Retiree & Veteran Affairs News 8 May 2014 

5/8/2014 

 

WE’RE HEARING:

--that Congress’ return from a two-week recess spells the beginning of a busy hearing season.  Army leaders will testify on their portion of the fiscal 2015 defense budget before the Senate Defense Appropriations Subcommittee on Wednesday.  In addition to the Secretary of the Army and the Army Chief of Staff, leaders from the National Guard Bureau, Army Reserve and Army Guard Bureau are also testifying.

Controversy had bubbled in recent weeks about the Army’s plan to retire its fleet of Kiowa Warrior scout helicopters and replace them with the Guard’s Apaches.  In return, the Guard would receive several hundred Black Hawk and Lakota multi-use helicopters.  The Army also plans to reduce the size of the Army Guard to 335,000 soldiers from the current level of 352,000.  If budget caps remain in place for fiscal 2016 and beyond, the Army Guard would get as small as 315,000.

According to a CQ report, a growing number of lawmakers are quietly pushing back against National Guard leaders who oppose the Army’s cost-cutting proposals and who are storming the Hill to rally support.  Lawmakers are suggesting that the Guard must bear at least some of the burden of the Pentagon’s budget cuts.

The CQ report continued, “With its presence in every state and U.S. territory, the National Guard is a perennial lobbying powerhouse on Capitol Hill that has benefited from billions of dollars in congressional add-ons and new policies that give the force greater authority over its own affairs.

“But there is a growing sense on Capitol Hill that tasking Congress to shield the Army Guard from cuts even as the rest of the military makes painful decisions to adhere to mandated budgetary caps is simply too much.

“The Army is making budget-driven decisions and they made a strong, good-faith effort to inflict the cuts pretty equally across the active and guard components,” said a Senate aide who has been tracking the issue closely.”

In a recent hearing, the National Guard Bureau chief, Gen. Frank Grass told lawmakers that “As a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, we have fought, and we have discussed many, many times, these topics.  And I provided my best military advice.  I’ve assessed the risk.  I’ve given the cost.  But the decision’s been made,” he said. “And my job now is to begin to look at the effects across the states, and figure out how we’re going to execute this plan.”

It is still unclear if Congress will allow the Army’s plan to proceed.  However, this week’s markup of the defense authorization bill by the House Armed Services subcommittees should shed some light.

Also meeting this week is the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee who will examine an emerging problem of overmedicating veterans. 

A records request of VA data by CBS last September revealed that while the number of patients at the VA had risen by just 29 percent in the last 11 years, narcotics prescriptions written by VA doctors and nurse practitioners rose 259 percent.

Shortly thereafter, a report by the Center for Investigative Reporting found that the number of VA prescriptions for four major opiates – hydrocodone, oxycodone, morphine and methadone – had spiked by 270 percent in the past 12 years.

--that the Military Construction/Veterans’ Affairs spending bill will hit the House floor this week.  The measure provides $71.5 billion in discretionary funding – a cut of $1.8 billion below the fiscal year 2014 level.  The reduced funding is in line with the President’s budget request. 

The report accompanying the bill stated that while the Defense Department acknowledged the budget reduction in the military’s construction program assumed some risk, the Services chose to take the risk in order to protect readiness accounts.  The report stated that, “The Services also noted that many factors are currently under review, such as force structure and European basing, which may impact construction needs.  The Committee, while concerned by the reduction, acknowledges the merit of these issues.  The Committee also acknowledges that the success of the Housing Privatization Program has dramatically reduced the need for family housing construction.  Additionally, Congress has provided substantial funding in recent years through BRAC construction projects in excess of $24,000,000,000 and through funding initiatives for Guard and Reserve construction, barracks, hospitals and schools.”

--that a Government Accountability Office report obtained by USA Today outlines why an arsenal of ammunition valued at $1.2 billion, including missiles and bullets, is set to be destroyed by the Pentagon.  Because the Defense Department’s inventory systems cannot share data effectively, it's impossible to know what portion of the arsenal slated for destruction — valued at $1.2 billion by the Pentagon — remains viable for troops to use.

In response to the report, Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., and the chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee said, “There is a huge opportunity to save millions, if not billions of dollars if the (Pentagon) can make some common-sense improvements to how it manages ammunition.  Despite years of effort, the Army, Navy and Air Force still don't have an efficient process for doing something as basic as sharing excess bullets.  This Government Accountability Office report clearly shows that our military's antiquated systems lead to millions of dollars in wasteful ammunition purchases."

The Army and Pentagon, in a statement, acknowledged "the need to automate the process" and will make it a priority in future budgets. 

--that both chairmen of the House and Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committees vow to conduct a full investigation into reports that 40 veterans seeking care from the Phoenix VA Health Care System died while awaiting treatment and may have been placed on a secret waiting list.  Senate VA Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., said “I am troubled when I hear that any veteran may have received substandard service from VA.  We, as a nation, have a commitment to provide timely, quality health care to veterans, and I am determined to assist VA in meeting this responsibility.”

Sanders said he had urged the inspector general to expedite an investigation already underway in Phoenix and vowed to hold hearings after the IG’s investigation is complete. 

Sanders’ counterpart in the House, Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., said that “These are extremely disturbing allegations.  If proven true, these charges will only add to the growing pattern of preventable veteran deaths and patient safety incidents at VA medical centers across the country that are united by one common theme:  VA’s extreme reluctance to hold its employees and executives accountable.”

--that the Obama Administration announced the launch of a new integrated employment tool to connect veterans and service members with employers, and to help translate military skills into the civilian workforce.  The Veterans Employment Center is the first interagency tool to bring a wealth of public and private job opportunities, a resume-builder, military skills translator and detailed career and training resources together in one place.  It is an integrated solution providing veterans, transitioning service members, and military spouses with the tools they need to connect to employers.

The Veterans Employment Center will provide employers with access to a targeted pool of resumes from veterans and transitioning service members, allowing them to search resumes to identify veterans with skill sets applicable to civilian employment at their organization, and to track progress towards reaching their veteran hiring goals.  Resumes are visible to all employers with an active LinkedIn or Google profile.  To prevent spam, an applicant’s name and email address are redacted and only visible to employers verified by the VA as registered companies with the IRS.  The site is also built using open data and an open application programming interface to attract private-sector innovation.

The Veterans Employment Center can be found at: https://www.ebenefits.va.gov/ebenefits/jobs

--that May is National Military Appreciation Month.  Congress designated May as National Military Appreciation Month in 1999 to ensure the nation was given the opportunity to publically demonstrate their appreciation for the sacrifices and successes made by our servicemembers - past and present.  AUSA salutes all servicemembers all of the time for all they have done for our country.

--that the Defense Department awarded Express Scripts a seven-year contract to administer the TRICARE Pharmacy Program (4th Generation) covering 10 million beneficiaries.  Express Scripts has been providing home delivery to the DoD since 2003 and retail pharmacy services since 2004.  Defense added specialty pharmacy in 2009.  The company will now provide pharmacy services to all the military worldwide including Military Treatment Facilities. 

The contract will take effect May 1, 2015.

WE’RE HEARING:

--that key members of Congress have expressed their reluctance to make any sweeping changes to military pay and compensation until the Military Compensation and Retirement Modernization Commission completes its work in February 2015.  House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon, R-Calif., told reporters last week that while military benefits are overdue for reform, his preference would be to wait until the Commission completes its work before making any significant policy changes.

“I think it needs to be a big approach; we need to look at the whole package,” McKeon said. “It’s much better to do it all at one time than to be hitting [troops] a little bit every year. After a while, it really hurts morale.”

Rep. Susan Davis, D-Calif., the top Democrat on the Armed Service’s Personnel Subcommittee agreed with the chairman.  Davis said in a recent hearing, “Our nation, as we know, is facing difficult economic times. With the threat of sequestration in F.Y. '16 and beyond, the department will be faced with making very difficult decisions.

“And if we do not make any changes to personnel costs, it will mean that there will be less sources for those who do remain in uniform to train and be prepared to win our nation's wars.

“That said, I also think that we need to take into account the work of the Military Compensation and Retirement Modernization Commission to ensure that we understand the cumulative effects of all of these changes and the potential impact to the recruitment and the retention of the all-volunteer force.” 

In written testimony for that same hearing, AUSA’s President Gen. Gordon R. Sullivan, USA, Ret., reiterated his firm belief that any changes to the military retirement system should be withheld pending the report of the Commission and not be made piecemeal.  Sullivan said that “any changes must apply only to those who volunteer after the changes are implemented.  Grandfathering of the currently serving force and current retirees is imperative.  Finally, any change must recognize the unique and extraordinary demands and sacrifices that military service requires.  The profession of arms is not equivalent to a civilian job.” 

--that the picture on the proposals contained in the FY15 Defense budget request will be clearer when the House Armed Services Committee starts the markup the 2015 defense authorization bill (H.R. 4435).  The markup is scheduled to start on April 30 and should be wrapped up by the full committee on May 7. 

--that the House Appropriations Committee has approved the FY15 Military Construction and Veterans Affairs Appropriations bill.  The measure contains funding to train and equip troops, provide housing and services to military personnel and their families, maintains base infrastructure, and funds veterans’ benefits and programs.  The legislation provides $71.5 billion in discretionary funding – a cut of $1.8 billion below the fiscal year 2014 level.  A statement released by the committee said, “This reduction will not negatively affect projects or services on which troops and veterans rely.  Instead, the bill provides less funding than the previous year for military construction, largely due to a lack of new need for such projects, while increasing funding for veterans programs by $1.5 billion.” 

The Veterans’ Affairs portion of the bill totals $158.2 billion, of which $64.7 billion would be discretionary funds. 

Members of both parties said the measure would help VA’s efforts to reduce its backlog of pending claims.  The bill also would include $173 million for the Veterans Benefits Management System, the department’s paperless claims system, and would continue existing claims processing reporting requirements.  The bill will now head to the House floor for consideration. 

Markup of the Senate’s version of the bill is expected around May 22. 

--that the Pentagon has released a detailed description of the impact budget caps could have on military capability.  The report, "Estimated Impacts of Sequestration Level Funding, states that, “The automatic reductions required by the budget agreement would impose significant cuts to Department resources that would significantly increase risks both in the short- and long-term. These cuts would be in addition to several reductions in planned funding that the Department has already absorbed. Over the past several years, planned DoD spending has already been reduced by taking actions that totaled almost $600 billion.  

The report says that “with the addition of projected sequestration-level cuts for FY 2016 through 2021, reductions to planned defense spending for the ten-year period from FY 2012 to 2021 will exceed $1 trillion.  If sequestration-level cuts persist, our forces will assume substantial additional risks in certain missions and will continue to face significant readiness and modernization challenges. These impacts would leave our military unbalanced and eventually too small to meet the needs of our strategy fully.” 

Follow this link to read the full report.   

--that TRICARE is now re-enrolling some in their Prime program.  The FY2014 National Defense Authorization Act provided beneficiaries dis-enrolled from TRICARE Prime due to the Prime Service Area (PSA) changes, a "one-time" election to continue in TRICARE Prime under certain conditions. 

To be eligible to make this one-time election to reenroll in TRICARE Prime, dis-enrolled beneficiaries must reside: (1) in a ZIP code that was a PSA as of Sept. 30, 2013, and (2) within 100 miles of a military medical treatment facility. 

At the end of the month, letters will be mailed to approximately 76,000 TRICARE beneficiaries advising them of their "one-time" enrollment option and the re-enrollment process.  Beneficiaries will have until June 30, 2014, to make their election.  Beneficiaries who choose not to re-enroll will not need to take any action.   

--that the House voted 219-205 on a budget plan Republicans say will balance federal spending with revenue within 10 years and would put the U.S. on a path to prosperity. The budget leans heavily towards national security over other federal spending.  Domestic programs would be reduced by $791 billion from fiscal 2016 to 2024, while defense spending would be $483 billion more than envisioned under current law.  The bill has absolutely no chance of becoming law.  The Democratic-led Senate doesn’t plan to consider a budget blueprint. 

--that Senate Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., is no fan of the DoD proposal to slash commissary funding.  At a recent hearing, Mikulski said, I don’t think we ought to cut the commissary budget. ... I think if we want to look at the stress military families are facing, we need to look at their activities of daily living and look at this holistically. ... [The commissary] is one of the most important tools you have for the health and well-being of the military and the garrisons in this country.”  Mikulski said at a time when thousands of junior troops and families use food stamps, it’s inappropriate to increase their grocery budget. 

“There’s the stress of being on the battlefield and there’s the stress of being a soldier.  We wonder why they smoke, why they overeat the wrong foods, why aren’t they eating kale and quinoa?  Why aren’t they at Whole Foods and watching Dr. Oz and being healthy?  They are just trying to get food,” Mikulski said. 

The DoD proposal calls for funding stores in remote areas and overseas out of the $400 million, while other commissaries would operate more like base exchanges, which receive no taxpayer subsidies. 

Happy Birthday Army Reserve

Today, the Army Reserve celebrates its 106th birthday. Generations of Reserve soldiers have followed in the footsteps of servicemembers before them who embraced the nation's call to duty by volunteering to serve as Citizen-Soldiers. Read More

 New Documentary - "D-Day: Normandy 1944"

There is a new documentary coming out on the Normandy campaign in 1944, in IMAX and 3-D, titled "D-Day: Normandy 1944." Col. (Ret) Pete Herrly, AUSA's European Affairs Director, was the historical advisor for the movie. Check out the trailer by clicking here!

 Better Nutrition Efforts Fill the Army's Plate

On the cover of ARMY Magazine: the Army is using education programs, revamped menus, more healthy preparation and presentation in its quest to help soldiers eat better, perform better, feel better and stay healthy longer. Read More

Defense Bill Strengthens Sexual Assault Provisions
This week, the House Armed Services Personnel Subcommittee marked up their section of the FY 2015 defense bill by renewing their support to strengthen sexual assault reporting and prosecution among the services. Included in the bill are provisions that would improve DOD’s Sexual Assault and Response Program while actively monitoring their implementation of reforms already in place. Other provisions include requiring the Pentagon inspector general to review all discharges of members who had reported sexual assault and directing DOD to provide a detailed report to Congress on implementation of all provisions enacted into law since 2012. Subcommittee members did not discuss any changes to TRICARE benefits or the 1.8 percent pay raise for military personnel. For more on the mark-up, including Subcommittee Chairman Joe Wilson’s (R-SC) press release, click here.

VA Funding Clears House
On Wednesday, the House passed (416-1) their FY 2015 VA and Military Construction Appropriations bill. The bill provides $159 billion for all VA accounts. $94 billion would go to fund compensation and pension payments and other mandatory accounts, while $65 billion would fund discretionary accounts like medical care, veterans benefits and construction. The bill falls short of meeting the Independent Budget discretionary accounts request by nearly $4 billion. The most glaring shortfalls are the lack of funding for construction accounts and medical facilities. Both accounts support VA’s infrastructure, which is critical to providing and delivering services to veterans. The Senate is expected to take the bill up sometime before Memorial Day. Read the House Appropriations Committee press release. For our VA funding recommendations, visit the Independent Budget website.

Senate VA Committee Discusses Medication Alternatives
The Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee held an oversight hearing on VA chronic pain management. The major concern was the overuse of addictive and potentially dangerous opioid pain medications and the effectiveness of alternative therapies that can be used to manage pain. The Committee acknowledged that opioid medication overuse is a national problem; however, the veterans’ community is particularly affected since veterans are far more likely to experience chronic pain than civilians. VA testified that they are taking steps to improve pain management safety and effectiveness with a national directive requiring all VAMCs to closely monitor opioid prescriptions and educate veterans and providers on the risk-benefit ratios of these powerful medications. VA has also created several Centers of Innovation at various VAMCs to pilot and examine the effects of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) for pain management, including yoga, meditation, massage, chiropractic care and acupuncture, which are receiving positive feedback. Read the full testimony transcript.

The VFW Joins Monster.com Veterans Jobs Summit
The VFW joined Monster.com and Military.com this week for a summit to discuss the national employment situation for veterans. Monster brought together leaders in business, government and veterans’ service to discuss ways in which the nation can better prepare transitioning service members for post-military employment and share promising practices. The summit also featured a stirring keynote address from Medal of Honor recipient Sal Giunta. For highlights from the summit, click here.

The VFW Joins PBS Screening of "Coming Home"
The VFW joined PBS at the U.S. Capitol this week for a special screening of the new documentary "Coming Home with Wes Moore." The three-part documentary chronicles the experiences of Post-9/11-era veterans coming back home and takes a candid look at the struggles and triumphs associated with military service and reintegration. For highlights from the screening and to learn more about "Coming Home," click here.

Eight WWII Vets to Receive POW Medal
Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark A. Welsh presented the POW Medal to eight WWII U.S. Army Air Forces (USAAF) personnel in a Pentagon ceremony on Wednesday. Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James authorized the award to 143 USAAF airmen who were interned in the Wauwilermoos, Switzerland, prison camp during World War II. See the names of those receiving the award.

**Thanks to everyone who continues to send in advocates to join our VFW Action Corps team. We need to continue the push! Please include advocacy in any and all discussions at your upcoming Department Conventions.**

Express Scripts (ESI) is Awarded the New TRICARE Pharmacy Contract

Express Scripts, TRICARE’s present retail and home delivery pharmacy contract was awarded the new consolidated TRICARE Pharmacy contract. The bidding took a very long 2 years to reach an award for the new 7-year contract. The new contract combines the 2 present contracts into 1 pharmacy contract and will also include provide specialty pharmacy services as well as a new responsibility to provide drugs for the MTF’s as well as some staffing of the MTF Pharmacies. This new contract is expected to go into effect on May 1st 2015 (unless there is a contract protest delay.)  Express Scripts started administrating the retail pharmacy network as far back as 2003. So there should not see any disruption in your services.

Outrage at Secret Wait Lists for VA Hospitals

News reports broke this week that “at least 40 U.S. veterans died waiting for appointments at the Phoenix Veterans Affairs Health Care system.”  Many of them were placed on a secret wait list that hid the actual time it took to get an appointment.

The secret list was apparently designed by Department of Veterans Affairs managers at the VA hospital in Phoenix who were trying to hide that 1,400 to 1,600 sick veterans were forced to wait months to see a doctor.  CNN’s Anderson Cooper interviewed a recently retired top VA doctor and several other high-level sources on his April 21st show.

Internal e-mails obtained by CNN show that top management at the VA hospital in Arizona knew about the practice and even defended it.

During the interview with Anderson Cooper the recently retired doctor, Sam Foote, said that the Phoenix VA works off two lists for patient appointments.  There is an "official" list that's shared with officials in Washington and shows the VA has been providing timely appointments, which Foote calls a sham list. And then there's the real list that's hidden from outsiders, where wait times can last more than a year.

"The scheme was deliberately put in place to avoid the VA's own internal rules,” which require VA hospitals to provide care to patients in a timely manner, typically within 14 to 30 days, Foote said.

Officials in Phoenix shredded evidence to hide the long list of veterans waiting for appointments and care.  They then instructed their staff to not actually make doctor's appointments for veterans within the computer system. As information is entered into a computer, staff does a screen grab and prints out the page.  No record of the appointment is saved in VA’s official records.  The information is gathered into the secret list, and then any paperwork is destroyed, eliminating any trace that a veteran was seeking an appointment. Veterans don’t come off of the secret list at VA Phoenix until there is an appointment time that is less than 14 days away, which gives the appearance of improving the waiting times.

CNN has e-mails from July 2013 showing that top management, including Phoenix VA Director Sharon Helman, knew about the actual wait times and knew about the electronic off-the-books list. Helman even defended its use to her staff.

Further, Military.com is reporting that the use of these secret lists was uncovered two years ago by a former administrator at the Manchester VA in New Hampshire.  The whistleblower told Congress in April 2012 that this scheme was going on at hospitals across the country, and that “meeting a performance target, rather than meeting the needs of the veteran, becomes the overriding priority in providing care.”
Needless to say, TREA will keep on top of this developing situation and report back after investigations are done by both the House and the Senate in the coming weeks.  It is an absolute shame that it took this long to come to light, but even worse is the fact that veterans across the country can be on these secret wait lists at this very moment, needing healthcare but unable to access care that they have earned with their service to our nation.  

New TRICARE Nurse Advise Line is Up and Running

On Friday April 25th TRICARE’s new Nurse Advice Line (NAL) started service throughout the continental United States, Alaska and Hawaii. In March they began what they called a soft launch in 6 sites to make sure the system worked. (The 6sites were Military Treatment Facilities at NH Oak Harbor, NH Pensacola, GLWACH, Fox AHC, Seymour Johnson AFB and Whiteman AFB. In 21 days they received 628. 137 were general health care questions while 501 calls were about an injury or illness. 60% of the call were about adults and 40% were for children.  95% of the callers said that were planning to go to an emergency call or urgent care before the call. After the call:

  • 29% of the callers were advised by the nurse to go to an emergency room or urgent care
  • 20% were given appointments at MTFs and
  • 51% decided they did not need to go to an emergency room urgent care or have a appointment made for them.

The NAL is 24/7 and toll free. If you are sick, hurt or just have a question all TRICARE beneficiaries can immediately speak to a trained medical professional by calling
1-800-TRICARE (874-2273)
For more information please go to:
www.tricare.mil/CoveredServices/BenefitUpdates/Archives/04_25_14_


Nominate a Family for the 2014 AUSA Volunteer Family of the Year Award

The 2014 AUSA Volunteer Family of the Year Award nomination period is now open! This award recognizes an exceptional Army family whose dedicated volunteer service has contributed to improving well-being for both the Army and the local community. The award is open to all active duty, National Guard, Reserve, retiree, Army civilian and surviving families. Nominations must be submitted through local AUSA chapters. Award winners will receive a trip to Washington, DC for the 2014 Annual Meeting in October. This year we are also excited to partner with American Freedom Foundation and Kaplan University, who will award an as yet to be determined number of partial and full scholarships to selected spouses of nominated families. All spouses of nominated families are eligible to compete for these scholarships. Click here for more information, eligibility requirements, and Award FAQs. VA, DoD Team Up to Improve eBenefits by

Migrating National Resource Directory

The Department of Veterans Affairs, in collaboration with the Departments of Defense and Labor, will be integrating the National Resource Directory (NRD) into eBenefits to improve access to health care, benefits information and more. Veterans will be able to find enhanced self-service capabilities and resources from one site, improving access to information and assistance. The NRD offers more than 15,000 resources that have met quality assurance criteria to ensure that every program and organization listed is acting in good faith and making a positive difference for wounded warriors, Service members, Veterans, their families members and caregivers.

While some functionality will change, the majority of existing capabilities will still be available after the integration allowing the NRD to continue to address the needs of wounded warriors, Service members, Veterans, their family members and caregivers by providing direct access to resources. Integrating the NRD into eBenefits is just one step the Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA) is taking to improve access to health care and benefits for wounded warriors, Service members, Veterans, their family members and caregivers. eBenefits users can also now seamlessly access MyPay with single sign on and order prescription refill, secure messaging with physician and view medical appointments through the MyHealtheVet Blue Button. For more information, go to https://www.ebenefits.va.gov or call VA’s toll-free number at 1-877-222-VETS (8387) or email the NRD at infonrd.osd@mail.mil.

 Women's History Month

Take a look at the special report put together in tribute to the incredible women of our Armed Services of yesterday and today. Read through the President’s and Defense Department’s proclamations, profiles of currently serving high-ranking officers and inspiring service members of years past, a detailed timeline of service starting in 1775, and much, much more. Browse through scholarship and grant information, commentary and editorial, and current events and celebrations here.

Army Wounded Warrior program celebrates 10 years

After Staff Sgt. Jeffery Redman was wounded in Iraq, his doctors said he would never walk again.

It was 2006, and Redman had suffered severe damage to both legs, a traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress.

He was devastated.

“From an early age, all I wanted to do was join the military,” Redman said. “My goal was to be in the military and retire in 20 years, like my uncle. He was my inspiration.”

Redman struggled with his prognosis, battling his physical wounds and the anger he held inside.

But with help from his Army Wounded Warrior advocate, a fellow veteran who understood what he was going through, Redman fought back and is now assigned to the 101st Airborne Division at Fort Campbell, Ky.

“As long as I feel like I can remain on active duty, I am going to,” he said. “It’s my dream.”

Redman also credits his AW2 advocate with helping him see his potential as a mentor to other wounded soldiers.

“When I was injured, between Baghdad and Germany, I died nine times on the table,” Redman said. “Mentoring others is the only way I can give back.”

Redman is one of the many success stories of the AW2 program, which marked its 10th anniversary April 22.

In the last 10 years, AW2 has supported more than 19,600 of the Army’s most severely wounded, ill and injured soldiers and their families.

More than 17,650 of those soldiers have retired from the Army, while 1,730 remain on active duty either recovering in hospitals or Warrior Transtiion Units, or in regular units across the force.

Of the 1,730, almost 200 are on active duty after fighting to stay in uniform after they initially were found unfit for duty.

“What makes AW2 unique is that we support the most severely wounded, and our support is completely personalized,” said Col. Johnny Davis, director of the AW2 program.

Each soldier is assigned an AW2 advocate, and that person works with each soldier and family to navigate the medical system and resolve whatever challenges they face, he said.

There are more than 200 AW2 advocates across the country and Europe.

As the Army transitions from more than 13 years of war, it will continue to evaluate and adjust the care and services it provides to its wounded warriors, said Thomas Webb, deputy to the commander of the Warrior Transition Command.

In January, the Army announced it would inactivate five Warrior Transition Units across the country.

“We continue to look at ourselves, we continue to look at our capabilities, at our population and the needs of our Army,” Webb said. “I think in the future you will see us adapt to meet the needs of the Army.”

The demand for these services is declining, but the mission to care for wounded troops doesn’t end when the war does, Davis said.

“This is enduring,” he said. “It’s doing the right things for our soldiers, and we’ll continue to provide support to all our AW2 members, even after they transition.”

Staff Sgt. Julio Larrea, who lost his left leg below the knee in Afghanistan, is a product of the AW2 program and is now a member of the cadre at the Warrior Transition Brigade at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.

“I like serving as WTB cadre because it’s a chance to serve,” he said. “I wasn’t done, and by doing what I’m doing, it’s giving me a chance to prove that I’m not done.”

The VFW Calls Phoenix VA System a Failure

After reports that at least 40 veterans have died while awaiting care in the Phoenix VA Healthcare System, VFW National Commander Bill Thien said there is zero trust in leadership's ability to lead, much less to properly care for America's heroes. Phoenix allegedly kept two sets of waiting lists, only one of which is official and used to report average patient appointment waiting times to Washington. The VA requires its medical facilities to provide care to patients typically within 14 to 30 days, depending on the availability and specialty required. According to CNN's report, the alleged secret waiting list tracks real appointment waiting times, which span far beyond 14 to 30 days; precious time seriously ill patients cannot afford. "If the allegations of veterans dying as a result of this internal process are true, then the individuals responsible should be prosecuted criminally to the fullest extent of the law," said Thien. "The Secretary of Veterans Affairs needs to fire them all, then let the lawyers sort it out." Read more.

DOD Releases 2012 Suicide Event Report

Today, the Department of Defense (DOD) released its latest summary of fatal and nonfatal suicide events that occurred in 2012. The data shows that 319 service members who were on active duty, including reserve and Guard members on active duty orders, committed suicide in 2012, and that 203 members of the Guard and reserve who were not on active duty orders also committed suicide over the same time period. The report also indicated that those at greatest risk for suicide are males, age 17-24, who are married and at the pay grade of E1 to E4. In the report, you can find factors that appear to be associated with suicide, like legal and financial issues and failed relationships. The statistic that may surprise readers the most is that only 13.5 percent of service members who committed suicide had a military combat history. DOD also noted it is changing the way they report suicide by standardizing practices across the services which previously had responsibility for summarizing and releasing their own statistics. The new procedure will help align suicide rates consistent with those used by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, allowing for better comparisons across the services and against a U.S. population adjusted for demographics similar to those of the military. Learn more about the report. Learn more on identifying suicidal behaviors.

If you or someone you know is at risk for suicide, please reach out to military and veteran crisis line at 1 (800) 273-8255 and press 1. If you feel like you just need someone to talk to, reach out to
vets4warriors. These resources are available to active duty military, veterans and their family members.

Delays Continue to Plaque Colorado VAMC

This week, the House VA Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigation held a hearing in Denver to discuss ongoing construction delays at the Aurora VA Medical Center. VFW Department of Colorado Commander Kirk Rosa offered his views on the now 10-year-old project. Commander Rosa acknowledged that although VA has taken steps to improve its construction process, like establishing a Construction Review Council to oversee performance, planning and budgeting, more must be done. VA needs to standardize recommendations made by both the Construction Review Council and Government Accounting Office. Subcommittee Chairman, Mike Coffman (R-CO) introduced H.R. 3593, the VA Construction Assistance Act of 2013, which will codify those recommendations. The VFW supports the legislation and believes that it will save time and critical funds needed to efficiently and effectively build and complete major construction projects.
To view Commander Rosa's testimony and the recorded webcast of the hearing, visit the
House VA website.

White House Announces New Employment Center

To mark the anniversary of the Administration's Joining Forces Initiative, First Lady Michelle Obama and Dr. Jill Biden announced the launch of an integrated employment tool to connect veterans and service members with employers and help provide a source for translating military skills into the civilian workforce. The Veterans Employment Center, which is housed on VA's eBenefits website, is the result of an interagency effort to improve, simplify and consolidate the current array of employment resources for veterans and their spouses. Agencies, including VA, the Departments of Defense, Labor, Education, and the Office of Personnel Management, worked with employers to design and develop the site and incorporate features of existing online employment tools within government. The new site will offer resources like public and private job opportunities, a resume-builder, military skills translator, and details on career and training tools together in one place. At the rollout ceremonies this week, VA Secretary Eric Shinseki applauded the new center saying, "The online Veterans Employment Center is the single, federal source for veterans looking for new career opportunities, service members transitioning to the civilian workforce, and spouses and beneficiaries looking to connect with job opportunities."
Watch a tutorial video on how to use the Veterans Employment Center. For more about the Veterans Employment Center, visit the VA's eBenefits site.

SVA Reaches One Thousand Campuses

On Wednesday, Student Veterans of America (SVA) announced that they now have over one-thousand chapters on campuses across the United States. "We're thrilled to be reaching our goal of establishing over 1,000 chapters two years ahead of anticipation. We feel this is a testament to the tide of veterans who are seeking higher education and see the power and value of being involved with an SVA chapter," said SVA's President and CEO, D. Wayne Robinson. Since 2008, the VFW has partnered with SVA on several initiatives designed to ensure student-veterans are provided the necessary support needed to access their education benefits and succeed in their chosen field of study. For more about SVA or to find a chapter near you, click here.

Air Force Update

The VFW was at the National Press Club this week to hear Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh describe how reduced budgets and the looming threat of sequestration is impacting his service. The service's FY 2015 budget is $20 billion, or one-fifth less than what was programmed just two years ago, which is forcing the service to make very tough decisionslike eliminating the entire A-10 fleetin order to maintain its other requirements that only the Air Force can deliver to combatant commanders, such as global airlift, refueling and strike capabilities, air superiority, and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance. Watch his presentation.

New Proposal Regarding Commissaries is Offered by AAFES

We have been reporting about the Pentagon’s proposal to slash the financial support it gives to the commissary system starting in the next fiscal year. If DoD gets its way, commissary shoppers who now average about 30% savings in their grocery shopping would see that drop dramatically to only about 10% savings over commercial grocery stores. It’s our opinion that a budget cut that is so dramatic would cause in a major decline in the use of the commissaries and eventually result in the closing of the commissary system.

However, in recent days the Army Air Force Exchange Service – AAFES to many of us, and now called just “The Exchange,” – has come up with a new proposal to consolidate the commissary and the exchange systems. According to reports, the consolidation would result in the same amount of savings that is sought by DoD but it would be achieved through efficiencies, not by raising prices.

TREA contacted the American Logistics Association to get their reaction to the proposal. The American Logistics Association (ALA) is a 90 year old trade association representing some of the largest consumer package companies and other companies that support improved quality of life for our military and their families through strong resale (commissary and exchange) and morale, welfare and recreation programs (MWR) for the Departments of Defense, Veterans Affairs and Homeland Security. This support includes scholarships for military children, support for the Fisher House Program, the USO and key beneficiary groups.

ALA sent us their formal response to the consolidation proposal:
We support cooperation and shared services among the resale agencies where it makes good business sense and does not work to the detriment of the patrons. We support the existing funding levels for commissaries, levels that already have been reduced some $600 million to $700 million a year and we can work with DeCA [Defense Commissary Agency] to achieve the reductions that were taken in the Omnibus appropriations bill for fiscal year 2014. We’ll continue to work with all of the resale agencies to gain efficiencies as we have done for years. Further, we are working with the Military Compensation and Retirement Modernization Commission to achieve a balanced and fair package of pay and benefits for our military folks that includes a strong resale program.

 

The discussions of a merger, consolidation or other business model have not coalesced into a formal position by the Department. The Department’s formal and stated position is reducing the commissary appropriations. We do not support any further reductions and urge DoD to fully analyze the impact of any reductions to the wide range of issues that were cited in our report on the costs and benefits of the resale system that was issued in December of 2012. We support current legislative initiatives introduced in both the House and Senate to preclude any reductions in FY 15 and allow Congress to review the Commission results before any disproportionate and benefit-damaging reductions are taken to commissaries.

TREA is very active on this issue, as well as all of the issues involving the cuts that have been proposed or discussed regarding the pay and benefits for military personnel – active duty, retirees, veterans and families and survivors. We will monitor this proposal and any others involving the commissaries and keep you informed as things develop.

Senate Veterans Bill Still Alive – But Your Help is Needed to Make it Pass

This week TREA and other veteran’s organizations visited some Senate offices to discuss the Senate Veterans Omnibus Bill, S.1982. The bill failed to pass on the floor of the Senate in March, but Senate Veterans Affairs Chairman Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) wants to bring the bill or one very similar to it to the floor for another vote before Memorial Day.

The purpose of our visits was to try and find out what changes, if any, could be made to the bill that would make it acceptable to some Senators who voted against it in March. What we discovered was what we were afraid of: the veteran’s bill has become hostage to election year politics.
Now some might say, “You’re shocked that legislation has become hostage to politics in Washington, D.C., especially given the fact of how partisan things have become there?”

Well, of course we know that politics dominates almost everything in this town. But traditionally, veteran’s legislation was among the most non-partisan, or bi-partisan that could be found in Washington. Now, that has changed, and veterans have been caught in the cross-fire between Republicans and Democrats. That is a shame.
The only way to overcome this is to make your voice heard loud and clear to your Senators. We urge you to call your Senators offices and tell them you want the Senate to pass a strong veterans bill this year, either S. 1982 or something similar to it.

Here are a few of the provisions currently contained in omnibus veterans bill.
S. 1982 failed to progress on a procedural vote last month. That means it is still alive and has been sent back to the Veterans’ Affairs committee awaiting another attempt to get it passed.

The bill is gigantic, with a price tag of roughly $13 billion dollars, but few people know exactly what is in it. Here is a partial list of items that are contained in S. 1982:
It would require states to charge the in-state tuition rate for all student veterans who enroll at a public college within three years of separating from active duty. The bill would enable non-resident veterans to get a nearly cost-free education at any public college under the Post 9/11 GI Bill.

Permit surviving spouses who receive dependency and indemnity payments (DIC) from the VA to retain the pay if they remarry at age 55.

Increase DIC for survivors with children for each month over a three-year period from the date of entitlement — currently, the increase is limited to a two-year period.

Require the VA to provide medical exams, counseling and treatment for veterans who file for disability based on military sexual trauma.
Authorize Gunnery Sergeant John D. Fry Scholarships to the surviving spouses of the Afghanistan and Iraq conflicts (their children are eligible for the Scholarship).

Establish that career reservists with no service under Title X active duty orders may be honored as veterans.

Expand complementary and alternative therapies, prosthetics and chiropractic care at VA medical facilities.

Extend the date of eligibility from 1 Jan. 1957 to 1 Aug. 1953 for health care for veterans and their dependents who were exposed to contaminated water at Camp Lejeune.

Require states to consider military training for the purpose of issuing state licenses and credentials to veterans.
Require federal agencies (other than the VA and DoD) to plan to hire 15,000 veterans under existing law during a 5 year period after passage of the legislation.

Require quarterly reports on the backlog of veterans’ claims.

S. 1982 includes a provision that would have repealed the 1 percentage point COLA cut on working age military retirees’ pensions. The COLA cut has been repealed for all of the currently serving and retired, but not for those who joined the military as of January 1 of this year.

S. 1982 also would extend special services and support under the Caregivers Act to severely disabled veterans of all wartime periods. Currently caregiver services and support are available only to severely disabled veterans of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. The current version of the bill would also expand enrollment in VA health care to certain uninsured veterans, as well as authorize additional VA leases for health clinics in 18 states. The bill would be paid for in large part by a future cap on Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) funding.

The Shortest Article We Have Ever Written

The VA finally said officially what the DIC monthly payment is: $1233.23 a month.(They still have not gotten it posed on the website) It is good to know that it is official.

SGM of Marine Corps Says Benefits Cuts Are Good Thing

The Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps was testifying to the Senate Armed Services Committee on April 9th when he was asked about the proposal to cap pay raises, cut the commissary benefit and to lower the Basic Allowance for Housing (BAH) benefit.

He told Senate Armed Services Personnel Subcommittee Chairwoman Kirsten Gilibrand (D-NY) that “Marines don’t run around” with “compensation benefits” on their minds. They want to know into whose neck that we put a boot next. They want to know about what new equipment are we getting and the other thing they always ask about is they want to know about training.”

He went on to talk about a Marine Corps “bias for action” and “keeping us out there forward-deployed… promotion and retention and money [do come up, but they are in the top] four, five, six or seven,” things that Marines talk about, not the top three.

Then he went on to say that the military must “get a hold of slowing the growth,” it has to “pay a little bit more attention to the health care that we so generously have received,” which he called “wonderful.” “In my 33 years, I have never seen this level of quality of life, ever. We have never had it so good.”

“If we don’t stop, step back and take a look at 1 percent pay, that makes sense, because our quality of life is good. . . . I truly believe it will raise discipline and it will raise it because you’ll have better spending habits. You won’t be so wasteful.”

Needless to say, TREA: The Enlisted Association could not disagree with these comments more. It is Sergeant Major Barrett’s responsibility to look out for the welfare of the men and women under his command. Suggesting that forcing them to pay higher prices at the commissary, get lower reimbursements for their BAH and capping their pay when costs are rising for many of the goods and services that we rely on in this 21st century economy is anything but unacceptable is not what we would expect from the Senior Enlisted Advisor to the Commandant of the Marine Corps.

Sergeant Major Barrett refused to back off of his comments last week in the Marine Corps Times, saying: “Recent reporting of my testimony may have left you with the mistaken impression that I don’t care about your quality of life and that I support lower pay for service members. This is not true.”
“Nobody wants less . . . but if we don’t slow the growth of our hard-earned, generous compensation/benefits entitlements that we have enjoyed over the past decade, we won’t have sufficient dollars for what we need — investment in our war fighting capabilities and our wonderful Marine and family care programs.”

It seems that many of the proposals in this year’s budget submission won’t get through the House or the Senate. Congress appears ready to wait until the recommendations from the Military Compensation and Retirement Modernization Commission that are due in February of 2015.

The VFW Counters ‘Crazy Vet’ Editorial

VFW National Commander Bill Thien is asking all members and advocates to flood the New York Times with good news stories to counter an opinion editorial published this week that uses accused triple murderer Frazier Glenn Miller as the focus of a piece, entitled "Veterans and White Supremacy." “The First Amendment protects the free speech and expression rights of this young author and the rights of the New York Times to publish it, but it also protects my right to disagree with the message,” said Thien. “The ‘crazy Vietnam veteran’ label isn’t talked about much these days, yet despite 40 years of moving on with our lives and successfully reintegrating into our communities, we all know the potential is just another headline away,” he wrote in a letter to membership. “The shooting on Sunday in Overland Park, Kan., was as senseless as it is tragic, but we cannot allow political pundits, the media or our academicians to use the failings of one to once again paint all of us as damaged goods,” he said. “That is why I am asking that you send your personal comments directly to the New York Times, but in a positive manner, such as ‘I am a proud Vietnam veteran who came home from war, went to work, raised a family, and continues to help give back to my community and country. I am not damaged goods.’ Let them hear our voices by writing today to letters@nytimes.com.”

The VFW Discusses Issues with Recovering Warrior Task Force

This week, the VFW was given the opportunity to present our views on issues being discussed as part of DOD’s Recovering Warrior Task Force (RWTF). The RWTF was mandated as a part of the FY 2010 National Defense bill and is tasked with providing DOD with recommendations on policies relating to wounded warrior organizations and the care provided them as they transition back to civilian life. The VFW’s testimony centered on the issue of improperly diagnosing service members with psychiatric disorders during discharge. Recent DOD data (2001-2010) shows that more than 32,000 service members were diagnosed with a Personality Disorder or an Adjustment Disorder at the time of their discharge. DOD’s own directives call on the military branches to send the service member through the disability evaluation process. The VFW is concerned that those improperly discharged who may suffer from PTSD or other mental health disorders will not have access to the services they need. For complete information on the RWTF and our testimony, click here.

Medal of Honor to Go to OEF Soldier

The President will award the Medal of Honor to former Army Sgt. Kyle J. White on May 13 for conspicuous gallantry while serving in Afghanistan on Nov. 9, 2007. Then-Specialist White was a platoon radio telephone operator assigned to C Company, 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment, 173rd Airborne Brigade. He will become the seventh living recipient to be awarded the Medal of Honor for actions in Iraq or Afghanistan. White separated from the Army in July 2011 and now lives in Charlotte, N.C., where he works as an investment analyst. Read more.

Tricare Prime Update

Later this month, many military retirees and family members who lost access to TRICARE Prime when Prime Service Areas changed last October will be eligible to re-enroll in Prime. On April 28th, TRICARE will begin sending out letters to all affected beneficiaries who live within 100 miles of a Military Treatment Facility (MTF) with instructions on how to get back into Prime. Retirees will have until the end of June to decide whether to make the switch, and those who wish to remain on Standard will not have to take any action. This re-enrollment window was made possible by a VFW-supported provision in the 2014 NDAA.  Approximately 76,000 beneficiaries will receive the letters explaining their new benefit options. Learn more.

Field Report: Alaska Discusses Veterans’ Issues with Senator Begich

This week, VFW leaders in Alaska attended a Town Hall meeting with Senator Mark Begich. Begich, a member of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee spoke at length about S. 1982, comprehensive legislation that will provide critical benefits and services to veterans and their families. He also addressed his support for ending Sequestration and the harm it continues to pose for DOD and VA programs. Read more about the Town Hall in Kenai, Alaska.

Veterans Legislation Needs Your Help

As we enter into the second week of congressional recess, we ask all of you to continue to advocate for S.1982, the Comprehensive Veterans Health and Benefits and Military Retirement Pay Restoration Act of 2014. This legislation addresses many of the VFW’s Legislative Priority Goals and will expand healthcare and other critical services to all generations of veterans, but it needs your help. Congress returns to Washington on Monday, April 28, so continue to visit, call and email your Senators and urge them to support and pass S. 1982 when they return to D.C. Take action.

Two WWII MIAs Recovered

The Defense POW/MIA Office announced the identification of remains belonging to two Americans who had been missing and unaccounted-for since World War II. Identified are:

  • Army Pfc. William T. Carneal, 24, of Paducah, Ky., who will be buried April 25 in his hometown. In mid-June 1944, the 27th Infantry Division landed on Saipan as part of the Allied strategic goal of securing the Marina Islands. Carneal was reported killed in action on July 7, 1944.

U.S. Army Air Forces 2nd Lt. Verne L. Gibb, 22, of Topeka, Kan., will be buried April 23 in Leavenworth, Kan. On Oct. 23, 1945, Gibb was piloting a C-47B Skytrain on a routine cargo mission from Burma to India. The aircraft, along with three other crew and two passengers, was never seen again

House Panel Hears from Veterans Groups Opposed to Benefit Cuts

Last Wednesday the Personnel Subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee held a hearing regarding the Pentagon’s proposed cuts in military pay and benefits. The only two witnesses who were heard from were representatives of The Military Coalition (TMC) and the National Military/Veterans Alliance (NMVA). TREA holds leadership positions in both organizations and was represented at the hearing by Legislative Director Larry Madison and Deputy Legislative Director Mike Saunders.

The testimony from both groups was in strong opposition to the Pentagon’s proposals and pointed out that we’ve gone down this road before with disastrous results. The increases in pay and benefits that occurred since 2000 can be directly attributed to the poor recruiting and retention that resulted from the cuts in benefits during the 1990’s and the need to increase the benefits in order to improve both.

The testimony pointed out that the mandatory cuts Congress passed into law in 2011 – the so-called “sequester” – is the main problem in forcing the proposed cuts. The members of the House Committee, who were present, from both political parties, were sympathetic to the testimony. But they were concerned about where the money to stop the cuts in benefits would come from.

This was the same response from members of the Personnel Subcommittee of the Senate Armed Services Committee a few weeks ago when the same testimony was heard there.

The political reality remains that Republicans refuse to increase taxes that would provide the revenue needed to stop the cuts in benefits. They insist that the money has to come from some other budget so that total federal government spending does not increase. The Democrats are willing to either raise taxes or borrow the money to stop the cuts, but that would increase the national debt.

This is what the fighting in Washington has been about for the past several years and military members and veterans and their families are getting caught in the crossfire.

TREA will continue to fight to stop the proposed cuts, but this is one of the toughest battles we have ever faced.

New Drug for Hepatitis Causing Turmoil in the Drug Industry

First the very good news. There is a new drug that cures Hepatitis C- Sovaldi. This is wonderful news for the estimated 2.7 million Americans who have the disease. (The figure may be as high as 5 million.) It is especially good news for veterans who have the illness at a higher rate than the general public. It is a slow acting viral infection but eventually it can develop into liver cancer and kill.

Until this drug was developed the only treatment was Interferon. A patient had to take it for 51 weeks and during all that time feel like he or she had a serious case of the flu. Many people dropped out and the Hepatitis would become resistant to the drug. And if a patient got through the program there was a 50% cure rate

Sovaldi has a 90-95% cure rate. A patient has to take one pill a day and it has very few side effects. So why would people at this year’s Express Scripts conference be worried rather than thrilled?

Now the bad news. The treatment is going to cost $84,000 to cover a full treatment in the U.S. if the company that has the drug, Gilead, price structure remains.

Express Scripst is the company that presently has both TRICARE pharmacy contracts (retail and mail order) A RFP is pending on both contracts and it expected that DoD will make an announcement by May. It is a huge company that handles more than 1 billion scripts a year. At the conference tells their customers- national employers, health insurance plans, unions and the federal state and local governments about what is going on in the pharmacy industry. TREA’s Washington Executive Director, Deirdre Parke Holleman, heard that many more blockbuster drugs are going to go generic (saving the various plans including TRICARE of money. While at the same time several very exciting drugs dealing with rheumatoid arthritis, MS and cancer are soon going to be approved and on the market (costing their customers including TRICARE more money.) But it is marvelous news for patients suffering from these terrible diseases.

Express Scripts is asking its clients to join them in saying that if Giliad does not cut the price all their plans will switch to a new treatment they will switch to a new drug and freeze Sovaldi out of their plans after a new drug is approved (They are hoping that will be about a year.) This is a very creative use of their market share power; we will keep track of what happens next.

Regardless of all these interesting complications it is clear that this invention is a glorious opportunity for everyone who is suffering from this serious disease. If you think you may have been exposed you can now act by going to your doctor. When TREA hears what TRICARE and the VA is planning to do we will immediately inform you while also working to have important life saving treatments available to all those who served.

Second Ft. Hood Shooting Could Hurt Veteran Hiring

The latest shooting at Ft. Hood, in which a soldier with a documented history of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD, opened fire on his fellow soldiers in a medical building, is being mentioned as a possible factor for businesses refusing to hire veterans.

Yahoo.com wrote a story about Harry A. Croft, a psychiatrist and former Army doctor who specializes in veterans’ post-traumatic syndrome disorders, who was approached by a human resources specialist for a Fortune 500 company. Croft had just delivered a speech in New York City promoting his new book on the problems of veterans readjusting to civilian life.

Yahoo reported that Croft said “She looked at me seriously and said, ‘Look Doc, here’s my worry with this PTSD deal: Do you think the other employees are going to catch it?”

That just goes to show that while many companies believe that hiring returning veterans is good for business and patriotic, they fear they would be taking huge risks by disrupting their workplace or worse by recruiting and hiring post-911 veterans. Mental illness, particularly PTSD, and Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) are the most commonly cited factors for their fear.

Worries about veterans shooting up the workplace are wildly misguided, but unfortunately the second Ft. Hood shooting could possibly provide fodder for companies that are worried about workplace safety in regards to hiring veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.

TREA vows not to let the actions of a few undermine the hard work and hard-won experience of millions of veterans who are returning to the workforce. Organizations like us, the Chamber of Commerce, Congress, the Departments of Labor, Veterans Affairs and Defense have all been working very hard for years now to reintegrate veterans back into society.

While the veteran unemployment rate has come down dramatically in recent years, more work remains to be done to handle the 200,000 veterans annually who will be returning to civilian life in the coming years and to combat negative stereotypes that the Ft. Hood and Navy Yard shootings may have

If you are concerned about real PTSD (rather than what is seen o television) please go to the following site. The National Center for PTSD site can refer to sources of help throughout the country. www.ptsd.va.gov

Disability Claims Backlog Reduced by 44% Since Peaking One Year Ago

One year after the backlog of pending disability compensation claims peaked at over 611,000 in March 2013, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has reduced that number by approximately 44 percent to 344,000 claims – a reduction of more than 267,000 – while at the same time improving the accuracy of the decisions being made on Veterans’ disability claims. Additionally, on average, Veterans are waiting 119 days less for a decision than they were at this time last year.

“No Veteran should have to wait to receive earned benefits. Through a combination of transformation initiatives and the hard work of our employees, we are making significant progress toward our goal of eliminating the claims backlog in 2015,” said Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki. “We still have more work to do, and no one is more committed than our Veterans Benefits Administration employees, over half of whom are Veterans themselves.”

The current backlog, defined as claims pending more than 125 days, is at its lowest point since March 2011, when the backlog spiked in part because of the need to readjudicate 150,000 previously decided cases involving exposure to the Vietnam-era defoliant, Agent Orange. The readjudication of these claims was mandated under the Nehmer court decision and followed the Secretary’s decision to add ischemic heart disease, certain leukemias, and Parkinson's disease to the list of conditions presumed to be related to exposure to Agent Orange. During this same time period, VA also received and processed over 100,000 new claims for these three conditions from Vietnam Veterans and survivors newly eligible for VA benefits as a result of this decision.

“We knew taking care of this ‘unfinished businesses for Veterans of previous wars would initially drive up the number of claims in our system. But it was the right thing to do,” said Secretary Shinseki.

Since establishing the goal in 2010 of processing all disability claims within 125 days at a 98-percent accuracy level, VA developed and is implementing a plan that transforms the decades-old, manual paper claim approach into a state-of-the-art electronic process that leverages digital data transfer and automated calculators to reduce processing time and input errors.

VA has also increased the productivity of its claims processing workforce through enhanced training, streamlined business processes and other initiatives such as mandating overtime and prioritizing the oldest claims, allowing VA’s 56 regional benefits offices to exceed monthly production records four times in fiscal year 2013.

At the same time, the accuracy of rating decisions continues to improve. VA’s national “claim-level” accuracy rate, determined by dividing the total number of cases that are error-free by the total number of cases reviewed, is currently 91 percent – an eight-percentage-point improvement since 2011. When measuring the accuracy of rating individual medical conditions inside each claim, the three-month accuracy level is 96.5 percent. VA’s accuracy measures are statistically valid and the process has been independently verified by the Institute for Defense Analyses.

VA claims processors continue to prioritize disability claims for homeless Veterans, those experiencing extreme financial hardship, the terminally ill, former Prisoners of War, Medal of Honor recipients, and Veterans filing Fully Developed Claims (FDC). Filing an electronic FDC is the quickest way for a Veteran to receive a decision on their compensation claim (http://www.benefits.va.gov/fdc/).

Regardless of the status of their compensation claims, Veterans who have served in combat since Nov. 11, 1998, are eligible for five years of free medical care from VA for any illness associated with their service.

Veterans can learn more about disability and other Veterans benefits on the joint Department of Defense/VA web portal eBenefits at www.ebenefits.va.gov.

Veterans Bill Still Alive in Senate

In the last few weeks we have reported on S.1982 – the Comprehensive Veterans Health and Benefits and Military Retirement Pay Restoration Act of 2014. The bill is an omnibus bill which means it contains a large number of provisions which TREA and other veterans groups have wanted for a long time. However, because of that the bill is expensive.

The bill came up for a vote in the Senate in March but fell three votes short of passage. TREA has since been in contact with the staff of Senator Bernie Sanders’ (I-Vt.), who is the sponsor of the bill. We have been told that Senator Sanders is still trying to round up the additional three votes he needs to pass the bill.  You can make a difference on this bill. Please contact your Senators and urge them to support S. 1982.  Here are some of the provisions of the bill.

  • education matters, including the approval of courses for purposes of the All-Volunteer Force and the Post-9/11 Educational Assistance programs;
  • the expansion and extension of certain health care benefits, including immunizations, chiropractic care, treatment for traumatic brain injury, and wellness promotion;
  • complementary and alternative medicine;
  • mental health care, including an education program and peer support program for family members and caregivers of veterans with mental health disorders;
  • dental care eligibility and expansion, including a program of education to promote dental health in veterans;
  • health care related to sexual trauma, including appropriate counseling and treatment and a screening mechanism to detect incidents of domestic abuse;
  • reproductive treatment and services, including fertility counseling as well as adoption assistance for severely wounded veterans;
  • veterans' employment training and related services;
  • veterans' employment, including within the federal government and as first responders;
  • career transition services;
  • employment and reemployment rights of members of the Armed Forces after active duty service;
  • administrative matters, including regional support centers for Veterans Integrated Service Networks;
  • the revision of claims based on military sexual trauma as well as claims for dependency and indemnity compensation;
  • jurisdictional matters, including with respect to the Board of Veterans' Appeals and the Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims;
  • the revision of certain rights under the Service members Civil Relief Act, including protections with respect to the expiration of professional licenses, a prohibition on the denial of credit or the termination of residential leases due to military service, and the temporary protection of surviving spouses under mortgage foreclosures; and
  • outreach and miscellaneous matters, including: (1) repeal of the provision of the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2013 that reduces the cost-of-living adjustment to the retirement pay of members of the Armed Forces under age 62, and (2) the accounting for discretionary accounts designated for overseas contingency operations/global war on terrorism.

First, Second Ladies Urge Support for Military Caregivers


First Lady Michelle Obama and Dr. Jill Biden, wife of Vice President Joe Biden, urged Americans to support the nationwide work of military caregivers in an opinion piece published this morning on the website of Military Spouse Magazine.

In their op-ed, Obama and Biden announced that the Department of Defense is creating in-person caregiver peer forums at every military installation that serves wounded warriors and their caregivers around the world. They will also be creating online tools, so that caregivers who aren’t able to attend an in-person forum can connect to their peers as well.

And, the op-ed said, the Elizabeth Dole Foundation, the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, and many other organizations are committing to train 10,000 care giving peer mentors -- a commitment that will reach 50,000 caregivers nationwide.

The text of the op-ed can be found at: http://www.defense.gov/news/newsarticle.aspx?id=122042

TREA’s Washington Executive Director, Deirdre Parke Holleman, is the co-chair of the Military Coalition’s Survivors Committee and is working very hard on this issue. If you are affected by this law or would be helped by its expansion to cover disabilities caused by all previous conflicts please call or write. Real life experiences are what convince members of Congress that they need to act.

House Guard-Reserve Caucus Breakfast Gets Noticed by Lawmakers and Journalists

The House Guard and Reserve Caucus breakfast, which was co-organized by TREA National Legislative Director Larry Madison, was the subject of an article in Politico last week that highlighted the dust-up between the active duty Army and Army National Guard leaders regarding the disposition of the Guard’s 182 Apache helicopters, and the funding that supports them.

The National Guard, represented at the breakfast by chief of the National Guard Bureau General Frank Grass, put forth a plan that differed from the one that was contained in the President’s budget submission last month. Army Vice Chief of Staff General John Campbell was representing the active duty at the breakfast and was sitting in the front row. This is the first time anyone can remember the active duty being represented at the breakfast by an active duty member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

At a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee on April 8th General Grass was repeatedly asked about his competing plan, but he toned down his rhetoric and declined to differ from the rest of the Joints Chiefs of Staff (Grass is the only representative of the Guard or Reserve on the JCS) regarding the Apache plan.

This just goes to show that TREA is at the heart of the decision-making processes that go on regarding the Department of Defense’s budget on Capitol Hill. While this does not directly affect personnel issues, decisions made here can force DOD to make other decisions that do directly impact the active duty, families and retirees. TREA will keep you updated on these important issues.

To read more about the fallout from the breakfast, go to
http://www.politico.com/story/2014/04/army-guard-lobbying-war-for-the-apache-105545.html#ixzz2yVnWGCxY

Follow-up on Opening of Washington DC’s VA Women’s Health Clinic
Last week we told you about the new VA’s Women’s Clinic in Washington DC. There was a celebration last Tuesday when it opened. The VA expects that by 2020 12% of all American veterans will be women and they must adapt to provide first rate medical care for them.