Retiree & Veteran Affairs News 10 July 2014 

7/10/2014 

 

NEGOTIATIONS CONTINUE ON VA REFORM BILL

For the first time in over a decade, House and Senate negotiators held an open conference to iron out differences between the chambers’ respective Veterans’ Affairs reform bills (S.2850 & H.R. 4810). 

Much of the discussion centered around the cost of a provision in both bills that would allow veterans to visit private sector doctors if they are unable to get a timely appointment through the VA or if they live 40 miles or more from the closest VA facility.

The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) projected that the provision in the Senate’s plan could cost $50 billion a year while the House’s would come in at $44 billion over the next five years.

The ranking member on the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., said that the CBO’s cost projection were “ludicrous” and off base because they projected that millions of veterans would suddenly drop their private health insurance and would become a drain on the system.  Burr has asked for another analysis.

House Veterans’ Committee Chairman Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., said that a final bill depended on whether or not better cost projections could be obtained.  House conferees are adamant that any new spending has to be offset by reductions elsewhere. 

Some Senate conferees disagree.  Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., said that he still favors his plan to use an emergency funding designation which requires no offset.  His fellow conferee, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., agrees.  “If it is not an emergency to have tens of thousands of veterans not getting the health care they need in a timely manner, then I’m not quite sure what an emergency is,” McCain said.

Other sticking points in the negotiations include:

·       Language that authorizes the VA to contract with the private sector for care if the department cannot provide it within a certain time frame.  The House bill stipulates a 14 day deadline while the Senate bill directs the VA to identify an acceptable wait-time.

·       The method of how the VA would reimburse the private sector.  The House bill requires the department to pay any non-VA facility health care at the greater of the Medicare rate, the Tricare rate, or a rate set by the VA.  The Senate bill would require that all privately provided care be provided under contract which could allow rates closer to commercial rates in some areas rather than federal levels such as Medicare.

·       The timetable for payment by the VA to private doctors or facilities.  The House bill sets no timetable while the Senate bill contains a non-enforceable, sense-of-the-Senate provision that calls for timely payments.

 Expect more on this in the coming weeks.

SPEAKING OF THE VA… 

A report released by a top White House official charged with investigating the VA said that, “A corrosive culture has led to personnel problems across the Department that are seriously impacting morale and by extension, the timeliness of health care.  The problems inherent within an agency with an extensive field structure are exacerbated by poor management and communication structures, distrust between some VA employees and management, a history of retaliation toward employees raising issues, and a lack of accountability across all grade levels.”

White House Deputy Chief of Staff Rob Nabors’ report also found that the VA’s 14-day scheduling standard — a rule which bans VA hospitals from keeping patients from seeing a doctor for longer than two weeks — are “ill-defined.”  This standard may have contributed to the VA falsifying wait lists for veterans.

“There is a tendency to transfer problems rather than solve problems,” the report found. “This is in part due to the difficulty of hiring and firing in the federal government.”

The report also charged that the VA was slow to adapt to changing demographics among veterans, including an influx of female patients and younger veterans from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan who have different needs than traditional patients.

$58.6 BILLION REQUESTED FOR 2015 OVERSEAS CONTINGENCY OPERATIONS

The Pentagon’s Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) request for fiscal 2015 finally arrived on Capitol Hill. 

The $58.6 billion request for funding is $20.9 billion less than the $79.4 billion placeholder included in the FY 2015 Budget.  The request primarily funds temporary and extraordinary expenses associated with military operations in Afghanistan, as well as activities that support Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF), related follow-on activities, and other critical missions, including counterterrorism, in the region.  In addition to funding for the U.S. military mission in Afghanistan and DOD’s supporting presence in the broader region, the OCO submission seeks congressional support for the new $5 billion Counterterrorism Partnerships Fund (CTPF) and $1 billion for the European Reassurance Initiative (ERI).

In support of OEF and related follow-on activities, the funding would support operations and force protection in Afghanistan, including ending combat mission and transitioning to an advisory mission by the end of December 2014.  It would also support the repair or replacement of combat-damaged equipment, as well as replenishment of expended munitions and continued counterterrorism efforts in Afghanistan. 

The House Armed Services and Budget Committees are scheduled to hold hearings on the OCO request next week. 

Meanwhile, in addition to the OCO request, Senate appropriators will also start their work on the Pentagon’s annual spending bill.  Mark up by the Defense subcommittee is scheduled to begin on July 15 followed by full committee action on July 17. 

The conventional wisdom is that a continuing resolution will be needed by Oct. 1, but the question remains whether Congress will need a stopgap to cover all twelve spending bills or whether some of them can be passed as stand-alone measures. 

Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., is still hopeful that all of the spending bills can be passed in the two weeks of floor time the leadership has set aside for appropriations bills; however, serious disagreements with the GOP on amendments persist. 

Experiences From the Battlefield: Combined Task Force-Dragoon, Kandahar 

The Vilseck, Germany-based 2nd Cavalry Regiment deployed to Kandahar, Afghanistan, from July 2013 through April 2014, serving under the 4th Infantry Division Headqurters. The unit arrived in grueling 120-degree heat at the height of the fighting season and took over the battle space previously covered by two brigades. Although the regiment's leaders shared the same overall mission, the specific tasks each leader performed varied widely from unit to unit.

This month's issue of ARMY Magazine features a collection of stories that provide a glimpse into the experiences of 2nd Cavalry Regiment leaders during their recent deployment. Read More

 Negotiations Continue on VA Reform Bill 

For the first time in over a decade, House and Senate negotiators held an open conference to iron out differences between the chambers' respective Veterans Affairs reform bills (S. 2850 & H.R. 4810), with much of the discussion centering around the cost of a provision in both bills that would allow veterans to visit private sector doctors if they're unable to get a timely appointment through the VA or if they live 40 miles or more from the closest VA facility. Read More

Secretary of Defense Orders Military Health Care System Review

Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel has ordered a comprehensive review of the military health care system. The review will focus on access to care and an assessment of the safety and quality of health care, both in military treatment facilities and purchased care from civilian health care providers. Learn More about the Health Care Survey of Department of Defense Beneficiaries

Under Secretary Carson poses 10 questions to Army

WASHINGTON (Army News Service, July 1, 2014) -- Under Secretary of the Army Brad Carson posed 10 questions Thursday, dealing with the size and composition of the Army, modernization and readiness.

The Army's 31st under secretary, who has been in office a little more than four months, spoke to members of the Association of the U.S. Army at their monthly breakfast. He began by discussing the size of the Army, and where it might go in the future before offering questions to ponder.

"At our height, we had 570,000 people in the Army; today we have 503,000," said Carson, a former member of Congress from Oklahoma. He said the Army is on its way down to 490,000 Soldiers and then to 450,000. "And if sequestration continues to work its sinister effect on the Army, we'll be down to 420,000," he said, adding there may be great pressure to go even below that.

"We have an active component that has tremendous combat experience; we have about 40 [brigade combat teams] -- hallmark fighting units for the Army," Carson said.

He added that the National Guard has 28 brigade combat teams and 350,000 people today. The Army Reserve has a little less than 200,000 people.

"This is the first question I would offer you today," he continued. "And this is a major question to the Army that we must grapple with -- are we going to be a threat-based structure or a capabilities-based structure?"

Carson said the second question goes to the heart of his work as the Army's chief management officer -- what is the ideal size of the generating force? The generating force is charged with manning, training and equipping Soldiers and it has varied from 80,000 to 110,000 people throughout the last 15 years.

"We don't model with the same fidelity we do with the operating force, so that third question is how is that generating force sized and varied with the size of the operating force -- we know it's not particularly linear," he said. "If we draw down the operating force by 10 percent, the generating force doesn't necessarily fall by 10 percent."

While indeed the Army is drawing down significantly, Carson's fourth question to the audience concerned itself with how quickly the Army could grow if it needs to. Meanwhile, the service continues to shrink to its lowest size since before World War II, when it had 280,000 enlisted and 14,500 officers. By the end of the war, however, the Army had grown to 90 divisions and more than eight million people.

"But we grew under very different circumstances back in World War II, with threats directly to the nation and we had conscription with minimal political opposition," Carson said. "Between 2000 and 2011, we had all kinds of incentives in place trying to grow the Army during a war environment, and the most the enlisted force grew in a single year was nine percent."

The under secretary added that if the nation wanted to build the Army back up from 420,000 to 550,000 or 570,000 Soldiers, the force would need to grow by 35-40 percent in accessions annually. That's probably not possible, no matter what kind of incentives one puts in place, he said.

"So my fifth question to you is, if we're going down to 420,000 or lower, how do you build it back up -- how quickly can we recruit the right people, to make sure we have enough units, field-grade officers, senior NCOs? This isn't an easy question to answer," he said.

"The sixth question I offer you, and this is an important one, is whether the Army's concepts of operations are adequate to a world where precision-guided missiles are proliferating, in a world where the price of computing, power sensors, weaponry is all going down relative to the cost of the means to protect against them, whether it's better armor, stealth of hypersonic speed. Are we ready for that kind of world?" Carson said.

Carson's seventh question revolved around the roles of the National Guard and the Army Reserve. Should the National Guard be operational or strategic, he asked, and should combat-power roles be shared in some way between the two components?

"My eighth question to you deals with modernization," he said. "Should we focus on resetting the vast property book of the Army or should we be thinking about next-generation investments and how do we balance these things?

"The Army property book is now $250 billion," he continued. "We have a lot of gear out there. It's expensive to sustain it; it's expensive to recapitalize it as it comes out of theater and some of it may not even be needed for the kind of wars in the future, so how do we balance these priorities?"

His ninth question was about the Army Force Generation model. He said ARFORGEN has been successful in readying the forces needed for Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom, "but at a high price." He asked, "Is that the right model of readiness for the future?"

"And, a tenth question, [which is] somewhat controversial, the one that is so great just to me, is whether our emphasis on decisive-action training is adequate to prepare for the range of military operations the U.S. is going to face over the next 10, 20 or 30 years," Carson concluded.

NO TIME FOR FUN AND GAMES

Search “congressional crunch before August recess” on the internet and you will get about 4,660,000 results!  Unfortunately, it looks like nothing will change this year.  

Once Congress returns to town after the July 4 recess, they are scheduled to leave again at the end of the month and be away for all of August as well as half of September and all but two days in October.  That would give them only 28 legislative days scheduled before the mid-term elections on Nov. 4.   

With that time crunch in mind, the focus is on the Senate to see if they will be able to pass the three primary defense-related bills already approved by the House: the defense appropriations bill which was passed last week (June 20); the National Defense Authorization Act (passed on May 22); and the Military Construction/ Veterans’ Affairs spending bill (passed April 30).

While the Senate leadership has said that they want all of the bills passed before the new fiscal year starts on Oct. 1, veteran Hill watchers are not so sure it will happen.   

A trio of government spending bills bundled together by Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., and Richard Shelby, R-Ala., was pulled from the Senate floor last week when both sides of the aisle were unable to agree on the amendment process.  That does not bode well for passage of any of the 12 appropriations bills which would mean another season of funding the government through continuing resolutions.   

AUSA’s leadership has urged Congress to return to regular order.  AUSA President Gen. Gordon R. Sullivan, USA, Ret., recently told members of Congress that “for our military leaders to properly execute their national security mission, they need authorization authority and appropriations to be completed on time and with regular order.  Operating under a series of continuing resolutions and sequestration limits their capability to properly plan and execute a budget.” 

NEW LEGISLATION SPOTLIGHT 

Sometimes it’s the little things most of us never think about.  Reps. Ed Royce, R-Calif., and Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., have introduced legislation that would allow members of the military and their families to keep their current auto insurance policy when they move from state to state.  

The Servicemembers Insurance Relief Act (H.R. 4669) also makes the current state-based insurance regulatory system more accommodating to servicemembers that currently have to change auto insurance policies every time they relocate across state lines. 

“Members of the military must change auto insurance policies with every move across state lines, and the Servicemembers Insurance Relief Act eliminates that cumbersome requirement for our brave men and women in uniform,” said Rep. Royce. “This bipartisan legislation makes a simple but meaningful change to current law that will lessen the burden on servicemembers and their families during times of transition.” 

“Members of our military serve around the globe and make enormous sacrifices while doing so.  As they move their families around the country, we should be doing everything within our power to allow them to do their jobs to the best of their ability. The Servicemembers Insurance Relief Act is an important step in that direction,” said Rep. Duckworth. 

Introduction of the bill follows a 2013 report by the Federal Insurance Office of the U.S. Department of the Treasury that declared eliminating the auto insurance change requirement for relocating servicemembers as a way to improve and modernize insurance regulation. 

AUSA thanks Reps. Royce and Duckworth for introducing this legislation. 

DEFENSE SPENDING BILL HEADS TO THE FLOOR

Rep. Harold Rogers, R-Ky., Chairman of the House Appropriations Committee said recently that approval of the fiscal 2015 defense spending bill by his committee was the earliest since 1974.  That’s good news.  In fact, as this goes to press, the bill is headed to the House floor for debate and passage.  That’s even better news.

The $570.4 billion defense spending bill stays within the cap for discretionary spending mandated by the Bipartisan Budget Act passed in Dec. 2013.  Included in the $570.4 billion is $70.4 billion slated for Overseas Contingency Operations; however, details of that request are not expected until later this month.

Much of the committee’s actions align closely with the House-passed Defense authorization bill and would appropriate:

• $31.6 billion for defense health programs.  The committee essentially rejected all of the Administration’s proposals to increase/create fees for the TRICARE healthcare program; consolidate the three major plans within the TRICARE program; and increase pharmacy fees.  In fact, the committee would add $125 million in unrequested funds for Traumatic Brain Injury and psychological health research and development. 

• $2.6 billion for Defense Department Dependent Schools and $40 million in unrequested funds for impact aid, a program administered by the Education Department to provide supplementary funds to school districts nationwide in order to support the education of nearly 600,000 children of servicemembers.. 

• $100 million in unrequested funds for the commissary system to maintain current operations for 2015.  The committee’s report states that it supports the defense commissary system and the benefits it yields to servicemembers worldwide.  It also notes that DoD historically has subsidized the secondary transportation costs for commissary goods shipped overseas and currently plans to re-compete the contracts for delivery of fresh fruits and vegetables and will require that proposed prices for goods include secondary transportation costs, thereby passing the costs for these goods on to commissary customers.  The committee directed the Secretary of Defense to report on the proposed change and directed that the current policies and procedures associated with the shipping for commissaries cannot be modified until the report is delivered and Congress has 30 days to review and approve the proposed changes included in the report.

• $475 million for tuition assistance

• $534 million in additional funding for an across-the-board 1.8% pay increase for military personnel in FY 2015, a 0.8-percentage-point increase over the president's request.

• $164.6 billion in non-war funding to operate and maintain U.S. forces and for the maintenance of materials and facilities worldwide in FY 2015, $1.3 billion less than requested.

• $1 billion in added funds for the operation and maintenance accounts for the active services, the National Guard and the reserve components, to be used only for improving military readiness.  The funding is to be used only to improve readiness, including increased training, depot maintenance, and base operations support. None of the funding provided may be used for recruiting, marketing or advertising programs.

• An additional $39 million above the request for suicide prevention outreach programs, including the Yellow Ribbon program that helps guardsmen and reservists transition to civilian life upon returning from deployment.

The measure would set end strength for the Army at 490,000 which is 30,000 less than the fiscal 2014 level.

The committee responded to the Army’s proposed Aviation Restructure Initiative with mixed results.  The plan would have retired some of the older helicopters while shifting Apache helicopters from the Army National Guard to the active force.  In turn, the Guard would receive Blackhawk and M utility helicopters.  The committee largely agreed with the plan except for the transfer of the Apaches from the Guard.  Instead the committee directed the Defense Secretary to submit a report to Congress within 120 days of enactment outlining the number of aircraft being retired, the number of airframes being transferred to other government agencies, the number of airframes being offered for sale to other nations, the cost of divesting these aircraft and the impact the divestiture of these airframes will have on the domestic rotary-wing industrial base.  The Army is prohibited from divesting any aircraft until the report is submitted.

The measure appropriates $1.3 billion for 87 multiuse Black Hawks for the Army and Guard, $119 million more than the president's request.  The added funds are for eight additional UH-60M Black Hawk helicopters to address Army National Guard modernization shortfalls.

What’s next:  As already stated, floor action on the House bill begins this week with numerous amendments up for debate.  Over on the Senate side, the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee is holding a hearing on their bill this week.  Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and Gen. Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff will testify.  No markup schedule has been set yet, but Committee Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski has said that she wants all spending bills to be passed by August.  Once the House and Senate bills are passed, a conference committee will be scheduled to iron out any differences. 

The Association remains hopeful that the House and Senate is actually returning to regular order with regards to the appropriations/authorization process.  AUSA President Gen. Gordon R. Sullivan, USA Ret., has stated repeatedly in testimony, letters, and speeches that running the Army under continuing resolutions is bad for business. 

AUSA ON THE HILL

AUSA’s Vice President Lt. Gen. Jerry Sinn and Government Affairs Director Bill Loper, along with other representatives from Veteran and Military Service organizations, attended a roundtable meeting hosted by House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., last week. The event afforded AUSA the opportunity to discuss issues important to the Association and its members with Leader Pelosi and eleven other top Democratic lawmakers.

Lt. Gen. Sinn expressed AUSA’s desire for bipartisan action on legislation pertaining to veteran’s access–to–service.  He also provided insight into sources of VA funding, noting the presence of unobligated funds from previous years.  In addition, Sinn expressed AUSA’s commitment to urge Congress to return to regular order in the appropriations process so that all funding is completed before the expiration of the fiscal year on 30 September.  Finally, Sinn restated before the dozen House lawmakers, AUSA’s belief that sequestration cuts affecting the Department of Defense be ended permanently as a matter of national security.

The group will meet again next month to further discuss potential solutions to the ongoing VA healthcare crisis.

To reiterate the Association’s message on the importance of regular order, AUSA President Gen. Gordon Sullivan, USA, Ret., sent the roundtable attendees a follow-on letter.  Sullivan said, “Our association’s focus centers on national defense and for our military leaders to properly execute their national security mission, they need authorization authority and appropriations to be completed on time and with regular order.  Operating under a series of continuing resolutions and sequestration limits their capability to properly plan and execute a budget.”

STICKER SHOCK ON VA LEGISLATION

The House and Senate swiftly passed legislation last week in response to the scandal that has consumed the Veterans’ Administration where thousands of veterans have endured long wait-times that were covered up to make internal figures look better.  It has been reported that some veterans died while waiting for treatment.  The measures are now headed to conference committee to hammer out a final version.

The Senate’s bill would allow veterans to go to civilian doctors for the next two years if they live more than 40 miles away from a treatment center or if they have been waiting for more than a month for a doctor’s appointment.

Among other things, the Senate bill also gives the VA 60 days to create disciplinary procedures for workers who knowingly falsify wait-time data, lets the agency more quickly fill medical jobs with the greatest shortages and lets the VA enter into leases for 26 major medical facilities in 17 states and Puerto Rico.

The House passed a similar bill.  Like the Senate version, the House would require the VA to pay for outside medical care for service members who have been unable to see a doctor or who live 40 miles away from a VA-affiliated facility.  It also makes it easier for the VA to fire or demote agency officials. 

The Congressional Budget Office estimates that preliminary costs for just one provision of the bill -- which gives the VA authority to contract with private health care providers to ensure veterans get care -- would exceed more than $35 billion through 2016.  The CBO also estimates that the provision could ultimately cost $50 billion per year.

In response, The Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget (CRFB) has sounded an alarm over the potential cost of the bill, releasing a statement saying the Senate version of the bill “violates every principle of good budgeting, and could add substantially to the national debt.  “If the program was permanently extended, and fully phased-in costs grew with inflation, the total cost could exceed $500 billion over the next decade before interest,” the CRFB warned.  “In fact, for the cost of making this new entitlement permanent, policymakers could fully repeal the defense sequester,” CRFB added.

The House bill, though, calls for a study of the costs, which the CRFB called more "responsible."

Earlier this week, Sen. Rob Portman, who voted for the bill, said it was a “huge mistake” that the Senate voted for a veterans aid bill only an hour after receiving a preliminary estimate of its cost.

“We’ve got to take our time and legislate correctly,” Portman added. “But we now have the opportunity to work with the House because the two bills are quite different in some respects and come up with a more fiscally responsible alternative.” 

President Nominates New VA Secretary

Well I was wrong. I did not think we would see a new appointment for the Secretary of Veterans Affairs so soon. What a thankless job! But we now have a nominee- as I am sure you all know. It is Robert McDonald former CEO of Proctor and Gamble. At first it seems like both an unusual and a good choice.

He rose up through the levels of Proctor and Gambles for over 30 years. So he knows about the inner politics of a huge national organization. P & G has over 130,000 employees and over 200 brands (like Tide)

Most of you have surely read many things about Mr. McDonald in the mainstream media but here are a few facts that you may not know. He is a 1975 West Point graduate and served for 5 years reaching the rank of Captain as an Army Ranger in the 82nd Airborne Division. His father was a WWII Army Air Corps veteran. His father-in-law was also a WWII veteran and a prisoner of war. So he personally knows what service in the military is as well as the needs of veterans. But with his work in the private business world he must have experience with keeping control of departments and divisions which want to go their own way and not follow the requirement of the national headquarters. All of this sounds like the sort of experience that would be of great use when trying to get the VA under control and focused on serving the veteran.

At a meeting on Wednesday Acting Secretary Sloan Gibson told the attending VSO representatives (including Deirdre Parke Holleman) that he has been in the same class as Mr. McDonald at West Point and had been a close friend of Mr. McDonald for over 30 years. Indeed they and their wives had toured the California wine country together last summer. . So if confirmed it is quite clear that the VA Secretary and Deputy Secretary will get along.

But now the question of Confirmation. It was clear on Wednesday that everyone in the VA’s national headquarters thought Mr. McDonald would be in his office in a few weeks. Acting Secretary Gibson said he would be very disappointed if Mr. McDonalds was not confirmed before the August recess. But numerous articles and think pieces doubt that it can happen so quickly.

Before a Senate hearing is held the nominee normally meets individually with the Senators on the Committee. However a staffer of SASC Chairman Bernie Sanders (I-VT) said a hearing would not be scheduled until a formal nominee questionnaire is filed with the Senate (similar to a formal nomination request.) The White House has not said when that questionnaire would be filed. And Chairman Sanders has been cautious in his public reaction to the nomination: “The VA needs significantly improved transparency and accountability and it needs an increased number of doctors, nurses and other medical staff so that all eligible veterans get high-quality health care in a timely manner. I look forward to meeting with Mr. McDonald next week in order to ascertain his views on these important issues.” So you can see that the time is growing tighter and tighter.

…And What Will He Have to Deal With?

If Mr. McDonald is confirmed he will, according to a recent report, “a corrosive culture” that has damaged performance and care. The report was presented to the President by Acting Secretary Sloan Gibson and White House Aide Rob Nabors. It continued: “The problems inherent within an agency with an extensive field structure are exacerbated by poor management and communication structures, distrust between some VA employees and management, a history of retaliation toward employees raising issues, and a lack of accountability across all grade levels.”

There are also many reports indicating that whistleblowers at the VA have been subject to retaliation. So the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs will hold a hearing on Tuesday, July 8, 2014, at 7:30 PM in room 334 of the Cannon House Office Building to examine how the Department of Veterans Affairs handles whistleblower complaints.

Congress: So Much to Do, So Little Time

As Congress returns to work this week they only have 28 working days left before the November elections.  But they only have 26 working days left before the start of the new fiscal year for the federal government when they’re supposed to have all 12 of the bills passed to fund the federal government for another year. Those are called appropriations bills and so far they have passed none.

The House is ahead of the Senate, having passed 5 of the appropriations bills, with another 5 ready to go now that they’ve returned to work. The reason the House has been able to do this is because they operate by simple majority rule. The party with the most members can win passage of anything it wants as long as all of its members vote for it. In the case of the House, it’s the Republican with the majority.

The Senate is different because of the rules that have been developed over the years.  Each Senator has much more power than each Representative in the House and if any Senator objects to a bill, he or she can bring it to a stop by threatening to filibuster the bill. While an actual filibuster is very rare, the threat of one means that each bill has to have 60 votes in to pass if there is any threat that a Senator might chose to filibuster.  Although the Democrats have the majority in the Senate, they don’t have 60 votes - which means, if they can’t find enough Republicans to get 60 votes for a bill nothing can pass if a filibuster is threatened.

To make things even worse this year, the Senate is the only body which must approve Presidential appointments such Cabinet officials, so now that President Obama has nominated Robert McDonald to be Secretary of Veterans Affairs, the Senate must hold hearings and eventually vote on him.

In addition, the President has requested new money to deal with the crisis of growing illegal immigration on the southern border so that will also require hearings and a vote.

With all of this to do and only 26 working days left before the start of the new fiscal year there is more and more talk that Congress will once again have to resort to a “continuing resolution,” which is a bill to continue to fund the government at FY2013 levels in order to avoid another government shutdown. Both parties know that shutting down the government in an election year is not a good thing to do.
As always, we will keep you advised in the coming weeks as Congress tries to get its work done.

MCRMC Issues its Interim Report

On Thursday July 3rd the Military Compensation and Retirement Modernization Commission (MCRMC) issued its Interim Report. (Please go to the link below to read all 358 pages (or perhaps just the Executive Summary.) This is an exhaustive analysis which the Commission intends to be: “our understanding of the military compensation and benefit programs; relevant laws, regulations, and policies; associated appropriated Federal funding; and historical and contextual background for the uniformed services' compensation and benefit programs across the Federal Government”.

They are going to use this as a basis of their modernization recommendations which they intend to submit to the President and Congress on February 1st 2015. TREA the Enlisted Association, has met several times with the Commissions and their staffs to discuss our beliefs of what is deserved and needed by those who serve a career in the military and why your earned benefits must be protected. But you can comment individually by going to their web site at www.mcrmc.gov and clicking on their comment section. We keep repeating that this is a very important Commission. Their recommendation may very well have enormous influence for the future. So it is important that you are heard as often as possible.

http://www.mcrmc.gov/public/docs/reports/MCRMC-Interim-Report-Final-HIRES-L.pdf

Official Emphasizes Early Action for Timely Voting
By Army Sgt. 1st Class Tyrone C. Marshall Jr.
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, June 30, 2014 – Service members, their families and U.S. citizens overseas away from their home voting locations should register early to ensure receipt of voting materials, the Defense Department’s top voting official said.

During a recent interview with American Forces Press Service and the Pentagon Channel, Matt Boehner, director of the Federal Voting Assistance Program, discussed a myriad of voting-related topics designed to assist DOD voters.

“The Federal Voting Assistance Program, or FVAP, is a program in the Department of Defense that helps ensure military members, their families, and U.S. citizens living overseas are aware of their right to vote, and have the tools and resources to do that,” he said. “What we’re telling military members and their families is to get started. You need to register early.”

To do so, he said, voters should use a federal postcard application, or FPCA, available from the FVAP webpage at http://www.fvap.gov/.

“You can download the FPCA or use our online assistant to actually fill out the form,” Boehner said. “It walks you step by step through the process.”

During Armed Forces Voters Week, which begins today and runs through July 7, emphasis will on voting awareness, Boehner said.

“The goal of that week is to raise awareness of the absentee voter process,” he added. “In addition, we also want to raise awareness to the idea that service members who move -- whether it’s a deployment or a permanent change of station -- need to let their local election officials know of this move. The easiest way to do that is to fill out a new FPCA.”

Those who chose to vote will not have to figure out the process alone -- more than 13,000 unit voting assistance officers are on the job throughout the military services. “Unit voting assistance officers are located in every unit, both stateside and overseas, and their job is for in-person assistance,” Boehner said.

FVAP provides assistance in a number of different ways, he said, including a “1-800” call center and email, but unit voting assistance officers provide an in-person resource – what Boehner called a “first line of defense for voting assistance.”

Boehner also advised prospective voters planning a move to ensure they update their mailing address, because it doesn’t occur automatically.

“So what you need do is fill out a new federal postcard application every single time you move,” he said. “This way you can ensure that your local election official knows where you are and that your voting materials can be sent to that new address.”

Boehner also dispelled a popular myth regarding absentee ballot voting.

“There are a lot of myths about the absentee ballot voting process, in particular … we hear a lot about ‘absentee ballots only count in close elections,’” he said.

“This is absolutely not true,” Boehner said. “Every valid and timely cast ballot is counted -- no matter how close the election is.”

Typically, he said, the absentee ballot voting process is publicly discussed during close elections, because “the media raises attention to it and says, ‘The election cannot be called until the absentee ballots are counted.’

“But every ballot that is cast -- both valid and timely -- will be counted,” Boehner said.

The FVAP program has instituted a number of new initiatives, for the 2014 election cycle, Boehner said, including a redesigned website and a digital toolkit for voting assistance officers.

“The initiative I’m most excited to talk about,” he said, “is for our younger, first-time voters in the military. A large portion [of voters] in the military are age 18 to 24. What we want to do is show these younger military members that voting is easy.”

The goal, he added, is for them to be successful in voting by showing them the tools and resources FVAP has in place to make voting easy.

Military members already using FVAP resources are more than likely to vote, Boehner said, so officials want to show these younger, first-time voters that the process is easy and set them up for success.

For now, Boehner noted, the best way to raise awareness about FVAP is through sharing information.

“We created an entire section on our website at FVAP.gov of outreach materials,” Boehner said. “And we simply ask people to share them. You share them with members of your unit [and] you share them with family members,” he said. “Simply getting the word out about the absentee voting process and how easy it is would be a big help to our program.”

Voting is a personal choice, Boehner said, and FVAP wants to make sure those military members and their families who want to vote have the tools and resources to do so.

“We also want to remind military members and their families to do things early,” he said. “Register early [and] request your absentee ballot early so that we can ensure that you receive your voting information”

World War II POW and Olympic Runner Dies at 97

Louis Zamperini, the World War II prisoner of war and former Olympic distance runner, has passed away at the age of 97. Zamperini is the subject of Lauren Hillenbrand's best-selling book Unbroken. The book has been on the New York Times best sellers list for 165 weeks and still going strong. A movie of the book has been directed by Angelina Jolie and will be released on Christmas. Zamperini was the youngest-ever American Olympic qualifier for the 1936 Olympics in Berlin where he placed eighth in the 5,000 meters where Hitler wanted to meet him. In 1941 he enlisted in the Army Air Corps. After his plane crashed, he spent 74 days on a raft before being captured by the Japanese Navy upon reaching shore. He would spend two and a half years as an unofficial POW, and was declared killed in action by the U.S. This and much more was beautifully told in “Unbroken.”

Everyone wanted to meet him. In fact he had just been named next year’s Rose Bowl Marshall.

President Nominates New VA Secretary

The president has nominated former Proctor & Gamble chief executive Robert McDonald to become the new secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs. McDonald is a West Point graduate and served for five years as an Army infantry officer. VFW National Commander Bill Thien said McDonald’s experience leading complex organizations will be a plus, since the VA is ultimately in the service industry and needs to be run like a business. “However, the VA is also unlike any organization in the private sector,” he said, “because it’s led by political appointees in Washington but managed entirely by federal civilians in the field. We need a VA secretary who can change an organization with many internal loyalties into a culture where properly serving America’s veterans becomes the only definition of mission success or failure. The VFW hopes Mr. McDonald is up to that challenge, and we look forward to working with him once he is confirmed.” Read the Chief’s entire statement.

VA Facilities Report Given to President

Late last week, White House Deputy Chief of Staff Rob Nabors provided his findings to the president on the VA healthcare crisis. Nabors was assigned to investigate more than 27 facilities that had reportedly kept alternate waiting lists that led to failures in access to care, which may have resulted in the deaths of several veterans. Acting VA Secretary Sloan Gibson was also in attendance and reported VA’s progress in implementing reforms as well as on the separate site visits made to a dozen VA medical facilities across the country. According to the Nabors report, inadequate resources and a “corrosive culture” contributed to personnel problems, which impacted the timeliness of care provided to veterans. Nabors also acknowledged that the VA needs more doctors, administrators and staff. Gibson reported that the VA Inspector General is now investigating 77 facilities, and action is being taken to hire more support staff, deploy mobile units to underserved areas and provide more whistleblower protection. The VFW agrees with the recommendations of the report and continues to work with Congress and the administration to increase access, efficiency and accountability across VA. Read the White House statement and report.

VA Directs Monthly VSO Meetings in All Medical Centers

Acting VA Secretary Sloan Gibson has directed the leadership of all 153 VA Medical Centers (VAMC) to begin holding monthly meetings with veteran and military service organizations and other community partners in order to better serve veterans in the communities where they reside. Monthly VSO/MSO meetings with the VA secretary and senior staff are standard in Washington, but not in the field, where access to care issues and proven allegations of unofficial waiting lists have resulted in a system-wide crisis in care and confidence. The VFW hopes that all VFW department commanders and department service officers will get involved as soon as their local VAMCs announce their meeting schedules.

Burn Pit Registry Now Open

All Desert Shield/Storm veterans, and Post-9/11 veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan and deployments into Djibouti are encouraged to log on to the VA’s new burn pit registry to report exposures to airborne hazards such as smoke from burn pits, oil-well fires, and other pollutants or exposures encountered during deployment, as well as other health concerns. A registry is required to properly document whether such exposures harmed or caused other illnesses or diseases. VA officials acknowledge that troops may suffer from illnesses related to environmental exposures, and has established a surveillance program for service members exposed to the known carcinogen hexavalent chromium from a water treatment facility near Basra in 2003, but VA also said there is not yet enough scientific evidence to prove that exposure to burn pits causes long-term health problems. Log on to the Airborne Hazards and Open Burn Pit Registry.

Interim Military Compensation Commission Report Released

The Military Compensation and Retirement Modernization Commission released a 358-page interim report today that thoroughly defines all the pay, allowances and Quality of Life programs that are under consideration for possible consolidation, enhancement, reduction, elimination or increased cost-sharing. The interim report does not, however, make recommendations regarding which program will be impacted. Those recommendations will be released next February in the commission’s final report to the president. The VFW has met several times with the commission and testified before them last fall. Read the interim report.

Commissaries partner with food banks

The Defense Commissary Agency has established a formal process covering diversion of unsellable but edible food to local food banks.

The program now involves 111 stateside commissaries that will divert qualifying food to 77 food banks approved by the Department of Defense, but both numbers will continue to rise.

"During fiscal year 2013, DeCA donated 638,582 pounds," said Randy Eller, deputy director of DeCA's logistics division.

"Already in fiscal 2014, we have donated more than 1 million pounds, so our donations this year could approach 1.5 million pounds," he continued. "This may sound like a lot, and the food banks are certainly grateful, but edible, unsellable product amounts to less than 1 percent of what we sell worldwide. We strive for as little loss as possible to remain efficient and effective."

Following the government shutdown in 2013, DeCA and government officials recognized the need for a formal program for diverting unsellable but wholesome food.

Once stateside commissaries returned to normal operations after the Oct. 2-6 shutdown, DeCA received a one-time exception from the Under Secretary of Defense Personnel and Readiness to authorize local food banks to receive food donations.

With that exception, DeCA turned over approximately $250,339 in grocery, meat and produce merchandise to 72 food banks throughout the United States, preventing entry into the waste stream. Turning that one-time project into an ongoing program involved nearly six months of work. DeCA headquarters staff contacted all U.S. commissaries and established procedures to gain approval for participating food banks.

This system differs from the annual Feds Feed Families campaign that runs June through August. Under Feds Feed Families, commissaries serve as collection points for their installations, and all donations come from DeCA customers.

Visit Food Banks to learn what commissaries are working with food banks.

40 stores offer carts for special-needs individuals

Forty commissaries across the United States now offer a grocery cart designed specifically for special-needs individuals.

Called "Caroline's Cart," it enables special-needs persons, less than 250 pounds, to safely and easily accompany parents or caretakers on commissary shopping trips. The cart provides the option of using one basket instead of pushing both a wheelchair or stroller and a grocery cart when shopping.

"Many retailers and malls are now offering these special-needs carts," said Randy Eller, DeCA's deputy director of logistics. "Placing these carts into our commissaries will provide a valuable service to many military families at these installations."

Eller said commissaries started receiving the carts mid-June. "Once we roll out the first 40 and gauge response, we'll see if we should deploy more to the field," he said.

Slightly larger than a traditional shopping cart, the special-needs carts have handles that swing away to allow easy access to the seat, and a platform below the seat serves as a footrest. With the occupant facing the cart operator, the seat contains a five-point adjustable harness for support. The cart's two 8-inch wheels and four casters provide maneuverability and stability, and brakes help ensure safety while loading or unloading the passenger.

The carts will be located at the front of the store, or customers can ask a manager for assistance. Carts will be available only on a first-come, first-served basis. It will be the patron's responsibility to place the individual in the cart.


Visit Caroline's Carts to see the commissaries by state that have one.

Commissaries support 'Feds Feed Families'

Commissary employees and customers are working together again this year to collect donations for the Feds Feed Families campaign.

The campaign, which began June 1 and runs through the end of August, collects much-needed items for local food banks. Customers and employees can donate nonperishable food and personal hygiene items to the campaign using marked bins located at the entries or exits of participating commissaries.

"Contributing to the communities that surround our stores is important to the commissaries," said Vicki Archileti, DeCA's executive director of infrastructure support. "Times are still tough for a lot of families, and with commissaries and our patrons working together we hope to lessen that burden."

Last year, commissaries collected almost 740,000 pounds, or 39 percent of the Department of Defense's total, of items for local food banks. In 2013, DOD collected over 1.9 million pounds, and donations from the entire federal government totaled 9 million pounds.

Commissaries will again serve as collection points for the campaign. Once the items have been collected the installation will pick up the items and deliver them to a local food bank.

Some commissaries sell prepackaged donations packages, which allows customers to purchase the bags and then drop them in the collection bins before leaving the store.

The most-needed items for donations include:

  • Canned vegetables - low sodium, no salt
  • Canned fruits - in light syrup or its own juices
  • Canned proteins - tuna, salmon, chicken, peanut butter and beans
  • Soups - beef stew, chili, chicken noodle, turkey or rice
  • Condiments - tomato-based sauces, light soy sauce, ketchup, mustard, salad dressing or oils
  • Snacks - individually packed snacks, crackers, trail mix, dried fruit, granola and cereal bars, pretzels and sandwich crackers
  • Multigrain cereal
  • 100 percent juice - all sizes, including juice boxes
  • Grains - brown and white rice, oatmeal, bulgar, quinoa, couscous, pasta, and macaroni and cheese
  • Paper products and household items - paper towels, napkins, cleaning supplies
  • Hygiene items - diapers, deodorants (men and women), feminine products, toilet paper, tissues, soap, toothpaste and shampoo.

Although no goals have been established for the 2014 campaign, the commissaries are confident that with the help of its patrons and employees the 2013 totals will be exceeded.

 "For the last three years our patrons and employees have never failed to make this campaign a success," said Archileti. "We are looking forward to another great campaign year."

The VFW Calls for Mexican Travel/Product Boycott

This week, VFW National Commander Bill Thien called for a nationwide boycott of travel and products from Mexico. The purpose is to apply economic pressure on the Mexican government to release Marine Sgt. Andrew Tahmooressi, who has been languishing away in a Mexican jail since he was arrested March 31 for allegedly crossing the border accidentally with three personal firearms that were legally registered in the United States but not in Mexico. Thien said the VFW twice asked President Obama to contact Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto, but a phone call specifically about the Marine sergeant never took place. "This is about politics, and if my government won’t do anything, then I guess we need to let the power of the purse take over,” said the Chief. “No products, no travel, a total boycott … then maybe a dialogue will start.”

VFW Member Selected to Receive Medal of Honor

America’s newest Medal of Honor selectee is former Army Staff Sgt. Ryan Pitts, 28, a life member of VFW Post 8862 in Vicenza, Italy. He was assigned as a forward observed with Chosen Company, 2nd Battalion (Airborne), 503rd Infantry Regiment, 173rd Airborne Brigade, in Wanat, Afghanistan. On July 13, 2008, he and his fellow paratroopers fought off a force of more than 200 enemy fighters who were attempting to overrun their observation post and vehicle patrol base. The Battle of Wanat is one of the deadliest of the war, with nine paratroopers giving their lives and 27 wounded. Read more.

House/Senate Conferees Meet on VA Bill

On Wednesday, House and Senate Conferees met to begin working out the differences between their proposals to address the VA healthcare crisis. It has been more than 15 years since a conference was called to discuss any VA-related legislation. All conferees spoke about their commitment to fix the VA so that all generations of veterans could receive the quality and accessible healthcare they have earned. One of the sticking points among members is how to pay for the bill. Last week, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimated the proposals could cost roughly $50 billion per year. Senate VA Ranking Member Richard M. Burr (R-NC) called the numbers “grotesquely” out of line. House VA Committee Chairman Jeff Miller (R-FL) said CBO needs to issue a new estimate, but added that the conferees will keep working to settle their differences while they wait for updated numbers. Despite differences of opinion over funding and the overall quality of care at the VA, lawmakers were hopeful they can come to a resolution. The VFW urges the conferees to reach an agreement that will provide the necessary funds to resolve the scheduling and access issues, and ensure that when VA does authorize outside care, that private providers are also held to access and quality standards. Read the VFW’s letter to congressional leaders outlining our views on the conferenced bill. For a list of conferees and a webcast of the meeting, visit the Senate VA Committee website.

House Holds Late Night Hearing on VA Capacity

Late Monday night, the House VA Committee held an oversight hearing to assess the VA’s efforts to increase its capacity and efficiency within medical facilities. The hearing is one of several the committee has held to find improvements among VA practices and policies regarding access to care for veterans. At the center of the hearing was a new program entitled “VA Accelerating Access to Care Initiative.” Unveiled in May, the coordinated system-wide program requires VHA facilities to systematically review clinical capacity in an effort to provide timely medical appointments to veterans. Chairman Jeff Miller (R-FL) and Ranking Member Michael Michaud (D-ME) both seemed frustrated at the lack of standardization and response to their requests about program details. The VA Assistant Deputy Under Secretary for Health for Clinical Operations Dr. Thomas Lynch spoke about recent issues regarding wait times and scheduling and acknowledged that overall services within VA are being questioned. He also told committee members that “VA is committed to correcting unacceptable practices in patient scheduling, and that these practices are not consistent with values of the Department, and we are working to fix the problems.” The VFW believes that VA must identify the facilities where access is not meeting demand, and offer well-coordinated care outside VA when direct care cannot be provided in a timely manner. For complete information on the hearing, including the recorded webcast, click here

VBA-VHA Medical Examinations Discussed

VA’s Medical Disability Examination (MDE) process was the topic of discussion at a hearing held by the House VA Committee on Wednesday. Witnesses included representatives from both VA’s Veterans Benefits Administration and the Veterans Health Administration, as well as a veteran whose company provides MDE services to VA as a contractor. Committee members praised VA in its efforts to provide timely medical examinations to determine a veteran’s entitlement for VA benefits but also noted that in some areas, the focus of the backlog has come at a cost or has increased delays to other benefits. Witnesses all agreed that a clear standard for exams needs to be set, and that a balance between contract and non-contract exams should be assessed. It is worth noting that the current national average for medical examinations for benefits purposes is 24 days, which is six days better than the VA goal of 30 days. Learn more.

IOM Releases PTSD Study
The Institute of Medicine recently released its final assessment on Treatment for Posttraumatic Stress Disorder in Military and Veteran Populations. The report was mandated as a part of the FY 2010 national defense act and requires IOM to assess PTSD programs and services within the Departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs. The study evaluated collaborative efforts of the two departments and provided a scientific overview of neurobiology of PTSD. They also made recommendations in their assessments. View the full report.

WWII Marine Recovered

The Defense POW/MIA Office announced the identification of remains belonging to Marine Corps Pfc. Randolph Allen, Company F, 2nd Battalion, 2nd Marine Division, who was lost on Tarawa on Nov. 20, 1943. He was accounted for on June 17 and will be buried with full military honors tomorrow in Arlington National Cemetery.

VA Celebrates 70th Anniversary of the Original “GI Bill”

Servicemen's Readjustment Act of 1944 created Home Loan, Education and Vocational Training Benefits

 

WASHINGTON, D.C. – The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) is celebrating 70 years of investment in the education and economic prosperity of America’s Servicemembers and Veterans. The Servicemen's Readjustment Act of 1944, better known as the “GI Bill” was enacted on June 22, 1944. The law provided a wide range of benefits for Veterans returning from World War II, including low-cost home loans, education and vocational training. The original GI Bill was heralded as a success and major contributor to America's stock of human capital that sped long-term economic growth across the Nation. Today, a new group of Veterans is accessing the Post-9/11 GI Bill and other education benefits, following in their footsteps.

Roughly 8 million out of 16 million World War II Veterans used their GI Bill education benefit. Subsequent legislation expanded and extended similar “GI Bill” benefits to generations that followed, including Veterans of the Korean, Vietnam and Gulf Wars as well as those serving during peacetime. Passage of the Post-9/11 GI Bill provided this important benefit to our newest generation of Veterans, including activated members of the National Guard and Reserve components. 

This newest generation includes Veterans like Jennifer Martin, who after serving 8 years in the United States Marine Corps, used her Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits to earn a Bachelor’s Degree in Speech Language Pathology from the University of the District of Columbia.  Jennifer is now conducting research at the VA Medical Center in Portland, Oregon, as part of her Doctoral studies at Gallaudet University. Upon graduation, she hopes to work with Veterans who suffer from hearing loss and tinnitus.

VA provides a variety of education and training benefits for Veterans pursuing a wide range of education goals – including certificate programs, post-secondary degrees and work-study programs. Since August 2009, VA has paid out more than $41 billion in Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits to fund the education of 1.2 million beneficiaries. New online tools on the GI Bill website help Veterans learn more about their vocational aptitudes and select an education institution and training program that are right for them.

“In the 70 years since the original GI Bill was signed into law in 1944, VA has provided millions of Veterans and their families with low-cost home loans, education and vocational training,” said Allison A. Hickey, VA’s Under Secretary for Benefits. “VA is committed to ensuring today’s Veterans have every opportunity to achieve their goals, and the GI Bill is one big way in which we are delivering on that commitment.”

VA’s housing benefits, which began as part of the original GI Bill, include programs to help Veterans purchase, repair, retain, and adapt homes. Over 20 million VA home loans have been guaranteed, and nearly 90 percent of these loans are made with no down payment.  Through VA’s Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment Program, career counseling, training, employment, and job-placement services are provided to transitioning Servicemembers and service-disabled Veterans.

VA education and training benefits are a key resource for Veterans transitioning from military service to the civilian workforce. The new eBenefits Veterans Employment Center is the first online interagency website that brings together, in one place, public and private job opportunities, as well as resume-building and other career tools. Through the online eBenefits portal, Veterans, transitioning Servicemembers and spouses are connected to high quality career choices by matching their identified skills with available public and private job opportunities. They can easily access this and other online resources, as well as register or upgrade to a free Premium account, at www.ebenefits.va.gov. 

VA Access Bill Headed to Conference

On Thursday, House and Senate lawmakers voted to send legislation aimed at fixing VA care and access issues to a conference committee. Discussions had started on the bills differences, but House Committee Chairman Jeff Miller (R-FL) said that the complicated and highly technical nature of the issues required a formal conference to “smooth out the differences” between the two chambers. Senate VA Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders (I-VT) agreed that members need an opportunity to discuss differences and get this right for veterans and their families.

Earlier this week, the VFW, along with 19 of our VSO community partners, sent a
letter to House and Senate VA leaders outlining our views on the conferenced bill.

Action Needed: If your legislator is one of the conferees listed below, we urge you to call them and tell them the VFW is demanding that conferees reach an agreement that will provide the necessary resources to resolve the scheduling and access issues and ensure that VA will be the guarantor of care when care is provided outside VA.

If your Senator or Representative is not on the committee, stay informed. Congress will vote on the final bill, and we need you to ensure they vote correctly.

Locate your legislators.

House Conferees include:

VA Chairman Jeff Miller of Florida, Ranking Member Mike Michaud of Maine, Phil Roe of Tennessee, Bill Flores of Texas, Dan Benishek of Michigan, Mike Coffman of Colorado, Brad Wenstrup of Ohio, Jackie Walorski of Indiana, Corrine Brown of Florida, Julia Brownley of California, Ann Kirkpatrick of Arizona, and Tim Walz of Minnesota.
 
Senate Conferees include:

VA Chairman Bernie Sanders of Vermont, Ranking Member Richard Burr of North Carolina, Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia, Patty Murray of Washington, Sherrod Brown of Ohio, Jon Tester of Montana, Mark Begich of Alaska, Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, Mazie K. Hirono of Hawaii, Johnny Isakson of Georgia, Mike Johanns of Nebraska, John McCain of Arizona, Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, and Marco Rubio of Florida.

House VA Committee Discusses Fee Based Care

On Wednesday, The House VA Committee heard testimony from witnesses whose companies provide care to veterans outside the VA healthcare system. Representatives from TriWest Healthcare Alliance, Health Net Federal Services and Cary Medical Center in Maine all commented that they provide a diverse set of services to augment care received within VAwhen and where VA may not be able to provide that service to veterans. David McIntyre, President and CEO of TriWest, spoke about their contract with VA to provide a network of coordinated care through VA’s new Patient Centered Community Care (PC3) program. The VFW submitted testimony for the record and relayed our support for the PC3 program, stating that the contract requirements of the program mark a significant improvement over the old fee basis system, which lacked coordination and quality controls. We also urged Congress to address current healthcare issues within VA by using all available tools to provide timely access to care to include non-VA care when necessary. Read our testimony. For all information pertaining to the hearing, click here.

The VFW Supported Legislation Introduced in the Senate

Senator Sherrod Brown (D-OH) recently introduced a bill that would allow traumatic events that do not immediately cause injuries to be entered into service members’ medical records. All too often, veterans are unable to prove that they were exposed to events like IED blasts and witnessing combat losses when later seeking care and benefits from DOD and VA. Senator Brown’s bill, S. 2368, the Fairman Significant Event Tracker (SET) Act of 2014, would solve that problem by establishing a way for small unit leaders to submit reports on traumatic events experienced by individuals under their commands at the conclusion of each mission. The idea for the SET was originally proposed by VFW member Mike Fairman, a Navy Corpsman and Afghanistan veteran from Ohio, and the VFW worked closely with Senator Brown on the final language of the bill. Read more about the bill from Senator Brown.

VA Calls for Monthly Review of Facilities

This week, Acting VA Secretary Sloan Gibson announced that he has directed all VA Medical Center and Health Care System Directors to conduct monthly in-person interviews of scheduling practices in every clinic within their jurisdictions. Site inspections will include observing daily processes and interacting with scheduling staff to ensure all policies are being followed to deliver timely access to care to all veterans. In addition to the monthly reviews of over 900 VA facilities, Veterans Integrated Service Network (VISNs) Directors will also be conducting similar site visits to at least one medical center within their area every 30 days with the goal of completing visits to all medical centers in their network every 90 days.

Airborne Hazards and Open Burn Pit Registry Open

The Department of Veterans Affairs announced the launch of its airborne hazards and burn pit registry. All veterans who served in Iraq, Afghanistan, Djibouti and the Gulf War are encouraged to participate, and you need not be enrolled in VA’s healthcare system to do so. The registry is intended to be an epidemiological research tool with examinations helping to enhance VA’s understanding of any identified long-term adverse health effects of exposure to burn pits and other airborne hazards during deployment—ultimately leading to better healthcare. Veterans should sign up now for a Department of Defense Self-Service Logon (DS-Logon) in preparation for the launch of the registry. More information about the registry and the DS-Logon can be found here.

Retired USMC Cpl. Receives Medal of Honor

The President awarded the nation’s highest military medal on Thursday to retired Marine Corps Cpl. William “Kyle” Carpenter for his actions while deployed in Marjah, Helmand Province, Afghanistan, in 2010. He became the third Marine and the 15th overall recipient of the medal for actions in Iraq or Afghanistan. On Nov. 21, 2010, Taliban insurgents initiated an attack on Carpenter’s squad, part of Company F, 2nd Battalion, 9th Marine Regiment. Carpenter, the squad automatic rifleman for his fire team, and Lance Cpl. Nicholas Eufrazio were holding a rooftop security position when a hand grenade was thrown their way. Without hesitation, Carpenter reacted, rushing toward the grenade in an attempt to shield his brother-in-arms from the blast. Carpenter and Eufrazio survived the attack but not without sustaining severe injuries. After two and a half years recuperating at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, Carpenter was medically retired from the Marine Corps on July 30, 2013, and is now a full-time student at the University of South Carolina. Read more.

DOD Identifies 19 Missing Service Members

The Defense POW/MIA Office has announced the identification of remains belonging to two Korean War soldiers and 17 service members who were aboard a C-124 aircraft that crashed in Alaska.

Recovered are:

  • Army Cpl. Lucio R. Aguilar, 19, of Brownsville, Texas, was buried last Friday in Corpus Christi. On the night of Nov. 27, 1950, elements of the 25th Infantry Division and 35th Infantry Regiment established a defensive position at Yongsan-dong in North Korea. On Nov. 28, Augilar was reported missing in action after his unit was forced into a fighting withdrawal.
  • Army Sgt. Paul M. Gordon, 20, of Dry Ridge, Ky., is being buried today in Williamstown, Ky. On Jan. 7, 1951, Gordon was assigned to Company H, 2nd Battalion, 38th Infantry Regiment, 2nd Infantry Division, deployed in the vicinity of Wonju, South Korea, and would be listed as missing in action following a battle against Chinese forces. In September 1953, returning U.S. service members reported that Gordon had been captured but died in a POW camp in June 1951.

On Nov. 22, 1952, a C-124 Globemaster crashed while en route to Elmendorf AFB, Alaska, from McChord AFB, Washington, with 11 crewmen and 41 passengers on board. Adverse weather conditions precluded immediate recovery attempts, and ensuing search parties were unable to locate or recover any of the service members.  It took until June 2012 when wreckage that appeared to be from an aircraft would be spotted. The 17 identified so far are: Army Lt. Col. Lawrence S. Singleton, and Pvts. James Green, Jr., and Leonard A. Kittle; Marine Corps Maj. Earl J. Stearns; Navy Cmdr. Albert J. Seeboth; Air Force Cols. Noel E. Hoblit and Eugene Smith, Capt. Robert W. Turnbull, 1st Lts. Donald Sheda and William L. Turner, Tech. Sgt. Engolf W. Hagen, Staff Sgt. James H. Ray, Airman 1st Class Marion E. Hooton, Airmen 2nd Class Carroll R. Dyer, Thomas S. Lyons and Thomas C. Thigpen, and Airman 3rd Class Howard E. Martin. Read more

Army's Rolls Out New 'Soldier for Life' Program

'Soldier for Life' describes the quality of the American Army, an all-volunteer force whose premier status is due to the sacrifice of the soldiers. Soldier for Life (SFL) works to provide opportunities for soldiers in transition. SFL does not provide new services; it synchronizes the existing resources, making them more accessible to the individual soldier, retired soldier, veteran and family member. Read More