Retiree & Veteran Affairs News 2 January 2014 

1/2/2014 

 

 GOOD NEWS AND BAD NEWS

 For the last several years AUSA has been leading the fight to end the draconian cuts in defense spending caused by sequestration and to mitigate the devastating effect it has had on national security, military readiness, modernization and procurement.

Accordingly, we were thrilled when Republicans and Democrats finally worked together and hammered out a bill designed to break the stranglehold that sequestration has had on the Department of Defense.  The legislation restores budget certainty for the Army for the next two years and paves the way for appropriations legislation that will provide much more financial flexibility within Army accounts.  The Army will gain some significant budgetary advantage and certainty from the legislation.

What we are absolutely apoplectic about is the suddenly-revealed provision contained in the bill that would negatively affect the calculation of the Cost of Living Allowance (COLA) for under-age-62 military retirees!  The bill would require a one percent reduction in COLA for military retirees until they reach age 62.  It effectively targets a group within a group, creating some retirees who are paying the price for the deal and others who are not – to say nothing of currently serving Soldiers who, when they retire will be penalized as well.

We were caught off guard by the provision because we have been assured time and again by the administration and Congress that any changes to the military compensation and benefits package would be grandfathered for the current force. 

We will not let this stand and here is what we are doing to fight it:

     AUSA President Gen. Gordon R. Sullivan, USA, Ret., and Government Affairs Director William Loper met with Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., yesterday afternoon.  Ayotte is one of several senators leading the fight to identify alternative funding to replace the provision.  In addition to meeting with Ayotte, Sullivan visited with Sens. Roger Wicker, R-Miss.; Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.; Richard Shelby, R-Ala.; and Jeff Sessions, R-Ala.  He also conferred with professional staff from the Senate Armed Services Committee.   

    Sullivan and Loper joined other members of The Military Coalition at a press conference held by Graham, Wicker and Ayotte. All attending agreed to work together to ensure this provision is repealed before it takes effect in December 2015. In fact, the members would like to see it repealed before the budget law takes effect in mid-January.  AUSA completely supports this. 

     Sullivan and Loper also dropped by the offices Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., and Ranking Member James Inhofe, R-Okla., and delivered letters to both leaders that clearly outlines our position. 

We are encouraged by statements made by Levin and his House counterpart, Rep. Buck McKeon.

Levin said that, “A number of concerns have been raised about the provision in the Murray-Ryan budget agreement that would reduce the annual cost of living increase to the retired pay of working-age military retirees.  The Senate Armed Services Committee is going to review this change after we convene next year, before it takes effect in December 2015.”    

McKeon echoed Levin’s sentiment.  He said, “I remain concerned with the way military pensions are treated in this agreement.  Congress is waiting on the recommendations of an independent panel studying military compensation.  Incremental changes to compensation generate uncertainty and are corrosive to the all-volunteer military.  If we are going to change compensation, I would prefer it to be done at one time in a transparent manner that considers the entire spectrum of compensation.  By impacting the pensions of current military retirees while grandfathering current civilian employees, this particular provision represents an imbalance that I expect the Military Compensation and Retirement Modernization Commission and the Armed Services Committee to reexamine in the coming years."

AUSA, with your help, has fought since the beginning of sequestration to end the arbitrary, cookie cutter approach to deficit reduction.  Now, along with you, we will fight with equal vigor to undo the provision of the new law that creates an enormous penalty for current and future military retirees who protect and defend this nation. 

 Please click here, enter your zip code, and send the AUSA-suggested letter titled Repeal the Military Retiree COLA Cut.

The good news is that we have time to fix this and we will not stop until it is fixed!  Do your part to help and send a letter to your members of Congress.

Commissaries are one of military families’ most valued earned benefits. We know it, we share it, and now the Military Times has confirmed it.

With nearly 6,000 military families responding to their recent commissary survey, 80 percent ranked their commissary benefit as a “high” or their “highest” priority.

Survey results also confirmed that enlisted troops and their families rely on the commissary to make ends meet more than other authorized patrons – refuting earlier myths that this benefit is used and valued primarily by retirees.

This is critical and timely data, given the disheartening news that the Pentagon is considering a proposal to close all commissaries in the United States.

Although no final decisions have been made, the official word from the Pentagon is that “all cost-cutting efforts need to be on the table” as DoD prepares its fiscal 2015 budget. In July, Defense officials announced they were taking a “candid look” at whether commissaries should operate without taxpayer subsidies.

We realize these are tough economic times, and that sequestration and shrinking budgets are forcing the Pentagon to make some drastic decisions. But commissaries are part of the solution to our Nation’s budget concerns, not part of the problem. Commissaries have stepped up to the plate and made their fair share of reductions over the years. Singling them out for outright closure or eliminating the taxpayer subsidy isn’t right. It breaks a promise to our service members and their families – whose benefits are being eroded one by one.

Commissaries are a vital part of military pay and compensation, and provide much needed employment for our military families and veterans – employment the President and First Lady have so consistently fostered.

Closing these stores would deny military families their hard earned benefit and put many out of a job. Nearly 64 percent of commissary workers are military connected – proving commissaries are truly the “company store” for our military community. Commissaries also help drive traffic to the Exchanges, whose proceeds support vital Morale, Welfare, and Recreation programs – adding further to military families’ quality of life.

President Obama recognizes how important commissaries are to military life and believes closure of these stores:

          “is not how a great nation should be treating its military and military families.”

Unfortunately, some in his Administration still haven’t gotten the memo. The President said: “We can do better than that.” We can and we must! But we need your help. The time to act is now! Please don’t allow commissaries to be closed for good and military families’ hard earned benefit to be taken away!

We ask you to take a few minutes before the New Year to write your Representatives and send a letter to the President, if you haven’t already done so. Thank you and we wish you a Happy Holiday.

TAKE ACTION NOW by writing your Members of Congress & the President

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Ask your friends to join our efforts as well!

Veterans’ Benefits Bill Blocked

Before the votes on the NDAA Senate Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders unsuccessfully tried to get unanimous consent for passage of the pending Omnibus Veterans Bill. The bill, S. 944, has numerous provisions including improvements in the Post 9/11 GI bill, reporting requirements for disability claims,

Senator Tom Coburn (R-Oklahoma) objected saying that Senators had not been given a chance to amend the bill (see the NDAA objections above) plus other objections which he would not make public.

Senator Sanders said:“I’m disappointed that there is objection to a bill that came out of the committee without objection, that was done in a bipartisan manner, that is paid for and that has the support of virtually every veterans’ committee {member.}

This is not too worrisome. It will be taken up next year. It could not have been completed this year since the House had already adjourned for the year. But it does still mean that we have time to lobby for several Amendments in this already very good bill.

“I’m disappointed that there is objection to a bill that came out of the committee without objection, that was done in a bipartisan manner, that is paid for and that has the support of virtually every veterans’ committee,” Sanders said.

Congress Has Major Work to do After Christmas Break

Part of the reason the Congress was so eager to reach an agreement on a new budget was because it is supposed to help put an end to the partisan gridlock and government by crisis that has been going on for the past four years. But the truth is, they haven’t reached agreement on major issues that still could require more crisis management.

Here are some of the most important issues they have to deal with as soon as they come back to work after the first of the year.

  • They have to decide how to divide up the money that they said they were going to spend in the budget bill. This is the appropriations process that determines how much money each department of the federal government will get for the remainder of the fiscal year. There will be major fights over that and they only have until January 15 to make those decisions. The current appropriations end on the 15th and without an agreement the government could shut down again.

This process has the potential to harm military people again because the Pentagon has put almost every benefit that has been promised to career military people on a possible hit list. Even though the budget agreement reduced the amount of cuts that need to be made in the defense budget, there are still major cuts coming and DoD has indicated it will use the money that has been restored to buy back readiness shortfalls and critical modernization programs. That means the money will not go into personnel programs.

The current debt-ceiling agreement runs out on February 7 so they have to agree to raise it again. If they don’t the government won’t be able to borrow anymore money and once again we could face a government shut down.

·         Many members also want to extend unemployment benefits, which will run out three days after Christmas. Without it, 1.3 million people will lose their federal emergency unemployment benefits. There is deep disagreement about whether this should be done and it could be a major fight.

 ·         The “Doc Fix” Congress passed a 3 month patch to stop the otherwise mandated 20.1% cut in payments for doctor’s treatment of Medicare patients. Early in December both the Senate Finance and the House’s Ways and Means Committees passed proposals that would hopefully permanently repeal the current Sustainable Growth Rate and replace it with another formula. This is a very important matter for both anyone on Medicare and anyone on TRICARE. (Medicare rates are used as the basis for determining TRICARE payment rates.

 ·         Since so many members of Congress have said they want to repeal the COLA cut for military retirees under age 62, it must also be one of the first orders of business. TREA will be fighting to make sure that happens.There is also important veterans legislation that must be dealt with. Senate Veterans Affairs Committee Bernie Sanders (D-Vt.) See above. TREA supports the legislation and we will try to find out the reason for the objection and fight to get the bill passed in the new year.

 DoD/TSA Partner to Provide Military TSA Pre™ at 100 Airports

Press Release
Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Air Force and Coast Guard, as well as Reservists and National Guard members, eligible for expedited screening

WASHINGTON — As part of the ongoing effort to move away from a one size fits all security approach and provide more of the traveling public the ability to participate in expedited screening, today the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) and the Department of Defense (DoD) announced a partnership to expand TSA Pre™ expedited screening benefits to all U.S. Armed Forces service members, including those serving in the U.S. Coast Guard, Reserves and National Guard. As a result of the agreement, these individuals will be able to enjoy the benefits of the program at the 100 participating airports across the country, beginning Dec. 20.

Currently, members of the U.S. Armed Forces can utilize TSA Pre™ lanes at 10 domestic airports by presenting their Common Access Card (CAC). The partnership expands the program to the military at all 100 airports offering TSA Pre™, allowing service members to keep their footwear on as well as light outerwear, belts, laptop in its case and their 3-1-1 compliant liquids/gels bag in a carry on in select screening lanes.

“Expanding TSA Pre™ screening benefits is great news for our service members and is a tangible sign of this nation's gratitude for the men and women who serve this nation bravely each and every day,” said Mary Snavely-Dixon, director, Defense Manpower Data Center. “We will continue to work with the Transportation Security Administration to help expand this program further.”

“TSA joins with the American people in showing its appreciation for the service and sacrifices of our men and women in the Armed Forces,” said TSA Deputy Administrator John W. Halinski, a 25-year Marine Corps veteran. “Providing expedited screening while on travel is the least we can do for these courageous men and women.”

The new process being established under this agreement allows all active duty, U.S. Coast Guard, Reserve and National Guard service members to use their DoD identification number when making reservations. That ID number will be used as their Known Traveler Number. When arriving at the airport, service members will then be permitted access to TSA Pre™ lanes for official or leisure travel on participating airlines.

More than 18 million passengers have experienced TSA Pre™ since it launched in October 2011. TSA has recently expanded this expedited screening program to 60 new airports in addition to the existing 40, bringing the total number of airports with TSA Pre™ to 100.

TSA has long recognized our men and women in uniform as nearly a quarter of TSA’s workforce is a veteran or currently serves as an active duty service member in the U.S. Armed Forces.  

In addition to expanding TSA Pre™ to service members, TSA wants to remind the American public about the Wounded Warrior Screening program. This program makes the overall experience for wounded service members as simple as possible. This includes personalized service and expedited screening to move through security checkpoints without having to remove footwear, light outerwear, jackets or head wear. Wounded warriors or their care coordinators can contact TSA Cares toll free at 1-855-787-2227 with details of the itinerary once flight arrangements are made with the airline.

TSA will always incorporate random and unpredictable security measures throughout the airport. No individual will be guaranteed expedited screening. Travelers can check the TSA Pre™ Participating Airports page for information on locations and hours of active TSA Pre™ lanes.

Further information on TSA Pre™ for military members can be found at www.TSA.gov and www.defensetravel.dod.mil.

Congress Approves Budget Deal with COLA Penalty

Congress passed a two-year budget deal containing a VFW-opposed provision that penalizes working age military retirees with reduced cost-of-living adjustments, which for an E-7 retiring today would result in the loss of income of $70,000 or more by the time they turn 62. The penalty, which also affects medically-retired troops, is an automatic one-percent reduction from annual COLA increases until age 62. The VFW is now working with allies in both the House and Senate to find a bipartisan solution to overcome the COLA penalty, and in a Call to Action, we are urging all VFW members and supporters to contact their members of Congress while they are home for the holidays. VFW National Commander Bill Thien said, "We know the federal government needs to curb its spending, balance its budget and put an end to the sequester, but to penalize military retirees, especially those who have been medically retired as a result of wounds received defending this nation, is totally unacceptable." Join the VFW Call to Action today by going to http://capwiz.com/vfw/issues/alert/?alertid=63034211.

Defense Bill Cleared for President

Late Thursday, the Senate passed by a vote of 84-15 FY 2014 National Defense Authorization Act or NDAA. The bill, HR 3304 is a bicameral compromise on funding levels as well as policy issues such as Guantanamo detainees and sexual assault in the military. If signed into law by the president, the FY 2014 defense bill would:
* Increase military pay by 1 percent.
* Not increase or create new TRICARE enrollment fees. It would also give almost 173,000 military retirees and family members booted from TRICARE Prime on Oct. 1 because of their distance from a military treatment facility a one-time opportunity to reenroll in Prime provided they continue living in the same ZIP code.
* Add more than 30 provisions and reforms to the Uniform Code of Military Justice related to combatting sexual assault in the military.
* Expand religious freedom provisions for chaplains and service members to include beliefs and expression of beliefs.
* Create a definition of a gender-neutral occupational standards that would be used by each military service to develop the standards required for all military career designators.
* Prohibit the Defense Department from initiating another base realignment and closure round.
* Keep Guantanamo Bay operational, prohibits the transfer of detainees to the U.S. and the construction of detainee facilities in the U.S., and maintains limitations on detainee transfers to third countries.
* Re-authorize personnel recovery authorities to plan and execute the safe recovery of U.S. personnel isolated during military and contingency operations.
* And among many other initiatives, the NDAA facilitates the development of more functional, lighter and more protective body armor, as well as directs DOD to adopt and field a common camouflage utility uniform for specific combat environments for use by all service members."
Read the full defense bill at
http://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/BILLS-113hr1960pcs/pdf/BILLS-113hr1960pcs.pdf

VA to Expand TBI Benefits

Some veterans with traumatic brain injuries who are diagnosed with any of five other ailments will have an easier path to receive additional disability pay under new regulations developed by the Department of Veterans Affairs. The new regulation, which takes effect in mid-January, will help veterans living with TBI who also have Parkinson's disease, certain types of dementia, depression, unprovoked seizures or certain diseases of the hypothalamus and pituitary glands. The regulation stems from a report of the National Academy of Sciences, Institute of Medicine (IOM) regarding the association between TBI and the five diagnosable illnesses. Eligibility for expanded benefits will depend upon the severity of the TBI and the time between the injury causing the TBI and the onset of the second illness. However, the VA said veterans can still file a claim to establish direct service-connection for these ailments even if they do not meet the time and severity standards in the new regulation. Read more at http://www.va.gov/opa/pressrel/pressrelease.cfm?id=2506

TSA Expands Precheck Program

The Transportation Security Administration has expanded its Precheck expedited screening program to all military service members, to include beginning today members of the Coast Guard. The expedited security screening benefit is now active at more than 100 participating airports when flying on nine major airlines. TSA will still continue its random security checks throughout the airport, and no individual will be guaranteed expedited screening. Read more about the program at http://www.tsa.gov/tsa-precheck

Congress Home for Holiday Recess

Congress closed out the 1st session of the 113th and headed home for the holidays. During the extended recess, we urge all of our advocates to schedule appointments with their legislators and discuss critical veterans and military quality of life issues. One issue that will remain in the forefront is the recent budget which contained a provision that will cut future COLA for military retiree. To read more and Take Action, click here: http://capwiz.com/vfw/issues/alert/?alertid=63034211
Other key initiatives we will have our eyes on include securing advanced appropriations for all VA programs, in-state tuition for student-veterans, continued access to treatment for victims of sexual assault, protecting military quality-of-life programs and working to expand veterans' caregiver benefits. For a list of our 2014 priority goals, click here:
http://www.vfw.org/uploadedFiles/VFW.org/VFW_in_DC/2014%20Priority%20Goals%20brochure%20final%20pdf.pdf

Four MIAs Recovered

The Defense POW/MIA Office recently announced the identification of remains of four soldiers who had been missing in action since the Korean War. Recovered are:
* Cpl. Cletus R. Lies, Medical Company, 32nd Infantry Regiment, 7th Infantry Division, lost Nov. 28, 1950, in North Korea. He was accounted for on Dec. 7, and will be buried with full military honors in Bremen, N.D., in the spring of 2014.
* Sgt. 1st Class Joseph E. Gantt, Battery C, 503rd Field Artillery, 2nd Infantry Division, lost Nov. 30, 1950, in the vicinity of Somindong, North Korea. He was accounted for on Nov. 26 and will be buried will full military honors in Inglewood, Calif. on Dec. 28.
* Cpl. Joe W. Howard, 503rd Field Artillery, 2nd Infantry Division, lost on Dec. 1, 1950, in North Korea. He was accounted for on Dec. 5 and will be buried with full military honors in Jacksonville, Fla., on Jan. 9.
* Cpl. William A. Newton, 22, of Sikeston, Mo., Headquarters Service Company, 2nd Engineer Combat Battalion, 2nd Infantry Division, reported missing in action on Nov. 30, 1950, near Kunnu-ri, North Korea, and later learned died in February 1951 as a POW, is being buried today in Sour Lake, Texas

U.S. and Philippines reach agreement concerning Clark Air Force Base Veterans Cemetery

Today, December 16th the United States and the Philippines will formally sign an agreement allowing the American Battle Monuments Commission (ABMC) to restore and maintain the Clark Air Force Base Veterans Cemetery.

As you may remember Clark Air Force Base was destroyed by a volcano at the same time that the United States military was directed to leave the Philippines by its government. Since 1991 VFW Post 2485 near Clark has maintained the cemetery. It was a huge job.

Last year Congress passed a law giving the duty to repair and maintain the cemetery to the ABMC after a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) was reached by United States and the Philippines. Now that that is done this problem should be solved. Again, we should all be extremely grateful for all the dedicated work VFW Post 2485 did to guarantee that their brave comrades were treated with respect and were not forgotten.  

SVAC Committee its version of the veteran's omnibus bill

Last week the SVAC released its version of the veteran's omnibus (or Christmas tree) bill. It is made up of the following Senate veteran bills: S. 229, S. 257, S. 262, S. 294, S. 422, S.430, S. 455, S. 492, S. 495, S. 515, S. 522, S. 529, S. 543, S. 629, S. 674, S. 690, S. 695, S. 735,S. 748, S. 778, S. 832, S. 845, S. 852, S. 868, S. 877, S. 889, S. 894, S. 927, S. 928, S. 930, S935, S. 938, S. 939, S. 944, and S. 1039.

It has wonderful things in it and we firmly believe that some version of it will pass early next year. The Senate’s version of the Veterans Health and Benefits Improvement Act of 2013 can be found below. Most of these sections will not survive a conference in January. So skim the list before and if a provision is important to you or your family please contact your members of Congress and TREA’s Washington Office so we can try to particularly support that section.

TITLE 1 – SURVIVOR AND DEPENDENT MATTERS
Section 101
Section 101 would require additional dependency and indemnity compensation (DIC) paid to the surviving spouses of veterans with children to be increased for each month occurring during a three year period beginning on the date of entitlement. Currently, additional DIC is only paid for each month during the two year period following the date of entitlement.
Section 102
Section 102 would provide that remarriage after age 55 of a surviving spouse of certain veterans shall not bar the furnishing of DIC, medical care for survivors and dependents of certain veterans, educational assistance and housing loans.
Section 103
Section 103 would extend the marriage delimiting date for surviving spouses of Persian Gulf War veterans to qualify for death pension from January 1, 2001, to the date that is 10 years and one day after the date on which the Persian Gulf War ends.
Section 104
Section 104 would expand the Marine Gunnery Sergeant John David Fry Scholarship to include surviving spouses of members of the Armed Forces who die in the line of duty.
Section 105
Section 105 would expand eligibility for the Yellow Ribbon Program to beneficiaries of the Marine Gunnery Sergeant John David Fry Scholarship.
Section 106
Section 106 would authorize VA to provide, to any spine bifida affected child of a veteran who served on active duty in Thailand beginning on January 9, 1962, and ending on May 7, 1975, and was exposed to a herbicide agent during such service, the same health care, vocational training and rehabilitation, and monetary allowance required to be paid to a similarly affected child of a Vietnam veteran.
Section 107
Section 107 would direct VA to carry out a three year program to assess the feasibility and advisability of providing assisted living, group home care or similar services, and transportation to individuals entitled to VA benefits as children of Vietnam and Korean War veterans born with spina bifida who live in rural areas and have no access to such services otherwise. In addition, it requires VA to notify eligible individuals and enter into an agreement with appropriate service providers.
Section 108
Section 108 would direct VA to carry out a two-year program to assess the feasibility and advisability of providing grief counseling services in group retreat settings for surviving spouses of veterans who died while serving on active duty.
Section 109
Section 109 would require VA to conduct a program evaluation of the Survivors’ and Dependents’ Educational Assistance Program.

TITLE II – EDUCATION MATTERS
Section 201
Section 201 would require VA to disapprove a course of education provided by a public institution of higher learning for purposes of Post9/11 GI Bill and Montgomery GI Bill (MGIB) education benefits, if the institution charges tuition and fees for that course for the covered individual at a rate that is higher than the rate the institution charges for tuition and fees for that course for residents of the State in which the institution is located. The public institution would be required to charge the instate tuition rate for Post9/11 GI Bill and MGIB beneficiaries while the individual is living in the State and enrolls in a course of education within three years from discharge or release from military service.
Section 202
Section 202 would reauthorize VA’s Work-study Program. In addition, it would expand the program to allow veterans to work in congressional offices to conduct outreach and assistance to service members, veterans, and their families.
Section 203
Section 203 would require GAO to submit a report to Congress on VA’s processes for identifying and resolving incorrect payments under the Post9/11GI Bill and MGIB.
Section 204
Section 204 would decrease the amount of reporting fees paid by VA to educational and training institutions that are used by institutions for making certifications required by title 38 or for supporting programs for veterans.

TITLE III – HEALTH CARE MATTERS
Section 301
Section 301 would require the increased provision of chiropractic care services to veterans at VA medical centers and clinics.
Section 302
Section 302 would amend the date of eligibility for purposes of obtaining hospital care and medical services at VA in connection with exposure to contaminated water at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, from January 1, 1957, to August 1, 1987.
Section 303
Section 303 would extend counseling and treatment to service members who suffered sexual trauma while serving on inactive duty training.
Section 304
Section 304 would extend the authority for VA to transport individuals to and from VA facilities in connection with vocational rehabilitation, counseling, examination, treatment, or care.
Section 305
Section 305 would direct VA to carry out a two-year program to assess the feasibility and advisability of promoting health through the payment of fitness center membership for veterans determined to be overweight or obese and who reside more than 15 minutes driving distance from a VA fitness facility.
Section 306
Section 306 would require VA to carry out a three year program to assess the feasibility and advisability of promoting the achievement of a healthy weight in veterans enrolled in VA health care through the designation of VA fitness facilities within VA medical centers and clinics.
Subtitle B – Health Care Administration
Section 311
Section 311 would reauthorize the Health Professional Scholarship Program.
Section 312
Section 312 would provide funds to VA for the purpose of developing a partnership with institutions of higher education to ensure the availability of clinicians in orthotics and prosthetics trained at the masters or doctoral level to meet the needs of veterans receiving orthotic and prosthetic care.
Section 313
Section 313 would designate the VA medical center at 3900 Woodland Avenue in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, as the “Corporal Michael J. Crescenz Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center”.
Subtitle C – Complementary and Alternative Medicine
Section 321
Section 321 would direct VA to develop a plan to expand materially and substantially the scope of research and education on and delivery of complementary and alternative medicine services for veterans.
Section 322
Section 322 would require VA to carry out a three year program to assess the feasibility and advisability of various approaches for integrating the delivery of complementary and alternative medicine services with other health care services provided by VA. The program shall be conducted at not fewer than 15 different VA medical centers.
Section 323
Section 323 would direct VA to conduct a comprehensive study of barriers encountered by veterans in accessing and receiving complementary and alternative medicine and the barriers encountered by providers in delivering such services.
Section 324
Section 324 would require VA to establish a three year program for the award of grants to public or private nonprofit entities to assess the feasibility and advisability of using wellness programs to complement the provision of mental health care to veterans and family members eligible for VA counseling services.

TITTLE IV – ACCOUNTABILITY AND ADMINISTRATIVE IMPROVEMENTS
Section 401
Section 401 would direct VA to reorganize the Veterans Health Administration (VHA) into geographically defined VISNs. In addition, it directs the Secretary to ensure that each VISN provides high quality health care to veterans, increases efficiency in care delivery, implements best practices, enhances collaboration with partner entities, among other management functions. Finally, this section requires the Secretary, at least every three years, to review and assess VISN structure and operations and submit review results to the Committees on Veterans’ Affairs.
Section 402
Section 402 would require VA to establish not more than four regional support centers within VHA to assess how effectively and efficiently each VISN conducts outreach to veterans who served in contingency operations; administers programs for the benefits of women veterans; manages programs that address homelessness among veterans, and consumes energy. In addition, the regional support centers would assess the quality of work performed within finance operations, compliance related activities and such other matters concerning the operation and activities of each VISN as the Secretary considers appropriate.
Section 403
Section 403 would require the establishment of a Commission on Capital Planning for VA medical facilities. In addition to voting members appointed by a variety of government entities, the Commission would also include nonvoting members representing VSOs and experts in the field of management, construction and leasing of capital assets. Within six months of the first meeting the Commission would begin to issue a series of reports, beginning with VA’s Major Medical Facility Lease Program, including any improvements that can be made to the lease authorization process. Other reports would include management processes of VA’s construction projects, from contract award through change order processing; a general review of VA’s construction program that would examine issues such as facility master planning, sustainability, and understand unutilized buildings; and recommendations on the most effective means to work through the existing backlog of construction projects. VA would be required to report to the Committees on Veterans’ Affairs on the feasibility and advisability of all recommendations, implement each recommendation that was considered feasible, and provide a description of the actions that are being taken or any legislative action needed to implement those recommendations considered feasible and advisable.
Section 404
Section 404 would require VA to establish a free, publicly available website that aggregates information on Department research data files. VA would also require that any final, peer reviewed manuscript about Vaunted research be submitted to a free, publicly available
website. Finally, the VADOD Joint Executive Committee would prepare recommendations for establishing a program for long-term cooperation and data sharing to facilitate research.
Section 405
Section 405 would require VA, in support of its budget for a fiscal year, to submit to Congress the amount requested for outreach activities of the Office of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs. VA would also be required to establish and maintain procedures, as well as submit a report on such procedures to Congress, to ensure the effective coordination and collaboration of outreach activities by the Office of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs across the Veterans Benefits, Veterans Health, and National Cemetery Administrations.
Section 406
Section 406 would require GAO to submit to the Committees on Veterans’ Affairs a report on the VA’s advisory committees.

TITLE V – IMPROVEMENT OF PROCESSING OF CLAIMS FOR COMPENSATION
Subtitle A – Claims Based on Military Sexual Trauma
Section 501
Section 501 would require, in the case of a claim for disability compensation based on a mental health condition related to military sexual trauma, the Secretary to treat an examination or opinion as being necessary to make a decision on a claim if the evidence of record before the Secretary does not contain a diagnosis and opinion by a mental health professional that may assist in corroborating the occurrence of a military sexual trauma stressor.
Section 502
Section 502 would require VA to assign to each individual seeking compensation for a disability based on military sexual trauma a case representative officer who shall serve as a liaison between such individual and VA and provide advice and general information to such individual on the claims process.
Section 503
Section 503 would require VA to submit to the Committees on Veterans’ Affairs a report on the current standard of proof for service connection under chapter 11 of title 38, U.S.C., for covered mental health conditions based on military sexual trauma. The report would also include any recommendations the Secretary considers appropriate to improve the adjudication of claims for compensation based on military sexual trauma.
Section 504
Section 504 would require VA to report to Congress on claims based on posttraumatic stress disorder alleged to have been incurred or aggravated by military sexual trauma submitted to the Secretary.
Subtitle B – Agency of Original Jurisdiction
Section 511
Section 511 would direct VA to establish a working group to assess and develop recommendations for the improvement of the Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA) employee work credit and work management systems. The working group is charged with developing a database method to revise the employee work credit system, a revision schedule, and recommendations for the improvement of VBA’s resource allocation model. It would require the Secretary to carry out the recommendations he considers appropriate and also require VA to submit an interim and final report to Congress.
Section 512
Section 512 would direct VA to establish a task force to assess the retention and training of claims processors and adjudicators that are employed by VA and other departments and agencies of the Federal government. Not later than one year after the establishment of the task force, it would be required to produce a government wide strategic and operational plan for promoting employment of veterans in claims processing positions across the Federal government.
Section 513
Section 513 would require VA to compile information and report to the Committees on Veterans’ Affairs information on attempts to obtain records from a Federal department or agency other than VA.
Section 514
Section 514 would allow VA to recognize representatives of Indian tribes as individuals eligible to represent veterans in the preparation, presentation, and prosecution of claims for VA benefits.
Section 515
Section 515 would require VA to carry out a two-year program to assess the feasibility and advisability of entering into memoranda of understanding with local governments and tribal organizations to improve the quality of disability compensation claims and to provide claims submittal assistance to veterans who may be eligible for disability compensation or pension. Under the program, VA would be required to enter into memoranda of understanding with at least two tribal organizations and 10 state or local governments.
Section 516
Section 516 would direct VA to submit a quarterly report to the Committees on Veterans’ Affairs, which shall also be made available to the public, on claims reduction goals and actual production at both? the initial claim and appellate level.
Section 517
Section 517 would require VA to submit a report and plan to the Committees on Veterans’ Affairs on the use of existing authorities to expedite benefit decisions. The VA would be required to report on the use of temporary, intermediate and provisional rating decisions and to submit a plan to increase the use of temporary and intermediate rating decisions in order to expedite benefit decisions.
Section 518
Section 518 would require VA to submit information to Congress on the sufficiency of disability examinations. It would also require VA to provide a report and plan on efforts to utilize private medical evidence and to prevent the ordering of unnecessary medical examinations.
Subtitle C – Board of Veterans’ Appeals and Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims
Section 521
Section 521 would require the Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims to treat documents that are misfiled with the Board of Veterans’ Appeals or Agency of Original Jurisdiction and expresses disagreement and a clear intent to seek review as timely filed if misfiled within 120 days after the date of the original decision.
Section 522
Section 522 would require that a notice of disagreement be filed, electronically transmitted, or postmarked within 180 days, instead of one year, from the date of the mailing notice of the results of the initial review or determination. It would also, permit a “good cause exception” in the event a notice of disagreement is not filed in a timely manner.
Section 523
Section 523 would require any hearing before the Board of Veterans’ Appeals to be conducted using video conferencing technology. This section provides an absolute right that a hearing be conducted in person before the Board upon the request of the appellant.

TITLE VI – OUTREACH MATTERS
Section 601
Section 601 would direct VA to carry out a two-year program that would competitively award grants to increase veterans’ awareness of benefits and services and improve coordination of outreach activities between federal, state and local agencies and nonprofit organizations.
Section 602
Section 602 would codify VA’s authority to enter into cooperative agreements and arrangements with State veterans’ agencies to carry out, improve, or enhance outreach activities between VA and State veterans’ agencies. VA would be required to include such agreements and arrangements in its annual report on outreach activities.
Section 603
Section 603 would direct VA to establish an advisory committee on national outreach activities composed of individuals with backgrounds in: press relations, traditional and new media marketing, shaping a brand image, and communications. Veterans with press and public relations experience would also be appointed to the maximum extent practicable. The advisory committee would collaborate with the Assistant Secretary of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs to advise the Secretary on national outreach activities to ensure VA is effectively communicating its benefits and services to stakeholders. Advisory committee meetings would be required to take place on Avowed property and make use of teleconference technology when practicable.
Section 604
Section 604 would direct VA to establish an advisory board at each VA healthcare system for purposes of enhancing and improving local outreach activities. Advisory board membership would be voluntary and would be composed of individuals with backgrounds in: press relations, traditional and new media marketing, shaping a brand image, and communications. Veterans with press and public relations experience would also be appointed to the maximum extent practicable. Each advisory board would advise the director of the VA healthcare system, in collaboration with VA employees of the healthcare system and involved in press and public relations, on outreach activities to ensure VA is effectively communicating its benefits and services to local stakeholders, as well as to explain policy changes or new programs at VA. Advisory boards would be required to meet on Avowed property and make use of teleconference technology when practicable.
Section 605
Section 605 would require VA to submit its report to Congress on outreach activities annually, not biennially.

TITLE VII – EMPLOYMENT AND RELATED MATTERS
Subtitle A – Employment Matters
Section 701
Section 701 would require federal agencies to develop plans to hire an aggregate of 15,000 veterans to existing vacancies within five years using the Veterans Recruitment Appointment and the Veterans Employment Opportunities Act authorities.
Section 702
Section 702 would, as a condition of receiving Jobs for Veterans State Grants, require states to recognize military experience when issuing licenses and credentials to veterans. This section would require states to issue licenses and credentials to certain veterans without requiring such veterans to undergo further training.
Section 703
Section 703 would require the Department of Labor (DoL) to compile a list of Internet websites and applications that are beneficial for veterans in pursuit of employment. This section would also require DoL to report to the Veterans’ Affairs Committees on the feasibility and advisability of creating a single, unified, employment portal.
Section 704
Section 704 would improve the Department of Defense’s (DOD) Transition Assistance Program by requiring DoL to provide transitioning service members with information regarding disability related employment and education protections.
Subtitle B – Small Business Matters
Section 711
Section 711 would expand VA contracting goals and preferences to include conditional ownership of small business concerns if such small business concerns are 100 percent owned by one or more veterans.
Section 712
Section 712 would permit the surviving spouse of a veteran owner of a small business, who is less than 100 percent disabled and whose death is not a result of a service connected disability, to maintain the status of such small business concern for up to three years following the death of such veteran.
Section 713
Section 713 would permit the surviving spouse of a service member, who owns at least 51 percent of a small business concern and dies in the line of duty, to maintain the status of such small business concern for up to ten years following the death of such service member.
Section 714
Section 714 would require VA to consider small businesses, licensed in a community property state, as if such small business were licensed in a noncom munity property state if such consideration would result in a greater ownership of such small business concern for purposes of eligibility as a veteran owned small business.

TITLE VIII – OTHER MATTERS
Section 801
Section 801 would provide that if a veteran, surviving spouse, or surviving child is eligible for a pension and disposes of a resource that was part of such individual’s estate for less than its fair market value within three years before applying for such pension, then VA shall deny or discontinue the pension payments for a certain number of months based on the value of the resources transferred.
Section 802
Section 802 would reauthorize funding for the Office of National Veterans Sports Programs and Special Events. This funding could be used for monthly subsistence allowances for certain Paralympics athletes or other covered activities of the National Veterans Sports Programs and Special Events.
Section 803
Section 803 would authorize VA to plan, develop, manage, and implement an integrated adaptive sports program for disabled veterans and disabled members of the Armed Forces. In carrying out this adaptive sports program, VA would be authorized to award grants to United States Paralympics, Inc., to plan, develop, manage, and implement an integrated adaptive sports program for disabled veterans and disabled members of the Armed Forces.
Section 804
Section 804 would make effective date provisions consistent with provisions for benefits eligibility of a veteran’s child based upon termination of remarriage by annulment.
Section 805
Section 805 would extend the period for scheduling medical exams for veterans receiving temporary disability ratings for severe mental disorders from 6 to 18 months after separation or discharge from active duty.
Section 806
Section 806 would authorize VA to issue veteran identification cards. Additionally, VA would be authorized to work with national retail chains to ensure that such chains recognize the card when offering reduced prices on pharmaceutical, consumer products, and services to veterans.
Section 807
Section 807 would honor as veterans certain persons who performed service in the reserve components of the Armed Forces.
Section 808
Section 808 would extend VA’s authority to issue and guarantee certain loans.
Section 809
Section 809 would extend VA’s authority to obtain information from the Secretary of Treasury and the Commissioner of Social Security for income verification purposes.
Section 810
Section 810 would direct VA, in consultation with DOD, to review the process for determining whether certain individuals have the requisite service requirements for purposes of receiving specific Filipino veterans’ benefits.
Section 811
Section 811 would require VA, in consultation with DOD and such agencies or individuals VA considers appropriate, to submit a report to Congress on the extent to which Laotian military forces provided combat support to the Armed Forces of the United States between February 28, 1961, and May 15, 1975; whether the current classification by the DOD Civilian/Military Service Review Board is appropriate; and any recommendations for legislative action.
Section 812
Section 812 would require the DoL, in consultation with VA, the Small Business Administration, and other entities the Secretary considers appropriate, to submit to Congress a report outlining the benefits, services, and other assistance available to veterans to obtain the training necessary to purchase and operate a franchise; any known statistics about the number of veterans who seek this type of training each year and complete this type of training each year; and information regarding any barriers encountered by veterans in obtaining that training.
Section 813
Section 813 would reauthorize VA’s authority to use the National Directory of New Hires for income verification purposes.
Section 814
Section 814 would limit the amount of bonuses payable to VA employees during Fiscal Year 2014. *Subject to technical and conforming changes

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House of Representatives Passes NDAA and Sends it to the Senate

In a very busy legislative day (after so many slow ones) the House of Representatives overwhelmingly (350-69) passed the NDAA last Thursday (Amendment to H.R.3304 NDAA). It authorized $625.1 billion in spending on defense. We are happy to report it had no new TRICARE enrollment fees or increased co-pays. Now, it too has been Senate for its consideration this week. It is expected to come to the Senate floor on Tuesday or Wednesday

No matter how tough the feelings were in Washington the NDAA has been passed for 50 consecutive years. So HASC and SASC Chairmen McKeon (R-California) and Levin (D-Michigan) both desperately wish it to pass.

If it is to pass this week on the fast track it must do so without Senate amendments. Many Senators are upset by this limitation. It means that our Amendments of concurrent receipt, SBP/DIC etc will not be included.

This is possible because behind the scenes the HASC and SASC have been having a bill conference while there have been no appointed conferees. Levin, McKeon, Inhofe and Smith and their staffs have been conferring on this bill during negotiations.

If it is not passed by Congress and signed by the President before the end of the year several authorities like special pays and bonuses will expire. On Thursday Senator Levin said:”I’d like to go out with a bill…If this is the only way to get a bill done, OK.”

Federal Budget Deal includes Retired Military Pay COLA Cut
Now is the Time to speak to your Senators

The Federal Budget deal, announced on Wednesday would help lessen the damage that sequestration is inflicting on the Department however it includes a COLA cut for uniformed services retirees under the age of 62. After December 2015 retirees under the age of 62 (known around DC as working age retirees) yearly increase will be 1% below the federal COLA. There is also a catch-up calculation when one reaches 62 but no one has seen what that is or how it will work. Regardless of that this would be a dramatic loss for the retirees. It has been calculated that an E-7 who retires at 42 will lose $73,000 under this plan. The losses are incremental but this is real money.

This came as a dramatic surprise. TREA and many other VSOs and MSOs have been working to both inform the country about this dramatically unfair and unwise plan and urging Congress NOT to include it in the Budget deal.

The next day, Thursday, the House easily passed the complete Budget deal 332 to 94 and is now gone for the Holidays. The Senate will take up this issue this week – so they are who we must all focus on. Several Senators have already said that they are opposed to this provision.  
Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) said:” After careful review of the agreement, I believe it will do disproportionate harm to our military retirees. Our men and women in uniform have served admirably during some of our nation’s most troubling times. They deserve more from us in their retirement than this agreement provides.”

Senator Roger Wicker (R-MS) said: “I do not support paying for increased federal spending on the backs of our retired and active duty troops. Congress should not change the rules in the middle of the game for those who have chosen to serve our nation in the military. We can and should do a deal without cutting the benefits of our men and women who have volunteered for a military career…. The plan should be rejected.”

Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R- NH) also disapproved of this provision. “I cannot support a budget agreement that fails to deal with the biggest drivers of our debt, but instead pays for more federal spending on the backs of our active duty and military retirees – those who have put their lives on the line to defend us. My hope is that both parties can work together to replace these unfair cuts that impact our men and women in uniform with more responsible savings, such as the billions that the Government Accountability Office has identified in waste, duplication and fraud across the federal government.”

Finally, Senator James Inhofe (R-OK), the ranking Republican on the Armed Services Committee, said on the Senate floor: “This penalizes current and future military members who have served our nation for over 20 years. Keep in mind; people into the military quite young sometimes know that the time they would serve would be for 20 years, many of them longer. That’s kind of a given. And they do this predicated on the assumption that retirement benefits and all these things are going to be there….I know it’s not an easy job. [crafting the budget proposal] “I know that we had a Democrat and Republican working very hard on it, but that’s one thing […] I believe that can be changed.”
These quotes have been included to show that we may still be able to stop this. Call or e-mail your Senators. Tell them that these are EARNED benefits that should not be chipped away.

Please also note that this budget deal is not a law. It creates a top-line number that the Appropriation Committees must use when creating their budgets. So this is far from over.

Defense Bill Update

On Monday, House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) and his Senate counterpart, Carl Levin (D-Mich.), held a joint press conference to reveal details of the compromise their two committees reached on the $633 billion National Defense Authorization Act for FY 2014. The House passed HR 3304 on Thursday by a vote of 350-69. If approved by the Senate and signed into law by the president, the FY 2014 defense bill would:
* Increase military pay by 1 percent.
* Not increase or create new TRICARE enrollment fees. It would also give almost 173,000 military retirees and family members booted from TRICARE Prime on Oct. 1 because of their distance from a military treatment facility a one-time opportunity to reenroll in Prime provided they continue living in the same ZIP code.
* Add more than 30 provisions and reforms to the Uniform Code of Military Justice related to combatting sexual assault in the military.
* Expand religious freedom provisions for chaplains and service members to include beliefs and expression of beliefs.
* Create a definition of a gender-neutral occupational standards that would be used by each military service to develop the standards required for all military career designators.
* Prohibit the Defense Department from initiating another base realignment and closure round.
* Keep Guantanamo Bay operational, prohibits the transfer of detainees to the U.S. and the construction of detainee facilities in the U.S., and maintains limitations on detainee transfers to third countries.
* Re-authorize personnel recovery authorities to plan and execute the safe recovery of U.S. personnel isolated during military and contingency operations.
* And among many other initiatives, the NDAA facilitates the development of more functional, lighter and more protective body armor, as well as directs DOD to adopt and field a common camouflage utility uniform for specific combat environments for use by all service members."
Read the full defense bill at
http://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/BILLS-113hr1960pcs/pdf/BILLS-113hr1960pcs.pdf.

House Extends Vet Programs

This week, the House cleared legislation (H.R. 3521) that would authorize 27 VA major medical facility leases that had been requested in the FY 2013/14 budget, Other legislation, H.R. 1402, extends funding for programs that were set to explore at the end of the year. They include- the reauthorization of the Veterans Transportation Service, the requirement for VA to provide service-connected nursing home care, the authority to provide VA housing assistance to homeless veterans, and the authority to allow non-VA doctors to conduct disability examinations. The bills now need to be cleared by the Senate to extend these programs to December 31, 2014.
For a list of medical facility locations or more about either bill, click here:
http://veterans.house.gov/press-release/house-passes-important-va-health-care-legislation-votes-to-extend-other-veterans

Senate Talks Disability Claims Progress

On Wednesday, the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee held an oversight hearing on VA's ongoing effort to transform the disability claims system. The hearing, a follow-up to one held in March, delved into recent progress being made on claims pending longer than 125 days . Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders (I-VT), voiced his views alongside other committee members, that although VA has made positive strides to include recent data showing the number of claims pending longer than 125 days has dropped to just over 395,000 claims or 57 percent of the total inventory, many challenges remain. Other areas discussed included a recent IG report that found issues with provisional rating decisions reviewed at several regional offices, progress with electronic claims processing system/ VBMS and efforts to revise and update VA's rating schedule. VFW has and continues to monitor all of the changes, progress and reports regarding the disability claims process. We will continue to keep you updated here in the Washington Weekly.
For more about the hearing, to include the recorded webcast, visit the Senate VA Committee website at:
http://www.veterans.senate.gov/hearings.cfm?action=release.display&release_id=c75bff2c-a8df-49a2-ab75-15b6f34af5f8

House Discusses Federal Contracting

This week the House Veterans' Affairs Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations hosted a joint hearing alongside the House Small Business Subcommittee on Contracting and Workforce to discuss VA's federal contracting processes. Specifically, the committees sought to learn more about VA's reverse auction contracting award processes, through which contractors offer bids through a third party site to do business with VA. The hearing came in the wake of a recent Government Accountability Office (GAO) report that expressed concerns over whether or not VA was receiving the best prices for its contracts through the reverse auction process. GAO called for further regulation to the process in light of the report. Most panelists throughout the hearing agreed that reverse auctioning presented some issues without proper regulation. During the hearing, VA announced that it had suspended its reverse auction processes, pending further review. To learn more about the hearing and read each witness' prepared remarks, click here: http://smallbusiness.house.gov/calendar/eventsingle.aspx?EventID=362983

Two MIAs Identified

The Defense POW/MIA Office has announced the identification of remains belonging to two servicemen who had been missing since the Korean and Vietnam Wars. Identified are:
* Army Pfc. Jerry P. Craig, 17, of Panhandle, Texas, who will be buried Dec. 19, in Leesville, La. In late November 1950, Craig was a member of Headquarters Company, 1st Battalion, 32nd Infantry Regimental Combat Team, deployed along the eastern bank of the Chosin Reservoir in North Korea, when they were attacked by Chinese forces and forced into a fighting withdrawal to a more defensible position. Craig was reported missing in action on Dec. 2, 1950.
* Air Force Col. Francis J. McGouldrick Jr. of New Haven, Conn., who is being buried today at Arlington National Cemetery. On Dec. 13, 1968, McGouldrick was on a night strike mission when his B-57E Canberra aircraft collided with another aircraft over Savannakhet Province, Laos. McGouldrick was never seen again and was listed as missing in action.
Read more about their individual recoveries and identification at
http://www.dtic.mil/dpmo/news/news_releases/.

Budget Deal Penalizes Military Retirees

By a vote of 332-94, the House passed a two-year budget deal Thursday that funds the government and temporarily ends the sequester, but at a huge financial cost to working-age military retirees younger than 62. If approved by the Senate and signed into law by the president, the provision will automatically subtract a full percentage point from annual COLA increases. For an E-7 retiring today at age 40, the cumulative loss of retirement income could exceed $80,000 by age 62. "We know the federal government needs to curb its spending, balance its budget, and put an end to the sequester, but penalizing military retirees is not the solution," said VFW National Commander Bill Thien, who said the troops view the attacks on pay and allowances, retirement and healthcare systems as a breach of faith, and a complete lack of support, understanding and appreciation for what it is they do daily for the rest of America. The Senate is expected to take up the Budget deal on Monday -- There is still time to voice your opposition to this proposal by contacting your senators at http://capwiz.com/vfw/issues/alert/?alertid=63026806&queueid=10042843021

To see how your member of the House voted, go to https://www.govtrack.us/congress/votes/113-2013/h640

House VA Committee Discusses Complex Disability Claims

Earlier this week, the House VA Subcommittee on Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs held a hearing to discuss complex VA disability claims. The three panels of witnesses included a veteran and a survivor both affected by a lengthy claims process; as well as VSO and VA representatives. Subcommittee Chairman Jon Runyan (R-NJ) said that the hearing was just one of many the committee has held on VA’s disability claims process since various initiatives have been instituted by VA to reach the secretary's goal on claims for 2015. The VSO representatives spoke about process, accountability and the continued need for VA employees to receive proper training. VA reported that they continue to experience an increase in the number and complexity of medical issues, with the average number of issues identified per original claim increasing by 31 percent, from 5.5 to 7.2 issues per claim. For more about the hearing to include the recorded webcast and all testimony, click here: http://veterans.house.gov/hearing/%E2%80%9Cadjudicating-va%E2%80%99s most-complex-disability-claims-ensuring-quality-accuracy-and-consistency

Busy End of Year Agenda for House/Senate

The Senate returns next week to join the House in what is shaping up to be a very hectic end of year schedule. The Senate will continue its debate on the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) with the likelihood that a slimmed-down version that contains no controversial amendments could pass. The Senate could also decide to use  the House-passed bill with amendments agreed to by both chambers, thus avoiding conference negotiations, which often prove timely. The VFW supported many of the provisions in the House-passed bill to include no increases in enrollment fees for Tricare healthcare or copayments for prescriptions; a 1.8 percent military pay raise; an amendment preventing service chiefs from ending Military Tuition Assistance programs; requiring DOD and VA to create a comprehensive plan regarding the care and treatment of service members with urotrauma; as well as several changes that would protect victims and enforce accountability with regard to sexual assaults in the military. VFW will be monitoring the bill next week. Check back here for updates on final action as it moves through Congress. For more on the House-passed version of NDAA click here: http://armedservices.house.gov/

Military Commissary Survey

The Defense Department is now examining the potential closure of its 178 stateside commissaries in an ongoing effort to further reduce overall operating expenses. In an effort to measure customer feedback, the independent Military Times news organization is asking service members, retirees and their families to participate in a brief survey about this potential change to a significant military quality of life benefit. Share your views at the Military Times Commissary Survey 2013 by clicking here: http://www.keysurvey.com/f/572176/102cb3a2dea5ed65/ . If you have trouble accessing the link, reply to survey@militarytimes.com and a new link with login password will be sent (which is necessary for some DOD users). Participation is voluntary and all responses will be kept completely confidential.

VA Announces 1.5% Cost-of-Living Increase for 2014

Last week the VA announced that next year’s COLA will be 1.5%. This increase will apply to service connected disability payments, VA pensions, DIC payments for survivors as well as some other smaller benefit programs. By law the VACOLA is the same as the Social Security COLA

For Veterans without dependents, the new compensation rates will range from $130.94 monthly for a disability rated at 10 percent to $2,858.24 monthly for 100 percent. The full rates are available on the Internet at www.benefits.va.gov/compensation/rates-index.asp.

HVAC Subcommittee Examines VA Appeals Process

Last Wednesday the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee’s Subcommittee on Disability and Memorial Affairs examined how the Department of Veterans Affairs is dealing with the growing backlog of appeals for denied disability benefits.

The subcommittee, which is chaired by Congressman Jon Runyan (R-NJ), heard testimony from survivors, veterans-advocacy groups and the administration officials who oversee the VA’s processing of disability claims appeals. The backlog of disability claims appeals has increased by 50 percent since President Obama took office.

Recently concerns have been raised by audits regarding the VA’s procedures for processing disability claims appeals. A VA Inspector General (IG) report recently found that more than half of the regional offices it reviewed during the past four years had improperly processed claims of traumatic brain injuries, according to an announcement from the subcommittee.

The subcommittee heard testimony from Bettye McNutt, the spouse of a Vietnam War veteran who succumbed to cancer after allegedly being exposed to Agent Orange. She is involved in a 23-year old claim for benefits promised to the surviving family members of veterans who die of service-related medical conditions.

According Mrs. McNutt the VA has improperly denied her claim seven times since 1990. “Because of the VA’s frequent mistakes, I have been forced to live in poverty, sometimes without heat and electricity as a widow raising a son orphaned by the Vietnam War,” she said.

VA Pproposing New Rules for Monetary Burial Award Payment

The VA has proposed to change and simplify the rules for a surviving spouse to receive the basic monetary burial award. A VA Fact Sheet is at the bottom of this article. Basically it is recognizing that any funeral will cost more than the allotted benefit. Thus to make it easier on the survivor they will not require a written application with attached receipts. They also say that they will be simplifying the descriptions and regulations to make it easier for the survivor to understand. Below please find the VA’s description for the benefits for a non service related death.  

Non-service-Related Death. For deaths on or after October 1, 2011, VA will pay up to $700.00 toward burial and funeral expenses (if hospitalized by VA at time of death), or $300 toward burial and funeral expenses (if not hospitalized by VA at time of death), and a $700.00 plot-interment allowance (if not buried in a national cemetery). For deaths on or after December 1, 2001, but before October 1, 2011, VA will pay up to $300.00 toward burial and funeral expenses and a $300.00 plot-interment allowance. The plot-interment allowance is $150.00 for deaths prior to December 1, 2001. If the death happened while the Veteran was in a VA hospital or under VA contracted nursing home care, some of all of the costs for transporting the Veteran’s remains may be reimbursed. An annual increase in burial and plot allowances, for deaths occurring after October 1, 2011, begins in fiscal year 2013 based on the Consumer Price Index for the preceding 12-month period.

Monetary Burial Benefits Regulation Change
VA is proposing to change its monetary burial benefits regulations to pay eligible survivors more quickly and efficiently. If approved, these regulations would authorize VA to pay, without a written application, eligible surviving spouses basic monetary burial benefits at the maximum amount authorized in law through automated systems rather than reimbursing them for actual costs incurred.

  • Under current rules, VA pays burial benefits for burial and funeral expenses on a reimbursement basis, which requires survivors to submit receipts for relatively small one-time payments that VA generally pays at the maximum amount permitted by law.
  • The proposed amendments to the burial regulations will permit VA to pay, at a flat rate, burial and plot or interment allowances thereby enabling VA to automate payment of burial benefits to eligible surviving spouses.

The changes are intended to help survivors of Veterans bear the cost of funerals by changing regulations to get them the benefits they deserve more quickly

The proposed regulation, if approved, would do the following:
Restructure, consolidate, and clarify VA’s current monetary burial benefits rules to make them easier to understand by Veterans, their survivors, and other stakeholders,
Clearly establish VA’s priority of payments and enable automated payment to eligible surviving spouses,

Remove the requirement for eligible surviving spouses to file a claim for basic burial allowances and simplify the burial claims process for all beneficiaries,

Establish in regulations a presumption that VA will pay the service-connected (SC) burial allowance for Veterans that were rated totally disabled from service-connected conditions at the date of death, and

Implement portions of Public Law 112-260, authorizing monetary burial benefits for Veterans without wartime service whose remains are unclaimed.

Statement:
“VA is committed to improving the speed and ease of delivery of monetary burial benefits to Veterans’ survivors during their time of need. The proposed changes will permit VA to automatically pay the basic burial or interment allowances to eligible surviving spouses, without the need for a written application. VA wants to help survivors of Veterans bear the cost of funerals by changing regulations to get them the benefits they deserve more quickly.”

“ Top Gun” Christine Fox Named as Acting Deputy DoD Secretary

Last week Secretary of Defense Hagel announced that he was appointing Christine Fox Acting Deputy Secretary of Defense. She will be replacing Deputy SecDef Ashton Carter who left the Pentagon on Thursday. Ms. Fox had been at the Pentagon until June when she joined the John Hopkins Physics Laboratory faculty. By making her Acting Secretary Hagel is avoiding a potential confirmation fight with the Senate Republicans who are still furious about the filibuster rule change.

Ms. Fox seems chosen, at least in part, as an expert in cost analysis under sequestration. Secretary Hagel spoke about her leadership of Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation saying she was “ a brilliant defense thinker and proven manager." She “helped identify the challenges, choices, and opportunities for reform facing the Department during this period of unprecedented budget uncertainty…..She will be able to help me shape our priorities from day one because she knows the intricacies of the Department's budget, programs and global operations better than anyone.".

Years before this she was known as the basis of Kelly McGillis’ character in “TopGun.” As first written both her and the Tom Cruise characters were Naval Officers. However, the Admiral overseeing the accuracy of the movie had script approval and refused to agree to the officer to officer romance. Then the studio suggested the character could be a yoga instructor but the Admiral suggested “my CAN rep?” And the rest was cinematic history

New Veterans Legislation

H.R.3648: To Amend The Internal Revenue Code Of 1986 To Allow The Work Opportunity Credit To Small Businesses Which Hire Individuals Who Are Members Of The Ready Reserve Or National Guard, And For Other Purposes.

Sponsor: Rep. Bruce L. Braley (D-IA)

H.R.3649: To Amend The Internal Revenue Code Of 1986 To Allow The Work Opportunity Credit For Hiring Individuals Who Are Veterans Or Members Of The Ready Reserve Or National Guard, To Make Permanent The Work Opportunity Credit, And To Expand And Make Permanent The Employer Wage Credit For Employees Who Are Active Duty Members Of The Uniformed Services.

Sponsor: Rep. Cheri L. Bustos (D-IL-17)

The House Passes Miller Bill to Require TSA Found Money be Given to Military Support Organizations

In 2012 the TSA recovered over $500,000 of change left at their security check points. Until now the money could be used for aviation security programs. But now of HVAC Chairman Rep. Jeff Miller (R-FL) has his way the money will be given to not for profit organizations that operate programs at airports in support of the military (example USO).

The bill passed the House last Tuesday and sent to the Senate where its future is unclear. Below is a list from Business Week of the amount of change left at various airports last year.

Miami: $39,613
Las Vegas: $26,900
Chicago O’Hare: $22,115
Los Angeles International: $21,916
New York-JFK: $21,201
Dallas-Fort Worth: $21,090
San Francisco: $19,873
Boston: $16,405
Houston-Intercontinental: $16,000
Washington-Dulles: $16,000
Phoenix-Sky Harbor: $10,492
Atlantic City: $350.56
Guam: $1.70

My grocery bill will skyrocket if military stores close

By Jennifer Liberto  @CNNMoney December 16, 2013: 10:20 AM ET

WASHINGTON (CNNMoney)

It's not easy for military wife Jes Hogan to run a household of six.

She has four children, all under the age of nine, and two dogs. Hogan worries about her grocery bill -- the cost of her 18-month-old baby's diapers, or the four loaves of bread she needs for her kids' lunches. And then, there's the dog food. Discounted prices at the military grocery store are a lifesaver.

Her life could get a lot tougher -- the stores, or commissaries as they are known on military bases, could be on the chopping block as the Pentagon looks at options for slashing its budget.

"Other than health care, the commissary is one of the most important things that people need to get by," said Hogan, who lives next to Fort Riley in Kansas. Her high school sweetheart-turned-husband has served in the Army in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The savings are substantial for Hogan -- her regular food tab at the military grocery store runs between $390 and $400. If she were to shop for the same items at Ray's Apple Market, an off-base grocery store about a half-hour away, her bill runs as high as $700, even with a military discount.

Commissaries are supermarkets for families of active duty or retired military personnel. And their future is uncertain because the Pentagon is in a financial bind,thanks to the sequester, or forced budget cuts triggered in March.

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Even though the latest budget deal eases defense cuts for two years, an official said he expects the Pentagon to continue "looking at everything for budget savings long term."

Senior Department of Defense spokesperson Colonel Steve Warren has assured that no military groceries are about to close. But he said the department "faces an increasingly constrained budget environment. We are reviewing all programs to identify cost-cutting and money-saving opportunities."

Besides commissaries, there are other proposed cuts that could really hit the pockets of young military families. They include capping military pay raises at 1% and trimming housing subsidies for military families who don't live on bases.

"They're basically looking at ways to make up the cuts needed for sequestration out of military families' pockets," said Joyce Raezer, executive director of the National Military Family Association.

Still, even the mere whiff of talk that military groceries could be cut has hit a nerve, especially since people get to see the savings every time they shop.

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The savings can be substantial. On average, a family of four saves $4,500 a year at commissaries, according to the Department of Defense. Each year, $1.4 billion in taxpayer dollars prop up the 178 commissaries spread out nationwide and 67 overseas.

Military families are reluctant to shop elsewhere. On Oct. 1 -- right before closing for the federal shutdown -- commissaries sold $30.6 million worth of goods, more than double the usual daily volume, according to the Defense Commissary Agency.

Military wife Brooke Goldberg was thankful for the commissary when she had to completely restock her kitchen pantry, after her family of four recently moved to the Washington area. Her husband, an Air Force pilot, transferred from Hurlburt Field in Florida to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware.

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"The thought of going to a regular grocery store and buying a bottle of ketchup, a bottle of olive oil, a bottle of vinegar, a bag of flour, a bag of sugar, is so insanely expensive," said Goldberg, deputy director for government relations at the National Military Family Association.

Meanwhile, Hogan from Fort Riley says when she and her husband were starting a family eight years ago, the savings from shopping at commissaries helped kept her family off other government assistance programs and also out of debt. And now, she knows younger families on base who get federal subsidies for milk and cheese and even food stamps.

"It's hard for youner families to make ends meet," she said "The commissaries really save you a lot of money."