill veterans who hold National Service Life Insurance and U.S. Government Life to receive benefits before death, as can holders of Servicemembers Group Life Insurance and Veterans Group Life Insurance. 

* Develop and deploy an interoperable, bi-directional and standards-based electronic medical record; a “one-stop” separation physical supported by an electronic separation document (DD-214); benefits determination before discharge; sharing of information on occupational exposures from military operations and related initiatives.  AUSA strongly recommends accelerated efforts to realize the goal of “seamless transition” plans and programs.

The inherently difficult nature of military service has never been more self-evident than during the current conflict.  While grateful for the good things done for veterans, AUSA reminded the committee members that we consider veterans benefits to have been duly earned by those who have answered the nation’s call and placed themselves at risk.
 

MEDICARE/TRICARE PHYSICIAN PAYMENT CUT DELAYED 30 DAYS


Last week, the Senate voted to delay the 21 percent Medicare/TRICARE physician payment cut until Apr 1.

Now AUSA has learned that the Senate is working on another fix that would delay the physician payment cuts until Oct. 1.

Medicare rules require an annual review and updating of physician fee schedules with the process weighing a number of medical cost factors.  In order to achieve budget neutrality and stay within annual targeted sustainable growth rate, physician fee schedules will either decrease if Medicare spending exceeds the targeted growth figure or increase if Medicare expenses are less than the targeted growth. 

In an era of rapidly rising medical costs, the annual review would have resulted in a decrease in the physician fee schedules during the last few years had Congress not taken action each year to postpone the reductions.  Because payment rates in the TRICARE program are tied to Medicare rates, this affects many military beneficiaries.

Declining participation of providers in Medicare and TRICARE due to low reimbursements is a serious healthcare problem facing Medicare-eligibles and military beneficiaries of all ages. 

Delaying the payment cuts until Oct. 1 is only a temporary solution.  The Senate must follow the House lead and pass legislation that will permanently repeal the broken payment formula and replace it with one that better reflects the increasing cost of patient care.


NO COLA FOR 2010, NO $250 EITHER


Despite support from the Obama Administration, an amendment that would have given Social Security recipients a $250 payment in lieu of a cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) for this year failed in the Senate by a vote of 47-50.  Senators could not agree on how to pay for it. 

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., who introduced the amendment, said he would continue to fight for the one-time payment of $250 to all Social Security recipients.  "It is extremely unfair that at a time when this Congress bailed out Wall Street...to say ‘well, we're sorry we can't afford to take care of some of the most vulnerable people in our society.'"  

There was no cost of living increase for Social Security recipients in 2010 because the COLA is tied to inflation, which dipped into negative territory last year.  Unfortunately, based on the formula in the law that governs the COLA, it is not likely there will be a COLA for 2011, either.