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Retiree & Veteran Affairs News 22 February 2016

Association of the United States Army Logo - Eagle with Shield, Torch, Olive Branch
Monday, February 22, 2016

AUSA headquarters wants to share an important message from GEN (R) Gordon Sullivan, President and CEO, with you:

 

"I am more concerned about America's Army today than any time since I first became a soldier in 1955. Our Army has a flat budget and continues to make force structure reductions while facing expanding global operations, a combination that makes the goal of improving combat readiness dangerously out of reach. Instead, the Army faces a death spiral in which it consumes readiness faster than it can be restored, a situation that needs immediate attention from our nation's political leaders."

The second message is an op-ed column published by DefenseOne, a leading online journal about defense and national security issues. In a nutshell, Gen. Sullivan believes it is foolish and dangerous to keep cutting force structure and soldiers until our nation, and calls for a "pause" in these reductions.  

He writes:

"Our Army needs to follow the sage advice of a popular adage: When you find yourself in a deep hole, stop digging."  

Click here for the full article 

 

In addition, our Government Affairs team provides a great summary of this week's activity on the Army's budget:

 

PENTAGON BUDGET TARGETS MILITARY HEALTHCARE 

The Department of Defense budget request for fiscal 2017, formally unveiled this week, includes reforms to several military personnel programs including TRICARE and military retirement. 

Again this year, the department seeks to add new fees for TRICARE and TRICARE For Life; however, the budget also seeks to reorganize the current military healthcare system
The plan would provide TRICARE beneficiaries with two health care alternatives: TRICARE Select, an HMO-like (managed) option that would be centered on Military Treatment Facilities (MTF) or TRICARE Choice which would function more like a PPO (unmanaged). 
The plan emphasizes TRICARE Select which leverages MTFs as the lowest cost option for care to make full use of direct care capacity and also provide needed workload for military providers for readiness training. 

Retirees who are not eligible for Medicare (not medically retired), their families, and survivors of retirees (except survivors of those who died on active duty) would pay an annual participation fee or forfeit coverage for the plan year. TRICARE Select participants would pay $350 individual/$700 family. TRICARE Choice would pay $450 individual/$900 family. 

There is no participation fee for active duty members or their family members. 

Copays will depend on beneficiary category and care venue. There would be no copays in MTFs but there would be fixed network copays for the TRICARE Choice option without a deductible. 

There is no change for active duty. They would maintain priority access to health care without any cost sharing but would still require authorization for civilian care. The proposal offers all active duty family members (ADFM) a no cost care option regardless of assignment location and zero copays for ADFM emergency room use, including in the network. 

Medically retired members and their families and survivors of those who died on active duty would be treated the same as ADFMs, with no participation fee and lower cost shares. 

There would be open season enrollment similar to most commercial plans. Participants must enroll for a 1-year period of coverage or lose the opportunity. 

Catastrophic caps would increase from $1000 for ADFMs to $1500. Retirees' catastrophic caps are currently $3000. That amount would see an increase to $4000. The participation fee would no longer count towards the cap. 

The Department will offer a second payer option with a lower fee for those with other health insurance. 

Fees and copays will be indexed at the National Health Expenditures (NHE) per capita. 

Again this year, the budget proposes to establish an enrollment fee for TRICARE-for-Life beneficiaries which would be tied to retired recipients' income. The details:

TRICARE-for- Life Annual Family (Two Individuals) Enrollment Fees*

Retired Pay

FY16

FY17

FY18

FY19

FY20

FY21

%Gross Pay

N/A

0.50%

1.00%

1.50%

2.00%

2.00%

Ceiling

$0

$150

$300

$450

$600

$632

 

 

 

 

 

* Individual fees are 50 percent of family fees (e.g., 1 percent of GRP in FY 2020 and after). Ceilings indexed to retiree National Health Expenditures (NHE) per capita after FY 2020

Additionally, the Defense Department is requesting another increase in pharmacy fees although prescriptions obtained at the MTF would remain free of charge. 

Military Retirement 
The budget would tweak the blended retirement system established by Congress in the fiscal 2016 National Defense Authorization Act signed into law November 2015. 
 

FY 2016 NDAA                                  

FY 2017 President's Budget Request

Provided a minimum continuation payment to all members at 12 years of service.

Seeks flexibility in the application of continuation pay in order to shape the force.

Provided a 1% automatic TSP contribution to the service member and up to 4% in TSP matching contributions for a total of 5%.

Seeks to increase TSP matching to 5% for a total contribution of 6%.

Start date for matching service member TSP contributions is the first day of the third year of service

Seeks to amend the start date to the first day of the fifth year of service aligning the start day with a service member's second enlistment

Ceases TSP matching contributions at 26 years of service

Seeks to extend TSP matching contributions until the service member's retirement.

Under the Pentagon's plan, the Army's end strength will not be cut any more than what is already planned. The Army's total end strength if the budget request is approved would be 990,000 (Active force - 460,000, Army National Guard – 335,000 and Army Reserve – 195,000).

The fiscal 2017 budget proposes a 1.6 percent increase in military basic pay. This is less than the 2.1 percent increase under the formula in current law, which calls for a military pay raise to equal the annual increase in the wages and salaries of private industry employees as measured by the Employment Cost Index. The proposed increase of 1.6 percent is 0.3 percent above the fiscal 2016 military pay increase of 1.3 percent.

The budget also requested a 2.9 percent increase in basic allowance for housing and a 3.4 percent increase in basic allowance for subsistence.

Overall, the budget requests $523.9 billion for the Defense Department's base budget and $58.5 billion for the Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) account. The Army's share would be $125.1 billion in the base budget plus an additional $23 billion in OCO funds for a total of $148 billion.

The budget request mostly conforms to the spending limits set by the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2015 passed by Congress last year. However, that did not stop Republican appropriators from complaining that the spending plan limits congressional oversight and avoids the budget caps because of requests for mandatory funding for programs that would normally receive discretionary dollars. Discretionary funds are controlled by Congress.

In a statement, Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee said, "President Obama's final budget proposal contains all manner of new spending and tax increases, and a troubling reliance on mandatory spending to skirt spending limits. There will be little appetite in Congress for mandatory spending that diminishes fiscal discipline and congressional oversight."

House Appropriations Chairman Hal Rogers, R-Ky., said, "My Committee intends to produce bills that abide by the budget caps set into place by the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2015 – a total of $1.070 trillion in discretionary spending. But most importantly, they will be fiscally responsible, reflecting the needs of our federal government and the American people while protecting our financial future."

The president's budget request rolls sequestration back and replaces it with a combination of tax and spend changes including ending tax breaks for the wealthy, an overhaul of the immigration system and modifications to Medicare. His proposal is likely to go nowhere on the Hill.

The budget request largely avoided any major program cuts. In fact, the proposed cuts amount to $11.2 billion or 2 percent of the entire budget.

The budget calls for the Army to receive $923 million to buy new Black Hawk helicopters, including 21 standard UH-60M Black Hawks and 15 HH-60M Black Hawks for medical evacuation. It also calls for funding for 52 refurbished AH-64E Apache helicopters ($1.1 billion) and 22 refurbished CH-47E Chinooks ($668 million).

The bottom line: The president's budget request is just that – a request and is only the first step in the budget process. Congress will ultimately make the final decision. With regards to the military health care system reform, the House and Senate are also conducting an in-depth study of the current system. Whether or not they go along with the president's request will not be revealed until they release the details of their defense authorizations bills later in the year.

AUSA will closely study the details of the budget request as we build our legislative strategy.

Click here to find our further details. 

LEGISLATION WOULD END ARMY, MARINE CORPS DOWNSIZING

An AUSA salute goes to Reps. Chris Gibson, R-N.Y., and Mike Turner, R-Ohio, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee’s tactical air and land forces subcommittee, for introducing a bill that would limit reductions in the Army and Marine Corps until 2017, a pause that would allow the next president to assess land force capabilities and needs before deciding troop levels.

The bill, Protecting Our Security Through Utilizing Right-Sized End-Strength Act, or the POSTURE Act (H.R. 4534), would also block cuts in the Army National Guard and Army Reserve.  It sets 350,000 as the minimum strength for the Army Guard instead of the 342,000 target by the end of the fiscal year.  The Army Reserve end-strength would be 205,000 instead of the 198,000 target.

By Oct. 1, 2016, the Regular Army is expected to fall to 475,000 soldiers on a downslope that would leave the Army with just 450,000 soldiers on active duty by Oct. 1, 2018.

"To put it into perspective, when you look at land forces, the day before the 11th of September, 2001, you were looking at essentially for the active component, 480,000, almost 481,000," Gibson said, referring to the Army's levels.

"But these plans, the administration right now plans to take it all the way down to 450,000 in the active component and 335,000 in the National Guard, and the same with the Army Reserve, I think they're taking it down too low," Gibson said.

Turner added, "It is clear from all the testimony we've received and from the information we've received from the Army that this could break the Army.  This could significantly hamper the next president of the United States in their opportunities and capabilities for our military to protect the country," he said.

Gibson said assumptions have changed since the administration first drafted its plans to reduce force levels in 2013.  The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria has emerged as a force, North Korea is saber-rattling and Russia has intervened in Ukraine.

The bill is not a sure thing. To have any impact on the Oct. 1 strength levels, the measure likely would have to pass Congress and be signed into law separate from the annual defense budget, which often doesn’t pass Congress until November or December.  A second problem is that the measure does not provide the Army any money to cover the unbudgeted cost of having additional soldiers.  A directive to keep more soldiers that doesn’t include money could put the Army in a difficult position of having to divert money from efforts to improve readiness to cover personnel costs.

Turner said he is working with the House Budget Committee to find funds for the additional soldiers.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee echoed Gibson and Turner’s concern.  “On the present course, we are running the risk that in a crisis, we will have too few soldiers who will enter a fight, without proper training or equipment.

“As the demands on our Army continue to increase, our support for our soldiers has not kept pace.  In short, our Army is confronting growing threats and increasing operational demands with shrinking and less ready forces and aging equipment.”

“These budget-driven force reductions were decided before the rise of ISIL or Russia’s invasion of Ukraine,” McCain said.  And, the Army “is still at war.  At this moment, 187,000 soldiers are deployed in 140 locations around the globe.  They’re fighting terrorists and training our partners in Afghanistan and supporting the fight against ISIL, all while defending South Korea and reassuring our allies in Eastern Europe.”

- See more at: http://www.ausa.org/legislation/newsletter/Pages/17February2016LegislativeNewsUpdate.aspx#sthash.olGniagQ.dpuf

Energy Industry Hiring Veterans

Vets4Energy is the latest initiative to attract transitioning service members to one of America’s largest industries. Similar to other industry initiatives, such as Helmets to Hardhats and Veterans on Wall Street, Vets4Energy created an online Veterans Energy Pipeline to help service members translate their military occupations into the oil and natural gas industry, which currently employs 9 million Americans and is expected to hire a million more over the next half decade. The “Pipeline” translates all types of military jobs into their more commonly known civilian equivalents, both blue and white collar. Sponsored by the membership-based American Petroleum Institute, the Vets4Energy website also provides direct links to American Petroleum Institute’s member corporations and contractors. Learn more.

Vietnam Wall "In Memory" Program

More than 58,000 names meet the Defense Department’s criteria to be etched into the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, but those who survived the war—but later died as a result of their service—are not. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund acknowledges their service and sacrifice through an online “In Memory” Honor Roll. Causes of death that fit the criteria for inclusion in the program include exposure to Agent Orange, PTSD-related illnesses/events, cancer, diabetes, heart attacks, etc. The program is free and the application process is simple. To honor a loved one, you only need to submit the veteran's DD214 to show their proof of service in the Vietnam War, a copy of their death certificate, and a photograph. The application deadline fo r inclusion in the 2016 ceremony is March 4. For information or to submit applications, click here.

Korean War Soldier Identified

The Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency announced the identification of remains of Army Cpl. Eldon W. Ervin, 22, of Ottawa County, Okla., who will be buried with full military honors on a date and location yet to be determined. He was assigned to Headquarters Battery, 57th Field Artillery Battalion, 7th Infantry Division and was lost fighting in North Korea on Nov. 28, 1950.

Last week the very non-detailed Administration’s budget report was rolled out. (More details to come, of course.) But a few things are very clear. DoD wants to have another round of BRAC (Base Realignment and Closure). Congress has said no for the last few years. Also the Administration is going to try and get Congress to agree to a yearly enrollment fee for TRICARE for LIFE. We knew this was coming but it wasn’t clear that it was going to be during an election year!!! This is something that we must push back on. DoD says, however, that their main TRICARE health care concern is to “incentivize people more to use military treatment facilities to have a medically ready force.” Obviously that will be a concern for everyone in the military family who is a TRICARE Beneficiary. There is also surely going to be additional proposals to increase the pharmacy charges. So it is clearly true that as last year focused on retirement this year will focus on the health care benefit.

But never believe that once a matter has been dealt with by Congress the Department of Defense will not continue to try and change things for its financial benefit. Last year the they succeeded in having the 20 year cliff retirement program changed to a “blended” retirement system the Pentagon is pushing for additional changes. And this is true even though the new program will not go into effect until January 2018! Under the just adopted plan DoD will be required to deposit matching funds in a service members Thrift Savings Plan Account (TSP) after 3 years of service. DoD wishes that changed to 5 years of service. Presently the matching would end after 26 years of service. They wish that to also change and have the matching funds continue through the full period of service.

Additionally, they are trying to change the continuation pay. Presently every service member who reaches 12 years and signs up for 4 more years will get the continuation pay. DoD says the way they “envisioned it was … you wouldn’t just pay it to everyone at the 12-year mark, but use it more as a force-management tool.”

As soon we hear concrete DoD proposals TREA immediately inform you what they are.

Should the Draft continue? .. A Debate Begins on Capitol Hill

Not surprisingly, after the Pentagon decided that women could serve in all military positions a discussion started in Washington whether young women as well as men should be required to register for the draft. Earlier this month at a SASC hearing both Chief of Staff of the Army General Mark A. Milley and Marine Corp Commandant General Robert B. Neller said they were in favor of such a change. And then the arguments started. It moved into the Presidential campaign when in last week’s Republican debate both Florida Senator Rubio and former Florida Governor Bush both answered yes to the question if women in the future should be required to register for the draft. The next day Texas Senator Ted Cruz said “it did not make any sense at all” He then added, “… it is wrong. It is immoral.” So it looks like it may be an issue in the election.

It is certainly going to be an issue on the Hill. Last week Representative Mike Coffman (R-CO) introduced H.R. 4523, a bill that would repeal the Military Selective Service Act thereby terminating “the registration requirements of such Act and eliminate civilian local boards, civilian appeal boards, and similar local agencies of the Selective Service System.” So neither men nor women would be required to register for the draft.

Rep. Coffman said: ““Maintaining the Selective Service simply makes no sense. In 1973, the last draftee entered the Army and since then, despite the first Gulf War and subsequent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Pentagon has never considered

reinstituting the draft. Our all-volunteer military has given us the most elite fighting force in the history of this country.”

The draft was abolished in 1973 after the end of the Vietnam Was but the requirement of men ages 18 to 24 was reinstituted in 1979 at the request of President Jimmy Carter after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. It now costs $24 million a year to maintain the system.

There were three original co-sponsors Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-OR), Rep. Jared Polis (D-CO), and Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA).

Rep. Peter DeFazio argued: “Not only will abolishing the selective service save the U.S. taxpayers money; it will remove an undue burden on our nation’s young people. We haven’t utilized the draft since 1973, yet young men who don’t register for the selective service are still penalized by the U.S. government, particularly with regards to their federal student loans. We need to get rid of this mean-spirited and outdated system and trust that if the need should arise Americans – both male and female – will answer the call to defend our nation.“ Rep. Rohrabacher added: ”Conscription will not save us money in the national defense and it is not consistent with America's best tradition of freedom and liberty.”

There has also been a reaction in the Senate. Senator Mike Lee (R-UT) announced that he was going to introduce a bill that would require the men’s only provision to stand unless Congress votes to change it. Senator Lee said his language would stop the President or the Supreme Court from changing it. Whether any statute could stop the Supreme Court from ruling that the law now violates the Equal Protection clause of the 14th Amendment is questionable. In 1981 the Supreme Court ruled that the Selective Service Act did not violate the 14th Amendment since women were not allowed to join combat units.

For the Majority opinion Justice William Rehnquist stated:” The existence of the combat restrictions clearly indicates the basis for Congress’ decision to exempt women from registration. The purpose of registration was to prepare for a draft of combat troops. Since women are excluded from combat, Congress concluded that they would not be needed in the event of a draft, and therefore decided not to register them.”

Now that women may serve in all combat roles this decision could be changed. Senator Cruz said he would co-sponsor the bill with Senator Lee who said it would “protect our daughters.” Senator Rubio also said he would co-sponsor the bill but only to make sure that Congress makes the decision. He reiterated his support of women being included in any future draft.

And this has all happened in less than 2 weeks. It is very likely that other bills and proposals will appear. TREA will keep you informed about what is happening about this apprised. We would ask that you let us know what you think. If you have an opinion as

to whether women should or should not be required to register for the draft please write me at [email protected] and tell us what you think.

Controversial Veterans Bill Passes House, Heads to Senate

Last week the House of Representatives passed legislation that would cut the basic allowance for housing for dependent children using transferred Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits in half. The cut would not apply to those who are currently using the benefit or those who have already transferred the benefit, but it would apply to any dependent children who had the benefit transferred to them more than 180 days after the bill is enacted. It has not yet been taken up by the Senate, which can still make alterations to the bill.

That stipend is calculated in most cases by the Basic Allowance for Housing (BAH) that active-duty service members would receive if stationed where the school is located.

The bill has other provisions on veterans education, health care, jobs and transition out of the military that We support, such as an expansion of the Gunnery Sergeant John Fry Scholarships, expansion of Yellow Ribbon eligibility for Fry Scholarship recipients, expanded access to postnatal care for female veterans, and expanded eligibility for the Post-9/11 GI Bill for National Guard and Reservists who are in medical hold.

The bill was deliberately constructed to contain provisions that are long-standing goals with other provisions that We have reservations about, namely the BAH cut for dependents and a cap on tuition for veterans using the Post-9/11 GI Bill who are going to flight school. The flight school tuition cap would be lowered by this legislation to $20,300; We believe that number is too low to enable a veteran to get enough training hours to secure meaningful employment after graduation.

According to the Military Times, a spokesman for the House Veterans' Affairs Committee said the cuts were necessary to offset, or pay for, other aspects of the bill. He also noted that the cuts were "scaled back" from a recommendation from the Military Compensation and Retirement Modernization Commission (MCRMC) to entirely cut the housing stipend for both dependent spouses and children. We never supported that recommendation from the MCRMC, and we reject the concept that funding for necessary veterans' programs can only come by raiding other veterans programs.

"The GI Bill flight school loophole is so big you could fly a 747 through it. For years, some schools have exploited this loophole, gouging taxpayers with exorbitant tuition expenses of up to more than $500,000 for a single student," according to Chairman of the House Veterans' Affairs Committee Jeff Miller (R-FL).

HR 3016 was passed in the House last Tuesday by a voice vote – it was brought up under a suspension of the rules so no member of Congress could be outed as voting for or against the bill.

New Budget Proposals May Put Commissaries at Risk After All

After the battle all last year to save the commissaries, it appeared in November that the Pentagon had conceded that its proposals to cut funding for commissaries would result in a “significant cut in savings to patrons,” and that the “only way to make ends meet would be to raise prices.”

A DoD spokesman said that while substantial commissary reforms are still planned and necessary, the DoD “ is committed to preserving the current level of savings to commissary customers.”

Based on his statement, we assumed we wouldn’t be fighting to save commissaries again this year.  However, we may have been wrong.

It turns out that the Administration’s new defense budget proposal calls for cuts of $221 million from the amount of money that was appropriated for the commissary system last year.  While no details about how or what DoD plans to cut in commissaries, we are alarmed.  Are these management efficiencies or will they result in higher prices and reduced quality and service?

We will monitor this closely and if it appears the Pentagon is reverting to its old ways and is putting the commissary benefit at risk we will let you know immediately.

Republican Lawmakers Skeptical of Higher VA Budgets

At a hearing of the House Veterans' Affairs Committee last week to consider the Fiscal Year 2017 Department of Veterans' Affairs budget request, lawmakers warned VA officials Wednesday not to assume they’ll continue to see their budget grow, especially in light of recent scandals and questionable spending decisions.

The department has seen budget increases each of the last 16 years, even as funding of other government programs has held steady or been reduced. When lawmakers passed spending caps on federal programs in 2011, Veterans Affairs programs were exempt. The VA budget request for next year is roughly twice the size that it was in 2009.

In fiscal 2001, the VA budget totaled $45 billion. The president’s budget request for fiscal 2017 is four times that, topping $177 billion, with $75 billion for discretionary funding alone.

Administration officials have said the increases reflect the growing demands on the department in the wake of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and are designed to correct longstanding shortfalls in the department.

But congressional leaders warned that those cost corrections may be coming to an end.

At the end of the budget hearing last week, HVAC Chairman Jeff Miller (R-FL) ended the hearing by asking VA Secretary Bob McDonald what cuts were made to the budget. The suggestions that Secretary McDonald came up with were roundly rejected by Miller as not being enough, or not counting as “cuts.” Miller then promised to “scrutinize” the budget for cuts.

A lingering sore spot in the relationship between the VA and Congress is the billion-dollar cost overrun incurring in building a new VA hospital near Denver and budget shortfalls last year related to Hepatitis C medication that forced Congress to pass emergency legislation to keep the department’s programs operating.

.But Key Republican Senator announces support for VA Sec

Last week SVAC Chairman urged the next President (whoever that is) to reappoint VA Secretary Bob McDonald . Senator Johnny Isakson (R-GA) told CSPAN :”

“Everything I’ve seen with Bob McDonald over the last 16 months, I’ve been very pleased with. “I would certainly hope he would stay for continuity purposes, or the next president would pick him to stay…. The main thing we need at VA is continuity and commitment. Bob McDonald is a veteran, he ran a large business, he’s committed to the I-CARE program at VA. I want to make sure that goes through, and I would recommend him.”

So we will keep guessing.

House Hearing on Choice Billing

On Thursday, the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs held a hearing to discuss the VA’s proposal to consolidate its community care programs. Specifically, the committee heard testimony from the VFW, the VA, the VA Inspector General, Government Accountability Office, and the American Legion regarding billing issues veterans and Choice providers have experienced when using the Choice Program. VFW Senior Legislative Associate Carlos Fuentes urged the committee and the VA to fully integrate Choice program providers into the VA health care system to eliminate bureaucratic red tape and allow veterans to move seamlessly between VA medical facilities and community providers without experiencing long delays and being needlessly billed for their care. The VA also introduced a phone number, 877-881-7618, for veterans to call if their credit has been adversely affected by VA billing issues. View a video of the hearing.

House Holds Hearing on VA Housing Programs

On Wednesday, the House Veterans’ Affairs Subcommittee on Economic Opportunity held a hearing entitled “A Review of VA’s Loan Guaranty and Specially Adaptive Housing Grant Programs (SAH).” The subcommittee acknowledged that the VA Home Loan Program is a popular benefit, having served over 22 million veterans since its inception in 1944, and a successful program with VA-backed loans enjoying a lower foreclosure and delinquency rate than the national average. Still, there are always ways to improve. Representatives from the Mortgage Bankers Association and the National Organization of Realtors both noted that the misperception exists in the mortgage industry that the VA loan program is difficult to navigate, and therefore, veterans are sometimes discouraged by lenders and realtors to initiate the process. Eliminating this misperception is key to ensuring more veterans use the program. The SAH program was also discussed, with an emphasis on ways to make it more veteran-centric by reducing bureaucratic hurdles. Watch a webcast of the hearing. 

Busy Legislative Week for the House

On Tuesday, the House of Representatives passed a host of veteran-related bills. These included: H.R. 3016, Veterans Employment, Education, and Healthcare Improvement Act; H.R. 3106, Construction Reform Act of 2016; H.R. 2360, Career-Ready Student Veterans Act of 2015; H.R. 677, American Heroes COLA Act of 2015; H.R. 3234, Failing VA Medical Center Recovery Act; and H.R. 2915, Female Veteran Suicide Prevention Act. Many of these measures had been amended during the committee process to include language from dozens of additional bills that the VFW has testified on during the 114th Congress. Important provisions include vastly improved postnatal care for female veterans, expanded canine therapy for veterans suffering with PTSD, extension of the Yellow Ribbon Program to Fry Scholarship recipients, the removal of the cap on VA home loan guarantees, automatic annual COLA adjustments for VA benefits, and the requirement that the VA accept private evidence for disability compensation claims. These bills now move to the Senate for consideration. Stay tuned to the Action Corps Weekly for future updates.

President's Budget Request

On Tuesday, the administration released its $4.23 trillion Fiscal Year 2017 budget request. The request includes $78.7 billion for the VA’s discretionary accounts, which includes $68 billion for medical services. The VFW is pleased with the administration’s overall medical care funding level for FY2017 and the overall discretionary funding level, but believes the advance appropriations proposal for medical services in FY2018 would be woefully inadequate to meet continually growing demand for VA health care services. The VFW also joined its Independent Budget partners to release the IB’s budget recommendations for Fiscal Years 2017 and 2018. The annual report, which outlines funding requirements for VA programs, proposes $84.4 billion for FY2017, including $72.8 billion for medical services, $3.1 billion for the Veterans Benefits Administration and $2.5 billion for construction projects. For a summary of the VA’s budget request, click hereRead the IB’s budget recommendations.

The VA Reevaluates Blue Water Navy Definition

A recent Veterans Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims decision, Gray v. McDonald, required that the VA reevaluate and clarify its definition of “inland waterways.” For purposes of adjudicating disability claims regarding Agent Orange exposure in Vietnam, the VA will now determine if a body of water is considered an inland waterway by drawing straight lines across the opening in the landmass leading to the open ocean or other offshore water feature, such as a bay or inlet. The VA’s modified interpretation does not meet the intent of the Gray v. McDonald decision. The VFW is deeply disappointed that the VA’s modified interpretation of inland waterways continues to arbitrarily and unjustly exclude veterans who served aboard ships in the coastal waters of Vietnam and are denied presumptive benefits associated with Agent Orange exposure. For this reason, the VFW will continue to urge Congress to pass the Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act of 2015. Stay tuned to the Action Corps Weekly for updates on this change. To receive assistance with a VA disability claim, contact a local VFW Service Officer.

IOM Report on Gulf War Illness

On Thursday, the Institute of Medicine released a new report on the health conditions related to toxic exposure during the Gulf War. Due to the lack of new research since its last report and the fact that the VA has not completed studies that Congress has mandated, IOM was unable to make new determinations on the relationship between health conditions and toxic exposure during the Gulf War. IOM was able to determine that Gulf War Illness is not a psychosomatic illness. However, it recommended that future research acknowledge the interconnection of brain and body for treatment. IOM also recommended that DOD and the VA incorporate emerging technologies and personalized approaches to medical care and biomonitoring in future conflicts to better identify chemical exposures. Read more.

Proposed Tricare Changes

The Pentagon’s FY2017 budget request once again proposes higher enrollment fees and copayments for working age military retirees and those aged 65 and older. Defense officials say the higher out-of-pocket costs will bring about better service and lower cumulative costs, but only after more details are learned can that judgement be made or disproved. One push DOD is trying to make is to get all beneficiaries to maximize the use of military treatment facilities (MTFs) and Tricare’s mail-order pharmacy. The two current Tricare programs of Prime and Standard/Extra will be renamed Tricare Select and Tricare Choice.

  • Active-duty-families: Tricare Select will be available at no cost to active-duty family members provided they use MTFs or network providers. Tricare Choice will also be available at no cost to active-duty family members if they use an MTF, but will add modest copays ranging from $15 for in-network primary care to $50 for in-network emergency care. All active-duty family members would incur a 20-percent copay for using non-network providers regardless of plan. 
  • Retirees under age 65: The current family rate for those enrolled in Tricare Prime is essentially $565. Under the new Tricare Select, the annual enrollment fee would rise 24 percent to $700. Under Tricare Choice, the family enrollment rate would be $900, whereas the exiting Tricare Standard/Extra programs have no enrollment fee. Regardless of plan, retirees would incur no copay if using an MTF. For network care, Select enrollees would incur copays ranging from $20 for primary care to $75 for emergency care, and Choice enrollees would see copays of $25 for primary care and $90 for emergency care. Both plans would see 25 percent copays for non-network care. 
  • Retirees 65 and older: Retirees in the rank of O-6 and below would pay 0.25 percent of their gross retired pay to enroll in Tricare for Life, which acts as a secondary insurance to Medicare Part B. The quarter-percent enrollment fee would gradually increase to 1 percent by FY 2020. Flag officers, or those in the ranks of O-7 and above, would pay a $100 enrollment fee in FY 2017, which would gradually increase to $400 in FY 2020.
  • Retiree pharmacy copays: The Pentagon is again pushing the use of Tricare’s mail-order pharmacy, since it provides a three-month supply of medications for the same cost or less than a one-month refill from a network pharmacy. Read more about the home delivery program.

SEAL To Receive Medal of Honor 

Senior Chief Special Warfare Operator Edward Byers will receive the Medal of Honor for his part in a 2012 rescue operation of a hostage in Afghanistan, the Pentagon announced Feb. 2. President Obama will present Byers with the award in a Feb. 29 White House ceremony, making him the first sailor to earn the nation’s highest honor for valor in combat related to actions in Afghanistan. Byers, 37, joined the Navy in 1998 and was trained as a hospital corpsman. The Toledo, Ohio native is stationed at Joint Base Little Creek-Story, Va.  

$582.7b Budget Proposed for ’17

The Obama administration’s proposed $582.7 billion defense-spending budget for 2017 would include a 1.6-percent increase in basic pay for active and reserve-component service members. Defense Secretary Ash Carter outlined some details of the proposed measure, which is scheduled for formal release in the second week of February. The 2017 budget would reflect an emphasis on adjusting “to a new strategic era,” the U.S. Naval Institute Press reported Carter as saying. The budget “must demonstrate to potential foes that if they start a war, we have the capability to win,” Carter was quoted as saying.  

Review: Army Drawdown Too Deep

Plans to reduce the Army’s total strength are too deep, a panel of experts concluded. The National Commission on the Future of the army presented that and other findings in Washington, D.C., Jan. 28. The commission, which began its work last April, also determined that the Army National Guard should retain at least some of the AH-64 Apache helicopters now in its inventory. The Army is scheduled to reduce total strength to 450,000 soldiers by September 2018. That figure is too low, the commission concluded, recommending that regular Army strength should be kept at 450,000, with another 335,000 in the National Guard and another 195,000 in the reserves. 

New Benefits Package Unveiled

Female service members now can take up to 12 weeks’ paid maternity leave, under a revamped benefits package Defense Secretary Ash Carter outlined Jan. 28. The increased parental leave doubles the military’s previous benchmark for everyone but sailors and Marines, who had been allowed to take as much as 18 months’ leave. Members of those services who become pregnant within 30 days of the implementation of the new policy still can take 18 months’ leave. Carter also increased access to child care to 14 hours a day, and gave commanders the authority to allow service members to stay at duty locations for longer durations when necessitated by family or personal issues. Military medical centers also will begin helping families with reproductive issues, by providing services such as freezing sperm or eggs for future in vitro fertilization (IVF) procedures. 

Destroyer Sails Past Disputed Islands

The Navy again has challenged China’s claim to parts of the South China Sea heretofore considered international waters. Reuters reported Jan. 30 that the destroyer Curtis Wilbur passed within 12 nautical miles of three manmade Chinese islands, drawing complaints from China but no military response. Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, the Philippines and Taiwan also claim that the waters in question are theirs.  

Petraeus To Keep 4th Star

The Department of Defense has decided not to punish retired Army Gen. David Petraeus by reducing him in rank to lieutenant general. According to the Associated Press, the decision was made after an internal review into the events that led to Petraeus’ downfall. Petraeus had pleaded guilty to mishandling classified material, in the aftermath of publicity surrounding an affair he had with Paula Broadwell, a former junior officer who was writing his biography. When the affair became public, Petraeus resigned as director of the CIA. Defense Department officials made their decision known in a memo to the Senate Armed Services Committee, stating that Petraeus had admitted he was wrong and apologized. 

Pharmacy Changes Take Effect

Beginning Feb. 1, beneficiaries of TRICARE, the military’s managed health-care plan, will encounter several changes in the pharmacy program:

* Copays at retail pharmacies and for home delivery will rise slightly. 

* Over-the-counter drug coverage is now a permanent benefit.

* Home delivery of generic drugs is still free, but purchasing the same drugs at retail pharmacies will cost $10 for a 30-day supply.  

U.S., Russia Discuss Safety in Skies

Pentagon officials met via teleconference with their Russian counterparts Jan. 28, to discuss ways to ensure that operations in the skies over Syria are conducted as safely as possible. “The two sides discussed measures to enhance operational safety for counter-ISIL coalition and Russian military forces operating in Syria, including the means to avoid accidents and unintended confrontation,” Pentagon Press Secretary Peter Cook said in a statement. Acting Assistant Defense Secretary for International Security Affairs Elissa Slotkin and Marine Corps Lt. Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr., the joint staff director for strategic plans and policy, represented the U.S. during the call.  

Newest LCS Christened

The Navy christened the littoral combat ship Sioux City, the latest entry into the class, during a Jan. 30 ceremony in Marinette, Wis., where the ship was built. Like other LCS vessels, Sioux City will be capable of quick, modular changes to conform to mission requirements. Missions include countermine, anti-submarine and anti-surface warfare, and it will be able to deploy aviation assets and unmanned vehicles as well.  

Airman Saves Civilian’s Life

Staff Sgt. Christina Begeal, a medical technician, is being hailed as a hero for saving the life of a civilian cook while eating at a restaurant on Christmas night. Staff at the restaurant sought out Begeal, attached to the 22nd Medical Group at McConnell Air Force Base, Kan., when the stricken cook suddenly fell to the ground while at work. A waitress had remembered that moments earlier, Begeal told her she was a medic. Recognizing that the man was having a seizure, Begeal had the staff call 911 while she treated him for shock. She managed to revive him somewhat before civilian paramedics arrived to take him to a hospital. The man subsequently was treated and in time returned to work. Several weeks later, Begeal returned to dine at the restaurant. The man took the opportunity to thank her for saving his life. 

DOD to Propose 1.6 Percent Pay Raise for Active Military Personnel for Next Year 

Last week Defense Secretary Ashton Carter revealed that the Pentagon is likely to seek a 1.6 percent wage increase for military personnel for FY 2017. His remarks, which came during a meeting of the Economic Club of Washington, gave an advanced look at the FY2017 DoD budget proposal which will be released this week. According to an article on Military.com, “Carter never mentioned pay in his 27-minute speech to the Economic Club of Washington, and the issue did not come up in a lengthy question-and-answer session that followed, but the proposed increase was expected to be in the range of 1.6 percent

“The 1.6 percent increase was up from the 1.3 percent increase in FY 2016 but was below the Congressional Budget Office's projected increase for private-sector wages in FY2017 of 3.2 percent …. “Carter also included the usual pledges of a Defense Secretary to finally get acquisition costs under control, while acknowledging the failure to do so on the ballooning expenses for the new Gerald R. Ford aircraft carrier that could potentially reach $15 billion.”  

Congress passed a law years ago requiring every department of the federal government to get their books in order so they can be audited, but the Department of Defense is the only federal department still unable to comply with the law. Former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta had pledged that DoD would be able to be audited by 2017 but very few people believe that will happen. We have pushed for years to force DoD to be audited because we believe there are billions of dollars in waste and abuse, and even in fraud, that could be saved, instead of forcing retirees to pay more for their promised and earned military benefits as a way of balancing the budget. We should know by the end of this week what the rest of the Pentagon’s budget proposal will look like, including its health care proposals, and we will report on those in our update next week.

Bill to Force Women to Register for the Draft Introduced in Congress

After leaders of the Army, Navy and Marine Corps told a House Armed Services panel last week that they believed women should register for the draft since Defense Secretary Carter has opened all combat positions to women, two Congressmen have introduced a bill to make women register, although both oppose opening combat specialties to women 

The legislation, titled the Draft America’s Daughters Act, requires registration for women no later than 90 days after the enactment of the measure or 90 days after the Secretary of Defense opens all combat specialties.

The authors of the bill are Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.) and Ryan Zinke (R-Mont.), both of whom served in the military, Hunter as Major in the Marine Corps with service in Iraq and Afghanistan and Zinke as a Navy SEAL Commander who served for 23 years.

“It’s wrong and irresponsible to make wholesale changes to the way America fights its wars without the American people having a say on whether their daughters and sisters will be on the front lines of combat,” said Hunter in a press statement released by his office. “If this Administration wants to send 18-20 year old women into combat, to serve and fight on the front lines, then the American people deserve to have this discussion through their elected representatives. The Administration made its decision to open all combat specialties without regard for the research and perspective of the Marine Corps and special operations community, or without consideration or care for whether the draft would have to be opened to both men and women. This discussion should have occurred before decision making of any type, but the fact that it didn’t now compels Congress to take a honest and thorough look at the issue.

“It’s unfortunate that a bill like this even needs to be introduced. And it’s legislation that I might very well vote against should it be considered during the annual defense authorization process.”

In a press release put out by his office, Zinke said, “I know women play an invaluable role in war. My daughter was a damn good Navy Diver. Many times women can gain access to strategic sites that men never could. However, this Administration’s plan to force all front-line combat positions and Special Forces to integrate women into their units is reckless and dangerous. The decision was made by the Administration against the advice of the U.S. Marine Corps and Special Forces. The natural conclusion of that policy is that this opens young women up to the draft. This is a very important issue that touches the heart of American family, and I believe we need to have an open and honest discussion about it

Whistleblowers More Comfortable Reporting Problems at VA
 

A report by Government Executive last month highlighted the fact that in year two of Secretary of the Department of Veterans' Affairs Bob McDonald's tenure, the Office of Special Counsel (OSC) has seen a surge in whistleblower disclosures in FY 2015, in large part due to an onslaught of new cases from Va employees. 

According to Government Executive, OSC, which is tasked with protecting whistleblowers and federal employees from improper personnel actions, received 755 whistleblower disclosures in fiscal 2015, a 56 percent increase over the previous year. The agency received nearly 2,000 disclosures from employees across government last fiscal year, a 27 percent increase from FY 2014.

It seems that at the very least Secretary McDonald has been successful in creating a culture in which whistleblowers feel comfortable reporting inappropriate behavior. 

VA’s contribution to OSC’s workload has not just come from whistleblowers. Employees at the VA filed 1,400 claims of prohibited personnel practices against their supervisors last fiscal year, a 41 percent increase over 2014. Eight of every 10 favorable actions OSC won for federal employees last year involved reprisal.

OSC is a small, independent agency of about 140 employees, and it is having a tough time handling its mandate with current funding levels. Congress increased its budget in the recent omnibus spending bill by 5 percent to $24.1 million, but the agency said that boost does not keep pace with inflation or the inundation of new cases. Schwellenbach said the agency plans to hire more staffers to take on the backlog of cases, which has ballooned in recent years but remained stagnant in fiscal 2015.

Reserve-Dependent Army

The Army has by far the highest ratio of service members in reserve components when compared with the other services, with 46.8 percent in the Regular Army, 33.7 percent in the Army Guard, and 19.5 percent in the Army Reserve. The Air Force has 64.4 percent in the Regular Air Force, 21.5 percent in the Air Guard, and 14.1 percent in the Air Force Reserve. In the Navy, 85.2 percent are in the Regular Navy, and 14.8 percent are in the Navy Reserve. In the Marine Corps, 82.5 percent are in the regular Marines, and 17.5 percent are in the Marine Corps Reserve.

What to watch: Force-structure decisions made over the next two or three years will determine if the ratio changes, but without additional money it seems likely the ratio of active-duty to reserve soldiers will increase.

Feeling Financial Pain

Sixty-seven percent of midcareer military families are feeling a financial pinch from small pay raises and changes to benefits, and they are reacting by spending less. A survey by First Command Financial Behaviors, focused on NCOs and officers, finds 32 percent are saving less, 31 percent are delaying major purchases such as automobiles, and 30 percent have slowed or stopped efforts to pay off debt.

What to watch: The survey focused on midcareer service members. Having two-thirds of them feeling financially stressed at a time of very low price inflation in the economy is a warning sign about the potential impact of reform and restructuring of military pay and benefits on recruiting and retention.

Texas-Big Hybrid Power Project

Fort Hood, Texas, is the site for the Army’s first hybrid solar and wind power project, which includes an on-post solar farm and an off-post wind farm. The combination is expected to generate 65 megawatts of power, enough to supply half of the installation’s energy needs.

What to watch: The Army has a 30-year fixed-price contract that could save $168 million in energy costs from the 20 wind turbines and 63,000 solar panels.

Oldies but Goodies?

Debate is endless over the best- and worst-tasting MREs (Meals, Ready-to-Eat). Some people like the entrees in barbecue sauce the best, while others favor spice over bland. Ham slices are one of those dishes eliciting sharp differences of opinion. Eaten hot, ham gets generally good reviews. Served cold, the gel coating is hard for some to eat. 

What to watch: The Army is always looking for new varieties, but some people like the old ones. The website mreinfo.com includes military buff Steven Thomas’ detailed descriptions of his tastings of Army rations dating back as far as 1950. One non-U.S. meal is actually referred to as the “MRE of Death.”

House Hearing on Choice Eligibility

On Tuesday, the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs held a hearing to discuss the VA’s proposal to consolidate its community care programs. Specifically, the committee heard testimony from the VA and veterans organizations on how the private sector should be integrated into the VA health care system and when veterans are eligible to access care through private sector providers. VFW Senior Legislative Associate Carlos Fuentes submitted testimony urging the committee to eliminate arbitrary wait time and driving distance requirements and allow the veterans and their doctors to decide how long veterans are able to wait or travel for their care. Read the VFW’s testimony. View a video of the hearing.

House Hearing on VA Research

On Wednesday, the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs held a hearing to discuss how the VA protects and uses products invented by VA medical researchers. The committee members were concerned that the VA was unable to profit from a cure for Hepatitis C that was invented by a VA doctor. Deputy Secretary Sloan Gibson informed the committee that the VA would conduct a thorough review of its medical research to ensure the VA is properly protecting and profiting from its intellectual property.View a video of the hearing.

Is Pentagon Budget Request Enough?

Defense Secretary Ash Carter discussed portions of a $582.7 billion defense budget earlier this week that is expected to be a main part of the president’s upcoming federal budget submission for Fiscal Year 2017. The main question for Congress to debate is if the amount is enough, given that it’s more than $20 billion less than FY 2016, yet U.S. forces are staying in Afghanistan, reinforcing Iraq and Europe, fighting Islamic terrorism, while trying to reconstitute and modernize our conventional and strategic forces and equipment at home. On the personnel side will be a recommendation to raise military pay by 1.6 percent, which will mark four consecutiv e years the Pentagon failed to at least match the Employment Cost Index, which could lead to another double-digit military-civilian pay gap that hurt recruiting and retention efforts in the recent past. The military received a 1.3-percent increase this year. Read more.

SEAL to Receive Medal of Honor

The White House has announced that President Obama will award the Medal of Honor to a Navy special warfare operator on Feb. 29. Senior Chief Petty Officer Edward Byers, 37, of Ohio, will receive the nation’s highest valor award for his actions while serving as part of a team that rescued an American civilian being held hostage in Afghanistan in December 2012. The 17-year Navy veteran, who has seven combat tours, is a graduate of the Hospital Corpsman School, Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL Course and Special Operations Combat Medic Course. A Defense Department press release surprisingly contained no details of the action; not so with this USA Today article.

Vietnam Memorial Wall of Faces Update

This month, Hawaii became the eighth state to find photos of all their Vietnam fallen. The addition of Army Sgt. 1st Class Felicisimo Hugo of Wahiawa now means all 277 fallen service members from Hawaii have a photo on the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial Foundation’s Virtual Wall of Faces. The other states that have submitted photos for all their Vietnam fallen are Minnesota, Montana, New Mexico, North Dakota, South Dakota, Wisconsin and Wyoming. More than 45,000 photos have been received, but another 13,000 still need to be collected to ensure there’s a picture for every name inscribed on The Wall. Learn more about the initiative and how you can help.

Korean War MIA Identified

The Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency announced the identification of remains belonging to Army Cpl. Dudley L. Evans, 24, of Greenville, Miss., who died in captivity after being taken prisoner in South Korea on Feb. 15, 1951. He was assigned to Company G, 2nd Battalion, 23rd Infantry Regiment, 2nd Infantry Division.

Service Members Should Register and Request Absentee Ballots Now

Defense Department personnel and their families who plan to vote by absentee ballot in the upcoming presidential primaries and the general election in November should complete a registration application and request their ballots now, according to a Federal Voting Assistance Program release.

To register and request ballots, complete the Federal Post Card Application using the FPCA online assistant to fill out the form or pick up a hard-copy version from your voting assistance officer or nearest U.S. Embassy or consular office.

FVAP officials suggest completing a new application annually and with every move, or at least 90 days prior to the election.

State primary election dates are listed on the Federal Voting Assistance Program’s website, with registration information in a drop-down menu at the top left side of the home page.

To find your state's election website for specific information on candidates, elections, contact information and links to your local election office; visit the Federal Voting Assistance Program contact page.

For more information on the Federal Voting Assistance Program or help with the absentee voting process, visit the program’s website or call 703-588-1584, toll free at 800-438-VOTE or via DSN at 425-1584. Help also is available by sending an email to [email protected].

VA Secretary Wants Focus on Reforming Appeals Process

Twice last week Secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs Bob McDonald told Congress that the VA benefits appeals process is failing veterans and asked lawmakers for help to fix it.

Secretary McDonald described a process where decades worth of law and policy were simply thrown on top of each other with no regard for speed, accuracy or efficiency. McDonald said the process should resolve cases in a matter of months, not years. During a recent hearing with the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee McDonald said that with lawmakers’ help the time to process appeals could be under a year by 2020. It currently takes 3 years to get a decision on claims appeals.

VA officials have worked in recent years to clear the backlog of first-time benefits applications after intense public criticism about the waits facing veterans seeking disability payouts.

While the number of cases pending for four months or more has dropped from more than 612,000 in 2013 to fewer than 80,000 this week, the number of appeals has risen by more than one-third, to 440,000 cases.

VA officials have blamed the rise on the growing number of veterans filing benefits claims, noting the percent of cases heading to appeals has held steady at around 12 percent in recent years.

Veterans also have the option of adding new illnesses and disabilities as the appeals process drags on, giving them the opportunity to receive larger payouts but also lengthening the wait on decisions. Former Undersecretary for Benefits Allison Hickey would point to this as one of the main drivers of the multiple-years long appeals process.

House lawmakers have begun work on legislation to reform the appeals process. A bill sponsored by Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-TX), would create a “fully developed appeals” process, limiting introduction of new evidence and arguments but guaranteeing quicker processing time and decisions.

Mirror legislation is expected to be introduced in the Senate in coming days. The proposal could become the basis of the type of reform McDonald wants, and has support from key lawmakers from both political parties.

Below please find VA Secretary McDonalds public statement

 

 

 

Statement from VA Secretary Robert A. McDonald

On the Need to Reform the Veterans’ Appeals Process

Last week I presented to the Senate Veterans Affairs’ Committee the way forward for the important transformation of the Department of Veterans Affairs—what we call MyVA.  We aim to improve our care and services to all Veterans. In order to do that, I made clear that we would need Congress’ help in legislating a fair, streamlined, and comprehensive process for new appeals, as well as providing much needed resources to address the current pending inventory of appeals. I look forward to working with all stakeholders to design an appeals process that better serves Veterans.

 VA will need legislation and resourcing to put in place a simplified appeals process that enables the Department to resolve the majority of our appeals in a reasonable timeframe for Veterans.

The appeals process we currently have set in law is failing Veterans—and taxpayers. Decades worth of law and policy layered upon each other have become cumbersome and clunky. Most importantly, it is now so antiquated that it no longer serves Veterans well as many find it confusing and are frustrated by the endless process and the associated length of time it can take to get an answer.

In 2012, VA made the commitment to end the disability claims backlog. It took too long for Veterans to receive a decision on their claim. Our commitment has resulted in transformational change. The disability claims backlog has been driven down to fewer than 82,000, from a peak of 611,000 in March 2013. At the same time, we have fully transitioned to a paperless, electronic processing system, eliminating 5,000 tons of paper a year.  Last year, we decided 1.4 million disability compensation and pension claims for Veterans and survivors – the highest in VA history for a single year and that comes on the heels on two previous record-breaking years of productivity.

As VA has become more efficient in claims processing, the volume of appeals has increased proportionately. While it remains true that 11-12 percent of Veterans who receive a disability rating file for an appeal, more processed claims means more appeals. This is VA’s next challenge.

The current pending inventory of appeals stands at more than 440,000 and is estimated to grow rapidly. Right now, Veterans who file an appeal wait an average of three years for appeals to be resolved by the Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA), and an average of five years for appeals that reach the Board of Veterans Appeals’ (Board), with thousands lasting much longer. That’s unacceptable.

 

We are applying lessons learned from the transformative change that allowed us to reduce the disability claims backlog. Like our work with the claims processing, the appeals process will need changes in people, process and technology. Upgraded technology will make changes to our mail system and paper records, and incorporate some efficiencies in the way appeals are managed and processed.  Retraining and increased staff will be necessary.  But they will not be enough.  We must also look critically at the many steps in the current complex appeals process used by VA and by Veterans and their advocates to design a process that better serves Veterans.

A new appeals process would provide Veterans with the timely and fair appeals decisions they deserve, and adequate resourcing that permits the VBA and the Board to address the growing inventory of appeals.

 

 

 

House Veterans Chairman Accuses Drug Company of Price Gouging

Rep. Jeff Miller (R-Fla.), Chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, has criticized the drug company that makes the medicine that cures Hepatitis C. According to an article on Military.com, Miller accused the company of price gouging.

“The medicine, called Sofosbuvir, has already prompted Congress to add an additional $2.7 billion to the Veterans Affairs Department's budget in order to ‘prevent the department from having to ration veterans' access to the drug,’ Rep. Jeff Miller, a Republican from Florida, said in an op-ed posted Wednesday on CNN.com.”

Miller continued, “’Gilead's tone-deaf pricing strategy also fails to take into account the fact that without the Department of Veterans Affairs, the drug at the center of this debate would not even exist,’ Miller wrote.’Sofosbuvir was invented by a team led by a VA doctor, who sold the company that developed the drug to Gilead in 2012.’"

This issue is an important one for veterans, especially of the Vietnam War, because there are at least 200,000 suffering with the Hepatitis C disease.

 

You can read the entire article here:

http://www.military.com/daily-news/2016/01/27/pharma-company-price-gouging-va-on-hepatitis-medicine-lawmaker.html

Chicago Honor Flight Announces Plans to Honor Korean War Vets

For the past few years an organization called Honor Flight has been honoring WWII veterans by flying them free of charge to Washington, D.C., for a day to tour the monuments to their bravery and sacrifices in our nation’s capital.

Now, Honor Flight Chicago has announced that it will begin offering flights to Washington for Korean War veterans. So far, this is the only Honor Flight we’re aware of that is doing this, but if we hear of more we will advise you.

You can read the entire article here:

http://www.military.com/daily-news/2016/01/28/group-start-offering-honor-flights-dc-korean-war-veterans.html

 Carter Announces 12 Weeks Paid Military Maternity Leave, Other Benefits

The Defense Department is increasing military maternity leave and instituting other changes in an effort to support military families, improve retention and strengthen the force of the future, Defense Secretary Ash Carter said last week.

Women across the joint force can now take 12 weeks of fully paid maternity leave, Carter told reporters at the Pentagon. The 12-week benefit is double the amount of time for paid maternity leave from when he became defense chief nearly a year ago, he noted.

"This puts DoD in the top tier of institutions nationwide and will have significant influence on decision-making for our military family members," Carter said.

While being an incentive for attracting and retaining talent, the secretary said, the benefit also promotes the health and wellness of mothers through facilitating recovery and promoting feeding and bonding with the infant.

"Our calculation is quite simple -- we want our people to be able to balance two of the most solemn commitments they can ever make: a commitment to serve their country and a commitment to start and support a family," he said.

The announcement builds on previously announced initiatives on strengthening the force of the future, he said. Those previous reforms, he added, included opening all remaining combat occupations to women.

 Parental Leave, Support for New Parents

The maternity leave decision applies to all service members in the active duty component and to reserve-component members serving in a full-time status or on definite active duty recall or mobilization orders in excess of 12 months.

The 12 weeks is less than the Navy's decision last year to institute 18 weeks of fully paid maternity leave, Carter noted. Sailors and Marines who are currently pregnant or who become pregnant within 30 days of the enactment of the policy can still take the full 18 weeks of paid leave, he said.

To better support new mothers when they return to work, Carter said, he is requiring that a mothers’ room be made available in every DoD facility with more than 50 women. In addition, the Defense Department is seeking legislation to expand military paternity leave from the current 10-day leave benefit to a 14-day noncontiguous leave benefit, he said.

Increasing Hours of Military Child Care

The Defense Department subsidizes child care on military installations to ensure its affordability, Carter said. However, he added, military families often have to use outside providers because the hours at military child care facilities do not align with the work schedules of service members.

With those challenges in mind, the Defense Department is increasing child care access to 14 hours of the day across the force, he said.

"By providing our troops with child care they can rely on from before reveille until after taps, we provide one more reason for them to stay on board," he said. "We show them that supporting a family and serving our country are by no means incompatible goals."

 Remain at Current Location With Additional Obligation

Carter noted that military members might want to stay at their current location for a variety of family-related reasons, such as wanting to remain near relatives, be close to a medical facility that specializes in care needed for a child with a medical condition, or have a child finish out the same high school.

When the needs of the force permit, the secretary said, commanders will be empowered to make reasonable accommodations to allow service members to remain, in exchange for an additional service obligation.

Greater Flexibility in Family Planning

The military asks its men and women to make incomparable sacrifices, Carter said, potentially putting them in situations where they could suffer injuries that would prevent them from having children in the future.

Taking into account the tremendous sacrifices military members make, the Defense Department will cover the cost of freezing sperm or eggs through a pilot program for active duty service members, Carter said.

The department also is looking at how it can provide reproductive technologies like IVF to a wider population, he said. Currently, DoD provides reduced-cost treatment at six locations.

These benefits provide the force greater confidence about their future, and they allow greater flexibility for starting a family, Carter said.

They are one more tool, he said, to make the military a family-friendly employer that honors the desires of those who want to commit fully to their careers or serve courageously in combat, while preserving their ability to have children in the future.  

TRICARE Press Release: It’s Time to Have Your Eyes Checked

It’s Time to Have Your Eyes Checked
January 29, 2016

If you can’t remember the last time you had an eye exam, and it’s been longer than a year, you are overdue. Eye exams are not just about vision. Doctors can detect things like diabetes and high cholesterol from annual eye exams, not to mention eye diseases that have no known symptoms, like glaucoma.

According to the American Academy of Opthamology (AAO), glaucoma is a leading cause of irreversible blindness in the United States. It has no noticeable symptoms in its early stages, and vision loss progresses at such a gradual rate that people affected by the condition are often unaware of it until their sight has already been compromised. The AAO advises that the best defense against developing glaucoma-related blindness is by having routine, comprehensive eye exams.

Read the full article here.

Winter Storm Impacts Congressional Schedule

Winter storm Jonas caused federal offices to be closed during part of this week forcing Congress to postpone several congressional hearings. The VFW will update you when the hearings are rescheduled.

Draft Registration for Women?

We attended a press conference today with Selective Service System Director Lawrence Romo, who confirmed that the Pentagon has yet to make a recommendation to Congress to consider changing the registration requirement, but he did give it a 50:50 chance of occurring, now that the combat exclusion clause on women has been eliminated. With few exceptions, all 18- to 25-year-old American male citizens, as well as documented and undocumented immigrants, are required to register. Failure to do so is a felony, punishable by up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine, as well as being rendered ineligible for federal student loan grants, federal government employment, and employment with many state and local governments. The Selective Service System is a small, 124-employee independent agency within the Executive Branch. Right now, 16 million 18- to 25-year-old American males are registered; adding women would more than double their workload, but Roma said, if tasked, they could handle the additional workload with about 40 new employees and a slight increase to their $23 million annual budget. Learn more about the Selective Service System.

Force of the Future Update

Defense Secretary Ash Carter yesterday took another step toward building a Force of the Future in order for his department to maintain a competitive edge in attracting top talent. This latest announcement focuses on eight military family quality of life initiatives, some of which requires congressional legislation. The new initiatives are:

  • Create 12-Week Paid Maternity Leave Standard: This would double the current leave and immediately put DOD in the top tier of institutions nationally. More than 200,000 women currently serve in uniform, comprising 14.8 percent of enlisted personnel and 17.4 percent of officers.
  • Expand Paternity Leave to 14 Days: The initiative would increase the current 10-day paternity leave to 14.
  • Expand Adoption Leave: DOD currently authorizes three weeks adoptive leave to one parent. For the 84,000 military-to-military marriages, this initiative would provide two weeks of leave for the second parent, as well.
  • Extend CDC Hours to 14 Hours Minimum: Nearly half of all military families have to rely on an additional provider to meet their childcare needs outside the hours provided by military Child Development Centers. This initiative will extend CDC hours to overlap normal working shifts by at least two hours to ensure consistency with the daytime work patterns of the majority of military members.
  • Standardize Mothers’ Rooms: To help transition from maternity leave, DOD will require Mothers’ Rooms at all facilities with more than 50 women assigned. This will result in the improvement or establishment of 3,600 rooms throughout the military.
  • Examine Additional Childcare Options: The three service secretaries will assess childcare options to improve access and usability. To be evaluated are: expanding current capacity at those Child Development Centers where waiting lists exceed 90 days, allowing families to get on waiting lists upon receipt of orders instead of after arriving at new duty stations, creating a universal CDC waiting list application, and to better train CDC directors about interim off-base care resources, new parent mentorship networks, home-based child care, as well as to establish parent advisory boards.
  • Allow Longer Assignments for Family Reasons: DOD will seek an amendment to existing Title 10 authorities to permit service members to remain at current duty stations longer when it is in the best interests of their families. Examples cited were children in their senior year of high school, spouses about to graduate from a local university, and the need to care for a nearby ailing parent. In exchange, service members would incur additional active duty service commitments commensurate with the extension.
  • Provide Egg and Sperm Cryopreservation: The department will cover the cost for active duty members to freeze their sperm or eggs through a pilot program within the current governing rules of TRICARE. One purpose of the pilot is to understand the costs and potential recruiting and retention benefits for providing this medical service. After two years, the pilot may be renewed or service members can pay for additional storage out of pocket. Learn more details about the eight initiatives.

Desert Storm Memorial Update

The VFW spoke before the National Capital Memorial Advisory Commission yesterday in support of the proposed National Desert Storm Memorial. The VFW fully supports its creation, as authorized by Resolution 305, which was approved by delegates attending the 115th VFW National Convention in St. Louis, Mo. Getting commission approval is another step in a multilayered process that’s required for any new monument or memorial in Washington, D.C. The eight commissioners were in agreement that the Desert Storm Memorial should be located in Area 1, which encompasses a large portion of the National Mall, as well as across the Potomac River heading towards Arlington National Cemetery. Whether or not the new memorial will be permitted to be built within the portion identified as “The Reserve” is still to be determined. The Reserve is the most coveted area, as it currently encompasses the Vietnam, Korea, World War II and the District’s World War I monuments. Learn more about the Desert Storm Memorial.

WWI Memorial Design Selected

The World War I Centennial Commission announced the winning design for a new national memorial. “The Weight of Sacrifice,” created by 25-year-old Joe Weishaar, a 2013 University of Arkansas graduate who now works in Chicago, and New York-based sculptor Sabin Howard, was selected out of five finalists from 350 total entries. The design met the challenge of creating a concept to appropriately honor the service and sacrifice of the nearly 5 million Americans who served, and the more than 116,000 who died. The new national memorial is hoped to be dedicated on Veterans Day 2018, the centennial of the end of “The Great War.” It will be built a block away from the White House in Pershing Park, and include the existing statue of Army Gen. John J. “Blac kjack” Pershing, commander of American Expeditionary Forces, and member of VFW Post 27, which was formerly located in the Philippines. See the winning design.

Provisional TRICARE Coverage for Emerging Healthcare Service and Supplies

The FY2015 NDAA gave the SecDef the authority to provide provision coverage for a healthcare service or supply if the Secretary determines that the treatment is “widely recognized in the United States as being safe and effective” even though it does not meet TRICARE’s normal requirement of “proven effectiveness.”

This means that certain new treatments may be covered. On January 1st 2016 DoD approved its first provisional treatment- Femoroacetabular Impingement (FAI) Surgery. This surgery treats an abnormally shaped hip that damages the joint

The Assistant Secretary of Defense for Health Affairs approves any provisional coverage and his/her determination cannot be appealed. The provisional coverage can be in effect for up to 5 years. During that period TRICARE is to determine if the service will be included permanently in the TRICARE program.

Several present clinical trials are being monitored

This may be a very exciting option for people with unusual health problems. To find out more please go to either www.tricare.mil/provisionalcoverage or www.tricare.mil/emerging

New TRICARE Pharmacy Co-Pays Go into effect February 1st

This year’s NDAA included small increases in most TRICARE drug co-pays. (Certainly not what the Department of Defense was hoping for.) But there is still time before the February 1st effective date for you to refill some of your prescriptions.

Starting a week from tomorrow if you get a 30 day prescription from the retail network the generic prescription co-pay goes from $8 to $10; Brand Name drug prescriptions go from $20 to $24; and Non formulary prescriptions go from $47 to $50.

If you use Home delivery and get a 90 day prescription the generic co-pay is still $0; the Brand Name co-pays has gone from $16 to $20 and the Non-Formulary co-pay goes from $49 to $49.

MTF Pharmacies still charge no co-pay. (However remember that unless you can show “medical necessity” MTFs will not have non-formulary drugs.

So you still have time to save a little money by acting this week.

.And now here are the February 1st changes in TRICARE Over the Counter drug Coverage

Starting February 1st the TRICARE over-the-counter drug benefit is a permanent part of the benefit. (It had been a demonstration program before)

Beneficiaries will still need a doctor’s prescription for the OTC drug to be covered. And they will normally need to pay the regular generic co-pay However there are still a few little quirks.

According to DoD:

“Female beneficiaries can still get Levonorgestrel (emergency contraceptive used to prevent pregnancy). Its also known as Plan B. There are no age restrictions or costs. And, you don't need a prescription. (the Plan B one-step emergency contraceptive), without a copay or prescription at a network or military pharmacy.”

Also there are a few changes in what drugs are included in the OTC program.”The allergy medications Cetirizine and Loratadine were previously covered, but now the versions that contain pseudoephedrine are also covered. However, brand name Prilosec OTC is no longer covered. The generic version, Omeprazole, is still covered, as is the prescription version of Prilosec.”

While this is getting very much into the weeds you can get even greater detail by calling TRICARE’s pharmacy contractor Express Scripts at 1-877-363-1303.

GAO Report Calls for DOD to do Better Job Monitoring Prescription Programs

A new Government Accountability Office (GAO) report has found that the Departments of Defense and Veterans' Affairs have differences in their pharmacy monitoring programs that can cause problems for beneficiaries with prescriptions and those suffering post-traumatic stress.

According to the Military Times, “the investigation into DoD and VA prescribing practices for post-traumatic stress disorderand mild brain injury found that the VA closely monitors its physicians' practices in prescribing medications for PTSD, especially drug classes like benzodiazepines and anti-psychotics that are discouraged for use in PTSD patients.

But the Defense Department largely relies on the military services to review medication-prescribing practices of their physicians and, while DoD monitors prescriptions, it does not track medication use in relation to PTSD diagnoses.

The Army issued a policy in 2012 requiring military hospitals to review their prescribing practices for atypical anti-psychotics, and according to the service, the percentage prescribed dropped by nearly half, from 19 percent in fiscal 2010 to 10 percent in fiscal 2014.

The policy expired in 2014.”

The GAO report calls for the military to improve its monitoring standards and align them with the VA's system to ensure that doctors are following recommended treatment guidelines for PTSD and concussions.

As we have written about before, the FY 2016 NDAA required the DoD and VA to carry the same medications to treat mental and sleep disorders and pain.

There have been anecdotes of veterans who have suffered because they were unable to get the medicines they had been prescribed by DoD doctors after leaving the service. Marine veteran Clay Hunt, namesake of the Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for American Veterans (SAV)Act, was not able to get the prescriptions he needed to effectively deal with his PTSD when he moved from one VA Medical Center to another – another problem that needs to be fixed.

GAO found that VA largely has processes in place to ensure that transitioning veterans could get their medications at a VA facility, such as specialty request forms and a policy issued in 2015 instructing doctors not to discontinue patients' DoD-prescribed mental health medications due to formulary differences.

 

A GAO survey of 729 veterans found that 24 of them, or 3 percent, had their medications changed at VA for "non-clinical" reasons.

While VA officials told GAO that cost is a factor in determining which medicine to include in its formulary, it also does not carry some medications out of safety concerns or differences in treatment approaches.

GAO also recommended VA clarify which types of medications are covered by the Veterans Health Administration 2015 policy on medical continuation.

Both departments concurred with the GAO recommendations in written responses to the report.

Assistant Secretary of Defense for Health Affairs Dr. Jonathan Woodson said the military services will continue focusing on education and training their providers, and the Defense Health Agency will monitor pharmacological prescribing practices “when appropriate.”

VHA said it plans to publish a list of the medications covered in the 2015 policy.

- See more at: http://www1.ausa.org/resources/retireeaffairs/RetireeNews/2016/Pages/Ret...