Retiree & Veteran Affairs News 27 Sep 2011 

9/27/2011 

 

ADMINISTRATION PLAN THREATENS MILITARY BENEFITS

Now, as today’s wars end, as our troops come home, we’re reminded once more of our responsibilities to all who have served.  The bond between our forces and our citizens must be a sacred trust.  And for me and my administration, upholding that trust is not just a matter of policy, it is not about politics; it is a moral obligation.…As a nation, we’re facing some tough choices as we put our fiscal house in order.  But I want to be absolutely clear:  We cannot, we must not, we will not, balance the budget on the backs of our veterans.  As Commander-in-Chief, I won’t allow it.”
President Obama, August 30, 2011

Last week, the Obama Administration unveiled a plan that it says will trim the deficit by $3 trillion over the next decade.  Included in the plan are $27 billion in cuts to the military health care package and the establishment of a BRAC-style commission that could cut even more from military retirement.  Here are some of the lowlights:

Initiate annual fees for TRICARE-For-Life enrollment (TFL).  The Administration is proposing to introduce modest annual fees for the TFL program, beginning with a $200 annual fee in 2013.  The fee would then align with a yet-to-be-named health care index and would increase each year. 

Targeted increases to TRICARE pharmacy benefit co-payments. The plan states that the co-payments for military members have lagged behind other Federal and private plans and that the new proposal would move the TRICARE pharmacy program closer to parity with the federal employee health plans and “closer to the health plans that most Americans have from their employers.  This option would have no impact on active duty members, but would affect active duty families and all military retirees regardless of the age of the beneficiary.”

Establish a commission to review military retirement benefits. This is what the Administration’s plan says verbatim:  “The current military retirement system has served the military well in past years.  In an era when defined-benefit plans were common, it helped the military to retain the personnel needed to maintain a vigorous and highly effective force.  But the system was designed for a different era of work, and is now out of line with most other Government or private retirement plans.  The non-disability program provides generous benefits to the relatively few members who stay for at least 20 years and no benefits for the roughly 80 percent of servicemembers who stay less than 20 years.  To consider reforms the Administration plans to set up a commission to develop recommendations for reforming the current military retirement system.  The commission will review the impacts of reform proposals on military readiness, recruiting, retention, costs, and the quality of the force.  The Administration plans to propose that the Commission’s recommendations be handled in a manner similar to the 2005 Base Realignment and Closure Commission’s recommendations.  Under this approach, DOD would make a proposal to the commission, which can alter the proposal as it deems appropriate.  The commission proposals then go to the President, who may not alter the proposals but can decide whether to forward them to the Congress.  The Congress must approve or disapprove without any modifications.  The Administration believes that any major military retirement reforms should include grandfathering provisions that ensure that the country does not break faith with military personnel now serving, including those serving in Afghanistan and Iraq.”

Grandfathering the current force is an excellent idea; however, we must also look to the future.  Why would an individual elect to sacrifice 20-30 years of his or her life enduring the hardships that accompany military service to only be rewarded with a civilian-style retirement?  Altering the military retirement system converts the military profession to that of a job.

AUSA’s campaign to educate those who would place military health care and retirement benefits in the crosshairs of attempts to solve the nation’s fiscal woes is just beginning. 

AUSA President Gen. Gordon R. Sullivan, USA, Ret., fired off a letter to President Obama that expressed how deeply troubled he is with the Administration’s proposal.

Sullivan said, “As Commander-in-Chief, you are aware of how much we ask of our military personnel.  At a time when we are fighting in Afghanistan, and threats remain around the world, our military personnel - less than one percent of our population who volunteer for decades of service and in essence write a blank check to the United States for an amount up to and including their life – should not have to wonder what benefits they will retain and what the retirement system will look like in the future.  Perceived erosion of benefits, proposed or implemented, creates enormous morale, recruiting, and retention problems and leads to perceptions of betrayal of trust among those serving, those retired, and those who would join the all volunteer force in the future.

“Modernizing” the military retirement system and health care benefits to make them mirror more closely industry standards fails completely to account for the vast difference between civilian jobs and the military profession. Military retirement and health care benefits are not gifts – they have been earned through blood, sweat, repeated deployments, missed birthdays and anniversaries and sometimes loss of limbs or life.  They are designed to provide a powerful incentive for top-quality people to serve full careers despite the hardships of such service for troops and their families.”

AUSA’s Institute of Land Warfare also produced a Torchbearer Alert, U.S. Army Retirees:  Retired Pay and Health Care at Risk that we sent to all members of Congress.  You can find it at this link:  http://www.ausa.org/publications/ilw/Documents/TB_Alert_Retirement_web.pdf

Finally, Gen. Sullivan would like for you to add your voice to his.  We have placed two letters on our website, www.ausa.org.  Click on “Legislative Agenda” and then "Contact Congress".  Put your zip code in the box entitled “Elected Officials.  The first letter titled, “No Attack on Military Retirement and Health Care Benefits” should go to the President.  Please send the second letter, “Protect Military Benefits” to your Senators and Representative.  Only by working together can we push back against all of the misguided proposals that are emerging weekly


 


 COMMISSION RELEASES "DOC FIX" PROPOSAL

An influential commission, established by Congress, has released a bold plan to overhaul Medicare’s physician payment formula. 

The Medicare Payment Advisory Commission (MedPAC) was established in 1997 to analyze access to care, cost and quality of care, and other key issues affecting Medicare.  MedPAC advises Congress on payments to health plans participating in the Medicare Advantage program and providers in Medicare’s traditional fee-for-service programs.

Finding a permanent solution to the annual cuts in reimbursement rates for physicians who treat Medicare patients has proven to be next to impossible.  Because payment rates in the TRICARE program are tied to Medicare rates, this affects many military beneficiaries.  Each year, Congress implements short-term patches that merely make the problem worse.  Physicians now face a nearly 30 percent drop in reimbursement rates on 1 January when the current patch expires.  By Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimations, it would cost about $300 billion to replace the current formula. 

In accordance with what AUSA has been saying for some time, MedPAC Chairman Glenn Hackbarth said that the payment cuts could prompt doctors to withdraw from the program. 

Under the MedPAC idea, Congress could replace the formula for $200 billion over a decade.  The $100 billion difference from CBO’s estimate would be achieved by cutting payments to specialists, instead of following CBO’s assumption that reimbursement rates would remain the same for all physicians. Specialists’ payments would be trimmed by 6 percent a year for three years; then they would be frozen.  Reimbursements to primary care doctors would remain flat. 

MedPAC said that the plan would be paid for with $235 billion in payment cuts across health care sectors.  They identified $75 billion in cuts from the pharmaceutical industry; $49 billion from skilled nursing facilities, home health care and other “post-acute” care; $33 billion from beneficiaries; $26 billion from hospitals; $21 billion from labs; $14 billion from wheelchairs, hospital beds and other medical equipment; and $12 billion from Medicare’s private health plans.

Also, don’t think MedPAC’s plan is a foregone conclusion.  It has not even been approved by the full commission.  They will decide at their October meeting whether or not to present the plan to Congress.  Groups that would be affected by the policy changes/cuts will most certainly come out swinging against the plan. 

There is also the Joint Deficit Reduction Committee whose work just started last week.  They have to come up with $1.2 trillion in cuts by late November.  They could very easily adopt MedPAC’s identified cuts as part of their own plan.

In any event, Congress needs to come up with something more permanent than the short term patches we have been dealing with for several years. 

COST OF LIVING ALLOWANCE (COLA) FOR 2012?

Under current law, Social Security determines whether there will be a COLA for military retirees for the succeeding year and its amount in October each year by comparing the average CPI-W (Consumer Piece Index – Urban Wage Earners And Clerical Employees) for July through September of that same year to the average CPI-W for July through September of the last year which produced a COLA.  In this case that would be 2008 because there was no COLA in 2009 or 2010. 

The average of the July 2011 CPI-W amount of 222.686 and the August 2011 CPI-W amount of 223.326 is 223.006.  When compared to the average for July through September 2008, the baseline, 215.495, this would generate a COLA of about 3.49 percent.  However, we are only 2/3 of the way through.  The next report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics will be Oct. 19.  Look for an update next month.

The Fight Over Military Retirement Benefits Begin

This week President Obama presented Congress with its plan to pay for its Americas Job Bill. The report: “Living Within Our Means and Investing in the Future” proposes to create a $200 a year enrollment fee for TRICARE for Life starting in 2013. And, as the report reads that is only the “beginning” of their proposal. They also intend that the fee will increase yearly based on their home grown medical inflation index. The Administration pushed for the same yearly medical index increase in their proposals this year for retirees under the age of 65 enrolled in TRICARE Prime. What they got (so far) was a yearly increase no larger than the COLA increase a military retiree received. But obviously they are going to try again for this index. This is a very serious threat. This is not a proposal by a Board, study group or commission. The Administration has put this out under their own name - this is not a trial balloon or rumor. We must fight this in every way possible including all of you calling, writing and emailing your members of Congress.

The Administration is also proposing dramatic changes in the retail TRICARE pharmacy benefit. They are proposing in the same report to change the Retail co-pays for all beneficiaries except the Active Duty. (That means Active Duty family members, members of the Guard and Reserve who have TRS, retirees and their families and survivors.) They want to change the present set amounts for a 30 day supply ($3, $9, and $22 and the pending $5, $12 and $25) to a percentage of the drug’s costs. This could be absolutely crippling to beneficiaries who take several and/or expensive drugs. Indeed this would cost many retirees more than the proposed a TFL yearly enrollment fee.

The report also calls for a Commission to study how to “modernize military retirement benefits.” The report states that the present retirement system has worked well but “was designed for a different era of work and is now out of line with most other government or private retirement plans.” It notes that the 80% of service members who serve less than 20 years receive no retirement benefits. This is yet another push to try and “civilianize the military retirement system.” The idea to convert it from a defined benefit to a defined contribution play is one that would save the government a great deal of money but would greatly reduce the benefit for retirees.

None of these ideas have been written into proposed legislation but this is clearly only the beginning. And it is certainly probably that other similar proposals will appear in Congress. SO we must all be alert and strong in our opposition to these and similar proposals that would diminish your earned military retirement benefitsObama Proposes TRICARE Changes

President Barack Obama has made a proposal for changes in TRICARE which include requiring military retirees to pay an annual fee for TRICARE-for-Life health insurance.  TRICARE pharmacy co-payments would also be restructured under the deficit reduction plan.  The deficit plan reportedly reduces $4.4 trillion from the $14.7 trillion federal deficit over 10 years through a combination of spending cuts and increased tax revenue.  The TRICARE plan allegedly would provide a savings of $6.7 billion over 10 years by establishing “modest annual fees” for members of TRICARE-for-Life (TFL).  Under current TFL, TRICARE becomes the second-payer insurance to military retirees who transition to the federal Medicare program upon turning age 65 and purchase Medicare Part B. The change would begin as early as fiscal 2013 with the establishment of a $200 annual fee.  Additionally, the plan includes purported savings of $15.1 billion in mandatory funds and $5.5 billion in discretionary funds over 10 years by restructuring co-payments for TRICARE pharmacy benefits.  To read more about this subject, please go to: http://www.defense.gov/news/newsarticle.aspx?id=65377

Retiree Benefits for the Military Could Face Cuts

As Washington looks to squeeze savings from entitlements such as Social Security and Medicare, another program, the health and pension benefits of military retirees is also growing rapidly .   Military pensions and health care for active and retired troops now cost the government about $100 billion a year, representing an expanding portion of both the Pentagon budget and the national debt, which together finance the programs.  The intense push in Congress this year to reduce the debt and the possibility that the Pentagon might have to begin trimming core programs like weapons procurement; research training and construction have suddenly made retiree benefits vulnerable.  Although this article calls military health and pension benefits a Social Welfare program- this is a gross misrepresentation.  Military healthcare and retirement benefits are earned through many years of selfless service to this country.  To read this article in full, please go to: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/09/19/us/retiree-benefits-for-the-military-could-face-cuts.html

Operation Thanksgiving Eagle

We are pleased to again partner with Harmony Hearth and sponsors BAE Systems and Raytheon to continue our Operation Thanksgiving Eagle (OTE) project.  Operation Thanksgiving Eagle is author Debbie Fink’s effort to recognize and thank military children for the daily sacrifices they make by having parents who serve to protect America’s freedom. Debbie Fink’s children’s activity book entitled It’s a Family Thanksgiving! A Celebration of an American Tradition for Children and Their Families will be provided upon request.  This holiday workbook reminds us why we hold strong to our history, our heritage and our family traditions and how we draw inspiration from our heroes and our heroines.  Operation Thanksgiving Eagle books will also be distributed at the Family Programs exhibit booth as well as during Military Family Forum IV.  The author will have a book signing, at the completion of the forum.. To request a book for your child online, please complete the form at: http://www.ausa.org/resources/familyprograms/OpThanksgivingEagle/Pages/default.aspx

TRICARE Reduces Pharmacy Home Delivery Co-Pays

As of 1 October  2011, Home Delivery beneficiaries may fill generic prescriptions at no cost to themselves.  Brand name formulary drugs purchased through Home Delivery will have the same $9 copayment.  Copayments for prescriptions filled through Home Delivery cover a 90-day supply, but only a 30-day supply when purchased at a retail pharmacy.  To read this article in full, please go to: http://www.tricare.mil/mediacenter/news_print.aspx?fid=736.  To learn more about the TRICARE pharmacy, please go to: http://www.tricare.mil/pharmacy.

TRICARE Promises Continued Access to Prescription Meds

A dispute between Walgreens and a TRICARE contractor will not stop beneficiaries from getting their prescriptions filled, despite a Walgreen’s ad campaign to the contrary.  Even if contract renewal negotiations fall through and Walgreens drops out of TRICARE’s retail pharmacy network on Jan. 1, beneficiaries will continue to have plenty of other options for getting their prescriptions filled. Beneficiaries electing to stay with the retail pharmacy option have the option of moving their prescriptions to another pharmacy in the TRICARE network now, or even out of network although that option may increase the cost slightly.  For more information on the subject, please go to: http://www.defense.gov/news/newsarticle.aspx?id=65353

VA Collects Medical Evidence from Overseas Vets to Process Claims

The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) is reaching out to Veterans in new and innovative ways such as the Telehealth initiative for rural Veterans in an effort to insure Veterans receive the care they’ve earned.  VA has also implemented a program to travel to Okinawa, Japan, to provide compensation and pension examinations to U S Veterans in order to reduce complications and delays caused by the lack of VA doctors overseas.  For three weeks this past June, a team worked in collaboration with the U.S. Naval Hospital in Camp Lester, Okinawa completing more than 240 different types of examinations and substantially decreasing the current number of pending claims in that region.  For more information, please go to the full article at: http://www.va.gov/health/NewsFeatures/20110913a.asp

Study Links Gulf War Vets' Illnesses to Area of Service

New research released today indicates that veterans with Gulf War illness faced different toxins depending on where they served.  About one-fourth of the 700,000 veterans who served in the 1991 Gulf War developed symptoms including chronic headaches, widespread pain, fatigue, and memory and concentration problems among others.  A research study found Gulf War illness was most prevalent in the veterans who served in Iraq or Kuwait and were taking small doses of nerve agent meant to help troops build up a resistance in case of a chemical attack.  Those Servicemembers also reported being within one mile of an exploding Scud missile.  Army veterans have suffered from Gulf War illness at higher rates than those from other services.  However, troops from other services who said they also took the nerve agent pills report Gulf War illness at similar rates to Soldiers.  To read this article in full, please go to: http://www.usatoday.com/news/military/story/2011-09-19/gulf-war-illness-study/50459462/1

Transportation Boost Makes Difference To Vets

There are numerous veterans in pain from service wounds that never have healed, but who are unable to access the assistance they need because of transportation issues.  Making transportation accessible to people such as these is the goal of a new $30 million grant program launched this summer by four key government agencies. The Veterans Transportation and Community Living Initiative awards states and local governments, who applied by 16 September, up to $2 million to enhance existing transportation options in their communities. The grant helps with the costs of creating, expanding or increasing access to a one-stop-shop where veterans can find out all the transportation options available. Federal Transit Administration representatives said successful One Call/One Click Transportation Resource Centers are crucial to simplify access to riders.  To learn more about this transportation program, please click: http://www.armytimes.com/news/2011/09/military-vets-transportation-grants-091211w/

Bill Approved To Make VA Service-Dog Friendly

A House committee has approved legislation that would allow service dogs to be used on any VA property or in any VA facility, including any facility or property receiving VA funding.  Under current law and regulation, VA is required only to allow guide dogs for the blind onto its property and into its facilities because those are the only type of assistance animals specifically covered in federal law. Individual facilities directors can be more flexible, if they wish.  In addition to opening the buildings and grounds to service dogs, the bill would create a three-year pilot program in which veterans with post-traumatic stress or other post-deployment mental disorders would be involved in training service dogs for other veterans. The idea of the test is to see if being a dog trainer has any rehabilitation benefits for veterans. To read this article in its entirety, please go to: http://www.armytimes.com/news/2011/09/military-veterans-affairs-service-dogs-091211w/

Bill Would Ensure Military, Law Enforcement Officer Pay

Rep. Michael Fitzpatrick, R-Pa. has introduced legislation (  H.R. 2886) to ensure military personnel and federal law enforcement officers continue to receive pay and certain benefits in the event of another budget crisis. The House Armed Services Subcommittee on Military Personnel is currently considering that bill.  Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, introduced a separate bill that would put the retirement benefits of Pentagon police officers on par with federal law enforcement officers, government-wide.  Law enforcement officers typically retire earlier than other federal employees because of the dangerous and demanding nature of their jobs. To further understand this legislation, please go to: http://www.govexec.com/dailyfed/0911/091311kl1.htm

Facility Near Campbell to Help Homeless Vets

A new facility has been built near Fort Campbell that will offer transition housing for homeless veterans.  Patriot Place, located just south of the sprawling Fort Campbell Army post on the Kentucky-Tennessee state line, is expected to open in October.  The housing unit in Clarksville was unveiled last week by several agencies that partnered to build it.  The $250,000 facility was funded in part by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), the Tennessee Housing Development Agency and the Clarksville Office of Housing and Community Development.  A counselor will be assigned to guide veterans and educate them about the various benefits they have available through the VA and other agencies.  To learn more, please go to: http://www.armytimes.com/news/2011/09/ap-facility-newar-campbell-to-help-homeless-vets-091711/

TriWest Goes Mobile

TriWest, who manages the Department of Defense’s (DoD) TRICARE health program for 2.9 million military families in the western United States is very excited to announce the launch of their mobile website and mobile app for the Android and iPad/iPhone.  The combination of these two mobile solutions enables military families to have access to TRICARE benefit information and their own personal health information on the go.  Providing direct, mobile access to their healthcare information is one way TriWest hopes to reduce some of the burden on military members and families.  It’s mobile support delivered right to the palm of their hand.   To learn more about TriWest’s mobile app, please go to: http://www.triwest.com/en/beneficiary/registration/Mobile-Support-Delivered/ and to register for this app, please go to: https://m.triwest.com/twm/unauth/home

Project Would Put Solar Panels Atop Base Houses

The Obama administration is providing a loan guarantee for a massive solar energy project that could double the number of glimmering solar panels on residential rooftops in the U.S.  The Energy Department said Wednesday, 7 September, that it provided a partial guarantee for a $344 million loan to San Mateo, Calif.-based SolarCity for the SolarStrong Project which is projected to create hundreds of jobs for Americans and provide clean, renewable power to military families.  The loan program has come under fire in recent days, after a solar company declared bankruptcy last week despite receiving over $500 million in federal loans.  To read further about this subject, please go to: http://militarytimes.com/news/2011/09/ap-military-solar-panels-project-housing-090711/

Poll: Americans Trust Military, But Not Congress

Congress may be in the doghouse with the American public, but a new poll suggests the military, gets high marks for keeping the nation safe and secure.  The public's contempt for Congress exceeds that of other American institutions, including banks, major corporations and the media.  The military earned the most respect in the survey, with 54 percent of responses saying they are deeply confident in the institution.  To read more about the public trust in our military, please go to: http://news.yahoo.com/poll-americans-trust-military-not-congress-165344167.html

Wounded Vets is 'in it to win it' On 'DWTS'

J.R. Martinez was badly injured in combat as a infantry Soldier in Iraq and burned on over 40 percent of his body.  Recuperating in a hospital bed for 34 months of skin grafts and reconstructive surgery, Martinez was aiming for the stars before “Dancing with the Stars” ever came along to ask him aboard.  Five years after his own injury, he began playing an injured veteran on “All My Children,” and what was supposed to be a three-month part has now lasted three years.  In addition to continuing to tour as a motivational speaker he will soon release a book, however his biggest challenge right now is learning the Viennese Waltz.  To read this article in full, please go to: http://www.armytimes.com/news/2011/09/gannett-wounded-vet-on-dancing-with-the-stars-091911/

Walk for Fatherhood

Acumen Solutions, an organization that has worked with the National Fatherhood Initiative, is hosting an upcoming event in Arlington, VA on 16 October entitled the Acumen Solutions Race for a Cause™. The race will begin and end on North Quincy Street, near the intersection of Wilson Boulevard in Arlington, and the course follows along the roads of Ballston and Clarendon.  Rewards include a cash prize for the top 3 Overall ($500-$300-$150, Male and Female) and overall Master's winners.  This year's race will benefit 10 local non-profit organizations. Participants are encouraged to become more aware of each of these worthwhile organizations and their contributions to the community. Each racer is allowed to select the cause they wish to support!  To learn more about the race, please go to: http://www.acumensolutions.com/theraceforacause/about.html, and to register, please click: http://prracing.racebx.com/events/register/4d941780-7730-41d2-9680-15a87f000001

Senate Committee Investigates Post 9/11 GI Bill Abuses

Eight for-profit colleges, led by the online University of Phoenix (owned by Apollo Group Inc. (APOL)), collected roughly $1 billion in Tuition Assistance Program and VA educational benefit money during the most recent academic year, according to a report by the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP), chaired by Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA). The report was released at a press conference this past Thursday, at which TREA was represented by Deputy Legislative Director Mike Saunders.

Those colleges got about a quarter of all of the Post 9/11 GI Bill money spent during the 2010-2011, according to Senator Harkin. The University of Phoenix alone received $210 million, almost three times as much as a year earlier, he said.

There is a so-called “90/10 rule” that limits the amount of federal money going to these schools to no more than 90 percent of their revenue. Veterans’ and military tuition programs are excluded from the cap, and as a result the colleges have aggressively recruited beneficiaries, according to the HELP committee report. Senator Tom Carper (D-DE) suggested at the press conference Thursday that the cap might be expanded to include those programs.

According to for-profit college spokespeople, limiting veteran tuition funds that can go to for-profit colleges would hurt students.

Staff Sergeant Jon Elliot (USA-Ret), who received the Bronze Star for service in Operation Iraqi Freedom, said he signed up for auto mechanics classes at ATI Career Training Center, based in North Richland Hills, Texas, after a recruiter told him Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits would cover the costs. Months later, Elliot discovered the program in Garland, Texas, wasn’t approved for the benefits, and the school sent him a bill for $9,600, he said at the news conference.

According to SSG Elliot, he got a telephone call the night before the press conference from the school, saying his tuition bill had been forgiven. “Maybe it’s just coincidence,” he said. “I don’t want to speculate.”

Additionally, the Department of Education issued “gainful employment” regulations this year that would cut off federal student aid to for-profit colleges whose students struggle the most to repay government loans. Many of these schools have dropout rates that sometimes exceed 50% or even 60%, while the average is much lower for more traditional schools, often around 10-15%. For-profit schools, and their lobbyists, oppose those rules and have filed a lawsuit against them.

 JOBS Transferring Military Skills To Civilian Career

One of the continuing problems that veterans face when they leave the military and return to the civilian world is that their training is not accepted by the public and private sectors. One of the most dramatic examples of this problem is veterans who were medics, corpsmen or other medical care positions are not allowed to translate their skills to the civilian health world.

The Obama Administration is setting up a program to make sure that the training given in the military meets the academic requirements of civilian nursing programs. Texas A&M University Corpus Christi (TAMUCC) College of Nursing and Health Sciences will work with the staff of the Medical Education and Training Command in San Antonio, Texas to create a model of training and coursework that will combine present enlisted health care training and civilian nursing academic requirements. The Medical Education and Training Command in San Antonio has been designated the central site for all enlisted health care related training for the Army, Navy and Air Force. The project is also intended to improve documentation of the medical training and coordinate with state licensing board.

The Administration through HSS will also give “funding priority” to nursing schools that provide “pro-veteran learning environments, recruit and support veterans interested in pursuing nursing careers, and facilitate academic credit for enlisted health care training.” 

Secretary of the Army Released Report On Improvements At Arlington National Cemetery

This week Secretary of the Army John M. McHugh released the Army’s Report to Congress on the improvements made at Arlington National Cemetery in the last year. In his accompanying letter to Congress the Secretary wrote: “In just over a year, the cemetery’s new management team has made major progress in reconciling decades’ worth of paper records with physical graveside inspections to regain accountability. They have put in place new policies and procedures to protect against and prevent the type of errors uncovered in the Army’s previous investigations. Equipment and training have been modernized, contracting procedures revamped, a historic partnership created with the Department of Veterans Affairs, the workforce improved and reinvigorated, and ongoing outreach and information has been provided to family members and the American public.”

He also said: “Perhaps most important, the inspector general found the mismanagement that existed prior to these changes, ‘‘no longer exists’. And that ‘significant progress has been made in all aspects of the cemetery’s performance, accountability and modernization.’ We’re confident that the Army is on the right path toward repairing the cemetery’s failures and restoring the confidence of Congress and the American people.”

To read the full report you can go to: http://www.army.mil/arlington

COLA Count Down to the Wire

With just one month to go in the inflation count toward the January 2012 federal retiree COLA, the count stands at 3.6 percent, following a rise of 0.3 percentage points in August in the inflation adjustment used to set the COLA. That would be one of the more substantial COLAs of recent years, and would follow two years of no COLA increases due to negative inflation counts in the measuring periods toward the 2010 and 2011 adjustments.

 Obama proposes TRICARE changes

By Lisa Daniel

American Forces Press Service

 WASHINGTON (AFRNS) -- Military retirees would pay an annual fee for TRICARE-for-Life health insurance and TRICARE pharmacy co-payments would be restructured under the deficit reduction plan President Barack Obama released Sept. 19. 

"If we're going to meet our responsibilities, we have to do it together," Obama said during a Rose Garden speech to announce the President's Plan for Economic Growth and Deficit Reduction. The plan reduces $4.4 trillion from the $14.7 trillion federal deficit over 10 years through a combination of spending cuts and increased tax revenue. 

For the military portion, Obama said the government will save $1.1 trillion from the drawdown of forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, which are to be complete at the end of this year and in 2014, respectively.The plan includes savings of $6.7 billion over 10 years by establishing "modest annual fees" for members of TRICARE-for-Life, which becomes a second-payer insurance to military retirees who transition to the federal Medicare program upon turning age 65. The change would begin with a $200 annual fee in fiscal 2013.

The plan also includes savings of $15.1 billion in mandatory funds and $5.5 billion in discretionary funds over 10 years by restructuring co-payments for TRICARE pharmacy benefits.

To bring the TRICARE plan more in line with private and other federal plans, the president's proposed plan would eliminate co-pays for generic mail-order drugs, while shifting retail co-pays from a dollar amount to a percentage co-pay. The change would apply to military families and retirees, but not active-duty service members. 

These changes will ensure fiscal responsibility without compromising quality care for service members and their families, Pentagon Press Secretary George Little said in a statement released Sept. 19. 

Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta "has consistently emphasized the need to keep faith with our troops and their families," Little said.

"That includes maintaining the highest quality health care for them," he continued. "We will continue to maintain the highest possible health care, but during this period of fiscal belt tightening, we may see modest cost increases in TRICARE enrollment fees and co-pays to sustain the health system."

The changes are necessary to help reduce the deficit and ensure the long-term strengths of the programs, a White House news release issued after Obama's speech said. The changes also would help to level "a measurable disparity" between military retirees and private sector workers, it says.

The statement notes that the administration has expanded GI Bill benefits, job training and veterans' homeless prevention programs, and proposed tax credits for employers to hire veterans.

"Still, as the cost of health care rises and benefit programs across the public and private sectors are being restructured to remain solvent," the release says, "it's important that programs that serve military retirees and veterans are modernized to be able to meet the needs of the future."

The plan also would create a commission to "modernize" military benefits through a process based on that of the 2005 Base Realignment and Closure Commission, the White House release said. Under the proposal, the Defense Department would make a proposal to the commission, which can alter the proposal before sending it to the president. The president may not alter the proposals, but would decide whether or not to send it to Congress. The Congress would have to approve or disapprove without modifications.

"The administration believes that any major military retirement reforms should include grandfathering provisions that ensure that the country does not break faith with military personnel now serving," the statement said.

 Obama said the proposal to save $4 trillion "finishes what we started last summer" when he and the Congress agreed to $1 trillion in cost savings. Under the plan, the deficit -- the difference between revenue and spending -- would level out in 2017 where spending is no longer adding to the nation's debt.

While "we are scouring budget for every dime of waste and inefficiency," Obama said, the proposed plan also closes corporate tax loopholes, raises taxes on millionaires and makes changes to Medicaid and Medicare in an effort to help small businesses and middle class Americans, and protects spending on education, science and infrastructure such as roads and bridges.

"We're asking everybody to do their part so no one has to shoulder too much burden," Obama said.

 Gulf War Claims Deadline

For Gulf War Veterans with certain ailments like: Chronic fatigue syndrome; Firbromyalgia; Functional gastrointestinal disorders; and other undiagnosed illnesses the current deadline for when the condition must have "appeared" is on or before December 31, 2011. If you have any conditions that are "undiagnosed" and you did a tour in the Middle East, this could apply to you. The VA is working to extend the deadline to December 31, 2018. If this occurs, it will be great news for veterans and military members who develop symptoms after the 2011 cut-off. However, since there is no guarantee that the deadline will be extended, veterans suffering from undiagnosed conditions are encouraged to talk with their Veteran Service Officer about filing a disability claim for these conditions.

 VA Loan Benefit Explained

There are numerous advantages to having a VA mortgage. A VA mortgage loan can be guaranteed with no money down, in some cases up to $417,000. There is also no private mortgage insurance requirement with a VA guaranteed loan, which could offer you substantial savings on your monthly payment.  You can even use your VA Loan benefit to refinance an existing loan -- even if it is not a VA Loan.

Be sure to ask for information about the interest rate reduction loan. This program adjusts an adjustable-rate mortgage to a fixed-rate loan, which is part of the Streamline Refinancing Program, which allows you to refinance at little or no expense to them.

Next Step: Find Lenders ready to help you use your VA Loan Benefit

Malaria Vaccine Developed

Science Magazine published medical research Sept. 8 about a promising new malaria vaccine developed by a team led by Navy scientist, Capt. Judith Epstein, a Naval Medical Research Center (NMRC) researcher with the U.S. Military Malaria Vaccine Program (USMMVP). The research team of military and civilian research scientists has developed a vaccine against malaria, a life-threatening disease for which there is currently no licensed vaccine. The discovery of a highly-effective vaccine is an important biomedical research and development priority for Navy Medicine. An abstract of the article is available on the Science website 

VA Loan Certificate of Eligibility

A required first step in the VA loan process is obtaining a Certificate of Eligibility (COE). COE can be obtained through a VA-approved lender or online. The COE provides information to the VA-approved lender about the eligibility and entitlement of each borrower. For more details on how to obtain your COE, as well as more tips for obtaining a VA loan, visit the VA Loan blog.

Next Step: Find Lenders ready to help you use your VA Loan Benefit.

GE Hiring Returning Veterans

Attention servicemembers coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan: GE is looking for you. The company currently employs 11,000 veterans (that's one employee for every fourteen) and it wants more. The company is participating in over 100 career fairs this year hosted by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Student Veterans of America, focusing on getting veterans back to work. "We're expecting an influx of troops coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan, and they need jobs," said Kris Urbauer, who was in the Army for ten years as an engineer officer and is now program manager for GE's veterans' initiatives. For more details, and for more news on jobs for veterans, visit the Military.com Jobs for Veterans blog. For comprehensive job listings across the country, visit the Military.com Veteran Jobs Center.

DeCA Websites Offer Grocery Savings

Commissary shoppers can find extra savings opportunities through a new feature on the Defense Commissary Agency's (DeCA's) website at hwww.commissaries.com that makes it easy to find new commissary-oriented websites. Created by companies that sell their products in commissaries, there are six new websites that offer coupons, contests and other types of shopper services. DeCA's home page now features the "Exclusive Savings" link to its page that has the links to the new websites.

 For more discounts for military personnel and families, visit the Military.com Discount Center.

TriWest Families 'Go Green'

Many beneficiaries with TriWest Healthcare Alliance, the Department of Defense contractor that manages the 21-state TRICARE West Region healthcare program, have chosen in droves to receive their healthcare statements in paperless form, surging past the 1 million mark in August. TriWest's "Go Green" program offers paperless options for referrals and authorizations, and fee statements. For more information, visit the TriWest Go Green webpage.

For more on TRICARE benefits, visit the Military.com TRICARE section.

Proposed Changes In Military Benefits Worry Troops

Soldiers and others are expressing concern about changes being proposed to the military's retirement program which is a part of a broad effort to cut government spending.  The plan unveiled last month would end the time-honored, lifetime pension for those who retire at 20 years from the military, and replace it with a 401(k) program that pays benefits after turning 60 to 65. The plan reportedly would save the government $250 billion over 20 years. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has said that given the current economic crisis, it must be given serious consideration.  AUSA has joined with other military associations to voice concerns with the proposal and the impact tit would have on the force..  To understand more about the proposed changes, please go to: http://www.usatoday.com/news/military/story/2011-09-07/Proposed-changes-in-military-benefits-have-troops-worried/50305324/1

Vets Worry About Future of New GI Bill

Veteran advocates are wondering if the Post 9/11 GI Bill, the most generous military benefit since the original GI Bill was created in the wake of World War II, will be impacted by budget cuts.  The Post-9/11 GI Bill covers the full cost and fees of public universities. For vets attending a private college, the bill pays an amount towards tuition equal to the highest tuition of a public institution in the state.  Other benefits include a monthly living stipend linked to the cost of living in the region; up to $1,000 for books and supplies; a one-time relocation allowance; and the option to transfer the education benefits to family members.  Pentagon officials have voiced concerns that the generous benefits may provide an incentive for troops to leave after a single enlistment.  Key lawmakers to include the bill’s sponsor Senator Jim Webb, D-Va., declared that had it not been for the GI Bill they would not have become U.S. Senators, and encouraged veterans to remain vigilant against any scaling back of benefits.  To read more about the Post 9/11 GI Bill and cuts, please go to: http://www.military.com/news/article/vets-worry-about-future-of-new-gi-bill.html?ESRC=eb.nl

Important TriWest Healthcare Alliance Update

TriWest Healthcare Alliance Corp., the country’s largest TRICARE regional contractor, has agreed to pay $10 million to settle a suit alleging that it negotiated discounts with service providers and then submitted claims at higher rates to the Defense Department’s TRICARE Management Agency.  According to the Justice Department (DoJ), U.S. attorneys found evidence that TriWest signed letters of agreement with health care providers for service discounts and then turned around and submitted bills to TRICARE at normal TRICARE rates.  In a statement, TriWest attributed the error to a processing glitch, saying its automated system, which processes more than 10 million claims a year, inadvertently caused the company to bill TRICARE at the normal rate rather than the lower negotiated rate.  Though TriWest realized no financial gain from this, the unrealized discounts did cause a loss to the government.  Visit http://www.triwest.com for more information or http://www.armytimes.com/news/2011/09/military-triwest-settlement-tricare-090911w/

VA Lists Ships Exposed to Agent Orange

Veterans who served aboard U.S. Navy and Coast Guard ships operating on the waters of Vietnam between 9 January1962, and 7 May, 1975, may be eligible to receive Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) disability compensation for 14 medical conditions associated with presumptive exposure to Agent Orange. An updated list of U.S. Navy and Coast Guard ships confirmed to have operated on Vietnam's inland waterways, docked on shore, or had crewmembers sent ashore, has been posted at the VA Public Health Agent Orange webpage at: http://www.publichealth.va.gov/exposures/agentorange/ to assist Vietnam veterans in determining potential eligibility for compensation benefits. For questions about Agent Orange and the online list of ships, veterans may call VA's Special Issues Helpline at 1-800-749-8387 and press 3. For more information, please go to: http://www.va.gov/opa/pressrel/pressrelease.cfm?id=2156.

Suicides Linked to Body Chemistry

Research published in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry has connected suicides to low levels of docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and found that service personnel with higher levels of DHA in their blood were less likely to take their own lives.  Servicemen whose medical records showed they had low levels of DHA in their blood were 65% more likely to have been suicide victims than those with the highest levels.  A summary of the article is available on the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry website.  For more military news, visit http://www.military.com

Treatment for Gulf War Syndrome

Researchers at the University of Hull in England believe they have found a treatment for people with Gulf War Syndrome.  Dr. Stephen Atkins and his team at the Hull York Medical School are pioneering the treatment.  Of the 11 Veterans with Gulf War Syndrome sent to the infirmary, nine were diagnosed with a rare problem with their pituitary gland which led to a deficiency of certain hormones, such as testosterone and thyroxin.  Those patients are now being treated “with injections to replace the missing hormones.”  For more details, please go to: http://www.military.com/veterans-report/treatment-for-gulf-war-syndrome

VA Announces Expansion of Virtual Lifetime Electronic Record

The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) announced that it will expand its pilot for the Virtual Lifetime Electronic Record (VLER), which enables sharing of Veterans’ health records. This should keep health care providers informed, improve continuity and timeliness of care, and eliminate gaps in health care information.  This pilot expansion is designed to share Veterans’ health information electronically, safely, and privately between VA, Department of Defense (DoD), and selected private health care facilities that are members of the secure Nationwide Health Information Network.   In addition to other ongoing efforts to share benefits and administrative data, the pilot is an initial step toward a larger capability which will become available throughout VA.  VA will expand this pilot to provide these services to Servicemembers and Veterans nationwide. To find out more about VLER, Veterans may call the toll-free at 1-877-771-VLER (8537).

VA Compensated Work Therapy

Compensated Work Therapy (CWT), also known as Veterans Industries, is a Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) vocational rehabilitation program that endeavors to match and support work ready veterans in competitive jobs, and to consult with business and industry regarding their specific employment needs.  CWT programs provide employment counseling, training and assistance to veterans who qualify and are typically located within VA medical centers in most large metropolitan areas as well as many smaller communities.  To learn more about the CWT programs or how to qualify, please go to: http://www.cwt.va.gov/.

VA Begins New Program to Serve Veterans Living Abroad

The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has instituted a new program to provide comprehensive compensation and pension (C&P) examinations to U.S. Veterans living overseas.  In June, VA staff traveled to Camp Lester in Okinawa, Japan, to join with members of the Department of Defense in providing C&P exams to Veterans.  Over the course of their three week trip, the team completed 247 examinations on 39 veterans.  Due to the success of the pilot program, a return visit is planned for September 19-30.  VA plans to explore other opportunities to provide similar services to additional destinations in Europe and Asia where U.S. Veterans live.  To read this article in full, please go to: http://www.va.gov/opa/pressrel/pressrelease.cfm?id=2158

Military Branches Have Entered the Retail Market

The Army, the Navy and the other branches of the armed services have realized that they are far more than the world’s premier fighting force.  Like Coca-Cola, Apple and the University of Notre Dame, The Military services are a brand that can move merchandise, from T-shirts to playing cards to camouflage baby bibs.  Ever since the draft was discontinued in 1973, the military has had to sell itself to the general public, which has often seen military service as someone else’s problem.  Generally that selling was done by the advertising executives who produced recruiting commercials and the marketing consultants who coined phrases such as “Army Strong.”  Services have now entered the retail market, generating an explosion of military-themed products that sell for tens of millions of dollars annually.   This year will net record sales for the Army and has attracted such corporate giants as Under Armour, New Balance and Gillette.  To read this article in full, please go to: http://www.washingtonpost.com/local/the-marine-cologne-strong-with-a-hint-of-military-spirit/2011/09/02/gIQAMSmgAK_story.html

Express Scripts/Walgreen contract fight (TRICARE Pharmacy)

There is still no contract agreement reached between Express Scripts (ESI) and Walgreen’s. ESI is the company that has the contract to manage both TRICARE’s Retail Pharmacy and Mail Order Pharmacy programs. RADM Christine Hunter, the Deputy Director of TRICARE Management Activity (TMA) called a phone conference yesterday to brief representatives of several VSOs and MSOs of the present status. TREA President Arthur Cooper as well as members of TREA’s Washington Office’s staff participated in the meeting.

In brief the status of negotiations has not changes since the last time we wrote about it. There has been no agreement reached between the 2 corporations. The disagreement is not focused on the TRICARE contracts. It is about ESI’s full book of business. RADM Hunter made clear that TMA should not and would not get involved in the companies’ corporate business dealings. She simply emphasized that with or without Walgreens ESI would be required to comply with the contract between TRICARE and them to provide a robust retail pharmacy network. She stated that they are doing that-and if Walgreens leaves the network TRICARE Pharmacy beneficiaries would still have (as contractually required) a network 2 miles from them if they live in an urban area, 5 miles if they live in a suburban area and 15 miles if they live in a rural area of the country. The TRICARE Retail Pharmacy Network presently has over 63,000 drug stores. Walgreen’s is the largest pharmacy chain in the country with approximately 7,000 drug stores. So if they left our network there would still be over 56,000 pharmacies in the TRICARE Network.

She also emphasized that even if no agreement is reached Walgreens’ will still be in the network until January 1st 2012 so no one needs to take immediate action. If you have prescriptions with Walgreen’s and you wish to transfer them to another network pharmacy you do not need to get another prescription or see your doctor. All you need to do is bring your medicine bottles to the new pharmacy and they can transfer the prescription with the information on the pill bottle.  

Project Arch (Access Received Closer to Home)

While Project Hero has been running for several years Project Arch just started this August 29th. It is a 3 year pilot to provide veterans in rural areas far from present VA facilities healthcare closer to home Humana is managing 4 or the project’s 5 sites: Farmville, Virginia, Pratt Kansas, Flagstaff Arizona, Billings Montana, (the 5th site is Aroostook County Caribou Maine will have healthcare provided by Cary Medical Center.

The Virginia project will cover Primary Care, including routine preventive care, diagnostic imaging, and laboratory services. The Kansas project will cover “primary care, including routine preventive care, diagnostic imaging, laboratory services as well as behavioral health screening and assessment.” The Arizona contract will cover: “Acute inpatient medical and surgical care, including related consultations and ancillaries as well as outpatient specialty consultations including related diagnostic imaging and laboratory services.” The Montana project will cover “acute inpatient medical and surgical care, including related consultations and ancillaries…Outpatient specialty consultation, including related diagnostic imaging and laboratory services. “ Finally the Maine project will cover “Acute inpatient medical and surgical care, including related consultations and ancillaries “as well as “outpatient specialty consultation, including related diagnostic imaging and laboratory services.”

What all this ultimately means is if you live in rural areas around these VISNs you will be able to choose to get health care without travelling long distances to a VA hospital or clinic. You can qualify for this program if you have the following travel times:

  • Live more than 60 minutes driving time from the nearest VA health care facility providing primary care services, or
  • Live more than 120 minutes time distance from the nearest VA health care facility providing acute hospital care, or
  • Live more than 240 minutes driving time from the nearest VA health care facility providing tertiary care.

It is a program that has been a long time coming. The statute authorizing the demonstration was passed in 2008 but this is the first year where money was test. If you are interested you should speak to your VA Care Coordinator.