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Retiree & Veteran News 16 Nov 2010 

11/16/2010 

MEMBER ALERT!! Packed Schedule for Lame Duck

The 111th Congress is returning today for a lame duck session.  Given the sea change that the recent election brought to the House of Representatives with more than 60 seats changing from “D to R”, what will be accomplished is a matter of conjecture.

At the top of the “to-do” list will be funding the government through the new year.  The current stopgap spending measure expires Dec. 3.  Democrats will have to decide whether to press ahead with a more than $1 trillion omnibus spending package for the entire fiscal year that started Oct. 1, or opt for a longer-term continuing resolution to keep the government funded into next year.  Whatever option they choose will include funding for the Pentagon.

One of Congress’ most pressing and difficult tasks will be to clear a defense authorization bill.  Defense authorizations have been enacted each of the last 48 years.  Failure to pass the defense bill before the end of the year will force the services to terminate all recruiting and retention bonuses, deny the Army a needed manpower increase, and impose a $110-per-day increase in retiree co-pays for inpatient hospital stays.

Please add your voice to ours and urge your members of Congress to complete those critical pieces of legislation.  Go to the AUSA website, www.ausa.org, click on “Legislative Agenda’” then click on “Contact Congress”, type in your zip code beside “Elected Officials” and scroll down to “Pass the FY 2011 Defense Appropriations and Authorization Bills Now!”

Also looming is a 23 percent cut in Medicare payments to physicians unless Congress passes legislation to prevent it.  Congress has never mustered the wherewithal to find a permanent solution to this usually annual problem, which lately has become a quarterly problem because of the short duration of recent fixes. 

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. 

You can help us urge Congress to prevent the cuts by sending an online letter to your members.  Go to the AUSA website, www.ausa.org, click on “Legislative Agenda”, then click on “Contact Congress, type in your zip code beside “Elected Officials” and scroll down to “Prevent the 23 percent cut in Medicare/TRICARE payments”.

Military Pay and TRICARE Under Attack

The first shots over the bow were fired ear­lier this spring when Sen. Webb (D-Va.) floated the idea that mil­i­tary pay and ben­e­fits were unsus­tainable. A DoD advi­sory panel later rec­om­mended increas­ing TRICARE pre­mi­ums and end­ing the trend of annual across-the-board mil­i­tary pay raises which out­pace the civil­ian sec­tor pay increases.

Webb recently called for reduc­ing troops and replac­ing the across-the-board raises with tar­geted bonuses and raises based on com­bat assign­ments and/or job spe­cial­ties. Webb’s rec­om­men­da­tions drew heavy fire from mil­i­tary com­mu­ni­ties. But that is noth­ing com­pared to the bat­tle that is likely to come based on the rec­om­men­da­tions made by the Pres­i­den­tial “blue rib­bon” debt panel. (see pre­vi­ous post, Mil­i­tary Pay Debate – Cut Pay or Troops?)

Tasked with mak­ing sug­ges­tions on how the U.S. could avoid fur­ther finan­cial cri­sis, the debt panel released its ini­tial plan — call it a trial bal­loon. The panel approached their plan with­out regard to any polit­i­cally sacred cows, includ­ing mil­i­tary pay and ben­e­fits.

The President’s National Com­mis­sion on Fis­cal Respon­si­bil­ity and Reform co-chairs, for­mer Sen. Alan Simp­son (R-Wyo.) and for­mer chief of staff to Pres­i­dent Clin­ton, Ersk­ine Bowles, released a 58 page ini­tial plan which includes the fol­low­ing mil­i­tary pay and ben­e­fit related pro­pos­als:

A Fed­eral Pay Freeze – The plan’s most volatile sug­ges­tions is a three-year mil­i­tary and fed­eral civil­ian employee pay freeze. In gen­eral, the freeze would affect basic pay and basic allowance for hous­ing (BAH).

Elim­i­nate the 20 Year Mil­i­tary Retire­ment – The plan calls for replac­ing the cur­rent 20-year retire­ment sys­tem with a plan that would allow retire­ment at 10 years but delay pay­ment until age 60. This would pre­sum­ably affect future mil­i­tary entrants.

Reform COLA – The panel sug­gests mak­ing the mil­i­tary retirement/annuitant and dis­abil­ity com­pen­sa­tion annual cost-of-living adjust­ments for­mula reflect con­sumer shop­ping options – essen­tially reduc­ing the annual increase.

Increase TRICARE Pre­mi­ums and Co-pays — Pre­mi­ums and fees would climb for working-age mil­i­tary retirees, enroll­ment fees and co-pays would be applied to all three TRICARE options, includ­ing fee-for-service cov­er­age under TRICARE Stan­dard and the pre­ferred provider net­work using TRICARE Extra.

In addi­tion, employ­ers would have to reim­burse the gov­ern­ment for any mil­i­tary retiree who opts to use TRICARE over employer offered pro­grams.

The DoD is not the only agency fac­ing dras­tic cuts, the panel made unpop­u­lar cost cut­ting rec­om­men­da­tions for vir­tu­ally every sec­tor of gov­ern­ment. Sen. Alan Simp­son sug­gested that he and his co-chair, Ersk­ine Bowles, may “need to go into wit­ness pro­tec­tion” before this process is com­pleted.

Hope for GI Bill Fix Fades

By Terry Howell

For those keeping a close eye on the efforts to reform the Post-9/11 GI Bill, it looks like after spending the money to implement the poorly written law, Congress lacks the will, and/or the wallet to fix it. The following is a summary of the Congressional Budget Office’s findings on the fiscal impact of fixing the GI Bill without finding offsets.

Taken from Tom Philpott’s Military Forum:

The CBO cost estimate on S 3447 [Post-9/11 Veterans Educational Assistance Improvements Act of 2010], released Oct. 6, is $236 million the first year, $2.3 billion over the first decade.

Exchanges Change Age Verification

Customer comments in stores, online and over the phone have resulted in a modification to a recently implemented age verification process at Army and Air Force Exchange Service facilities. As a result of the input received, Exchanges are going back to a manual age verification process. Cashiers at Exchange operations worldwide have resumed visual inspections to determine patrons' eligibility to purchase products such as knives, mature-rated music, videos and games as well as tobacco and alcohol.

Toys for Tots Campaign Begins

The U.S. Marine Corps recently began its 2010 Toys For Tots program. Since 1947, Toys For Tots has helped underprivileged children throughout the United States by collecting new, unwrapped toys and distributing them as Christmas gifts. The Toys For Tots program is the largest outreach program in the Department of Defense. For more information, or to find a local Toys for Tots drop-off location near you, visit the Toys for Tots website. Monetary donations can be made at the secured Toys for Tots website -- click on "Donate Online" and complete payment information.

Veterans Who go Back to School Want More Support

According to a national survey, enrollment of veterans is surging at America’s college campuses, but as a group, they don’t feel supported and understood.  The veterans reported interacting less with their instructors than did classmates who had not enlisted, and they were less likely to partake in educational opportunities such as internships or study abroad.  Researchers with the National Survey of Student Engagement interviewed nearly 11,000 student veterans who were first-year students or seniors at four-year schools.  Transitioning from military life to civilian life is difficult enough, but trying to fit in on a college campus is “a culture shock that’s hard to adjust to.  To learn more, please go to: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/11/03/AR2010110307448.html


Survivor Outreach Summit Drafts Issues for Leadership

It was the third annual Survivor Outreach Services (SOS) summit, but for the first time, surviving family members were there to work on the development of issues for the Army Family Action Plan.  A proposal to grant installation access to the family members of Soldiers killed in action was among several recommendations that will go forward to Army senior leaders.  Free grief counseling for survivors was another recommendation family members sent forward.  Issues will also be presented at the 2011 AFAP Department of the Army Headquarters Conference held by the Office of the Assistant Chief of Staff for Installation Management in the National Capital Region.  To learn more, please go to: http://www.army.mil/-news/2010/11/01/47484-survivor-outreach-summit-drafts-issues-for-leadership/


Panel Notes Progress in Fight Against Post-Traumatic Stress

A panel of experts noted significant progress in the efforts of the Defense and Veterans Affairs departments to help Servicemembers, veterans and their families affected by post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).  At a special screening of the HBO documentary “Wartorn, 1861-2010” at the Pentagon Auditorium, Army Chief of Staff General George W. Casey noted that the percentage of Servicemembers who avoid seeking psychological treatment because of a perceived stigma attached to asking for help has dropped from 90 percent to 50 percent. To read this article in its entirety, please go to: http://www.defense.gov/news/newsarticle.aspx?id=61485


Spouse Tuition Assistance — MyCAA Update

The DoD is asking spouses to use the MyCAA online messaging system due to demand and volume of calls. It may take up to 5 business days to get an answer to their questions. The DoD is also passing along applications and requests for Education & Training Plans, and Financial Assistance may take up to 15 calendar days to process. According to the MyCAA section of the Military OneSource website, MyCAA will contact spouses through the MyCAA Message Box if additional information is needed to approve an education and training plan. Applicants must check their Message Box regularly for information and notifications about their request. To find out if you are eligible, go to: http://military-education.military.com/2010/10/spouse-tuition-assistance-mycaa-update/?ESRC=education.nl


New Spouse Brochure Available

A new brochure has been created for potential employers that highlights the qualities that make military spouses great assets for a company or organization.  This brochure is available in PDF format.  For more information or to search for military-spouse friendly jobs, visit Military.com’s Spouse Career Center at: http://www.military.com/spouse


Top Doc's Focus is Troop Health, Not Higher Fees

Dr. George Peach Taylor, Jr., who serves temporarily as the Defense Department’s top health official, says he doesn’t yet know if President Obama’s defense budget for fiscal 2012 will propose higher TRICARE fees for military retirees or any other group. Taylor mostly discussed higher priorities for both he and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. These priorities included sustaining wartime medical support, improving wounded warrior care and coordinating better delivery of health services. The health system’s top priority, said Taylor, is ensuring that fighting forces have the medical teams on scene that are needed — teams that are properly equipped, properly staffed and have the most advanced technology and procedures available anywhere. A second priority is that Servicemembers get the best possible care to recover from injuries, particularly lost limbs, traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder. To read this article in its entirety, go to: http://www.stripes.com/top-doc-s-focus-is-troop-health-not-higher-fees-1.123433


Health Care Costs on the Front Lines

Looking to push his cost-cutting reforms to new realms, Defense Secretary Robert Gates may set his sights on runaway military health care costs, an area that members of Congress have so far been reluctant to tackle.  Despite some headway in other areas, Gates would face a tough task in mitigating health care costs by asking at least some recipients to pay more.  Gates’s drive for efficiency has run the gamut, from overhauling acquisitions to better tailoring military spending for current worldwide missions including the war in Afghanistan and the one winding down in Iraq.  To read this article in full, please go to: http://dyn.politico.com/printstory.cfm?uuid=1392B968-A195-3806-F87B1A29C4AE011C

The Fight Begins-The President’s Deficit Commission Goes Public

On Tuesday Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson surprised DC by making public their plan to cut the Federal government’s $1+ trillion deficit. This plan has not been approved (or even voted on) by the other Commission’s members but is clearly an attempt by the Chairmen to put pressure on them to approve the plan before their December 1 deadline. It gives us a blueprint on what fights we can expect in the next year. The proposals included: “Modernize TRICARE, DoD Health” which includes raising enrollment fees, deductibles and co-pays for TRICARE, requiring civilian employers to reimburse the government for the employer’s health care cost share if a working age retiree uses TRICARE rather than a civilian plan, applying PAYGO provisions to TRICARE so any improvement in TRICARE must be offset by increases in premiums, co-pays and deductibles. Create “modest” enrollment fees for the TRICARE programs etc.

The proposals also include lowering the method of calculating COLAs for Social Security (which would also effect DoD and VA program COLAs); reducing spending for base support; and consolidating the Commissaries and Exchanges (it does not explain how that would affect the support they now provide for MWR programs)

For all of you who are now federal civilian employees it also calls for a 3 year freeze of “federal salaries, bonuses and other compensation at non-defense agencies” and have a 10% cut of the federal workforce. This is the opening shot and we will see how the rest of the Commission, the White House, the Congress (both old and new) and the public will react.