Retiree & Veteran Affairs News 5 February 2013 

2/5/2013 

NO WAY TO DO BUSINESS

We've talked, written and ranted about it for months and now the effects are being felt.  What is it?  The double-whammy of sequestration and a possible year-long continuing resolution and the effect it is having on the Army.  

Army Secretary John McHugh and Gen. Ray Odierno, Army Chief of Staff, have released a memo outlining actions to be taken immediately by the Commands to slow spending.  “Given the magnitude of our budgetary uncertainty, the Army must act now to reduce our expenditure rate and mitigate budget execution risks in order to avoid even more serious future fiscal shortfalls,” the memo stated.

Commanders are instructed to reduce base operating funding to achieve at least a 30 percent reduction.  This cut impacts depot maintenance, modernization and training as well as community and recreational activities. The memo also implements an Army-wide civilian hiring freeze and terminates all temporary employees.

One would hope that such disruption to a force still at war would galvanize Congress into resolving the mess quickly.  However, all signs seem to indicate that the sequestration will start on 1 March.  

Under the sequester, spending would be reduced by an estimated $85 billion during the remaining seven months of fiscal 2013, including a $43 billion reduction in defense spending.

Senate Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., and Ranking Member Richard Shelby, R-Ala., are at least talking about a plan to replace the automatic budget cuts.  However, a resolution is not imminent. The GOP will not entertain tax increases while the Democrats do not want to see any spending cuts to entitlement programs.  

We were not encouraged by Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., who said on Jan. 30, “There have been no decisions at all about the sequester.  And it’s premature to get ahead of ourselves, especially since it doesn’t go into effect for . . . well over a month.”  

NEW LEGISLATION SPOTLIGHT

House Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller and Ranking Member Mike Michaud introduced AUSA-supported legislation (H.R. 357) that would require schools eligible for GI Bill education benefits to give veterans in-state tuition rates even though they may not be residents of the states where the schools are located.

“The men and women who served this nation did not just defend the citizens of their home states, but the citizens of all 50 states.  As such, the educational benefits they receive from the taxpayers should reflect that,” said Chairman Miller.  “By offering in-state tuition, servicemembers can attend an institution of higher learning that meets their specific needs without worrying about higher costs which non-residents often must pay.”

“Because of the nature of military service, veterans often have a difficult time establishing residency for purposes of obtaining in-State tuition rates,” said Rep. Michaud.  “This bill will address this problem and ensure that veterans can access the affordable higher education options they have earned.”

AUSA ON THE HILL

This week, the AUSA Government Affairs team will fan out over Capitol Hill to deliver information packets to over one hundred new member offices.  

It is vitally important for AUSA to establish relationships with new members to ensure that they and their defense and veterans legislative assistants are aware of our position on issues that affect our members and the Army.  

Note of interest:  The 113th Congress has the fewest military veterans since World War II.  Nineteen percent are veterans, with 85 in the House and 19 in the Senate.  As many of the veterans from World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War retire, veterans who served in Afghanistan and Iraq are beginning to take their places.  Nine new House members will join the seven reelected veterans who have served in Iraq or Afghanistan.

ARMY CHIEF OF STAFF: "NATIONAL SECURITY AT RISK"

Along with top Army leaders and members of the defense industry, key congressional staff members heard a sobering message from the Army Chief of Staff at AUSA’s Institute of Land Warfare Breakfast last week.  

Gen. Raymond Odierno’s message was clear - our national security is at risk because of the fiscal uncertainty that we face today.  The numbers are sobering - a $6 billion shortfall for FY 13 in Army operation and maintenance accounts because Congress has failed to pass appropriations legislation and the Army must spend at the FY 12 budget levels.  If sequestration triggers on March 1, another $6 billion shortfall will occur.  Combined with other underfunding, the total shortfall for FY 13 could be $17 billion – in wartime! 

Gen. Odierno outlined the steps the Army is taking to remain effective while dealing with the lack of funding – cancelling combat training center rotations, delaying depot work and cancelation of maintenance for vehicles that are not bound immediately for the current fight, freezing civilian hiring, potential furloughing of existing employees and laying off temporary workers.  The bottom line is that training and therefore readiness will suffer.  He described the endstrength reductions to 490,000 that will occur and said that if sequestration triggers, the numbers could dip further. 

 Odierno told the audience that what the Army needs most is some budget predictability through several years so that endstrength, modernization and readiness can be carefully balanced and a hollow force avoided. 

Here at AUSA through a series of letters, we have been urging Congress to solve the sequestration puzzle now and have highlighted the significant dangers posed by sequestration and the repeated use of continuing resolutions to fund our Department of Defense. You can click here to read our letters on the subject, and you can add your voice to ours by clicking here, and click on the letter titled “Stop Sequestration Now”.

Unfortunately the military-related headlines in major newspapers today focus on side issues that serve only to take the eyes of the American people off of the key issue – the fiscal process must be put back in order so that our defense forces can maintain readiness and their ability to defend this nation.  Add your voice to ours and urge Congress to ACT NOW – our national security hangs in the balance.

CHANGES COMING TO TRICARE PRIME SERVICES AREAS

Defense Department health officials announced that effective 1 Oct., TRICARE Prime will no longer be available to beneficiaries living in certain areas in the United States.  

 Prime service areas were created to ensure medical readiness of the active duty force by augmenting the capability and capacity of military hospitals and clinics.  The affected locations are not close to existing military hospitals or clinics and have never augmented care around military hospitals or clinics or Base Realignment and Closure locations.

The plan to reduce prime service areas is not new.  It originated in 2007 when the Pentagon solicited proposals for the next generation of TRICARE contracts.  However, complications with the new contracts caused a delay in transition.  Accordingly, Defense officials determined that existing prime service areas be kept in place until all regions could fully transition to the new contract requirements.

In a news release, Pentagon officials said that if you live in an area affected by the changes, you will receive a letter that will include information about your TRICARE health care options as well as how to get more information.  Your TRICARE Prime benefit will remain available through the end of September as long as enrollment fees are paid, you do not disenroll early or lose eligibility.

Even if TRICARE Prime is no longer available where you live, you will still be able to use the TRICARE Standard and Extra options which have no enrollment fees.  Both offer the freedom to see any TRICARE-authorized provider for routine or specialty care.  An assigned primary care manager is not required, and cost shares for a wide range of preventive medical services have been eliminated.  With TRICARE Extra, you choose hospitals and providers within the TRICARE network, where available, and pay a lower cost share.

The news release outlined how different groups of beneficiaries may be affected:

* Active duty service members, including activated National Guard and Reserve members, will not be affected by prime service area reductions.  They will remain enrolled in TRICARE Prime or TRICARE Prime Remote, as appropriate.  Active duty family members enrolled in TRICARE Prime in affected areas will remain in TRICARE Prime as long as they are in the same location and eligible.  As always, active duty family members also have the option of using the TRICARE Standard and Extra health plan option. 

* Retirees and their family members enrolled in TRICARE Prime in the affected areas may be able to reenroll in TRICARE Prime at a military hospital or clinic or with a primary care manager in a remaining prime service area.  A new enrollment form will be required with an acknowledgment that the beneficiary is waiving their drive-time standards.  Beneficiaries should be aware that waiving drive-time standards may require them to drive long distances for primary and specialty care.  Those who do not reenroll in TRICARE Prime can use TRICARE Standard and Extra.  

* If you are a surviving spouse of a deceased active duty service member, how your coverage may change depends on your survivor status.  “Transitional survivors” (first three years following sponsor’s death) will remain in TRICARE Prime as long as they continue to live in the same location and remain eligible for TRICARE.  

* After three years, surviving spouses are no longer considered a transitional survivor and their current TRICARE Prime enrollment will end, but they may be able to reenroll in TRICARE Prime at a military hospital or clinic or with a network primary care manager in a remaining prime service area by waiving TRICARE Prime access standards.  If they do not reenroll in TRICARE Prime, you can use the TRICARE Standard and Extra health plan option.  

* Surviving children are always considered “transitional survivors.”  They are treated like active duty family members and can remain enrolled in TRICARE Prime (as long as they continue to live in the same location) until they otherwise lose eligibility for TRICARE. 

* Young adults whose sponsors are active duty service members will not be affected. Other young adults with TRICARE Young Adult (TYA) Prime in the affected areas may be able to waive their drive-time standards and fill out a new enrollment form.  Those who do not reenroll in TYA Prime can purchase coverage under TYA Standard, which is $152 monthly, compared with $176 for TYA Prime. 

* Affected beneficiaries may also have the option to enroll in the US Family Health Plan, a TRICARE Prime managed care option available through networks of not-for-profit health care systems in six areas of the United States. 

* Those who already use TRICARE for Life, TRICARE Reserve Select, TRICARE Retired Reserve, or TRICARE Standard and Extra will not be affected.

The Defense Department estimates that of the approximately 1.6 million retirees and family members currently in Prime, 171,000 will be affected.  They also estimate that the change will save the government $45-$56 million a year.


NEW LEGISLATION SPOTLIGHT

Two bills that address concurrent receipt have been introduced in the House.

Rep. Sanford Bishop, D-Ga., introduced H.R. 333, The Disabled Veterans Tax Termination Act, legislation that would permit retired members of the Armed Forces who have a service-connected disability rated less than 50 percent to receive concurrent payment of both retired pay and veterans' disability compensation.  The bill would also eliminate the phase-in period for concurrent receipt and extend eligibility for concurrent receipt to chapter 61 disability retirees with less than 20 years of service.  

Introduced by Rep. Gus Bilirakis, R-Fla., H.R. 303 would permit additional retired members of the Armed Forces who have a service-connected disability to receive both disability compensation from the Department of Veterans Affairs for their disability and either retired pay by reason of their years of military service or Combat-Related Special Compensation.  It would also eliminate the phase-in period under current law with respect to such concurrent receipt.

AUSA strongly supports both of these measures and thanks Reps. Bishop and Bilirakis for introducing them.

PHARMACY PRICES HEADED UP

The fiscal 2013 National Defense Authorization Act included a provision that allowed an increase in co-pays for prescriptions drugs covered by TRICARE.  The new co-pays will be effective on 1 Feb.

There is no increase to co-pays for generic medications.  It will remain at $5 when the prescription is filled at a network pharmacy.  There is also no co-pay when generic prescriptions are filled through TRICARE’s home delivery service.  The new co-pay for a 30-day supply of a brand name medication purchased at a retail network pharmacy will be $17, up from the current $12.  Beneficiaries using TRICARE’s home delivery service will pay $13 for brand name drugs, up from $9.  However, that price is for a 90-day supply. 

The greatest change in co-pays applies to non-formulary medications.  The $25 co-pay for these drugs increases to $44 at retail pharmacies and $43 through Home Delivery. 

For fiscal 2014 and beyond, the new law directs that co-pays increase annually by the same percentage as retiree cost-of-living adjustments.  In years when a COLA increase would total less than a dollar, it will be delayed a year and combined with the next adjustment so increases will always be $1 or more.

Pharmacies at military hospitals and clinics will continue to provide medications with no co-pays.  

While the Defense Department had requested much higher co-pays, Congress disagreed.  However, they included a requirement that all TRICARE-For-Life beneficiaries will be required to have all of their maintenance drugs refilled, for at least a year, through the home delivery program or at base pharmacies.  This effort has not started yet.  AUSA will keep you informed as TRICARE rolls outs its education program. 

 MyCAA Military Spouse Career Advancement Accounts

The Military Spouse Career Advancement Accounts (MyCAA) program provides up to $4,000 (over 2 years) of Financial Assistance for military spouses who are pursuing degree programs, licenses or credentials leading to employment in portable career fields. The Department of Defense reopened the popular MyCAA program in October 2010, with several key changes in eligibility and dollar amounts. To read more about this program and view the summary of the changes, please click here 

DOD Offers Non-medical Counseling to Troops, Families

The Defense Department is working to continuously ensure the well-being of service members and their families through no-cost, short-term, non-medical counseling in the interests of military and family readiness, a defense official said. Jena M. Moore, program analyst for counseling in the Office of Military Community and Family Policy, explained the program during an interview with The Pentagon Channel and American Forces Press Service.
"The Military and Family Life Counseling program ... offers short-term, non-medical counseling," Moore said. "And it's confidential for our service members and family members." The program, administered by licensed professionals with masters or doctorate degrees in a mental health-related field, provide services for active duty, National Guard and reserve members and their families, as well as DOD civilians "serving as part of the expeditionary workforce and their families”.  To read this entire article please click here 


New Resource Helps Troops, Families Plan Deployments

Jan 10th it was released that the Defense Department has launched a new resource to help troops and their families plan for the "before, during and after" of deploying.
Barbara Thompson, director of DOD's office for family policy, explained "Plan My Deployment" during an interview with the Pentagon Channel and American Forces Press Service.
"This is a new, interactive, online tool that supports service members and their families as they prepare for the different stages of deployment," she said. The new resource guides users through the "ins and outs" of deployment, Thompson said: from power of attorney and legal assistance considerations to financial and emotional issues. Other tips and tools address education and training benefits, she added.
"We modeled this after the very, very popular 'Plan My Move,' which helps with [permanent change of station] moves," she said. "It's the same kind of approach: we look at providing the tools and information, and you tailor it to your individual family's needs." Plan My Deployment saves the user's information, she said, so people can exit from the site and return at their convenience, picking up where they left off. Though other deployment planning guides and resources already exist, Thompson said, DOD leaders wanted to offer family readiness assistance to the entire active duty, National Guard and Reserve force and their families. To read this entire article, please click here.

Tax Assistance at Military OneSource

Military.com released earlier this week that Military OneSource and H&R Block have joined forces again to provide a free online tax preparation service for service members. Two services -- basic and premium ---- are provided through H&R Block, with one notable difference. The basic service is free, and the premium service would apply to taxpayers who must file Schedule C returns, generally to report gains or losses from business ownership. All members of the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps are eligible to use these services including members of the National Guard and Reserve components, regardless of activation status. Coast Guard reservists activated under Title 10 authority to serve with the Navy also are eligible, and so are spouses and other family members enrolled in the Defense Enrollment Eligibility Reporting System. For more information, contact Military OneSource at 1-800-342-9647 24 hours a day, seven days a week, or visit http://www.militaryonesource.mil/.

Hunter unveils bill to protect military pay

A California lawmaker is collecting cosponsors for a bill he plans to introduce that would prevent military paychecks from being delayed if the U.S. government runs into cash flow problems. The bill is in response to a statement made Jan. 14th by President Obama that military paychecks could be one of the things not paid if Congress doesn’t increase the $16.3 trillion limit on U.S. debt, Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., said he aims to try and protect military pay. Hunter, a Marine combat veteran who served in Iraq and Afghanistan and now sits on the House Armed Services Committee responds by saying “There are different ways the debt ceiling fight can play out but regardless of what happens in the coming weeks, the men and women of the military, who are defending our freedom, and anyone serving in a combat zone, should be able to take comfort in knowing they will get a paycheck.” To read the entire article about Hunters bill to protect military pa y visit the Army Times website by clicking here:  http://www.armytimes.com/news/2013/01/military-duncan-hunter-protect-pay-011513w/

'Fiscal-Cliff' Deal Affects Paychecks

According to The legislation that President Barack Obama signed Jan. 2 that postponed the fiscal cliff means changes to military and civilian paychecks. The legislation increases Social Security withholding taxes to 6.2 percent. For the past two years during the "tax holiday" the rate was 4.2 percent. For military members, Social Security withholding is located on their leave and earnings statement in the blocks marked "FICA taxes". Active duty military personnel will see pay adjustments in their January mid-month paycheck and will be reflected on the January leave and earnings statement. The Defense Finance and Accounting Service (DFAS) stresses that all personnel should review pay statements carefully. To read the entire article please click: http://www.military.com/military-report/fiscal-cliff-deal-affects-paychecks?ESRC=miltrep.nl You may also want to read “3 Ways the fiscal cliff may Impact taxes”  http://www.military.com/money/personal-finance/taxes/3-ways-fiscal-cliff-may-impact-taxes.html  To learn more about your 2013 taxes and how you could be affected by the fiscal cliff.

'Healing Heroes' Helps Military Families

A new and unique book has just been released that supports MILITARY FAMILIES who are facing changes due to the injury of someone they love. The book "The Healing Heroes Book: Braving the Changes When Someone You Love Is Wounded in Service" is an activity book and valuable tool for military children and families to help them deal with the feelings and challenges, adjust to the changes, and cope when someone they love is wounded in service. You can order the Healing Heroes Book at the http://www.wateringcanpress.com/html/healingheroesbook.html   for more military family support resources ………..

Group Reports Top Numbers in Wounded Warrior Jobs

A national organization has had such a high rate of success in its jobs program for severely wounded warriors, it recently called on the Defense Department and other agencies to adopt its approach, announced by officials of the nonprofit group at a news conference conducted by the National Organization on Disability at the Disabled American Veterans headquarters on Jan 15th. The nonprofit group officials went on by saying an evaluation of its four-year program shows that 70 percent of its seriously wounded warriors are experiencing employment and education success at about twice the rate of veterans who are not in the program. The findings of the study stem from the organization’s Wounded Warrior Careers program, which has had about 275 wounded veterans under its tutelage since the program became active in 2008 at the Army’s suggestion. Candidates in the program often have severe cases of post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injuries, the two signature wounds of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Of those 275 wounded warriors, the organization says the 70 percent represents those who are employed, in training or enrolled in other forms of education. To read the entire article and learn more about the Wounded Warriors Career Program, please click: http://www.defense.gov/news/newsarticle.aspx?id=119009 to read the entire article.

Continuing Education Resources for Veterans

Active soldiers and veterans are important members of American society: soldiers because they fight to keep the American people safe, and veterans because, additionally, they bring their past experiences and wisdom back to society–which can help catalyze better decisions surrounding war and protection in the future. In 1944, when the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act (the G.I. Bill) was created, it was meant to provide benefits to World War II veterans that could help them acclimate back into life outside of fighting. Since then, the bill has grown to focus very heavily on providing subsidies and scholarships for the education and career-based training of America’s veterans. However, the G.I. Bill system has been wrought by technological instability, as well as an overwhelming influx of returning veterans seeking its benefits, resulting in late reimbursement. If you are pursuing financial assistance for higher education as a veteran from the Post-9/11 G.I. Bill, there are some important things you need to be aware of as you navigate the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). To read the entire article about education resources for Veterans please click here: http://www.accreditedonlinecolleges.org/resources/veteran-continuing-ed/

Wal-Mart Makes Pledges on Veterans, Sourcing

Wal-Mart Inc. plans to offer jobs to veterans in their first 12 months odd active duty and boost domestic sourcing of products by $50 billion over the next ten years. The retail giant said its employment offer—available to any honorably discharged veteran—will begin Memorial Day. Most of the jobs will be in Wal-Mart Stores and clubs, and some will be in distribution centers and the Home Office. "Hiring a veteran can be one of the best business decisions you make," Wal-Mart U.S. Chief Executive Bill Simon said. "Veterans have a record of performance under pressure."
Noting that Wal-Mart already is the largest private employer of veterans in the U.S., Mr. Simon added that the company projects it will hire more than 100,000 veterans during the next five years. To read more about Wal-Mart Inc. pledge to hire Veterans, please click:
http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424127887324235104578243471918705516.html

Top Ten Ways to be a Military Work/Life Balance Ninja

Does anyone believe that work/life balance is possible in the military? Surely that kind of even-stephen life is only for couples who work 9 to 5 and live near the grandparents and never move.  Balance isn’t for people like us. Or is it? Military.com and http://spousebuzz.com/ called on Mike Auzenne of Manager Tools, a firm that provides consultancy and training to managers in Fortune 1000 companies around the world. Mike and his business partner Mark Horstman are both graduates of West Point who served in the Army before making the jump to the corporate world. http://spousebuzz.com/ figured that unlike so many corporate types, the Manager Tools guys would be able to outline the steps of work/life balance in the real world military. To read the entire article and check out Mike’s specific suggestion for military members read more: http://spousebuzz.com/blog/2013/01/military-work-life-balance.html#ixzz2IFRrIJkd

Army & Air Force Exchange Service and U.S. Army Partner to Open 'Wounded Heroes Service Center'

After more than a decade of war, the military continues to adapt to the changing needs of service members. Even the 117-year-old Army & Air Force Exchange Service is adjusting to address new realities as it opens a new facility designed specifically for wounded warriors. Just a short drive from Landstuhl Medical Center, the military’s largest hospital outside of the United States, the Exchange partnered with the Department of the Army to open a first-of-its-kind facility for wounded Soldiers in Kaiserslautern, Germany at Kleber Kaserne. “Many injured service members come to Landstuhl with little more than the clothes on their back,” said the Exchange’s Military Clothing Manager at Kleber Kaserne, Deniz Barcala. “Since 9-11, thousands of troops have been bused to our warehouse to pick up clothing, footwear and more after being evacuated from a war zone. About a year ago, Army and Exchange leadership decided we could serve these heroes better.” The resulting “Wounded Heroes Service Center,” with handicap accessible dressing rooms, bathrooms and entrance, is a first for the Exchange. Now open, the new Military Clothing store is for the exclusive use of patients being treated at Landstuhl Medical Center.
“The opening of this facility is another example of the Army’s continued investment in the care of our wounded servicemen and women,” said the Commanding General of the 21st Theater Sustainment Command Maj. Gen. Aundre F. Piggee. To read the entire article and more about the “Wounded Warriors Service Center” please click:
http://publicaffairs-sme.com/pressrelease/?p=1176

Administration’s Proposed Budget is Further Delayed

No one in Washington is now expecting to see the Administration’s budget before April!! That will be at least 2 months later than normal. It is unclear what that will mean for next year’s DOD and VA budgets but it will mean that it will cause a terrible legislative crunch. It very well may mean that the federal budget will be a Continuing Resolution for the full fiscal year. That would make it very hard to move forward with any program that would cost any amount of new money When taken in conjunction with the pending sequestration cuts (please see below) this is going to be a very tight year indeed.

Sequestration is Looking More Likely Every Day

With 4 weeks before budgetary sequestration goes into effect on March 1st it is looking more and more likely that either full or partial sequestration cuts will go into effect. Every federal department and agency has been working on contingency plans that they are keeping very close to the vest.

We have seen a memo concerning the military health system which included a goal to “identify and implement” savings in Private Sector Care (that means TRICARE managed care contracts and the USFHP) A tiger team is being created to study the contracts and find savings. The memo also includes “curtailing facility sustainment, Restoration and Modernization (FSRM)” spending and a hiring freeze for DHP funded civilian employees plus much much more.

Indeed, we have already been seeing cuts and changes caused by the CR and the pending sequestration. The yearly Military Health Care Conference, schedules to be held in the DC area in early February was abruptly cancelled last week. And this is just one segment of DoD- its Defense Health Program (DHP)

Meanwhile Bloomberg has calculated that over one third of the $85.3 billion in automatic cuts will come from contract programs throughout the government. They stated that since Congress has appropriated only half the funding for FY2013 in the continuing resolution (CR) running through March 27th on March 1st $23.6 billion in defense cuts and $21.3 billion in nondefense cuts will occur on March 1st. And the remaining cuts will take place when additional funds are appropriated.

 As you can see all of this is very complicated. What is clear is that starting on March 1st unless Congress acts quickly and unexpectedly we will all see immediate changes in numerous programs.

New Veteran Bills Introduced in Congress

S.140 Sponsor: Chairman of Senate Finance Committee Max Baucus (D-MT): this bill amends the Internal Revenue Code of 1986 to extend the work opportunity credit to certain recently discharged veterans, to improve the coordination of veteran job training services between the Department of Labor, the Department of Veterans Affairs, and the Department of Defense, to require transparency for Executive departments in meeting the Government-wide goals for contracting with small business concerns owned and controlled by service-disabled veterans, and for other purposes.

S.131 Sponsor: Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA): this bill amends title 38, United States Code, to improve the reproductive assistance provided by the Department of Veterans Affairs to severely wounded, ill, or injured veterans and their spouses, and for other purposes.

S. 62 Sponsor: Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA): The Check the Box for Homeless Veterans Act of 2013 offers taxpayers the opportunity to help keep those who have served our country off the streets by making a voluntary contribution on their annual federal income tax return to support programs that prevent and combat veteran homelessness.

Senators Barbara A. Mikulski (D-MD), Mark Begich (D-Alaska), Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Chris Coons (D-Del.), Mary Landrieu (D-La.) and Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) are all cosponsors of this novel legislation that aims to help end veteran homelessness.

This legislation would give taxpayers the option to check a box on their annual tax return and make a voluntary contribution in the amount of their choice to a new Homeless Veterans Assistance Fund established in the U.S. Treasury. Donations to the fund would be used to provide assistance to homeless veterans through initiatives at the Department of Veterans Affairs, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and the Department of Labor.

The legislation would support the Administration's comprehensive five-year plan to end homelessness among our nation's veterans by 2015.

S.49 Veterans Health Equity Act of 2013 Sponsor: Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) A bill to ensure that veterans in each of the 48 contiguous States are able to receive services in at least one full-service Department of Veterans Affairs medical center in the State or receive comparable services provided by contract in the State, and for other purposes.

(and its companion bill in the House of Representatives)

 H.R. 257 “Veterans Health Equity Act of 2013” Sponsor: Rep. Carol Shea-Porter (D-NH) A bill to amend title 38, United States Code, to ensure that veterans in each of the 48 contiguous States are able to receive services in at least one full-service hospital of the Veterans Health Administration in the State or receive comparable services provided by contract in the State.

H.R. 241 Veterans Timely Access to Health Care Act Sponsor: Dennis Ross (R-FL) A bill to direct the Secretary of Veterans Affairs to establish standards of access to care for veterans seeking health care from Department of Veterans Affairs medical facilities, and for other purposes.

 H.R. 183 Veterans Dog Training Therapy Act Sponsor Rep. Michael Grimes (R-NY) A bill to direct the Secretary of Veterans Affairs to carry out a pilot program on dog training therapy.

Hagel Commits to Audit of Pentagon

One issue that TREA has been urging Congress to insist on is an audit of the Pentagon. The Department of Defense is the only budget in the Federal Government that cannot be audited. It is our position that it is impossible to make an accurate judgment about defense personnel costs if DoD has no idea what it spends elsewhere in its budget and we believe before they ever consider cutting personnel benefits DoD must be able to audit its books and find out where all of the waste, fraud and abuse is.

While this idea has been scoffed at by some in the past it appears to be finally be gaining traction in Congress. Last year Senators Tom Coburn (R-OK) and Joe Manchin (D-WV) introduced a bill to force DoD to get its books in order so it can be audited, even though there was already a law requiring that.

On Thursday of this week during the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on the nomination for former Senator Chuck Hagel to be the new Secretary of Defense he was asked by both Senators Claire McCaskill and Joe Manchin if he would commit to making sure the Defense Department was ready to be audited by 2017, which Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has committed to in the past. Hagel stated that he agreed it is very important that DoD can be audited and he committed to the 2017 date.

New VA Study Reveals Insights About Veteran Suicides

A new study published the Department of Veterans’ Affairs says that roughly 22 military veterans kill themselves every day. That rate that is about 20 percent higher than the VA estimated in 2007. More than two-thirds of the veterans who commit suicide are 50 or older, suggesting that the increase in veterans’ suicides is not primarily driven by those returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

However, the study does show that the overall veteran suicide rate is three times that of the civilian population as a whole. This is probably due to the fact that while women make up half of the civilian population, they are a very small percentage of the veteran population. Men tend to kill themselves at a much higher rate than women.

According to the Washington Post, the study’s author, Rober Bossarte, said “There is a perception that we have a veterans’ suicide epidemic on our hands. I don’t think that is true.” The VA epidemiologist went on to say that “The rate is going up in the country, and veterans are a part of it.” The number of suicides overall in the United States increased by nearly 11 percent between 2007 and 2010, the study says.

The study reached the conclusion that the percentage of veterans who die by suicide has decreased slightly since 1999, even though the total number of veterans who kill themselves has gone up.

Bossarte said much work remains to be done to understand the data. Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans are a minority of the overall veteran population that includes Vietnam, Korea, and World War II vets, but recent studies have suggested that those who served in the more recent conflicts are 30 to 200 percent more likely to commit suicide than their ­non-veteran peers. According to the Washington Post, other studies have shown that Vietnam-era veterans were most likely to commit suicide within five years of getting out of the service. It remains to be seen if this is the case with newer veterans.

To calculate the veterans’ suicide rate, Bossarte and one assistant spent more than two years, starting in October 2010, asking state governments to turn over death certificates for the more than 400,000 Americans who have killed themselves since 1999. 42 states have provided data or agreed to do so; the study is based on information from 21 states that has been assembled into a database.

The numbers show that men in their 50s — a group that includes a large percentage of the veteran population— have been especially hard-hit by the national increase in suicide. The veterans’ suicide rate is about three times the overall national rate, but about the same percentage of male veterans in their 50s kill themselves as do non-veteran men of that age, according to the VA data.

Bossarte plans to include in death certificate data from all 50 states, Pentagon service records, VA hospital data and information from the VA’s crisis line in one database to help figure out the root causes of the suicide problem. Hopefully it will also be able to help the VA determine where it needs more mental healthcare workers and how best to train them.

The database is intended to show how many veterans served in combat, the year they left the military and the jobs they held in uniform. He will know how many of the deceased veterans called the crisis line for help and what kinds of treatment they were receiving from VA doctors before taking their lives.

Recently Bossarte noticed an interesting trend that followed the VA’s move to change the name of its call center from “suicide hotline” to “crisis line.” Overall call volume spiked in the months after the name change, and emergency rescues, which accounted for about 5 percent of all calls in 2010, dropped to less than 2 percent.

The figures suggest that more veterans are calling the line before their despair reaches suicidal levels. “We are getting them earlier, and that is a good thing,” Bossarte said.

Recently, national suicide rates have been shown to be highest in the rural Mountain West states. Epidemiologists have speculated that the availability of guns, the lack of mental health services and a rugged, independent mind-set that stigmatizes seeking help could all be driving up the rate. Bossarte’s database could help pinpoint the culprit and the cure.

If you or anybody you know needs help, call the Veterans Crisis Line at 1-800-273-8255 and Press 1 or go on line at http://www.veteranscrisisline.net/

New Members Appointed to Join VA Advisory Committee on Minority Veterans

On Thursday the VA announced the appointment of 6 new members of the Advisory Committee on Minority Affairs. The Board advises the VA Secretary on the needs and concerns of minority veterans on VA benefits and programs including health care, compensation, rehabilitations as well as recommending legislative and administrative changes. .

There are approximately 4.7 million minority American veterans or 21% of living veterans. If you know any of the new members please let TREA’s Washington Office know.

The new members of the Committee are: 

  • Tommy L. Daniels, Brig. Gen., retired Air Force, of Fort Worth, Texas; General Daniels is a tireless advocate for the equitable treatment of Veterans at the state and federal level. He is a strong supporter of Junior ROTC programs in the Fort Worth school system as well as promoting aerospace and aviation opportunities for minorities.
  • Raymond Jardine, Col., retired Army, of Honolulu, Hawaii; Dr. Jardine’s professional experience includes owning and operating Native Hawaiian Veterans, LLC, which provides a wide variety of services to include homeland security, emergency management, information technology, community relations, public outreach, and professional staff augmentation.
  • Thanh Dinh, Air Force Veteran of Burke, Va.; Mr. Dinh currently serves as Senior Consultant and Chief Operating Officer for the Odin Group, a Service-Disabled Veteran-Owned Small Business and certified Minority Business Enterprise. In this capacity, Mr. Dinh was responsible for co-authoring a long term strategic plan for VA’s Veterans Benefit Administration that focused on new initiatives designed to transform the existing VA claims processing operation.
  • Harold Hunt, Army Veteran of Pembroke, N.C.; Mr. Hunt has served as Post and District Commander for the Veterans of Foreign Wars, Past Chief of Staff Military Order of the Purple Heart State of North Carolina, and a member of the American Legion, Disabled American Veterans, Lumbee Warriors Association, and National Association of County Veterans Service Officers.
  • Shelia Mitchell, Air Force Veteran of Manassas, Va.; Ms. Mitchell currently serves as President and Chief Executive Officer for Veterans at Your Service, LLC, a Service-Disabled Veteran-Owned Small Business that specializes in assisting Veterans in preparing claims for VA benefits.
  • Elisandro T. Diaz, Navy Veteran of Santa Ana, Calif.: Mr. Diaz currently serves on the board of the Orange County Home Ownership Prevention Collaborative; with an emphasis on helping Veterans preserve their homes. 

The current members of VA’s Advisory Committee on Minority Veterans are:

  • Clara L. Adams-Ender, Brig. Gen., retired Army, is president and chief executive officer of Caring About People with Enthusiasm Associates, Inc., a management consulting and inspirational speaking firm
  • Oscar B. Hilman, Brig. Gen., retired Army, served as commander of the 81st Brigade Combat Team in support of Iraqi Freedom II (2004-2005) where his brigade received two combat streamers.
  • Benjamin C. Palacios, Command Sgt. Maj., retired Army, is assistant VP, regional account manager for Guam and CNMI region for Science Application International Corporation (SAIC).
  • Celia Renteria Szelwach, Army Veteran, provides project management and technical leadership of public health projects focused on rural, women, and minority Veterans as program manager for Atlas Research.
  • Marvin Trujillo, Jr., Marine Corps Veteran, is a Laguna Tribal Member who belongs to the Road Runner, Little Parrot, and Turkey Clans. He serves as the Tribal Veterans Service Officer for the Pueblo of Laguna and the Co-Chair of the All Indian Pueblo Council Veterans Committee. 

February Is “Go Red for Women” Month

For the 10th year in a row the American Heart Association is promoting its “Go Red for Women’s” program promoting heart health for women. At least in DC, we were all urged to wear red to focus on the problem. All federal government agencies and departments including the Department of Defense and the Department of Veterans Affairs are promoting the educational push.

The last several years has shown real improvement in American women’s hart health but still:

  • Heart disease is still the No. 1 killer of women, causing 1 in 3 deaths each year.
  • Heart disease kills more women than men, at an average rate of one death per minute.
  • Heart disease kills more women than all kinds of cancer combined.

To find out more about events in your area just go to: www.heart.org/daytongoesred. Together, we can end heart disease for everyone. Women Go Red.

Gordon Mansfield, Former Leader of VA and PVA Dies

This week all American veterans and military retirees lost a friend, Gordon Mansfield. Mr. Mansfield served as Deputy Secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs from 2004-2009 and as Acting VA Secretary of the VA from October 1, 2007 to December 20, 2007. Before that he was Executive Director of the Paralyzed Veterans of America (PVA). He was wounded and paralyzed when fighting in Vietnam during the Tet Offensive and continued to fight the rest of his life for his fellow veterans.

VA Announces New Initiative to Speed Up Disability Claims Adjudication

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE:
January 31, 2013                                

 Disability Claims Initiative Reduces Processing Time, Adds Convenience

Medical Records Review Can Eliminate In-Person Exam Requirement

WASHINGTON – The Department of Veterans Affairs has launched a new initiative that could eliminate the requirement for an in-person medical examination for some Veterans and shorten the time it takes to process Veterans’ disability compensation claims.

The initiative is called Acceptable Clinical Evidence (ACE). This initiative was developed by both the Veterans Health Administration (VHA) and the Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA) in a joint effort to provide a Veteran-centric approach for disability examinations. Use of the ACE process opens the possibility of doing assessments without an in-person examination when there is sufficient information in the record.

Under ACE practices, a VA medical provider completes a Disability Benefits Questionnaire (DBQ) by reviewing existing medical evidence. This evidence can be supplemented with information obtained during a telephone interview with the Veteran – alleviating the need for some Veterans to report for an in-person examination.

“ACE is a process improvement that will help us meet our goal to eliminate the claims backlog and provide more timely benefits to our Veterans, their families and survivors,” said Undersecretary for Benefits Allison A. Hickey. “The initiative also saves Veterans the inconvenience and costs associated with attending a medical examination.”

 When a VA medical provider determines VA records already contain sufficient medical information to provide the needed documentation for disability rating purposes, the requirement for Veterans to travel to a medical facility for an examination may be eliminated.

If VA can complete a DBQ by reviewing medical records already on file, it will use the ACE process. This would then expedite the determination of disability ratings – in turn eliminating the wait time to schedule and conduct an exam from the claims process.

During a 15-month pilot test at one VA regional claims processing office, 38 percent of claims submitted were eligible for ACE.

The ACE initiative is a part of the VBA’s agency-wide Transformation Plan – a five-year, multifaceted organizational change that is based on more than 40 personnel, process and technology initiatives designed to improve claims processing. The goal of the Transformation Plan is to eliminate the claims backlog and process all claims within 125 days with 98 percent accuracy in 2015.

To learn more about VBA Transformation Initiatives, visit: http://benefits.va.gov/transformation/.

New Legislation Introduced in Congress

H.R.32    Military Surviving Spouses Equity Act
Sponsored by
Rep Joe Wilson, South Carolina
Military Surviving Spouses Equity Act - Repeals certain provisions which require the offset of amounts paid in dependency and indemnity compensation from Survivor Benefit Plan (SBP) annuities for the surviving spouses of former military personnel who are entitled to military retired pay or who would be entitled to retired pay except for being under 60 years of age.
Prohibits requiring repayment of certain amounts previously paid to SBP recipients in the form of a retired pay refund.
Repeals the optional authority of (and instead requires) the Secretary of the military department concerned to pay an annuity to a member's dependent children when there is no eligible surviving spouse.
Directs the Secretary concerned to restore annuity eligibility to a surviving spouse who earlier agreed to transfer such eligibility to a surviving child or children of a member

H.R. 153   Veterans  Outreach Improvement Act of 2013
Sponsored by Rep. Mike McIntyre, North Carolina
Veterans Outreach Improvement Act of 2013—Directs the Secretary of Veterans Affairs to establish, maintain, and modify as necessary procedures for ensuring the effective coordination of outreach activities of the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) between and among the Office of the Secretary, the Office of Public Affairs, the Veterans Health Administration, the Veterans Benefits Administration, and the National Cemetery Administration.Directs the Secretary to give priority to state and county outreach assistance in locations that: (1) have relatively large concentrations of veterans; or (2) are experiencing growth in veteran populations. Authorizes the Secretary to make grants to state or county veterans agencies for state and local outreach services.

S. 6   Putting Our Veterans Back to Work Act of 2013
Sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada
Putting Our Veterans Back to Work Act of 2013 --  This bill would  renew the VOW to Hire Heroes Act by reauthorizing the veterans retraining assistance program extending authority of the Secretary of Veterans Affairs to provide rehabilitation and vocational benefits to members of Armed Forces with severe injuries or illnesses, extending additional rehabilitation programs for persons who have exhausted rights to unemployment benefits under State law, and would reauthorize collaborative veterans’ training, mentoring, and placement program.
It builds on the Hire Our Heroes Act by creating a unified employment portal for veterans, gives grants to hire veterans as first responders, and makes employment of veterans an evaluation factor in the awarding of Federal contracts.
This bill also enhances enforcement of rights of members of uniformed services with respect to States and private employers, makes suspension, termination, or debarment of contractors for repeated violations of employment or reemployment rights of members of uniformed services possible, gives subpoena power to Special Counsel in enforcement of employment and reemployment rights of members of uniformed services with respect to Federal executive agencies, and allows for issuance and service of civil investigative demands by the Attorney General.

A Reminder:  New Co-Pays for TRICARE Pharmacy Customers

New co-payments for prescription drugs covered by TRICARE will go into effect soon. The Fiscal Year 2013 National Defense Authorization Act requires TRICARE to increase co-pays on brand name and non-formulary medications that are not filled at military clinics or hospitals.

There is no increase to co-pays for generic medications. Increases will be effective sometime in February, depending on when system changes can be made, and the publication of a required Federal Notice.

TRICARE Pharmacy co-pays vary based on the class of drug and where beneficiaries choose to fill their prescriptions. The co-pay for generic medications stays at $5 when a prescription is filled at a network pharmacy. There is no co-pay when generic prescriptions are filled through TRICARE Home Delivery. The new co-pay for a 30-day supply of a brand name medication purchased at a retail network pharmacy will be $17, up from the current $12. Beneficiaries using TRICARE Home Delivery will pay $13 for brand name drugs, up from $9; however, the Home Delivery price is for a 90-day supply.

The greatest change in co-pays applies to non-formulary medications. The $25 co-pay for these drugs increases to $44 at retail pharmacies and $43 through Home Delivery. The TRICARE Uniform Formulary is a list of all the medications TRICARE covers.

For fiscal 2014 and beyond, the new law directs that co-pays increase annually by the same percentage as retiree cost-of-living adjustments. In years when a COLA increase would total less than a dollar, it will be delayed a year and combined with the next adjustment so increases will always be $1 or more.

Pharmacies at military hospitals and clinics will continue to provide medications with no co-pays. Visit http://www.tricare.mil/Costs/PrescriptionCosts.aspx for more details. (Courtesy of TRICARE Communications)

Free Tax Return Preparation for You by Volunteers

The IRS Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) and the Tax Counseling for the Elderly (TCE) Programs offer free tax help for taxpayers who qualify.

VITA
The VITA Program generally offers free tax help to people who make $51,000 or less and need assistance in preparing their own tax returns. IRS-certified volunteers provide free basic income tax return preparation with electronic filing to qualified individuals in local communities. They can inform taxpayers about special tax credits for which they may qualify such as Earned Income Tax Credit, Child Tax Credit, and Credit for the Elderly or the Disabled. VITA sites are generally located at community and neighborhood centers, libraries, schools, shopping malls, and other convenient locations.

TCE
The TCE Program offers free tax help for all with priority assistance to people who are 60 years of age and older, specializing in questions about pensions and retirement issues unique to seniors. IRS-certified volunteers who provide tax counseling are often retired individuals associated with non-profit organizations that receive grants from the IRS.

Self-Help Tax Preparation
In addition to traditional face-to-face tax preparation, the IRS is offering a self-assistance service at many VITA and TCE locations. If individuals have a simple tax return and need a little help or do not have access to a computer, they can visit one of the participating tax preparation sites and an IRS-certified volunteer will guide them through the process.

Find a VITA Site Near You
There are thousands of VITA sites located across the country. You may find a site near you between January and April using the
VITA Locator Tool or call 1-800-906-9887.

Find a TCE or AARP Tax-Aide Site Near You
A majority of the TCE sites are operated by the AARP Foundation’s Tax Aide Program. To locate the nearest TCE site or AARP Tax-Aide site between January and April use the
AARP Site Locator Tool or call 888-227-7669.
Note: Majority of the VITA and TCE sites are open annually from late January/early February to April 15. During this time, you can locate a site near you using the above locator tools.
Items you need to bring
To have your tax return(s) prepared at a VITA or TCE site you need to bring the following information with you:

  • Proof of identification – Picture ID
  • Social Security Cards for you, your spouse and dependents or a Social Security Number verification letter issued by the Social Security Administration or
  • Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN) assignment letter for you, your spouse and dependents
  • Proof of foreign status, if applying for an ITIN
  • Birth dates for you, your spouse and dependents on the tax return
  • Wage and earning statement(s) Form W-2, W-2G, 1099-R, 1099-Misc from all employers
  • Interest and dividend statements from banks (Forms 1099)
  • A copy of last year’s federal and state returns if available
  • Proof of bank account routing numbers and account numbers for Direct Deposit, such as a blank check
  • Total paid for daycare provider and the daycare provider's tax identifying number (the provider's Social Security Number or the provider's business Employer Identification Number) if appropriate
  • To file taxes electronically on a married-filing-joint tax return, both spouses must be present to sign the required forms.
  •  

It is extremely important that each person use the correct Social Security Number. The most accurate information is usually located on your original Social Security card. If you do not have an SSN for you or a dependent, you should complete Form SS-5, Social Security Number Application. This form should be submitted to the nearest Social Security Administration Office.

If you or your dependent is not eligible to get a Social Security Number, you may need an
Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN).

VA Announces New Online Resources for Funeral Directors

Last week the Department of Veterans Affairs announced the availability of the new online funeral directors resource kit. Funeral directors nationwide may use the kit when helping Veterans and their families make burial arrangements in VA national cemeteries.

“We recognize that Veterans and their families need compassion when they approach funeral directors for help,” said Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric K. Shinseki. “We want to assist directors by giving them the information and tools they need to aid these families.”

The website was created to enable funeral directors to find the most pertinent information to help families plan burials and apply for VA memorial benefits quickly. It has links about eligibility, benefits and services plus videos and information regarding services offered with and without military funeral honors. The videos are available in English and Spanish. The website is available at http://www.cem.va.gov/cem/funeraldirector.asp.

VA maintains 3.2 million gravesites in 131 VA national cemeteries and interred more than 118,000 Veterans and family members in fiscal year 2012. Information on VA burial benefits can be obtained from national cemetery offices, from the Internet at www.cem.va.gov or by calling VA regional offices toll-free at 800-827-1000. To make burial arrangements at the time of need at a VA national cemetery, call the National Cemetery Scheduling Office at 800-535-1117.

Military Kids Website Also Helps Parents, Educators

From a National Center for Telehealth and Technology News Release
JOINT BASE LEWIS-MCCHORD, Wash., Jan. 22, 2013 – The Defense Department website for military children has added new features to help parents and educators explain difficult topics of the military lifestyle to children.

Since its launch in January 2012, MilitaryKidsConnect.org has served more than 125,000 visitors and won five industry excellence awards. To mark the one-year anniversary, the website added new content designed for children, parents and educators, officials said.

The new features include:
-- Military culture videos and lesson plans for teachers, school counselors, and educators to better understand the differences between military and civilian youth;
-- Graphic novels and mini-documentaries by military kids sharing their experiences;
-- New modules for children and parents on handling grief, loss and physical injury.

The website, created by the Defense Department’s National Center for Telehealth and Technology, known as T2, uses innovative ways to help military youth cope with the unique strains of military life. In addition to disruptions from parents deploying to assignments away from home, military children are affected by moving frequently, changing schools and making new friends. They also have to live with readjustment issues when a parent returns from deployments. These issues may include post-traumatic stress and physical disabilities.

“After watching the interaction with kids on MilitaryKidsConnect this past year, we saw many conversations about trying to understand the issues they live with,” said Dr. Kelly Blasko, T2 psychologist. “We developed the added features to help parents and teachers answer the questions the kids were sharing with each other.”

Blasko said the website is continuing to add features and information to military children with the special challenges of living in a military family. Separations, moving and changing friends frequently may be unusual for civilian children, but it's a normal lifestyle for military children. The website helps them live in that world and, hopefully, makes it more fun for them, Blasko added.

The National Center for Telehealth and Technology serves as the primary Defense Department office for cutting-edge approaches in applying technology to psychological health.

VA Working Hard on Veterans’ Eye Problems

285,000 Vets have Glaucoma
The best resolution a Veteran could make this year is to get an eye check-up.
January is Glaucoma Awareness Month and a perfect reminder to all Veterans to take action now to prevent this sight-stealing disease.

An estimated 1.5 million Veterans have a vision-threatening eye disease, including 285,000 with glaucoma.

African-American Veterans should especially get their eyes checked regularly as glaucoma is six-to-eight times more common in African-Americans than Caucasians. Also, among Hispanic populations, Glaucoma is the leading cause of blindness.

The highest risk group is those Veterans over 60.

What is glaucoma? Glaucoma is a group of eye diseases in which the optic nerve, a bundle of over 1 million nerves that convey vision from the eye to the brain, slowly becomes damaged over time. In many cases, blood flow to the optic nerve is reduced, and may be further reduced by increased fluid pressure inside the eyes slowly rising, leading to vision loss or even blindness.

Glaucoma usually starts without any symptoms. Later, there is some loss of side vision. Objects straight ahead are seen clearly, but objects to the side are missed. As the disease worsens, the ability to see objects on the side is increasingly lost, and eventually the center of vision is affected.

The test for glaucoma is painless. Your VA doctor will test the pressure in your eye by placing an instrument on its surface. If there is a suspicion for glaucoma, the appearance and function of the optic nerve are tested with a visual field test and a special retina camera, both of which can detect damage to the optic nerves.

Glaucoma is treated with eye drops, but in some cases, eye surgery is necessary to optimally lower the eye pressure. These treatments work to either make less fluid, or to improve its drainage out of the eye.
Glaucoma is a life-long problem. Veterans should have regular check-ups by an ophthalmologist to watch for changes in pressure and side vision.

VA Researches New Approaches for Treatment

VA is working hard to help prevent Veterans’ eye problems at the Iowa City VA Center for the Prevention and Treatment of Visual Loss.
The Center conducts cutting-edge research in the diagnosis of visual loss, and works to understand the underlying mechanisms and causes of visual loss. With this research, the Center can study new approaches toward rehabilitation and treatment of visual loss, while improving education and clinical care of our nation’s Veterans.

According to Dr. Randy H. Kardon, Director of the Center, “Glaucoma is one of the silent causes of vision loss.

Patients are unaware that they are slowly losing vision until it is too late, at which time the loss is permanent. That is why it is so important for Veterans to have regular eye exams to check for any sign that glaucoma is developing and to be treated.”

VA invests significant effort toward detecting and monitoring of treatment of vision loss, requiring approximately five million visits per year, which is increasing.

The Center of Excellence for the Prevention and Treatment of Visual Loss is helping to solve this problem through new methods of detection, understanding the underlying mechanisms of disease, developing new treatment strategies and telemedicine initiatives.

Air Force Officials Aim to Eliminate Sexual Assault
By Claudette Roulo
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Jan. 23, 2013 – Following a nine-month investigation into sexual misconduct at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland in San Antonio, the Air Force has implemented a comprehensive program aimed at eliminating sexual assault, senior Air Force leaders told Congress today.

Air Force Chief Of Staff Gen. Mark A. Welsh III and Air Force Gen. Edward A. Rice Jr., the commander of the service’s Air Education and Training Command, spoke before the House Armed Services Committee about the Air Force’s recently completed internal investigation.

Describing the crimes as “stunning,” Welsh said there could be no excuses. “There's no justifiable explanation, and there is no way we can allow this to happen again,” he said.

“The Air Force goal for sexual assault is not simply to lower the number. The goal is zero,” Welsh added. “It's the only acceptable objective. The impact on every victim, their family, their friends [and] the other people in their unit is heart-wrenching, and attacking this cancer is a full-time job, and we are giving it our full attention.”

The effort includes an Air Force-wide health and welfare inspection, held in December, the results of which are publicly available, Welsh said. Also last month, Welsh used his monthly “Letter to Airmen” to reinforce “that obscene, vulgar or disrespectful images, songs or so-called ‘traditions’ are not part of our heritage and will not be accepted as part of our culture.”

In addition, a Recruiting Education and Training Oversight Council will be established, Rice said, to review and advise any current or future actions undertaken to eliminate sexual assault. The council also will provide advice on strategic issues affecting airman safety and the maintenance of good order and discipline in basic military training, he added.

More than 7,700 interviews were conducted as part of the investigation, Rice said. When contact information was available, anyone who graduated from basic military training within the past 10 years was interviewed, he added.

“Although we have conducted a 10-year look back, the vast majority of the allegations are of alleged misconduct that occurred over the past three years,” Rice said.

Allegations ranged from sexual assault to inappropriate contact with former students, Rice said. Each victim or alleged victim was offered “the full range of available victim support services,” he added.

Of the 855 personnel assigned as military training instructors during this three-year period, 32 -- less than 4 percent -- have been disciplined or are now under investigation, Rice said.

“I believe it is important to underscore that the vast majority of our instructors served with distinction in a very demanding duty assignment,” Rice said. “That said, it is completely unacceptable to us that so many of our instructors have committed crimes or violated our policies, and we clearly failed in our responsibility to maintain good order and discipline among too many of our instructors in basic military training.”

Maintaining good order and discipline is one of the most important and fundamental responsibilities of command, Rice said, one that “cannot be delegated.”

With that in mind, Air Force officials are focusing their efforts on helping commanders meet this “fundamental responsibility,” he said.

“The Air Force has recommitted itself to ensuring that every airman is treated with respect,” Welsh said. “It's not a one-time fix. It has to be a way of life.”

With “no room for misunderstanding,” Welsh said, every Air Force supervisor and commander must be actively engaged in this effort. “If they don't get actively engaged, I consider them part of the problem,” he added.

While it is still early, Rice said, it appears that the Air Force’s efforts are making an impact. There have been no reports of sexual misconduct in basic military training in the past seven months, he noted. “We know this is not the beginning of the end, but the end of the beginning of a journey that can never end,” he said.

“The American people trust us with their greatest treasure: their sons and daughters,” Welsh said. “They expect us to lead them with honor, to value each of them, and to treat them as if they were our own. We do not have a greater responsibility than that.

“I will never stop attacking this problem. … The United States Air Force leadership team will never quit working to eliminate this horrible crime from the ranks of our Air Force,” he said.

New VA IG Report Says VA Routinely Overpays Veterans

According to USA Today, a new report out by the Department of Veterans Affairs’ Office of the Inspector General claims that VA overpaid 12,800 veterans $943 million from 1993 to 2009.  Claims examiners have repeatedly failed to seek follow-up exams in situations where veterans temporarily receive a 100% disability rating while undergoing surgery or recovering from tough illnesses such as cancer.

The VA recognizes that there is a problem and says that they are working to correct it; the House Veterans Affairs Committee plans to hold a hearing on the issue next month.

The problem stems from the fact that claims examiners often fail to seek a follow-up medical exam to determine if the veteran's condition has improved and the temporary 100% disability rating should be reduced, according to reports. When the follow-up exam is not performed, veterans who improve or recover can receive hundreds of thousands of dollars in compensation over a number of years for a level of disability they no longer have.

Further, the 100% rating legally bars the VA from recouping overpayments that inspectors say have occurred, according to the VA.

One of the reasons these failures are taking place, according to the IG’s report, is the workload for claims examiners. The VA currently has a roughly 900,000 claim backlog.

According to the VA, fixes were put in place last July to help ensure follow-up exams are scheduled. In addition, the claims process is to become fully automated this year and claims examiners will automatically be alerted that exams may be necessary. VA claims examiners handled 1.1 million compensation requests last year and took an average of 260 days to complete cases.