Retiree & Veteran Affairs News 27 May 2014 

5/27/2014 

 

CAPITOL FOCUS

--VA Under Fire:  Apparently everyone is “madder than hell” over the reported problems within the Veterans’ Administration’s medical system.  Well maybe not everyone, but the president and the secretary of the VA are.  Or so they said. 

White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough said on a Sunday morning interview show that President Obama is "madder than hell" over delays at VA hospitals that may have contributed to the deaths of patients, and is determined to make improvements.  “The president’s demanding that we get to the bottom of the exact allegations that you're talking about as it relates to whether veterans are getting the timely access to care that they have earned,” McDonough said.

Earlier in the week at a hearing before the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, VA Secretary Eric Shinseki said “any allegations about patient care or employee misconduct are taken seriously. He added, “I now have this great privilege of being able to care for people I went to war with many years ago, and people I have sent to war, and people who raised me in the profession when I was a youngster, any allegation, any adverse incidents like this, makes me as -- makes me mad as hell.  I could use stronger language here, Mr. Chairman, but in deference to the committee, I won't.”

Shinseki said that preliminary results of an audit he ordered into appointment systems at all VA facilities had resulted in some scheduling “concerns” and that the VA’s Inspector General (IG) had been alerted.  According to VA, the final report of the audit is expected in approximately three weeks.

Allegations that 40 veterans died while waiting for appointments or referrals at the Phoenix Veterans Affairs Health System, are among the most serious to come to light.  News reports have also uncovered allegations of similar care delay problems in Colorado, Texas, North Carolina and Georgia.  

--VA Official Resigns?  What has lawmakers really riled up is Shinseki’s announcement that a top VA official was asked to resign over the allegations.  However, the VA's Undersecretary for Health Dr. Robert Petzel’s retirement was announced in September 2013 and, in fact, the president announced Petzel’s replacement two weeks ago. 

"Today's announcement from the VA regarding Undersecretary for Health Robert Petzel's ‘resignation’ is the pinnacle of disingenuous political doublespeak," Chairman Jeff Miller of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs, said in a statement.  "Petzel was already scheduled to retire in 2014 and President Obama has already announced his intention to nominate Petzel's replacement, so characterizing this as a 'resignation' just doesn't pass the smell test."

--Durbin:  Defense Spending Bill will Move Earlier   Sen. Richard Durbin, chairman of the Senate Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, said that the Defense spending bill will be drafted by the first week of July, several weeks earlier than in recent years.  The earlier deadline is a clear indication that appropriators want to move spending bills faster.   

The Senate Appropriations Committee has been meeting regularly and will begin marking up its bills at the end of the month, likely beginning with the Military Construction/ Veterans Affairs bill and the Agriculture bill.  Committee Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., has indicated her desire to return to regular order as it pertains to the appropriations process. 

Whether or not the bills move to the floor earlier is still up in the air.  We are encouraged by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s statement that he will grant Mikulski room on the floor during the last two weeks of June and the first two weeks of July to pass her committee's bills.  If both chambers pass all 12 bills before the August recess, they'll have the entire month of September to go to conference and work out their differences. 

We choose to be optimistic because running the Army under continuing resolutions is a bad way to do business! 

--Administration Issues Veto Threat against Defense Policy Bill

Debate by the full House on dozens of amendments and subsequent passage of the Howard P. “Buck” McKeon National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year (FY) 2015 is expected to be completed by the end of this week.

In response, the Administration has issued a veto threat against the measure. 

Released on May 19, the Statement of Administration Policy says, “If the bill presented to the President impedes the ability of the Administration to properly direct scarce resources for our military, or continues unwarranted restrictions regarding detainees, the President’s senior advisors would recommend to the President that he veto the bill.”

At issue are provisions in the bill that pertain to:

Guantanamo Detainee Restrictions:  The Administration strongly objects to sections in the bill that would prohibit the use of funds for the construction or modification of any facility to house Guantanamo detainees in the United States and for the transfer of detainees to the United States.

Compensation Reform:  The Administration strongly encourages members of Congress to support reforms that would “slow the growth of basic pay and housing allowances, modernize military healthcare, and reform how commissaries operate.”  The statement also acknowledges the comprehensive study currently underway by the Military Compensation and Retirement Modernization Commission, but says that “delaying DOD's holistic package of proposed initial changes will only result in increased costs and risks to the force.”

Restricting Army National Guard and Active Army Force Structure Changes:  The Administration strongly objects provisions in the bill “which would limit Army National Guard and Active Army force structure changes.  As DOD transitions out of a decade of war, military end strength and force structure changes are necessary to shape a force that is more agile and technologically superior and ready to respond to requirements. These changes are necessary to allow DOD to make necessary investments in readiness, modernization, and training.”

Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC): The Administration strongly objects to the Armed Services refusal to allow another round of BRAC. 

Work on the Senate’s version of the bill started this week.  The subcommittees of the Armed Services Committee will mark up their portions followed by a mark up by the full committee later this week.   No idea yet when the measure will go to the Senate floor for passage. 

AUSA ON THE HILL

AUSA’s position on sequestration and the damaging effect it is having was the main thrust of testimony given by AUSA’s president in a hearing on Capitol Hill this week. 

Joining other military association leaders, Gen. Gordon R. Sullivan, USA, Ret., told members of the Senate Armed Services Committee that “sequestration is having a profoundly adverse effect on the defense of the Nation – and it will do so well into the next decade.”

Sullivan said that “sequestration has set America on a path to reduced military readiness and national security.  Sequestered budgets are rapidly shrinking the nation’s military forces to unprecedented and even unacceptable levels thereby creating unready forces unable to accomplish the tasks assigned by the defense strategy.  All of this while the world security environment is becoming increasingly uncertain and dangerous.”

Sequestration has “created an atmosphere of fiscal desperation that leads to false arguments and false choices when it comes to the compensation and benefits provided to the service members and families who make up the All-Volunteer Force,” Sullivan added.

“Service personnel are now facing even greater uncertainties with force reduction measures and compensation adjustments, Sullivan said.  “America will remain the world’s greatest power only so long as it continues to fulfill its reciprocal obligation to the only weapon system that has never let our country down — our extraordinarily dedicated, top-quality, All-Volunteer career force.”

Earlier in the hearing, a panel comprised of the Chairman and members of the Joint Chiefs testified that pay and compensation are only one part of a broader challenge to the Defense Department to maintain the balance the military needs to fight the nation’s wars. 

Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs said, “We’re working to make sure that the joint force is in the right balance to preserve military options for the nation in the face of a changing security environment and a declining budget. “We’ve been tasked to reduce the defense budget by up to $1 trillion over 10 years while upholding our sacred obligation to properly train, equip and prepare the force.”

The military needs Congress to step forward and help, Dempsey said. “Our recommendations have lacked congressional support -- notably, our request to reduce base infrastructure and retire weapons systems that we no longer need and cannot afford,” the chairman told the senators.  “In the meantime, we are continuing to hemorrhage readiness and cutting further into modernization.  [This means] risk to the performance of our mission and risk to those who serve continues to grow.”

It’s unclear whether or not Congress will heed the Chairman’s plea.  They have remained steadfast in their reluctance to make sweeping changes to military pay and compensation.  During this hearing season, many lawmakers have said they would rather wait for the report from the congressionally-mandated Military Compensation and Retirement Modernization Commission, due to be released in Feb. 2015.

However, Committee Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., did say in his opening statement, “We surely must do all that we can to minimize the adverse impact of these proposals.  But as long as the statutory budget caps remain in place, we do not have the option of simply rejecting these compensation proposals.  We would have to make alternative cuts.”

HOUSE COMMITTEE APPROVES DEFENSE AUTHORIZATION BILL

If the House Armed Services Committee has anything to say about it, many of the proposals outlined in the president’s budget request for fiscal 2015 are dead on arrival.  Despite heavy lobbying from DoD officials on the proposals, committee members were not sold.  Instead, it is apparent that they, too, will wait for the Military Compensation and Retirement Modernization Commission report before making any hard decisions. 

In a marathon markup session, the committee completed their work on the $600.7 billion 2015 defense authorization bill (HR 4435).  Overall, the legislation would authorize $521.3 billion in defense funding and would authorize for $79.4 billion for overseas contingency operations.

The committee voted 61-0 to:

·         Reject the proposed consolidation of the military’s TRICARE healthcare program and proposed fee/enrollment increases

 ·         Reject the Pentagon’s proposal to cut the annual commissary operating budget from approximately $1.4 billion to $400 million over three years.  Instead the committee approved a cut of $100 million for fiscal 2015.  A statement released by the committee Chairman, Rep. Buck McKeon, R-Calif., said that “efficiencies can be made that reduce the cost of the program without increasing prices. To that end, the Chairman’s mark requires the Department of Defense to consult with outside experts in retail grocery sales to find efficiencies in the commissary system.”

 ·         Reject the administration’s call for another round of Base Realignment and Closure

·          Prohibit the Army’s plan to transfer Apache helicopters from the National Guard to the active Army

 ·         Bar the Army from reducing active-duty end strength for fiscal 2015 below 490,000 and National Guard end strength below 350,000

 ·         Bar pay raises for general and flag officers.  However, the bill was silent on the reduced pay raise for military personnel except to say that “Chairman McKeon supports current law, which mandates an automatic 1.8% annual increase in troop pay.  The President retains his executive authority to make reductions to this pay rate without congressional authorization.”

What disappoints us is the lack of a real effort to address sequestration.  We agree with Ranking Member Adam Smith, D-Wash., who said, “If we continue along this path, and sequestration remains the law of the land, our military readiness will be significantly degraded.  In today’s world, that is unacceptable and it is wholly avoidable, which is why I support ending sequestration immediately.”

What’s next:  It is expected that the measure will go to the House floor for a full vote later this month.  The Senate is expected to write its version in June. 

Soldier For Life: Retired Soldiers

What is it?

Army Chief of Staff Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, directed the creation of the new Soldier For Life website with a special section for the retired community to reconnect the Army to its 1.1 million Retired Soldiers and surviving spouses after Army Knowledge Online (AKO) was closed to them on Jan. 31, 2014.

What is the Army doing?

Transitioning the retired community away from AKO was necessary to modernize the Army network and meet cyber-security standards. However, the Army continues to provide Retired Soldiers and surviving spouses easily accessible retirement and benefits information and connections to Army resources that they need. Effective May 1, this information is accessible at the new Soldier For Life website.

What continued efforts does the Army have planned for the future?

The Army will expand the new website's capabilities. A frequently asked questions database will answer many questions retiring and Retired Soldiers now ask installation and state Retirement Services Officers (RSOs). This will allow the RSOs to focus on the more complex questions that require their extensive knowledge of federal laws and Army policies. Also planned are a Retired Soldier blog -- a forum for two-way communication of information and issues that affect the retired community -- and a "white pages" capability that Retired Soldiers can opt into and connect with other Retired Soldiers.

Why is this important to the Army?

The new Soldier For Life website demonstrates that Retired Soldiers are part of the Army family. The Army relies on their expertise, their commitment to serve, and their contacts in towns across America to connect the Army with the nation it serves.

Resources:

·         Army Retirement Services Office

·         Soldier For Life

·         U.S. Army Veterans

·         Related article:

·         - Soldier for Life' website to be new online home for retirees

·         Related STAND-TO!:

·         - Soldier for Life

How to Properly Display the American Flag

There can be confusion and questions about how to properly wear and display the American flag, especially around the summer holidays of Memorial Day and July 4th when many people want to display a flag.

Here is what the law says about using the American flag properly (PDF):

·         The flag should never touch anything beneath it, such as the ground, the floor, water or merchandise.

·         The flag should never be used as wearing apparel, bedding or drapery. It should never be festooned, drawn back, nor up, in folds, but always allowed to fall free.

·         No part of the flag should ever be used as a costume or athletic uniform.

·         The flag should never be used as a receptacle for receiving, holding, carrying or delivering anything.

·         The flag should never be carried flat or horizontally, but always aloft and free.

·         The flag should not be draped over the hood, top, sides or back of a vehicle or of a railroad train or a boat.

Read more rules and regulations that govern flag display (PDF).

TRICARE For Life Pharmacy Pilot Program

Our Commitment
Express Scripts is committed to serving TRICARE® For Life (TFL) beneficiaries in this important Pilot Program. To ensure you experience a positive outcome, we stand at the ready to assist you with your TRICARE Pharmacy Home Delivery needs. Beneficiary satisfaction ranks first on our list of priorities and we want you to know we are proud and honored to serve you. We take very seriously our mission to serve those who have served our nation.

As you begin to enjoy the benefits of TRICARE Pharmacy Home Delivery, we hope you’ll appreciate the convenience and peace of mind that comes with having your maintenance medications safely and securely delivered right to your home. TRICARE Pharmacy Home Delivery is a cost-effective way to receive all of your maintenance medications and there are multiple checkpoints that enhance safety and accuracy.

As caring stewards of your pharmacy benefit, you know it is important to be fiscally responsble, especially in these challenging times. Join those who have already chosen the convenience, safety and savings of Home Delivery, plus:

  • It’s safe, convenient and easy to get started. Register or login here
  • Formulary generics are free
  • Worry Free® Fills: automatic refills and shipment options designed to ensure your medications are available on time without lapse
  • Save with up to a 90-day supply of your medication
  • Delivery to the address of your choice with no cost for standard shipping
  • Access to a pharmacist 24/7
  • Get Specialty medications and the Specialty Medication Care Management Program is free to you

Express Scripts is dedicated to serving TFL beneficiaries to optimize the health of the military family. We are aligned in supporting readiness through improved health, a positive patient experience and responsible management of health care costs.

What Is It?
In 2013, Congress passed a law creating a pilot program that requires TRICARE For Life (TFL) beneficiaries to use TRICARE Pharmacy Home Delivery or a military pharmacy to fill select maintenance medications.

The pilot only applies to TFL beneficiaries who fill select maintenance medications at a network retail pharmacy. Maintenance medications are those for chronic, long-term conditions that you take on a regular, recurring basis. This doesn’t include medications taken for a sudden illness or infection, such as antibiotics or short term pain relief. If you fill these prescriptions at a retail pharmacy, this new pilot will help you save money - and it’s more convenient for you.

If the pilot applies to you, you should receive a letter from the Department of Defense in February. You may also call Express Scripts at 1-877-363-1303 to see if the pilot applies to any of your prescriptions.

What Are My Options?
If you have a prescription covered by the pilot, you will to choose where to fill it. You can choose any of the following options:

Option 1:
Transfer your prescription from a retail pharmacy to safe, convenient TRICARE Home Delivery and pay less money out-of-pocket! A typical cost for a 90-day retail supply of brand name medication is $51, but only $13 through Home Delivery.

Option 2:
Transfer your prescription from a retail pharmacy to a military pharmacy. Call your local military pharmacy to see if they can fill your prescription.

Option 3:
Ask your doctor about using a low-cost generic medication that is not affected by the pilot. You can still fill these medications at a retail pharmacy for $5.

Option 4:
Continue to get your prescription filled at a retail pharmacy and pay 100% of the cost, starting with your third fill.

If you refill select maintenance medications at a retail pharmacy after March 14, 2014, you'll receive a letter reminding you about the pilot. Remember, starting with your third fill after March 14, you’ll be responsible for the entire cost of the medications if you get them from a retail pharmacy.

If you have other health insurance with a prescription benefit, you aren’t part of the pilot. In some cases of personal need or hardship, emergency, or other special circumstances (such as living in a nursing home) you will be able to request a waiver.

We encourage you to consider your options carefully. If you're ready to make the switch to Home Delivery, call 1-877-882-3335 now to get started!

How Will I Be Notified?

In February, the Department of Defense will send you a letter explaining the pilot, and telling you that if you continue filling select maintenance medications at retail pharmacies, you must pay the full cost, starting with the third fill after March 14, 2014.

The two courtesy fills at a retail pharmacy give you time choose where to fill your prescription. The letter will clearly explain your options, and give you easy instructions on how to switch to Home Delivery.

You may also call Express Scripts at 1-877-363-1303 to see if the pilot applies to any of your prescriptions.

Notification Letters:

Starting after March 14, 2014, Express Scripts will send you a letter after you fill you first prescription at a retail pharmacy. The same letter is sent if you fill your prescription a second time at a retail pharmacy. If you do not utilize a military pharmacy or enroll in TRICARE Pharmacy Home Delivery by their third fill, you will pay full price at a retail pharmacy.

Follow Up Letter:

If you exceed your two courtesy fills and continue to use a retail pharmacy and pay full price for your prescription, Express Scripts will mail you a follow up letter about converting to Home Delivery.

You can opt out of the pilot after using Home Delivery for at least a year. In some cases, you may be able to get a waiver.

What Are The Benefits Of TRICARE Pharmacy Home Delivery?

Convenient With TRICARE Pharmacy Home Delivery, picking up your prescriptions is as easy as picking up your mail. Prescriptions are delivered to your home–eliminating trips to a retail or military pharmacy. Sign up for Worry-Free Fills® and your prescription will be sent to you when it’s time for a refill. You can also request refills by phone, or online 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Effective TRICARE Pharmacy Home Delivery is your most cost-effective option when not using a military pharmacy. You get significant savings compared to a retail pharmacy with a 90-day supply of your prescription. You pay nothing for shipping and handling, plus you save your valuable time and the cost of gas.

Safe Your prescriptions are filled using an automated dispensing system ensuring a high degree of accuracy. A registered pharmacist checks your medication history for possibly harmful interactions. For your protection, medications are delivered in a plain, secure weather-resistant pouch.

It is well-documented that people are more likely to take their medication as directed by their doctor when they use Home Delivery. You can also sign up for Worry-Free Fills and manage your prescriptions through the enhanced Express Scripts Mobile App. The savings and convenience of TRICARE Pharmacy Home Delivery contribute to improved compliance and better health.

Where Can I Get More Information?
For more information about the TRICARE For Life Pharmacy Pilot:

Additional Notes:

  • Medications covered by the pilot are determined by the Secretary of Defense and must be available for an initial filling at a retail pharmacy. The Secretary may exempt medications for acute care needs or any other medications the Secretary determines to be appropriate for exclusion.
  • TFL beneficiaries may opt out of the program after filling a prescription through Home Delivery for one year. The Secretary may also waive the requirement of a TFL beneficiary to participate in the Pilot program on an individual basis if the Secretary determines a waiver is appropriate.
  • For the purposes of this program, “TRICARE For Life beneficiary” indicates a TRICARE beneficiary enrolled in the Medicare wraparound coverage option of the TRICARE program made available to the beneficiary by reason of section 1086(d) of title 10, United States Code.

Sallie Mae ordered to pay 96.6 million Under the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act

Interest rates on pre-existing student loans and other consumer credit products are capped at 6 percent while the service member is on active duty. On May 13th Justice Department officials ordered Sallie Mae to pay $96.6 million in restitution and penalties for not providing their military customers with clear and accurate information about their loan repayment options. Read more here.

 Caring for Military Children with Developmental Disabilities Act

 Four Senators, Roy Blunt, R-Mo.; Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y.; Patty Murray, D-Wash.; and Marco Rubio, R-Fla., have introduced a bill called the Caring for Military Children with Developmental Disabilities Act. If this bill passes, ABA coverage would be extended to all children whose doctor or therapist prescribed the treatment and would cover treatment costs by any state-certified or nationally certified therapist. You can read more here.

 Arlington National Cemetery 150th Anniversary

 Arlington National Cemetery, our nation's most hallowed ground, began commemorating its sesquicentennial on May 13, 2014. Commemorative events will be featured throughout the next thirty days and will include special Army Full Honors wreath laying ceremonies, special guided tours, and lectures and tribute programs. Events run daily May 19 - May 23; May 30; June 2; June 4 - 6; June 13; and end with an Armed Forces Full Honors Wreath Laying Ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier on June 16. You can find more information here.

 Screening of “To Remember.” at the GI Film Festival

 In a February issue of AUSA News we introduced you to Lisa Hallett, a U.S. Army war widow who lost her husband to the war in Afghanistan and one of the founders of wear blue: run to remember. This year during 2014 GI Film Festival, the country’s select award-winning organization preserving the stories of American veterans, a documentary of Lisa’s family life and the support community she helped build through the sport of distance running will be showcased. You can order tickets to attend the screening of “To Remember.” on May 25th here. If you are unable to attend the Film Festival you can watch the short online version here.

#BudgetBattle

On May 6th AUSA’s Family Readiness team attended a Military.com Spouse Summit in Tyson’s Corner, Virginia. During one session, the nearly 200 participants split into 14 groups by years of their troops’ service. These groups were then asked to pick 10 benefits from a pool of 16 and rank them in order of importance while the Military Compensation and Retirement Modernization Commission (MCRMC), a panel of civilians tasked by Congress with recommending benefit cuts, took notes. You can read how each group ranked the benefits here. In addition, the Military Compensation and Retirement Modernization Commission will launch a force wide survey to gauge service members’ views on pay and benefits. Read more about the survey here.

 This week…. The NDAA

This week both the House and the Senate is expected to be working on the National Defense Authorization Bill. There will be a House vote on the bill H.R. 4435. On Tuesday the Senate Armed Services Subcommittees are expected to take up their version of the NDAA followed by a vote by the full SASC on Wednesday.

The Coalition is very pleased with the House version of the bill. It rejects the Administration’s proposed TRICARE fee increases, cuts in the commissary benefit, the proposed cut in the active duty pay increase and more. The bill also rejects numerous proposed Administration cuts of weapon systems. We need to see if the Senate also saves several systems (especially the A-10) and if they do where will the offsets be found.

So we suggest that you write your Senators again and emphasis the importance of protecting the military’s earned benefits. After all the best hardware in the world is nothing without the best personnel.

In addition: We also expect the first Senate Appropriations markup to happen this week. According to the Appropriations Committee it will be Military Construction-Veterans Affairs bill. So this is going to be a week to watch.

VA Secretary Shinseki Testifies to Senate Committee About Secret Waitlists

In a widely anticipated hearing last week the Secretary of the Department of Veterans’ Affairs, Eric K. Shinseki, testified to the Senate Veterans Affairs’ committee about the outrageous news reports of veterans around the country being put on secret waitlists for access to VA medical care. 
In his opening statement Secretary Shinseki said that he was “mad as hell” about the allegations and promised Senators that if the VA Inspector General’s (VA IG) report substantiates the allegations that he would enable the VA IG to refer the evidence to the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
Some veterans in attendance were not overly pleased with Secretary Shinseki’s performance, saying it was unemotional and subdued.  However, when Secretary Shinseki testified to Congress in 2003 about the insufficiency of the administration’s plans to invade Iraq he had the exact same demeanor.  He is low-keyed and unemotional by nature.

There have been several calls for the Secretary to resign. At the hearing he was asked by Senator Heller (R-NV) why he should not resign and responded: “I came here to make things better for veterans. This is not a job. I’m here to accomplish a mission.” He said that he would continue until the mission was completed or the President asked him to resign.

We believe that calls for his resignation are premature.  Once the VA IG report is concluded, assuming the report is an accurate assessment of the current situation, the appropriate actions to take can then be determined.

At the hearing last Thursday the acting VA Inspector General, Richard Griffin, confirmed that prosecutors are looking at the conduct at the Phoenix VA Medical Center, VA facilities in Texas, Colorado, South Carolina and elsewhere to determine if crimes may have been committed. 
If that is found to be the case, We support prosecuting those perpetrators to the fullest extent of the law. 

We will keep you updated on this very important issue.


On Friday afternoon Secretary   Shinseki issued the following statement:
"Today, I accepted the resignation of Dr. Robert Petzel, Under Secretary for Health in the Department of Veterans Affairs.


As we know from the Veteran community, most Veterans are satisfied with the quality of their VA health care, but we must do more to improve timely access to that care.

I am committed to strengthening Veterans’ trust and confidence in their VA healthcare system. I thank Dr. Petzel for his four decades of service. to Veterans.”

Interesting new legislation

More Jobs for Veterans by changing OBAMACARE

H.R.3474 sponsored by Rep. Rodney Davis (R-IL) is the “Hire More Heroes Act of 2014” It has 37 co-sponsors. The Senate companion version is S. 2190 introduced by Senator Roy Blunt (R-MO) and has 39 co-sponsors. The bill would encourage employment of veterans by creating an exemption to the employer mandate in Obamacare (Affordable Care Act) It allowsemployers to leave veterans out of the 50-count threshold for the employer-mandate requirement, as long as the veterans already is covered by TRICARE or through the VA. This would make veterans very appealing to many employers.

The employer mandate requires businesses with more than 50 employees to provide their workers with health insurance or pay a severe penalty.

 The House bill passed 406-1 and the Senate bill is expected to be used as the Senate’s vehicle for passing the much worked on tax-extenders set for this week. So this bill has a very good chance of passage.

MOM Act Would Give Pregnant Servicemembers 6 More Weeks of Maternity Leave

The Military Opportunities for Mothers Act, or MOM Act, has 50 bipartisan co-sponsors in the House of Representatives and has just been sponsored in the Senate by Senators Mark Udall (D-CO) and Claire McCaskill (D-MO).

The legislation would give women serving in the military 12 weeks of maternity leave, up from the six weeks they may currently receive. The Military Opportunities for Mothers (MOM) Act aligns the military's family policies with the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) guidelines available to federal employees.

The companion bill in the U.S. House of Representatives is sponsored by Congresswomen Kristi Noem (R-ND) and Tammy Duckworth (D-IL).  Duckworth is a combat-wounded double amputee.

Sallie Mae Fined $97 Million for Violating the Servicemembers’ Civil Relief Act

Sallie Mae and Navient, a separate corporation which used to be owned by Sallie Mae, have agreed to pay $97 million in fines in order to settle allegations that they overcharged military members on student loans.

The Justice Department said on Tuesday that beginning in 2005, the companies failed to cap interest on loans to military personnel at 6 percent — a ceiling they are entitled to as part of the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act. The department also asserted that the companies improperly obtained default judgments against service members.

In addition, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation stated that the companies incorrectly told military members that they had to have been deployed in order to receive the benefits, and maximized late fees without telling borrowers how to avoid said fees.

The Justice Department is requiring the companies to pay out $60 million to approximately 60,000 service members and $55,000 in civil penalties. In addition, the FDIC is requiring $30 in restitution and $6.6 million in civil penalties. In total, just over $97 million. The companies must also “request that all three major credit bureaus erase any related black marks from the service members’ credit histories.”

If you believe that you have been the victim of a financial product or service, submit a complaint at  http://www.consumerfinance.gov/complaint/

Retirement Commission to Visit Tampa

The Military Compensation and Retirement Modernization Commission will be holding a town hall meeting from 7-9 p.m. at the MacDill Air Force Base theater (Building 41), at 2420 Florida Keys Ave. All service personnel, veterans, military retirees and their families are encouraged to attend because the Commission is charged with examining how the troops are compensated while in uniform, in retirement, and as veterans, and their reach includes those programs operated by the VA and Department of Labor. Among the compensation and Quality of Life programs under review are the 20-year retirement system; military pay and the tax-exempt status of allowances; concurrent receipt of retiree and disability pay; the GI Bills; military healthcare costs and eligibility; military exchanges, commissaries and schools; and transition and employment assistance programs, among many others. The VFW has met several times with the Commission and testified before them last November. More information is available on their website.

Open Burn Pit Registries

The Office of Public Health is providing access to the new Airborne Hazards and Open Burn Pit Registry at three pilot sites in New Jersey, Indianapolis and Detroit. The burn pit registry, strongly supported by the VFW, was established through the Dignified Burial and Other Veterans' Benefits Improvement Act of 2012. The sites will be reaching out to eligible veterans and are not able to accept “walk-ins” at this time. Some veterans who participate in the limited field test will be asked to provide feedback. All participants are offered optional in-person exposure evaluations. Pilot testing began April 25 and is expected to continue for several weeks to ensure the registry is ready for a planned national rollout. The VFW will continue monitoring and updating our readers on this important program. Learn more.

Three MIAs Identified

The Defense POW/MIA Office announced the identification of remains belonging to two soldiers and one Marine killed during the Korean War. Returned are:

  • Army Sgt. Richard John Archambeault, Company L, 3rd Battalion, 8th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Cavalry Division, was lost on Nov. 2, 1950, in North Korea. He was accounted for on April 29 and will be buried with full military honors on a date yet to be determined. 
  • Army Cpl. Lucio R. Aguilar, Company M, 35th Infantry Regiment, 25th Infantry Division, was lost on Nov. 28, 1950, in North Korea. He was accounted for on May 6 and will be buried with full military honors in Corpus Christi, Texas. 
  • Marine Corps Cpl. Harold W. Reed, Weapons Company, 2nd Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division, was lost on Nov. 29, 1950. He was accounted for on April 22 and will be buried with full military honors on May 24 in Toledo, Ohio.

An Important Win in the War to Protect Your Benefits

Last week the Personnel Subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee released its “mark-up” of the personnel portion of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA).

The mark up (or mark-up) refers to the process by which a U.S. congressional committee debates, amends, and rewrites proposed legislation.

Among other things, the subcommittee’s mark-up, “Rejects proposals that would have increased out-of-pocket costs for military families, including the elimination of most TRICARE plans, and reduction of housing allowances and commissary benefits. The proposal requires outside experts to review and assess the commissary program to identify efficiencies that could lead to cost savings without reducing military family benefits.”
This was a great victory for the Coalition and the other veterans groups that fought to stop the Pentagon’s proposals which would have slashed the benefits of military personnel – active duty, retired, and families and survivors.

However, it was only the first step in what amounts to a four-step process. Next comes a vote on the entire NDAA in the full House Armed Services Committee. The bill that comes out of the committee will then have to be voted on by the entire House of Representatives. It is highly unlikely that the full House would change the bill that comes out of the Armed Services Committee.

The same process then has to occur in the Senate and the two bills that come out of each body must then be reconciled so that they are exactly the same.

The entire process is supposed to finished by the start of the new fiscal year on October 1, but we have real doubts that Congress will be able to complete the process by then because this is an election and they will be anxious to get back home and campaign. If they don’t finish the bill by October 1 they will have to return after the elections in November and finish their business then.

The entire press release put out by the House Armed Services Committee concerning the mark-up can be read here:
 
http://armedservices.house.gov/index.cfm/press-releases?ContentRecord_id=04833A1D-445A-419E-BC26-CCCE5918F456&ContentType_id=E0C7B822-826F-493D-8CEF-1E21AA53E12A&Group_id=12580721-af41-4987-849c-c25b730d096d

 DOD Reports Suicides Drop Among Active Duty

The Pentagon reported that suicide among active duty service members fell about 18 percent last year, although the number among reservists ticked up slightly.

The Pentagon counted a preliminary 261 suicides in 2013 — down from 319 in 2012 among active duty members of the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps.

In the National Guard and Reserves, there were 213 suicides last year, up from 203 the year before.

While the numbers about the active duty are encouraging, the data about the National Guard and Reserves is a concern and it doesn’t count the number of suicides among veterans. An estimated 22 veterans commit suicide every day, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Senate Armed Services Reviews Military Compensation Proposals

On Tuesday, the Senate Armed Services Committee heard from the Chairman and the six members of Joint Chiefs of Staff regarding military compensation proposals within the FY 2015 budget. Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told committee members that there has to be a rebalancing of the force, which requires support from Congress. He also spoke at length about DOD’s year-long examination of pay and compensation options for all service members. The VFW attended the hearing and has stated for the record that Congress should not consider changes to military compensation until after the Military Compensation and Retirement Modernization Commission releases its report. Other witnesses included MOAA, AFA, AUSN and AUSA who added their concerns about proposals that greatly impact military personnel and their families. View the recorded hearing.

Possible New VA Undersecretary Announced

This week, the White House announced the President’s intent to nominate Dr. Jeffrey A. Murawsky as the new VA Undersecretary of Health. If confirmed by the Senate, he will replace Dr. Robert Prezel, who served as undersecretary for four years and announced his intention to retire last September. Murawsky is currently the VISN 12, VA Great Lakes Healthcare System Director, a position he has held since 2009. Read more of the announcement and others.

VA Committee Discusses Student Vet Education Goals

This week, the House VA Subcommittee on Economic Opportunity held a hearing on defining and improving success for student veterans across campuses. The witnesses were asked to discuss the implementation of new consumer resources for student veterans, like the VA’s new GI Bill comparison tool and complaint system, as well as the VetSuccess on Campus (VSOC) program and the Million Records Projecta partnership between VA, Student Veterans of America (SVA) and the National Student Clearinghouse to report on student-veteran outcomes. Past SVA Executive Director Michael Dakduk commented that, while working with VA, he gained an appreciation for details captured in reports and the gaps in research on student-veteran outcomes. It was also noted that results from the Million Records Project show that student veterans are succeeding at levels comparable, if not greater, than their peers. The VFW has led the charge to improve consumer resources for college-bound veterans and continues to work with VA and Congress to ensure resources for student veterans remain relevant and easily accessible. To view the recorded webcast of the hearing and complete testimony, click here.

D-Day 70th Anniversary Planning

According to the U.S. Embassy in Paris, the Government of France is offering to provide D-Day veterans and a guest with roundtrip transportation from Paris to Normandy, as well as lodging, meals and transportation while in Normandy, for the 70th anniversary of Operation Overlord this June 6. Travel to/from Paris from the United States or elsewhere is an individual responsibility. Paris-based VFW Benjamin Franklin Post 605 is assisting by collecting the names of VFW and other D-Day veterans planning to attend. Please email the following information as soon as possible to Chuck Steiner at VFW Post 605 at cjsteiner@aol.com:

  • Full name, age and home address of veteran (include home/cell phone and email, too).
  • Indicate if a D-Day, Normandy campaign, or WWII veteran.
  • Escort or guest’s name (if more than one, so indicate).
  • Special needs (e.g., wheelchair).
  • Dates of planned attendance (arrival to, and departure from, France).

If unable to send by email, address regular mail to: Chuck Steiner, VFW Benjamin Franklin Post 605, 4 rue du General Leclere, 92130, Issy-les-Moulineaux, France. Other WWII veterans who plan to attend should forward this information, too, as the French Government may also extend similar support to them. Be advised, however, that the in-country support is subject to revision.

D-Day Anniversary Plan B

Can’t make it to France? Then consider a trip to the Nation’s Capital, where the Friends of the National World War II Memorial will host a D-Day 70th Anniversary Commemoration at 11 a.m., June 6, at the Memorial. Read more.

Four MIAs Identified

The Defense POW/MIA Office announced the identification of remains belonging to three soldiers killed during the Korean War and an airmen killed during the Vietnam War. Returned are:

  • Army Sgt. Richard John Archambeault, Company L, 3rd Battalion, 8th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Cavalry Division, was lost on Nov. 2, 1950, in North Korea. He was accounted for on April 29 and will be buried with full military honors.
  • Army Cpl. Richard Isbell, Company H, 2nd Battalion, 7th Infantry Regiment, 3rd Infantry Division, was lost on April 25, 1951, in South Korea. He was accounted for on April 17, 2014. He will be buried with full military honors.
  • Army Cpl. William N. Bonner, Medical Company, 8th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Cavalry Division, was lost on May 31, 1951, in North Korea. He was accounted for on April 22 and will be buried with full military honors in Sault Ste. Marie, Mich.
  • Air Force Capt. Douglas D. Ferguson, 24, of Tacoma, Wash., was buried May 2 in Lakewood, Wash. On Dec. 30, 1969, Ferguson was on an armed reconnaissance mission when his F-4D Phantom II aircraft crashed in Houaphan Province, Laos.