Retiree & Veteran Affairs News 20 August 2013 

8/20/2013 

HOUSE APPROVES DEFENSE SPENDING BILL

The House's approval of the fiscal 2014 defense appropriations bill last week means that they have now passed all three of the major defense-related bills. The Military Construction/VA bill and the Defense authorization bill were approved on June 4 and June 14, respectively.

The appropriations bill provides $512.5 billion in non-war funding and includes $85.8 billion in funding for Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO).

The bill includes a 1.8 percent pay raise for military personnel, and prohibits the Defense Department from furloughing civilian workers, including Dual Status Military Technicians, beginning on Oct. 1.

AUSA would like to thank Rep. Colleen Hanabusa, D-Hawaii, for introducing an amendment that would prohibit any new fees on the TRICARE for Life program. Her amendment was approved by voice vote.

In a speech on the House floor, Hanabusa said, “Year after year, we hear from the Defense Department that healthcare costs for our soldiers and veterans are spiraling out of control, and that TRICARE is ‘crippling’ DoD with its rise in costs. Yet, for the past two fiscal years, the Pentagon has found a way to reprogram hundreds of millions of dollars from defense health accounts to ‘higher priorities.’

“DoD’s own documents prove military health costs are not ‘exploding’ – the combined personnel and health care costs are less than one-third of DoD budget, the same as they’ve been for 30 years.

“The relatively low cost of healthcare and strong benefits are the fundamental elements are necessary to not just recruit, but also sustain an all-volunteer force. Significant cuts to the critical incentive packages that sustain a top-quality career force will undermine long-term retention and readiness.”

The White House has already issued a veto threat to the spending bill. A statement from the Office of Management and Budget said that enacting the legislation would “hurt our economy and require draconian cuts to middle-class priorities."

What’s next: It’s all up to the Senate now. The Defense Appropriations Subcommittee is scheduled to mark up its version of the bill tomorrow with approval expected by the full committee on Thursday. However, the likelihood that it is passed before the Oct. 1 start of the new fiscal year is slim. The Senate heads out for its five week August recess on Friday and they are slated to only work 16 legislative days in September. The schedule constraint coupled with the budget battles expected later this year probably means that another continuing resolution is on the horizon. There have been no details released on that yet.

VETERANS’ LEGISLATION ADVANCES 

A package of bills approved by the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee last week would improve benefits and health care services for veterans and their families. The package also includes a measure that would bring the Department of Veterans’ Affairs in line with a Supreme Court ruling on same-sex marriage.

The legislation cleared by the committee would:

  • Improve the delivery of care and benefits for veterans who experienced sexual trauma while serving in the military.
  • Extend to caregivers for veterans of all eras eligibility for the family caregiver program. This program currently provides services and benefits – including a monthly stipend, reimbursement for travel expenses, counseling, training and respite care – to caregivers of seriously injured post-9/11 veterans.
  • Expand eligibility for benefits for spouses married in states that allow gays to wed. The measure would bring the VA into conformance with a June 26 ruling by the Supreme Court that struck down a federal law that unconstitutionally denied federal benefits for all legally married couples.
  • Require quarterly reports to Congress on efforts to eliminate a backlog of benefits claims by 2015. VA would have to detail both the projected and actual number of claims received, pending, completed and on appeal.
  • Improve veterans’ health care through increased access to complementary and alternative medicine, chiropractic care and transportation services.
  • Expand access to education benefits for veterans and their survivors, including making recently-separated veterans eligible for tuition at the in-state rate and improving the level of benefits offered to survivors of service members killed on active duty.
  • Expand employment opportunities for veterans through new programs that will encourage employers to hire veterans and by renewing the popular Veterans Retraining Assistance Program from VOW to Hire Heroes Act of 2011.
  • Provide cost-of-living increases in veterans’ disability payments at the same rate as Social Security benefits.
  • Require a judge’s order to prohibit a veteran who has been determined to be mentally incompetent by the VA from purchasing or possessing a firearm.

The committee has not identified funding to pay for the legislation; therefore, the legislation will not go to the Senate floor for debate until the Congressional Budget Office provides cost estimates. Committee Chairman Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., pledged to work to find funding— and also said he doesn’t want Congress to scrimp on veter­ans programs.

IS ANYONE LISTENING?

Stop me if you’ve heard this:  The world is not getting any safer.  How about this:  The ongoing budget uncertainty and sequestration is wreaking havoc on the Defense Department at a time when the world is not getting any safer. 

The news reports over the weekend were stark.  Officials ordered the temporary closure of over two dozen U.S. diplomatic posts and issued a global travel warning to Americans because of a terrorist threat some members of Congress are calling the most serious since Sept. 11.

Against this backdrop are the findings of the Strategic Choices and Management Review, a four-month study conducted to ensure DoD is prepared in the face of unprecedented budget uncertainty.  Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel provided the grim details in a Pentagon press briefing last week. 

Force Structure

The review looked at two strategic approaches to reducing force structure and modernization.  The first approach would trade away size for high-end capability.  This would further shrink the active Army to between 380,000 to 450,000 troops, reduce the number of carrier strike groups from 11 to 8 or 9, draw down the Marine Corps from 182,000 to between 150,000 and 175,000, and retire older Air Force bombers.  This choice would result in a force that would be technologically dominant, but would be much smaller and able to go fewer places and do fewer things, especially if a crisis occurred at the same time in different regions of the world.

The second approach would trade away high-end capability for size.  Limited cuts would be made to ground forces, ships, and aircraft but many modernization programs would be cancelled or curtailed while the growth of cyber enhancements would be slowed and special operations forces would be reduced.

Hagel said that, “cuts on this scale would, in effect, be a decade-long modernization holiday.  The military could find its equipment and weapons systems – many of which are already near the end of their service lives – less effective against more technologically advanced adversaries.  We also have to consider how massive cuts to procurement and research and development funding would impact the viability of America's private-sector industrial base.”

Pay and Benefits

Among the compensation savings options are those that would:

--Change military health care for retirees to increase use of private-sector insurance when available;

--Change how the basic allowance for housing is calculated so that individuals are asked to pay more of their housing costs; 

--Reduce the overseas cost of living adjustment; 

--Continue to limit military and civilian pay raises.  (AUSA’s note:  How much smaller could civilian pay raises go?  Federal employees have not had a pay raise in three years.);

--Eliminate eligibility for federal civilian pensions for retired service members in government jobs; and,

--End subsidies to the Defense Commissary System.

AUSA President Gen. Gordon R. Sullivan, USA, Ret., is shocked that Congress continues to leave sequestration in place.  In a letter to House and Senate leadership last week he said that, “The effects of continuing to impose the costs of sequestration on the Department of Defense will cause the Army to fall back into unreadiness.  A “hollow Army” with furloughed civilians, tiered levels of unit readiness, Army pilot training backlogged, flying hours cut, crew certification falling, deferred battle loss replacement that will take years to recover from, deferred facilities maintenance, and cancelled schooling and unit Soldier training that lowers professional leader development and unit readiness will be the legacy of the mindlessness of sequestration cuts.”

Sullivan’s level of concern was raised even more when on the same day Secretary Hagel outlined his bleak options, the President told congressional Democrats that the Pentagon should get no more attention than many other areas of the budget with respect to sequestration.  Even the Washington Post was alarmed by his message. 

An editorial in Sunday’s Post said, “The entire sequester, hitting defense and non-defense, was bad policy when lawmakers passed it, it was bad policy when they let it begin, and it remains bad policy.  The president is right to press for the whole thing to end, along with Congress’s indefensibly short-term approach to budgeting.  Political tactics may compel him for the moment not to give national security special consideration, given House Republicans’ intransigence.

“But Mr. Obama ultimately can’t act as though the Defense Department’s sequester cuts are equivalent in consequence to every other item in the budget.  The country’s defense is a core responsibility of the federal government, and its armed forces are critical to the nation’s ability to exert leadership, maintain alliances, defend human rights and preserve the nation’s safety.”

An AUSA salute to Rep. Buck McKeon, Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee who is listening.  McKeon has consistently warned of the dire consequences of sequestration on the force.  After Secretary Hagel's remarks, McKeon said that, "further cuts will cause catastrophic readiness shortfalls, we will lose our workforce and ability to recruit and retain the all-volunteer force, and our influence around the world will continue to diminish."

This weekend’s news about the potential terrorist threat reinforces the message:  The world is not getting any safer and we must not decimate the military force structure because of mindless and irresponsible budget cuts. 

Once Congress returns from its August recess, AUSA, along with its partners in The Military Coalition, will mount a full-court press to urge Congress to end sequestration and work together to hammer out spending bills that reflect common sense, not just for the Defense Department, but across the government.  In the meantime, please join us and contact your members of Congress to urge them to pass legislation that will end sequestration.  Visit the Legislative Agenda page on AUSA’s website www.ausa.org.  Click on the “Contact Congress” link and then on the prepared letter “Stop Sequestration Now” to let your representatives and senators know that it is time to act.

AUSA ON THE HILL

Last week, AUSA President Gen. Gordon R. Sullivan, USA, Ret., met with Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kansas.

Because Kansas is home to both Fort Riley and Fort Leavenworth, as well as McConnell Air Force Base, the effect sequestration is having on the force is a top concern for Sen. Roberts. 

In addition to the current budget situation, Gen. Sullivan outlined AUSA’s legislative goals and his position on issues that impact our members and the troops.  Both men pledged to continue to work together in the future.

In the News

In an article titled Sequestration-Yes it is Your Problem, General Gordon. R. Sullivan, President of AUSA and 32nd Chief of Staff of the Army wrote “Given the evidence of the past several months, politicians will continue to talk while our national defense falls apart. The automatic, mindless cuts imposed by sequestration put the nation’s defense posture at serious risk.”

It would be easy for those of us outside the beltway to sympathize and even get angry at the irresponsible nature of these sequestration cuts to our national defense, but make the connection to these cuts as being OUR problem? For some of us that could be a stretch.

We beg to differ.

Sequestration cuts in 2014 will not just be devastating to our National Defense; Sequestration will impact us in ways we never ever imagined, and it will get ugly.

We will observe heated conversations about cutting BAH, increasing TRICARE fees, questioning child care subsidies, reducing the percentage of the DoD workforce to include military personnel below those numbers already identified. And the lowest hanging fruit, the easiest place to “Rob Peter to Pay Paul”, will be in personnel cost. Sequestration cuts in 2014 will pit us against each other. Measuring this to avoid that, creating a call for “shared sacrifice” when we all know that once something is taken away we will never ever gain it back.

With sequestration EVERYBODY loses. Join AUSA and General Sullivan. Contact your members of Congress and urge them to pass legislation that will end sequestration. The Time to ACT is NOW. Visit the Legislative Agenda page on AUSA’s website. Click on the “Contact Congress” link and then on the prepared letter “Stop Sequestration Now” to let your representatives and senators know that it is time to act.

Spouse Employment Effort Surpasses Goal More Than Two Years Early

Military Spouse Employment Partnership (MSEP), a group of more than 180 organizations, recently reached a huge

milestone by surpassing the goal of hiring 50,000 military spouses well in advance of a projected date in 2015. Part of the broader DOD Spouse Education and Career Opportunities program, MSEP is a result of Joining Forces, a 2011 call to action by First Lady Michelle Obama and Dr. Jill Biden, wife of Vice President Joe Biden, to mobilize support from

all sectors of the nation to help find work for service members, families and veterans. These achievements would not

have been possible without a community of partners, and I really do want to give a shout-out for the strong advocacy … of the first lady, Michelle Obama, and Dr. Jill Biden,” Acting Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness Jessica Wright said. They crisscrossed the United States, she added, meeting with business leaders and heads of key organizations to talk about spousal employment.  

Consumer Financial Protection Bureau Mid-Year Update Released

Like their fellow Americans, many service members have student loan debt. Congress has enacted a number of protections and benefits for service members to help manage their student loan debt. Unfortunately, the complexities of these provisions, together with problems in loan servicing, have created difficulties for many military families when attempting to manage their debt. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has released a mid-year update analyzing complaints from private student loan borrowers. The update explores some of the challenges consumers face when dealing with their lenders and servicers. While some lenders and servicers are addressing concerns about difficulties faced by military borrowers, the problem has not gone away. Regrettably, they continue to receive complaints from service members with student loans having trouble accessing benefits under the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act (SCRA). Read the Blog and the full mid-year update here. Have a complaint about a student loan or other financial products and services? You can file a complaint with them here.

Hagel Announces Reduction in Civilian Furlough Days

Defense Secretary Hagel announced a reduction in civilian furlough days, with employees now taking only six of the 11 previously mandated unpaid days. “As a result of these management initiatives, reduced costs, and reprogramming from Congress, we have determined that we can make some improvements in training and readiness and still meet the sequestration cuts. While we are still depending on furlough savings, we will be able to make up our budgetary shortfall in this fiscal year with fewer furlough days than initially announced,” he said.

The furlough reduction is also great news for the DoD education community, as the new school year will now go on without interruptions or changes for military students and teachers. Says Secretary Hagel, “Hoping to be able to reduce furloughs, we submitted a large reprogramming proposal to Congress in May, asking them to let us move funds from acquisition accounts into day-to-day operating accounts. Congress approved most of this request in late July, and we are working with them to meet remaining needs. We are also experiencing less than expected costs in some areas, such as transportation of equipment out of Afghanistan. Where necessary, we have taken aggressive action to transfer funds among services and agencies. And the furloughs have saved us money.” Read Hagel’s full statement here.

TRICARE Moves Forward With Prime Service Area Reductions

The Defense Department will reduce the number of TRICARE Prime service areas in the United States beginning Oct. 1, affecting about 171,000 retirees and their family members. Those beneficiaries, who mostly reside more than 40 miles from a military clinic or hospital, received a letter earlier this year explaining their options. They will receive a second letter later this month. TRICARE Management Activity officials said changing the location of Prime service areas has been planned since 2007 as part of the move to the third-generation of managed care support contracts and will allow them to continue their commitment to making high-quality health care available while supporting DOD efforts to control the rising cost of health care for 9.6 million beneficiaries. Health care under TRICARE Prime costs about $600 more annually per enrollee, but on average, each member of a family of three using TRICARE Standard will pay only about $20 more per month than if they were using Prime. “The first thing TRICARE beneficiaries should know about the reduction in the number of Prime service areas is that it doesn’t mean they’re losing their TRICARE benefit,” said Dr. Jonathan Woodson, assistant secretary of defense for health affairs. “Next, it’s important to remember this change does not affect most of the more than 5 million people using TRICARE Prime, and [it affects] none of our active duty members and their families.”  

Website Teaches Coping Skills to Military Community

As part of the Integrated Mental Health Strategy, the Defense Department’s National Center for Telehealth and Technology and the Veterans Affairs Department’s mental health informatics section have partnered to develop an interactive online educational and life-coaching program. Moving Forward, at www.startmovingforward.org, is designed to teach problem-solving skills to members of the military community, Dr. Robert Ciulla, director of the mobile health program at the National Center for Telehealth and Technology, told American Forces Press Service today. Moving Forward is focused on addressing stress—specifically, recognizing when a person is stressed, identifying stressors and developing stress management skills.

2013 AUSA Annual Meeting and Military Family Forum Registration Open

Registration is now open for the 2013 AUSA Annual Meeting, October 21-23, along with the Military Family Forums. These forums within the Annual Meeting are designed to engage and inform both the military community and the greater civilian community around them. We are excited to connect with military families, share resources, and gain insight from our scheduled speakers and panelists. Our forums this year will feature the Army’s top leaders and in depth discussions about holistic approaches to self-care, outside the installation community resources, and the rapidly expanding world of military community and family support via social networking and online outreach.

VA reaches out to veterans about the health care law

WASHINGTON (AFRNS) -- The Department of Veterans Affairs has launched an awareness campaign and a new website, www.va.gov/aca, to let veterans know what the Affordable Care Act means for them and their families. Veterans receiving health care from the Department of Veterans Affairs will see no change in their benefits or out-of-pocket costs when portions of the Affordable Care Act take effect next year.

“VA wants all veterans to receive health care that improves their health and well-being,” said Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric K. Shinseki. “If you are enrolled in VA health care, you do not need to take any additional steps to meet the health care law coverage standards. If you are not enrolled in VA health care, you can apply at any time.” 

“VA encourages eligible veterans who are not enrolled in VA’s health care system to take advantage of the world-class care we provide to the men and women who have served this nation in uniform,” Shinseki added.

Veterans can apply for VA health care at any time by visiting www.va.gov/healthbenefits/enroll, calling 877-222-8387, or visiting their local VA health care facility. Full details on eligibility are available here.

VA’s health care system for veterans has no enrollment fee, no monthly premiums and no deductibles. Most veterans also have no out-of-pocket costs, though some may have small copayments for some health care or prescription drugs.

“VA will continue to provide veterans with high quality, comprehensive health care and other benefits they have earned through their service,” said Dr. Robert Petzel, VA’s chief physician and under secretary for health. 

The Affordable Care Act was created to expand access to coverage, reduce rising health care costs, and improve health care quality and care coordination. The Affordable Care Act creates new opportunities for coverage for uninsured veterans and their families.

There are more than 1.3 million veterans and more than 950,000 spouses and children of veterans without health insurance. Most uninsured veterans are eligible for VA health care. For those who are not eligible for VA care – such as veterans’ family members – the law created a new Health Insurance Marketplace.

In 2014, the Marketplace will be a new way to shop for and purchase private health insurance. People who purchase insurance through the Marketplace may be able to lower the costs of health insurance coverage by paying lower monthly premiums. For more information, visit www.healthcare.gov.

For information about VA health care and the Affordable Care Act, people can visit the new website or call 877-222-8387, Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 10 p.m., or Saturdays 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., Eastern time. The new website includes a Health Benefits Explorer, where veterans can learn about the benefits they can receive if they enroll in VA care.

Study: Deployments Not Reason for Rise in Suicides

Combat deployments, no matter how many or how long, were not the reason for the notable increase in military suicides, according to a study of current and former U.S. servicemembers from 2001 to 2008.

The study, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, found that military members’ risk of suicide was associated with the same factors as those in the civilian population: being male, and suffering from depression and alcohol or drug abuse.

The study by Cynthia A. LeardMann, M.P.H., of the Naval Health Research Center, San Diego, and colleagues, comes eight years after the military suicide rate began climbing as the military fought two wars.

The findings of the study -- thought to be the first that in addition to tracking active-duty troops, followed servicemembers after they resumed civilian life -- counter the conventional wisdom that combat stress, number of deployments and the operations tempo as the U.S. fought wars in Iraq and Afghanistan had caused more troops to take their own lives.

“In this sample of current and former military personnel … suicide risk was independently associated with male sex and mental disorders but not with military-specific variables,” the study, “Risk Factors Associated with Suicide in Current and Former U.S. Military Personnel,” said.

The study looked at deaths of troops among the 151,597 participating in the military’s Millennium Cohort Study, a health study in which participants complete surveys every three years. Researchers then linked that data with the National Death Index and the Department of Defense Medical Mortality Registry through December 31, 2008.

Between 2001 and 2008, there were 83 suicides -- 12.8 percent -- among a total of 646 deaths of those enrolled in the Millennium Cohort Study.

 “In models adjusted for age and sex, factors significantly associated with increased risk of suicide included male sex, depression, manic-depressive disorder, heavy or binge drinking, and alcohol-related problems,” the study said. “The authors found that none of the deployment-related factors (combat experience, cumulative days deployed, or number of deployments) were associated with increased suicide risk in any of the models.”

The study noted that other studies have shown a marked increase in the incidence of mental health disorder diagnoses among active-duty servicemembers since 2005, paralleling the suicide incidence.

“This suggests that the increased rate of suicide in the military may largely be a product of an increased prevalence of mental disorders in this population …,” the study said.

The study suggested prevention efforts should focus on addressing mental health disorders and substance abuse, even as it noted that “there are limited studies that validate prevention initiatives.”

Similarly, Dr. Charles Engel, a psychiatrist at the Uniformed Services University of Health Sciences in Bethesda, Md., in an editorial on the study also published in JAMA, said the findings offered “potentially reassuring ways forward” because treatment exists for mood disorders and alcohol misuse.

“Collaborative primary care management is a strategy strongly recommended by the National Institute of Mental Health to military senior leaders as perhaps the most promising suicide prevention strategy.”

Engel also wrote that lasting success in treating military mental health disorders that precede suicide will “require addressing the long-standing military ambivalence toward the medical model of mental illness,” which keeps troops from seeking help because receiving a mental-health diagnosis is not confidential, carries a stigma and can impede a career.

“(T)here are no vaccines to prevent mental disorders, and the study findings suggest the need to remain circumspect about the capacity to reduce suicide rates in practice,” Engel wrote.

Notably absent in the study and Engel’s editorial was any mention of suicide methods and reducing access to them, one of the few suicide prevention techniques that has been demonstrated to be effective.

“What’s remarkable to me is they did not mention the role of reducing access to firearms at all,” said Dr. Matthew Miller, the associate director of the Harvard Injury Control Research Center at the Harvard School of Public Health.

“Yes, it’s very important to treat underlying mental illness and substance abuse. But it’s also crucial to recognize that reducing access to firearms, especially in a population of men who’ve served in the military is probably the surest way to reduce the rate of suicide. It should be mentioned on equal footing with recommendations to treat underlying human suffering.”

Most military suicides are committed with firearms, while about half of civilian suicides use firearms, according to studies by the Army and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The JAMA study’s conclusion buttresses what senior military leaders have suggested since at least 2010 after years of accruing suicide data, particularly in the Army.

In July 2010, an Army report said that 79 percent of active-duty soldiers who committed suicide had deployed only once or not at all; that 60 percent of suicides occurred during a soldier’s first enlistment, most often in the first year; and that among the highest suicide rates were those of men who enlisted in their late 20s.

In 2009, when 310 servicemembers killed themselves, the Army’s suicide rate of 20 per 100,000 soldiers was double what it had been a decade earlier and for the first time surpassed the civilian rate of 19 per 100,000 in a civilian population with similar demographics.

The Army report suggested that the increase was in part attributable to enlisting more at-risk soldiers after recruitment and retention standards were reduced in 2004. More than half of 80,403 waivers granted were to people with a history of drug or alcohol abuse, or crimes, the Army report said, and offenses that once had meant discharge were overlooked.

The U.S. civilian suicide rate also sharply increased from 1999 to 2010, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported this spring, particularly for middle-age men. Their rate was 27.3 deaths per 100,000.

There were 349 suicides by active-duty service members in 2012, according to Pentagon figures, up from 301 the year before.

In the News

The Army Times has printed a devastating article titled “An Epidemic of Abuse: Army sees 40 percent increases in cases from 2009 to 2012”. According to the article written by Richard Sandza, nearly 30,000 children have suffered abuse or neglect in Army homes over the past decade, with beatings, tortures, and starvation claiming the lives of 118 of those children. The article is painful to read. But as painful as it was to read, even more painful were comments under postings of the article on social media. The general sentiment of but the numbers are lower than in the civilian population, or, the numbers are fabricated, what does this prove except that there is child abuse within the ranks just like in the civilian community, left a real feeling of sorrow. Have we become so “combat weary” that a story such as this, no matter how sensationalized, doesn’t make us pause?

Yes, the Army is made up of young families who just as in the civilian communities have a higher propensity towards child abuse and neglect. And yes, the Army has not always done due diligence on background checks on new recruits during the height of fighting two wars simultaneously. But the Army also provides training and support programs to soldiers and their families that aim to foster resilience and healthy lifestyles. Programs such as the New Parent Support Program, School Based Behavioral Health, Scream Free Parenting, and an assortment of classes on Fathering, Parenting, and Marriage have all been developed, enhanced, and provided to our Army families over the past 10 years.

Our Army families, all things considered, are doing well. The usual challenges one faces when raising young children have been heightened with the OPTEMPO of the past 10 years, but the fact of the matter is, child abuse cases are still not in the majority but the minority, and professionals working closely with families in health, education, and welfare programs are making a difference. However, we as neighbors and friends must do our part too.

We must look out for one another, just like soldiers in the field look out for their battle buddies. We must not be afraid to question a situation that doesn’t look right. We must not shy away from simply asking a neighbor “Is everything alright?” and be ready to offer resources if the answer is not believable.  It does “take a village” and we must do our part because one child dying from abuse or neglect is one too many.

Briefing Reveals Looming Critical Impact of Budgetary Uncertainty on Community

As sequestration continues, fewer and fewer positive outcomes reveal themselves. At a recent review of projected and already implemented budgetary cuts, Secretary Hagel said that that the Pentagon is being forced to weigh dramatic reductions in force  and strength as it struggles with ongoing budget cuts under sequestration. The automatic cuts could slash $500 billion over a decade, including $52 billion from next year’s budget. The secretary said senior leaders and staff members from his office, the Joint Staff, the services, the combatant commands and defense field activities all participated in the review, and all options were examined with four priorities in mind:

• Prioritizing DOD’s missions and capabilities around its core responsibility of defending the nation
• Maximizing the military’s combat power by looking to reduce every other category of spending first
• Preserving and strengthening military readiness
• Honoring the service and sacrifice of DOD’s people

With 420,000 to 450,000 active-duty troops, the Army could fulfill the mission required by the recent national defense strategy that redirects the military’s focus to Asia, Hagel said. Current plans approved by Congress call for the Army to cut end strength to 490,000 by 2017. This would make for the smallest Army force since since before WWII.  Read the complete best and worst case scenario as outlined by Secretary Hagel here.

Agencies Work to Bolster Vet, Family Education Outcomes

Several government agencies are working on initiatives to improve educational success rates for service members, veterans and their families. A central question was whether veterans and serving troops are unscrupulously recruited by some for-profit schools. Holly Petraeus, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s assistant director for the Office of Servicemember Affairs, testified before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee on educational outcomes for military members and veterans. As Petraeus explained, a “90-10” provision in law that is meant to protect students actually creates a loophole some schools are exploiting. She said the rule requires for-profit colleges to get at least 10 percent of their revenues from a source other than Title IV, which covers federal student financial aid programs. The rule is meant to ensure that a college does not exist solely on federal funds, Petraeus said, but although tuition assistance and the Post-9/11 GI Bill are federally funded, they fall into the 10-percent category of the 90-10 rule. “This means that for every service member using [tuition assistance] or GI Bill funds, as well as the spouse or child of a service member, in the case of the Post-9/11 GI Bill, that a for-profit college recruits, the college can then go out and enroll nine other students who are using Title IV funds,” Petraeus said. “And that can be a problem.” Read the full report here.

 New Study Looks at Impact of Service on Military Children

When a parent goes to war, families are deeply affected. Young children may be especially vulnerable to adverse outcomes, because of their emotional dependence on adults and their developing brains’ susceptibility to high levels of stress. Nearly half-a-million children younger than six have an active-duty parent—and some have two. There about 2 million children, birth through age 17, that have had parents serve in one of the wars over the past 12 years, creating a continual period of separation. About 500,000 of the children are under the age of six, according to David Murphey, a senior research scientist at Child Trends, who is behind a new study that takes a look at the effect more than a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan is having on military kids. "There's a sense of loss when a parent is absent. In addition, the child can pick up on the stress, worry, anxiety of the parent who is remaining at home," says Murphey.

The report highlights issues faced exclusively by today’s generation of military children, with half of today’s active duty force being parents, and an increase in dual military households. You can access the full report and its findings here.

 2013 AUSA Annual Meeting and Military Family Forum Registration Open

Want to already have an event scheduled on your Fall social calendar? Registration is now open for the 2013 AUSA Annual Meeting, October 21-23, along with the Military Family Forums. These forums within the Annual Meeting are designed to engage and inform both the military community and the greater civilian community around them. Here’s a look at our four forums and the subject matter they will cover.


• Military Family Forum I- Our Military Community: Voices from the Top
This forum will feature town hall style presentations from the top Army leaders.

• Military Family Forum II- The Performance Triad: A Holistic Approach to Self-Care
This forum will explore holistic approaches to caring for one’s self and family. New and innovative programs from the Department of the Army and the Department of Defense will be discussed.

• Military Family Forum III- Community Resources: A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood
This forum will showcase the growing support of military families by civilian organizations through private /public partnerships with the military community.

• Military Family Forum IV- Expanding Our Reach: Our Neighborhood Knows No Bounds
This forum will explore innovative uses of social media and advanced technology in the military family communications arena. Featured speakers will share techniques and successful approaches to building a virtual support community.

VA Partners to Reduce Claims Backlog

The Department of Veterans Affairs, the American Bar Association (ABA) and the Legal Services Corporation (LSC) has announced a new partnership and pilot program aimed at reducing the claims backlog and making it easier for unrepresented veterans to receive assistance developing their claims for disability pay. ABA and LSC attorneys will provide free assistance to a targeted group of unrepresented veterans who request their help gathering and obtaining evidence required by law to support their disability claims. In the coming months, VA will identify eligible veterans to participate in the pilot program and send letters advising them of all their options for representation to help them advance their claims. The VA letter will inform veterans of a 1-800 hotline and website to connect them to an attorney who is willing to assist with their claim, free-of-charge. Veterans can learn more about disability benefits on the joint Department of Defense-VA eBenefits web

TRICARE Pharmacy Home Delivery

TRICARE Pharmacy Home Delivery offers a safe, affordable and convenient method of getting prescriptions delivered to patients' doors, by way of the U.S. Postal Service. Home Delivery includes generics at no-cost; a 90-day supply for most medications; refills by mail, phone or online; and an automatic refill option. Active duty have no co-pays, while other patients have no co-pay for generics, $13 for brand-name formulary and $43 for non-formulary. To enroll at no-cost, there are three options: online at the TRICARE Home Delivery webpage at www.tricare.mil/homedelivery, by telephone at (877) 363-1303, or by mailing a registration form to Express Scripts Inc., P.O. Box 52150, Phoenix, AZ 85072-9954

Veterans' Preference When Hiring

The Veterans' Preference Act is a United States federal law passed in 1944 that requires the federal government to favor returning war veterans when hiring new employees. Veterans' Preference means that when agencies use a numerical rating and ranking system to determine the best qualified applicants for a position, an additional 5 or 10 points are added to the numerical score of qualified preference eligible veterans. Veterans' preference does not guarantee veterans a job. To receive preference, a veteran must have been discharged or released from active duty in the armed forces under honorable conditions. For more information, visit the Military.com website and see this article. More information can also be found at the U.S. Department of Labor website and the FedsHireVets.gov website.

A Look at 'Old Glory'

The practice of referring to the American flag as "Old Glory" was coined by Captain William Driver, a shipmaster of Salem, Massachusetts. As he was leaving on August 10, 1831 on one of his many voyages aboard the brig CHARLES DOGGETT some friends presented him with a beautiful flag of twenty-four stars. As the banner opened to the ocean breeze for the first time, he exclaimed "Old Glory!" He retired to Nashville in 1837, taking the treasured flag from his sea days with him. By the time the Civil War erupted, Rebels were determined to destroy his flag. But, Driver secretly sewed the banner inside a quilt to save it. Today, Driver is buried in the Nashville's historic City Cemetery, and Old Glory resides in the Smithsonian in Washington, DC. For more information on Old Glory, visit the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) website and the USAFlag.org website.

New Bill Would Extend Early Retirement Pay to Many in the National Guard and Reserve

Just before the start of the August Congressional recess Representative Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) introduced a bill to extend early retirement to many more members of the Guard and Reserve. H.R. 2907, The National Guardsmen and Reservists’ Parity Act, would authorize early retirement pay for qualifying members of the Guard and Reserve who were activated between September 11th 2001 and January 28th 2008. As of today it has 3 co-sponsors. Presently, the law pays retirement pay to a Reserve Component member three months prior to age 60 for each aggregate of 90 days of service spent on Title 10 status to support a contingency operation or while responding to a national emergency on Title 32 status. However, the present law only applies to service performed after January 2008 (the day the FY2008 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) which included the authorizing bill went into effect.

More than 600,000 members of the Guard and Reserve would be aided by this proposed change in the law.

Rep. Wilson, who is the Chairman of the HASC’s Personnel Subcommittee, said: “ Whether these brave men and women were putting their lives on the line during heavy combat in Iraq and Afghanistan or tending to devastating natural disasters at home like Hurricane Katrina each of our Guard and Reserve members deserves to receive appropriate recognition for their active-duty service."

This extension of the law has been an important long time goal of the military coalition, since the original bill was signed into law in 2008. We will keep you informed of future actions. If you would be helped by this change we urge you to contact your House member and ask him or her to become a co-sponsor as soon as possible.  

The American Bar Association and Legal Services Corporation Joins VA to Launch Pilot to Represent Veterans in Claims Process

This week the American Bar Association (ABA) and the Legal Services Corporation (LSC) joined with the VA to launch a new pilot program to provide free legal representation for veterans filing VA disability claims. The program will start in Chicago Illinois and St. Petersburg’s but it is hoped that it will quickly go nationwide. It is hoped that this program will both help reduce the backlog and help unrepresented veterans get the disability pay they are entitled to receive.

The pilot will offer pro bono attorney assistance to Veterans with claims pending at the St. Petersburg and Chicago Regional Offices who do not currently have an authorized representative. (Pro Bono Publico in Latin means “for the Public Good” which means free.)

Veterans will be offered this help in part depending on the complexity and completeness of their cases. The VA will accredit that volunteer attorneys and the ABA and LSC will provide them the “specialized training that will enable them to help evaluate and develop Veterans claims and make those claims ready for a rating decision.”

The VA will write letters to qualified veterans telling them of the pilots and advising them of the many representation options- Veterans Service Organizations, attorneys and claims agents and pro bono attorneys participating in the pilot program.

“Under the partnership, the ABA and LSC will match interested veterans and attorneys on several factors, including geographic location, complexity of the claim and the veteran’s and attorney’s preferences on the scope of representation.”

The program was announced at the ABA’s annual convention. ABA President Laurel Bellows said” The ABA is proud to take the lead in connecting veterans with pro bono attorneys who will help them receive the aid our nation owes them for their selfless courage. We hope that our initial focus on Chicago and St. Petersburg can swiftly be expanded across the nation."

Questions Emerge About the Future of the GI Bill

The Post 9/11 GI Bill recently celebrated its four-year anniversary and Veterans Affairs (VA) officials are trying to figure out how student veterans are using the money in order to determine how effective the program truly is. The results will help to determine how long the generous benefit survives, and in what form.

VA Deputy Undersecretary for Economic Opportunity Curt Coy told reporters recently that the VA will launch a series of new tools in the coming months to help student veterans evaluate career paths, compare colleges and make sure they’re using their education money wisely.

Prior to now, the VA has been spending most of its time making sure students were actually getting their money. Problems during the implementation phase in 2009 were widely reported at the time.

New automated systems that VA has put in place have simplified the process, and dramatically cut down on delivery times for most veterans’ checks. The department now averages processing of payments for enrolled students in about seven days according to VA Undersecretary for Benefits Allison Hickey.

The post-9/11 GI Bill, passed by Congress in response to veterans complaints that the legacy GI Bill programs hadn’t kept up with tuition inflation, grants a monthly living stipend and a full four years’ tuition at any state school to veterans who served at least three years since September 2001.

Service members who stay in for 10 years can transfer their benefit to a spouse or child. Since August 2009, more than 1 million veterans and dependents have used the benefit for a total cost of nearly $30 billion.

But VA officials can’t point to any clear results from that spending yet. So VA announced its new effort to track student success in using the new GI Bill, compiling data on graduation, degrees earned and job placement.

We have argued that the Post 9/11 GI Bill, along with many other veterans’ benefits, are earned benefits and not optional assistance or “entitlements.” However, even the original GI Bill was cut down 12 years after its passage in 1944. If it happened in the past, it can happen again and that is something that we will be constantly guarding against.

Since service members have up to 15 years from the time of their separation from service to access the education benefits, over the upcoming years even more veterans and dependents will seek to access the tuition money, which would only increase congressional focus on the program.

That will mean tracking not just traditional college graduation rates but also usage of vocational programs and success rates for non-traditional students, who tend to balance family and full-time jobs with schooling.

Veterans Eligible for Free Virginia Real Estate Agent Course

If you are a veteran and interested in becoming a real estate agent in Virginia the Northern Virginia Association of Realtors is offering to waive the tuition of a course that you might be interested in.

Their 60 hour “ Principles of Real Estate “ class provides training to pass the Virginia licensing test and to start a career in real estate (And Virginia is a state where real estate is once again growing). It normally cost $275 but the Association will waive the fee if you have been honorable discharged since 1993. You will need to provide a copy of your DD214 and will also need to buy the text book which costs $49.95. The next class will begin on November 4th. The course will be given again in 2014. There are also opportunities for free continuing education if you are already a Virginia realtor. This could be a real opportunity. To find out more please call 703-207-3256 or e-mail NVAR at education@nvar.com 

TRICARE Issues Notice of Method of TFL Payment Method at VA Facilities (Some Beneficiaries May Pay More than They Have Been)

Below you will find a press release issued by TRICARE announcing that starting October 1st some TFL beneficiaries will be paying more out of pocket for non-service related care at a VA facility. What it does not explain is that TRICARE for Life (TFL) is a Medicare wrap around plan. Medicare pays 80% of most medical costs and TFL pays the remaining 20%. By statute Medicare cannot pay for care at a federal government facility. So if a TFL beneficiary is receiving non-service connected medical care at a VA facility Medicare will pay nothing for the care and TFL will only pay 20% of the cost. TRICARE has been paying 80% of such care- but TRICARE now says that was a mistake and they will stop doing so on October 1st (the new fiscal year.)

TRICARE says that their records show that only 12,000 will be affected by this change and that they intend to send individual letters out to them this month. If you think this may affect you or you have any questions please write dholleman@treadc.org

TRICARE For Life Beneficiaries May Have Higher Costs When Using VA Facilities for Care Not Related to Service Connected Disability

 FALLS CHURCH, Va. – Many TRICARE For Life (TFL) beneficiaries use Veterans Affairs (VA) facilities for care related to their service connected disabilities. But, as TFL is a comprehensive Medicare wraparound coverage, beneficiaries are reminded they run the risk of unexpected out-of-pocket costs if they use a VA facility for care not related to a service connected disability.

By law, Medicare can’t pay for care at a government facility, such as the VA. When a TFL beneficiary chooses to obtain care from a provider that Medicare can’t pay, TRICARE can only pay up to 20 percent of the TRICARE-allowable charge. The TFL beneficiary is responsible for paying the VA the remainder.

Beneficiaries who have been getting care at a VA facility that is not related to a service connected disability should talk to a VA representative about other VA options, including how VA can work with other health insurance (OHI) plans.

As part of the intake process at VA facilities after October 1, 2013, TFL beneficiaries will be asked if they’re using their VA or TFL benefit or if they have other health insurance (OHI). When electing to use their TFL benefit at the VA, they will also be informed they must pay the remaining bill after TRICARE pays its portion of the TRICARE-allowable charge. They may be asked to sign a form indicating they understand their responsibility.

TRICARE and the VA recommend getting care for service-connected disability at a VA facility. For other care, TFL beneficiaries may still consider using their VA benefit or they should use TFL with a Medicare-certified provider. When using Medicare providers, TFL beneficiaries typically have no out-of-pocket costs for services covered by both Medicare and TRICARE.

For more information about TFL, beneficiaries may contact the TFL support contractor Wisconsin Physicians Service (WPS) at 1-866-773-0404 or visit www.tricare.mil/tfl to learn more about using TFL. To find Medicare-certified providers visit www.tricare.mil/findaprovider. For more information about the VA, visit www.va.gov/health.

Clothing Left at TSA Checkpoints Goes to Veterans

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has begun donating clothing forgotten at airport security checkpoints to local veterans’ organizations and charities as a result of the Clothe a Homeless Hero Act, introduced last summer by Representative Kathy Hochul (D-N.Y.).

Representative Hochul says the legislation was inspired by veterans she met in Afghanistan as well as a room full of discarded clothing at the airport in Buffalo, where she hunted down a scarf she had forgotten in a security bin a week before.

Before the act was signed into law, forgotten clothing at airports like Ronald Reagan National Airport was either donated for police-dog scent training or discarded.

Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority spokesman Rob Yingling said “Now we’re going to be segregating clothing at our lost-and-found office. If it’s coming from the checkpoint, it’s going to the veterans. If it’s lost elsewhere in the airport, it’ll go to the canines.”At Reagan National Airport, clothes are forgotten at a rate of “hundreds of pounds a year,” according to Yingling.

Unclaimed items that are not clothing often are picked up by government-surplus agencies and liquidated on Web sites such as GovDeals.com. Now, airports will donate clothing to local veterans’ organizations in accordance with their lost-and-found policies.

VFW Helps VA Battle Backlog

The VA recently began pushing "Fully Developed Claims" to help break a 1.9 million-claim backlog by the year 2015. VFW National Commander Bill Thien said his nationwide cadre of 1,200 VA-accredited service officers has always strived to submit fully developed claims, and that this was reemphasized in service officer training a year ago. The VA considers claims to be "fully developed" when all available supporting documentation or evidence within the control of the veteran is submitted with the application. Thien said it is important that every claim be as fully developed as possible because it normally takes well over six months for a new claim to get adjudicated, and if denied for insufficient documentation, two years or more just for the appeal. The VFW supports this initiative because a fully developed claim can cut the initial time in half, which helps speed the delivery of VA programs and services to deserving veterans, and helps to reduce the VA's overall claims workload. Read more at http://www.vfw.org/News-and-Events/Articles/2013-Articles/VFW-Helps-VA-Battle-Claims-Backlog/

Camp Lejeune Exposure Update

A year has passed since the Honoring America's Veterans and Caring for Camp Lejeune Families Act was signed into law. The law (P.L 112-154) authorized hospital care and medical services through VA for family members of veterans exposed at the Marine Corps base between 1957and 1987. VA has announced that it will be able to reimburse eligible family members for out-of-pocket health care expenses for the 15 related conditions (click here: http://www.publichealth.va.gov/exposures/camp-lejeune/index.asp), after the regulations are published. In the meantime, they offer the following for those affected: Call 1-877-222-8382 to be added to the Camp Lejeune database, gather documents needed to show that you lived on base during the period between 1957 and 1987, and your relationship to the veteran. Finally, keep receipts for any health care expenses you paid for a covered condition on or after March 26, 2013. For more information, visit www.publichealth.va.gov/exposures to learn about other military exposures and VA benefits.

Korean War Marine Identified

The Defense POW/MIA Office announced the identification of remains belonging to Marine Corps Pfc. Jonathan R. Posey Jr., 20, of Dallas. Posey was assigned to L Battery, 4th Battalion, 11th Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division. In December 1950, he was serving provisionally as an infantryman with the 7th Marine Regiment in the vicinity of the Chosin Reservoir. On Dec. 2, 1950, Posey was killed in action. Read more about his recovery and identification at http://www.dtic.mil/dpmo/news/news_releases/.

Post's Dress Code Raises Spouses Hackles

A new dress code for family members and off-duty service members at Fort Irwin, Calif., is drawing heat from many of the persons it affects. According to an Aug. 7 item on Spousebuzz.com, an independent advocacy Web site for military spouses and families, some of the decree's provisions are unnecessary and impractical. It bans wearing in public of ripped jeans, backward hats, pajama pants, extremely short skirts, and sagging pants. One spouse acknowledged on the post's Facebook page that some of the changes make sense, but countered that backward hats and torn jeans are in fashion and their wearing largely is "pretty benign." Other spouses said the proscription on showing up at the commissary in pajama pants and house shoes is annoying, and fails to take into consideration the travails of pregnant women. "If I have to run to the commissary in its opening hours, I'm not getting dolled up," spouse Rose Natividad wrote on the Facebook page. Others objected to the poster that outlines the barred wardrobe, which has been plastered throughout the remote desert post. "The only time my young boys see a girl in a thong or ‘booty shorts' is when [they] go anywhere on post and see this poster," one spouse said. Many respondents agreed with the change. Heather Ann, an Army wife, wrote that she is "sick of seeing butt cheeks hanging out, men's underwear from sagging pants, girls wearing shirts that are semi see-through with no bra." Command Sgt. Maj. Dale Perez addressed their concerns in a Facebook posting of his own, saying the change was not prompted by any specific incidents. Rather, Perez wrote, "It takes discipline to be a professional, and to be a professional it's a 24-our, seven-day-a-week way of life. Bottom line – this was the right decision to make." Fort Irwin is the home of the National Training Center, where soldiers regularly prepare for combat deployments.

TRICARE Prime Service Areas To Be Trimmed 

Some retirees and their family members who live in remote areas will have to travel longer distances for health-care coverage. The Defense Department plans to reduce the number of TRICARE Prime service areas in the U.S., beginning Oct. 1. The areas slated to close are not located near military treatment facilities or sites that have closed or will close under base realignment and closure (BRAC). Most of the roughly 170,000 beneficiaries who are affected by the change live more than 40 miles from a military treatment facility. All have been notified earlier this year about the impending change. Soon, they should expect to receive a letter in the mail explaining their health-care options. More information about TRICARE Prime service areas is available online at http://www.tricare.mil/PSA. All TRICARE Prime beneficiaries remain eligible for coverage under TRICARE Standard, which operates comparably to a civilian health maintenance organization. TRICARE Standard requires no monthly premiums or referrals, but participants do pay some out-of-pocket costs and must meet an annual deductible. Users should expect to pay about $20 more per month for services than they would under TRICARE Prime, which offers a primary care-giver to manage their health care. TRICARE Prime requires an annual enrollment fee and lower out-of-pocket costs than TRICARE Standard.      
 
GI Bill Tuition Cap Increased

Those who are using the Post 9/11 GI Bill to fund their education at a private college or university saw their annual maximum tuition cap increased to $19,198.31 per academic year. Last year's annual maximum was $18,077.50. Those attending state operated schools will continue to get up to the full in-state resident tuition and fees covered under the GI Bill. Visit Military.com's Education Center to learn more about your education benefits. 

A 'Hollow' Excuse for Cutting Compensation?

The battle over the 2014 Defense Budget wages on with the same old threats and warnings pitting readiness against pay and compensation. But this seemed to take on a bit of an ironic twist last week. During his testimony before the House Armed Services Committee last week Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, warned that if congress didn't cut the current rate of growth in personnel costs the training and modernization budgets would be impacted, "resulting in a 'hollowing out' of the force." Ironically it was the fear of a "hollow force," that was used by the DoD to press for increasing pay and compensation back in the 1970's.

Overhaul of Military Retirement Proposed

A recent article by Military Officers Association of America's Director of Government Relations, Mike Hayden, explains how some former Pentagon leaders and "think tank experts" have called for a complete retirement overhaul criticizing the 20-year retirement as either unaffordable or unfair to those who leave before that point, or both. Their points have gotten traction as a new commission -- established as a result of provisions in the FY 2013 National Defense Authorization Act and tasked with reviewing and perhaps overhauling military compensation and retirement benefits -- began its work in July 

TRICARE Prime Update

The Department of Defense (DoD) will reduce the number of TRICARE Prime service areas in the United States beginning Oct. 1, affecting about 171,000 retirees and their family members. Those beneficiaries affected received a letter earlier this year explaining their options. Current details on Prime service areas and the option for beneficiaries to sign for email updates are available at TRICARE's Changing to Prime Service Areas webpage at http://www.tricare.mil/PSA. A ZIP code tool is available on the site to help beneficiaries determine if they live in an affected area. As always, TRICARE beneficiaries are still covered by TRICARE Standard.

More on VA Claims Processing

The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has announced that veterans filing an original fully developed claim for service-connected disability compensation may be entitled to up to one-year of retroactive disability benefits. This is only for veterans who are submitting their very first compensation claim as an FDC. The retroactive benefits are in effect Aug. 6, 2013, through Aug. 5, 2015. FDCs can be filed digitally through the joint, DOD-VA online portal, eBenefits. VA encourages veterans who cannot file online to work with an accredited veterans service organization that can file claims digitally on veterans' behalf. For more information, visit VA's Fully Developed Claims webpage.

New AAFES Website

The Army & Air Force Exchange Service has updated its official website at ShopMyExchange.com at www.shopmyexchange.com in preparation for the key holiday selling season. Easy-to-find buttons for key features such as sales, customer service, online account management and Military StarTM Card service are now conveniently placed at the top of the page, and the product search bar is now more prominent within the website's layout. To learn more about the new features of ShopMyExchange.com at www.shopmyexchange.com, visit the Exchange's Learn About Our New Features webpage at www.shopmyexchange.com/newfeatures/default.asp.  

AAFES to Show Films

The Army & Air Force Exchange Service (AAFES) and The Walt Disney Studios are teaming up to offer first-run films to military families at continental United States Exchange movie theaters. The agreement marks the first time that movies will be shown at continental United States Exchange theaters on the same day of general market release. The First-run shows will start Aug. 9 at the Exchange theaters listed on the AAFES website

SCRA Law Protects Servicemembers

The Servicemembers Civil Relief Act has proven to be an effective tool to give troops and their families some financial peace of mind. The legislation, first enacted in 1940 and substantially re-written in 2003, protects servicemembers' personal affairs and economic interests for individuals entering, called to active duty in the military, or deployed servicemembers. The act protects servicemembers from evictions, default judgments and foreclosure. It also allows troops to delay judicial proceedings and to place caps on interest rates. The act also provides certain tax relief to servicemembers and their spouses.

Veterans Can Submit Comments to VA

OEF/OIF/OND and 1990-91 Gulf War Veterans are invited by the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to provide their comments through August 20, 2013 about the proposed questionnaire (PDF) for the planned Airborne Hazards and Open Burn Pit Registry. The proposed questionnaire is available online. For more information, visit VA's Action Plan: Burnpits and Airborne Hazards webpage. Also, visit VA's Military Exposures webpage to learn about military exposures and benefits. 

AAFES "Free Tide" Sweepstakes

The Army & Air Force Exchange Service and Proctor and Gamble have teamed up to give five Exchange shoppers the opportunity to "clean up" to the tune of $1,500 in the "Free Tide for a Year" sweepstakes. From July 26-Aug. 29, authorized shoppers can enter at Exchange stores worldwide for the opportunity to win one of five $1,500 Exchange gift cards. Visit your local Exchange and fill out an entry form. Entrants must be 18 years of age or over and the winners will be announced on or about October 4.

DoD Releases Statement on Possible Budget Cuts: Major Health Care Changes are Possible

This week Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel released his “Statement on Strategic Choices and Management Review,” which lays out the impact of further DoD budget reductions and sets forth options for dealing with additional budget cuts. This is the end result of a review that Hagel initiated four months ago “to help ensure the Department of Defense is prepared in the face of unprecedented budget uncertainty.”

To do this, the review was to “develop options to deal with additional cuts” that may be made to the DoD budget. There were three specific objectives:  

  • “Help DoD prepare for how to deal with sequestration if it continues in FY 2014;
  • Inform the fiscal guidance given to the military services for their FY 2015 through 2019 budget plans;
  • Anchor the upcoming Quadrennial Defense Review, which will assess our defense strategy in light of new fiscal realities and the many threats, complexities and uncertainties of this new century.”

The study produced a set of options, not a list of decisions, built around three budget scenarios:

  • The President’s FY 2014 budget which contains $150 billion reduction in defense spending over ten years;
  •  A budget that contains the cuts mandated by the sequestration in FY 2014 that must be made unless Congress changes the law. Those additional cuts would be another $52 billion from defense in FY 2014 and another $500 billion over the next ten years;
  • An in-between budget that would reduce spending by about $250 billion over ten years, with most of the cuts coming in later years.

All of these cuts are in addition to the $487 billion reduction in the defense budget over the next ten years that are mandated by the Budget Control Act of 2011.

The review lists some management efficiencies and overhead reductions that are being considered as one of the first options. It then talks about military compensation and lists the following as example of possible areas to be considered for cost savings:

1) Changing military health care for retirees to increase use of private-sector insurance when available;
2) Changing how the basic allowance for housing is calculated so that individuals are asked to pay a little more of their housing costs;
3) Reducing the overseas cost of living adjustment;
4) Continuing to limit military and civilian pay raises.

Hagel knows these are very controversial ideas and so he has appointed the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Service Chiefs and the Senior Enlisted Advisors to develop a package of compensation proposals that meets the savings targets that are listed in the review. He wants to begin implementing the changes in the FY 2015 budget. A similar effort will be made with regard to DoD civilian pay and benefits.

Other ideas that he said are being considered are eliminating civilian pensions for retired military personnel serving in civilian DoD government service, ending subsidies for commissaries, and restricting the availability of unemployment benefits.

The last area he listed as under consideration is force structure and modernization. This is the longest part of his review, but in a nutshell, they are looking at reducing the size of the active force, but maintaining a technological edge. The force reductions are dramatic and they vary by the size of the budget cut being considered.

Hagel emphasized that no decision have been made about any of these things and many of the ideas listed are vague. But there is no doubt that TREA has its work cut out for it in fighting to stop these unfair cuts in personnel programs. You can be sure we will be working hard to protect your promised and earned benefits and we will keep you posted as events unfold.   

Will “Doc Fix” Finally be Passed This Year?

For years we have talked about the need for a “Doc Fix,” which is a short-hand way of saying the need to fix the automatic cuts in Medicare/Tricare payments to doctors that have been in law for several years. Each year Congress has voted to override the cuts but sometimes it has been at the last minute or even retroactively, leaving doctors waiting for additional weeks to be paid. The problem with this is that it jeopardizes the willingness of doctors to continue accepting new Medicare and Tricare patients.

A new bill “Doc Fix” bill has been passed by the House Energy and Commerce Committee on a bi-partisan 51-0 vote. This is the farthest any bill has ever gotten in an attempt to change the existing law, which is very encouraging.

However, no decision has been made on how to pay for the bill. There is absolutely no interest on the part of the majority members of the House to either raise taxes or borrow money to pay for the bill and unless money can be taken from elsewhere in the budget, it is not likely the bill will eventually pass the entire House of Representatives.

That means Congress will have to pass another one-year “fix” and kick the can down the road once again if the cuts are to be avoided.

Because of the implications this has for so many we are fighting for a permanent fix and we will keep you posted on the fate of this latest bill.  

Senate Committee Approves Defense Appropriations Bill

The Senate Appropriations Committee approved a $594.2 billion fiscal 2014 Pentagon spending bill last Thursday while clashing over federal spending limits and whether or not the Pentagon should undergo more cuts.

The Appropriation Committee’s bill, approved by a 22-8 vote, would give the Pentagon a $516.4 billion base budget and a $77.8 billion war-funding section. The Overseas Contingency Operations portion (the war funding) would be $8 billion more than the White House’s requested. The overall amount of the bill, however, is in line with what the White House requested.

In June, the House of Representatives passed a companion bill that included $512.5 billion in base funding for DOD, a decrease of $3.4 billion below the Administration’s request. The House bill would also cut $5 billion from overseas war funding.

The Appropriation committee’s ranking member, Senator Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) complained that defense-related spending was well above that which was called for in the Budget Control Act of 2011 (i.e., sequestration). All told, the panel’s 2014 spending bills are $91 billion over defense and domestic spending limits, Shelby said.

Appropriations committee Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) noted that the defense spending passed by her committee assumes that sequester (the Budget Control Act of 2011) will be replaced.  

If the Budget Control Act is not replaced, then roughly 20% of DOD’s budget, as well as other domestic programs, will be cut next year. These potential cuts are leading to dire predictions, such as the ones Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel made this week.  This is presumably why the White House, and Senate Democrats, requested more money than is allowed by the Budget Control Act. If it is not changed then spending will be reduced automatically. The White House budget request would provide more wiggle room for the Pentagon to avoid painful decisions.

House Clears Veterans' Bills

On Thursday, the House VA Committee cleared an array of VFW-supported legislation, including a bill that requires VA discretionary programs to be funded a full year in advance. Currently only medical care is provided an advance appropriation. Ranking Member Mike Michaud (D-ME) said the bill would remove VA programs from the threat of funding gaps often caused by the government being run by continuing resolutions. VFW testified in support of the bill (HR 813) earlier in the year as an assurance that veterans continue to receive access to timely care and benefits, and are insulated from the current fiscal uncertainty. The committee also advanced seven other bills with amendments that included provisions from around 34 other bills designed to improve programs for veterans and their families. We are awaiting confirmation on all the amendments enacted and will provide details next week.

Congressional POW/MIA Hearings

The VFW attended two congressional hearings this week in the wake of the release of an official GAO report and an unofficial internal assessment that was critical of the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command. At issue is the "Road to 200," which refers to a requirement levied by Congress in 2010 for JPAC to begin identifying 200 or more MIAs by the year 2015, which is more than double their current annual totals. The process, coordination and duplications of effort between the two largest components of the Full Accounting Community---JPAC and the Defense POW/MIA Office---were common to both House and Senate hearings. The author of the unofficial assessment, which was produced by a JPAC ORISE Fellow and sensationalized by some news media, testified in the House subcommittee hearing, but his work received little attention in the Senate. More hearings are planned and the VFW will be attending them.

Senate Discusses Military Financial Protections

The Senate VA Committee held a hearing this week to discuss financial protections for those serving in the military. Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders (I-VT) spoke about his concerns regarding violations against service members protected by the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act, or SCRA. He noted his disappointment with the mortgage lending industry that is still failing service members by not properly reducing their mortgage interest rates while allowing improper foreclosures. VFW has testified on these improper practices and has encouraged the committee to increase consumer education within the veteran's community. For witness statements or to view the recorded webcast, visit the Senate VA website at: http://www.veterans.senate.gov/hearings.cfm?action=release.display&release_id=958ada82-ba62-4cf9-a51b-e0b6ff54b4c4

Congress in Recess -- Time to Mobilize Advocates

This weekend, legislators are traveling back home for the August district work period to meet face-to-face with their constituents. This means that now is the perfect time for VFW advocates to reach out to their members of Congress and Senators to discuss critical issues facing the military and veterans' communities. If you seize the opportunity to advocate over the next five weeks on behalf of our nation's veterans, and you want to share your story, we can help spread the word through the VFW Capitol Hill blog. This fall, once Congress returns, your VFW will make a full-court press to advance veterans' initiatives in Congress like securing critical funding for the U.S. military, passing in-state tuition for student-veterans, securing advance appropriations for all VA funding, improving sexual assault prevention policies within the military and access to treatment for victims, protecting military quality-of-life programs in the National Defense Authorization Act, and working to expand veterans' caregiver benefits. To learn how you can become involved during the recess, click here: http://thevfw.blogspot.com/2013/08/congress-in-recess-time-to-mobilize-our.html

Korean War MIA Identified

The Defense POW/MIA Office announced the identification of remains belonging to Army Sgt. 1st Class Joseph D. Steinberg, 31, of San Francisco. In February 1951, Steinberg and Battery C, 15th Field Artillery Battalion, were part of the Support Force 21 in a major offensive near Hoengsong, South Korea, when they were overrun. Steinberg and over 100 men were taken as prisoners, and his fate would not be learned till long after the war. Read more at http://www.dtic.mil/dpmo/news/news_releases/