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Retiree & Veteran Affairs News 22 January 2016

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

7 January 2016 Legislative News Update

An end-of-the-year review shows the Association of the U.S. Army was part of some major legislative successes in 2015. They included raising budget caps so the Army could get more funding, securing equal pay raises for soldiers and Army civilians, protecting military health care and commissary benefits, adequately funding dependent education programs, and improving suicide prevention and sexual assault prevention programs.

“AUSA works diligently with Congress, the Department of Defense and industry, and in alliance with our fellow military and veterans’ service organizations, to achieve our mission,” said the “Some Good News” report, which was prepared by AUSA’s Institute of Land Warfare. “While there is still much work to be done, we can report some success toward reaching our goals.”

Successes include securing a two-year reprieve from sequestration, the automatic budget-cutting process that hurts military readiness and requires wide cuts in programs. The sequestration reprieve and raising budget caps were temporary victories because the two damaging fiscal initiatives will be a threat again in 2018, making them issues AUSA will continue to fight.

Retired Lt. Gen. Guy C. Swan III, AUSA’s vice president for education, said the 2015 report covering the first session of the 114th Congress “demonstrates overall the role that AUSA plays in representing every American soldier and the dedicated civilians of the Department of the Army. AUSA is a voice for America’s Army, fostering public support of the Army’s role in national security.”

“There is still much work to be done, given today’s volatile national security environment that necessitates a focus on maintaining the readiness of the current force, development of the future force, sustainment of the all-volunteer force and enhancement of existing partnerships among industry, academia and the media,” Swan said. “Nevertheless, AUSA is pleased to outline the work that has recently been accomplished in working toward all of these goals.”

The association was also part of the effort to secure funding to develop and field equipment to enhance soldier survivability and combat effectiveness. Both the Apache helicopter and Stryker combat vehicle received funding to improve efficacy on the battlefield. The Humvee’s replacement, the Joint Light Tactical Vehicle, began production in late 2015.

Army civilian pay raise equality and soldier transition assistance were also successes in 2015. AUSA was part of an effort to ensure Army civilians received the 1.3 percent pay raise in tandem with military personnel. AUSA was able to compel Congress to fund soldier transition programs and establish a Job Training and Post-Service Placement Executive Committee within the current DoD-Department of Veterans Affairs Joint Executive Committee.

AUSA’s efforts also focused on retired Army personnel in efforts to protect TRICARE and Medicare benefits. The association worked with Congress to ensure doctors are paid a competitive fee for treating Medicare and TRICARE patients, and to develop a new system of paying doctors that should improve patient coverage. AUSA was also active in working with Congress to reject TRICARE for Life enrollment fees and increases in TRICARE fees and deductibles. The association notes there is still work to be done in this area.

AUSA was able to work on morale and welfare issues as well. The association insisted on funds to address the educational needs of military families; Congress responded by authorizing $30 million in DoD Impact Aid for schools educating large numbers of military-connected children, and authorizing $5 million to support local public schools educating military children with severe disabilities.

Commissary and exchange benefits were a hot issue in 2015. AUSA was part of an effort to successfully reject the Obama administration’s proposal to reduce the commissary subsidy and reduce store hours by adding $281.2 million to continue the current policy and requiring a “budget neutral” plan to hold the annual subsidy at its current level of $1.4 billion.

The association pushed for a fully funded suicide prevention program. Congress responded with the authorization of a DoD program that will coordinate its efforts with non-governmental suicide prevention organizations. Also, AUSA demanded a fully funded sexual harassment and assault response program. In 2015, Congress required DoD to establish an advisory committee on the investigation, prosecution and defense of sexual assault charges in the armed forces. Additionally, Congress required DoD to establish protections for members of the armed forces who intervene on behalf of victims; develop a plan to improve prevention and response to sexual assaults of male service members; and enhance sexual assault prevention training for commanders, administrators and instructors of ROTC units.

- See more at: http://www.ausa.org/legislation/newsletter/Pages/7January2016LegislativeNewsUpdate.aspx#sthash.pHX7dohy.dpuf

ONE MORE THING…

One last task for Congress before they leave town for the year is passage of a $1.15 trillion omnibus spending bill. 

Unveiled earlier this week, the legislation includes $514 billion in basic defense spending plus $59 billion for overseas contingency operations, a $26 billion increase over the fiscal 2015 budget.  

Included in the legislation is funding for a 1.3 percent pay raise for military personnel and civilian employees although general officers are left out of the 2016 increase.  Lawmakers added $300 million above the president’s request for Basic Allowance for Housing (BAH), but agreed with the Defense Department’s plan to slow the growth of the program.  BAH will cover only 98 percent of housing costs next year with troops paying the remaining 2 percent.  The Defense Department has announced the average BAH increase will be 3.4 percent. 

The bill also provides $281.2 million to maintain funding for commissaries, rejects consolidation of TRICARE, adds $25 million for continuation and expansion of the Special Victims’ Counsel Program to provide victims of sexual assault with legal assistance and support, adds $18 million for the Beyond Yellow Ribbon program, which supports members of the National Guard and Reserve and their families throughout their deployments, adds $34 million for financial literacy training, to help service members better plan for the future and to avoid scams that target military personnel, and, provides $32.6 billion for the defense health program.

Here is the breakout for the Army:

·       Army base budget funding: ~$124 billion ($126.5 billion requested)

·       Military personnel:  $53.4 billion ($53.6 billion requested)

·       Operations and Maintenance:  $42.1 billion ($44.9 billion requested)

·       Procurement:  $16.4 billion ($16.1 billion requested)

·       RDT&E:  $7.6 billion ($6.9 billion requested)

·       Military Construction and Family Housing:  $1.5 billion

Veterans Affairs’ operations will get $163 billion which includes $71.4 billion in discretionary funding, an almost 10 percent jump from fiscal 2015.

Of that, lawmakers appropriated $7.5 billion for mental health care operations, $4.9 billion for medical costs of Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans, $4.7 billion for female-specific health care programs, $7.5 billion for institutional and other long-term support of aging veterans, $1.4 billion to support homeless veterans, $1.5 billion for new Hepatitis-C medications, and $700 million above the president’s request for VA's disability claims backlog.

The outlook for the bill’s final passage is good.

A statement released by Rep. Hal Rogers, R-Ky., the House Appropriations Committee chairman, said, “The legislation today is a result of this extensive work and of Member involvement on behalf of their constituents around the country.  While an end-of-the-year Omnibus is not the preferred way to do business – it is always better to complete individual bills in a timely fashion – this bill will allow Congress to fulfill its constitutional duty to responsibly fund the federal government and avoid a shutdown.

His Senate counterpart, Thad Cochran of Mississippi said, “I support the approval of the omnibus bill by the Senate.  This legislation is our best option to responsibly meet national security requirements, improve our country’s infrastructure and address other public needs.  We’ve worked on a bipartisan basis to produce a bill that will make important investments to aid our economy and promote more effective and efficient government.”

- See more at: http://www.ausa.org/legislation/newsletter/Pages/17December2015LegislativeNewsUpdate.aspx#sthash.CgoareJl.dpuf

Some Good News: Legislative Victories for Soldiers in 2015 

An end-of-the-year review shows the Association of the U.S. Army was part of some major legislative successes in 2015. They included raising budget caps so the Army could get more funding, securing equal pay raises for soldiers and Army civilians, protecting military health care and commissary benefits, adequately funding dependent education programs, and improving suicide prevention and sexual assault prevention programs.

“AUSA works diligently with Congress, the Department of Defense and industry, and in alliance with our fellow military and veterans’ service organizations, to achieve our mission,” said the “Some Good News” report, which was prepared by AUSA’s Institute of Land Warfire. “While there is still much work to be done, we can report some success toward reaching our goals.”

Successes include securing a two-year reprieve from sequestration, the automatic budget-cutting process that hurts military readiness and requires wide cuts in programs. The sequestration reprieve and raising budget caps were temporary victories because the two damaging fiscal initiatives will be a threat again in 2018, making them issues AUSA will continue to fight.

Retired Lt. Gen. Guy C. Swan III, AUSA’s vice president for education, said the 2015 report covering the first session of the 114th Congress “demonstrates overall the role that AUSA plays in representing every American soldier and the dedicated civilians of the Department of the Army. AUSA is a voice for America’s Army, fostering public support of the Army’s role in national security.”

“There is still much work to be done, given today’s volatile national security environment that necessitates a focus on maintaining the readiness of the current force, development of the future force, sustainment of the all-volunteer force and enhancement of existing partnerships among industry, academia and the media,” Swan said. “Nevertheless, AUSA is pleased to outline the work that has recently been accomplished in working toward all of these goals.”

The association was also part of the effort to secure funding to develop and field equipment to enhance soldier survivability and combat effectiveness. Both the Apache helicopter and Stryker combat vehicle received funding to improve efficacy on the battlefield. The Humvee’s replacement, the Joint Light Tactical Vehicle, began production in late 2015.

Army civilian pay raise equality and soldier transition assistance were also successes in 2015. AUSA was part of an effort to ensure Army civilians received the 1.3 percent pay raise in tandem with military personnel. AUSA was able to compel Congress to fund soldier transition programs and establish a Job Training and Post-Service Placement Executive Committee within the current DoD-Department of Veterans Affairs Joint Executive Committee.

AUSA’s efforts also focused on retired Army personnel in efforts to protect TRICARE and Medicare benefits. The association worked with Congress to ensure doctors are paid a competitive fee for treating Medicare and TRICARE patients, and to develop a new system of paying doctors that should improve patient coverage. AUSA was also active in working with Congress to reject TRICARE for Life enrollment fees and increases in TRICARE fees and deductibles. The association notes there is still work to be done in this area.

AUSA was able to work on morale and welfare issues as well. The association insisted on funds to address the educational needs of military families; Congress responded by authorizing $30 million in DoD Impact Aid for schools educating large numbers of military-connected children, and authorizing $5 million to support local public schools educating military children with severe disabilities.

Commissary and exchange benefits were a hot issue in 2015. AUSA was part of an effort to successfully reject the Obama administration’s proposal to reduce the commissary subsidy and reduce store hours by adding $281.2 million to continue the current policy and requiring a “budget neutral” plan to hold the annual subsidy at its current level of $1.4 billion.

The association pushed for a fully funded suicide prevention program. Congress responded with the authorization of a DoD program that will coordinate its efforts with non-governmental suicide prevention organizations. Also, AUSA demanded a fully funded sexual harassment and assault response program. In 2015, Congress required DoD to establish an advisory committee on the investigation, prosecution and defense of sexual assault charges in the armed forces. Additionally, Congress required DoD to establish protections for members of the armed forces who intervene on behalf of victims; develop a plan to improve prevention and response to sexual assaults of male service members; and enhance sexual assault prevention training for commanders, administrators and instructors of ROTC units.

Read and share the report.

- See more at: http://www.ausa.org/news/Pages/%E2%80%98SomeGoodNews%E2%80%99LegislativeVictoriesforSoldiersin2015.aspx#sthash.ygmhX2BR.dpuf

Five States’ ID’s no Longer Valid on Military Installations

According to an article on Military.com, DoD installations will no longer accept ID’s from five states.

State-issued driver’s licenses and identification cards from Illinois, New Mexico, Missouri, Washington and Minnesota can no longer be used to obtain a visitor’s pass because those cards don’t comply with federal standards, officials said. DoD officials did not say whether or not enhanced driver's licenses from Minnesota or Washington would still be accepted.”

However, if the driver or a passenger in the vehicle has a DoD ID card, that is sufficient to gain access to the installation.

You can read the entire article here:  http://www.military.com/daily-news/2016/01/13/some-military-bases-no-longer-accepting-ids-from-five-states.html?ESRC=eb.nl

There are also reports that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) are considering to bar these same states’ drivers’ licenses to be used for identification when boarding commercial aircraft. But as of now they have not adopted that position.

Don’t Know Where to Turn For a Sick Child? Call TRICARE’s Nurse Advice Line

TRICARE Press Release

It’s late at night and your child has a fever or ache. Deciding what kind of care they need can be confusing. As a TRICARE beneficiary, you have a resource that can help decide the best course of action. TRICARE’s Nurse Advice Line (NAL) is available at no cost to TRICARE beneficiaries in the continental United States, Alaska, and Hawaii. The NAL is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Call 1-800-TRICARE (1-800-874-2273) and choose option 1.

The NAL has a team of pediatric registered nurses (RNs) skilled in providing medical care for children of all ages in a variety of healthcare settings. More than half of the calls to the NAL are related to pediatric health concerns, which are routed to the NAL’s experienced RNs. Once you are connected to a nurse, they will ask you a series of questions based on triage algorithms. The nurse will also answer your questions about high fevers, allergic reactions, rashes, and/or accidents, and advise you on the clinically appropriate level of care you should seek for your child.

Please make sure that your child is present so you can assess their condition as the nurse asks questions. Depending on the circumstances and age of your child, the nurse may ask to speak to your child directly. Feel free to stay on another line or use a speakerphone option if that would make you more comfortable. If self-care is recommended, the nurse may provide you with advice on home treatments and remedies. If your child does need an appointment, the NAL will try to schedule one for you at your local MTF, or will advise you to seek care within the network.

The NAL helps you get access to the right type of care at the right time. To learn more about the services the Nurse Advice Line offers, visit us online.

House Holds Hearing on VA Claims Backlog

On Tuesday, the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee held a hearing to discuss the effectiveness of the Veterans Benefits Management System (VBMS) in improving the VA claims process and reducing the backlog. Initially deployed in 2013, VBMS is a paperless system that was designed to streamline the claims process and create greater efficiency. Although the VA has made significant progress in reducing the backlog of initial claims since the introduction of VBMS, the system still suffers from several problems. Referencing its recent report on VBMS, the Government Accountability Office stated that the system contains significant software defects, and the VA continues to lack performance goals and reliable cost estimates for correcting them. The VA Office of the Inspector General testified that the backlog reduction was more easily attributed to mandatory overtime and workforce reallocation than the success of VBMS. The VFW strongly believes that the VA must be able to field a reliable paperless claims system without significant cost overruns. To watch a webcast of the hearing and read the full testimony, click here

Hearing on Commissary Reform

On Wednesday, the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Military Personnel held a hearing on proposed reforms to DOD commissaries. The subcommittee members discussed how DOD can reduce the cost of operating commissaries by establishing region-based pricing and Defense Commissary Agency labeled products. To read testimony or view a video of the hearing, click here.

New Stolen Valor Case Isn't

The Associated Press released an article this week about the Ninth Circuit Court overturning a Stolen Valor conviction against Elvin Joe Swisher of Idaho. What the AP failed to do was add context, because this story’s only “news value” is the Ninth Circuit Court released a ruling, but on an old case using an old law. This issue began in 2004 when Swisher wore a Purple Heart while appearing as a witness in an unrelated court case. In 2007, he was indicted on four counts: wearing unauthorized medals (he also wore others, to include the Silver Star); making false statements to obtain VA benefits; altering his DD-214 to obtain the benefits; and theft of government funds for receiving the benefits. Swisher was convicted and served time. He later challenged the Stolen Valor conviction for the same reason the same circuit court in “U.S. v. Alvarez” found the Stolen Valor Act of 2005 to be a violation of free speech, and therefore, unconstitutional. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the lower court’s ruling and overturned the 2005 law in 2012, but in their writings cleared a path for a new Stolen Valor Act that would be signed into law in 2013. The new law focuses on the intent to profit from the lie—to obtain money, property, or something of a tangible benefit or value. The Ninth Circuit Court ruled this week that they were not barred from considering Swisher’s claim, even though his challenge was based on a Supreme Court decision that was decided five years after his conviction.

HASC Chairman Update

The VFW joined House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) at the National Press Club on Wednesday to hear his views going into the second half of the 114th Congress. He called the world more dangerous than it was in 2009, and said that America’s military superiority and technological edge was eroding. Among his top concerns are Iran, Russia, North Korea, China, cyber warfare and ISIS. He stated the defense budget is not enough—­­not with the continuing need to modernize America’s nuclear forces as well as conventional forces, which will still require quality and quantity. His committee overhauled the military retirement system in 2015 and will use the new year to reexamine the military health care system, which could prove a tough fight, especially during a federal election year. Read more

CNO Update

The VFW joined Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson at the National Press Club on Monday to hear his views on the concerns and challenges facing the United States Navy. His presentation focused on maritime issues, global information, technology and budget, as well as the threats posed by Russia, China, Iran, North Korea and international terrorism. Read more

POW/MIA Update

The Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency has announced identification and burial updates for two Army soldiers who had been missing in action since the Korean and Vietnam Wars.

  • Army Pfc. David S. Burke, 18, of Akron, Ohio, is being buried today with full military honors in Rittman, Ohio. On Nov. 25, 1950, Burke was assigned to Company C, 1st Battalion, 24th Infantry Regiment, 25th Infantry Division, when his unit was attacked by Chinese forces near the border between China and North Korea. Under heavy pressure, outnumbered and surrounded with no avenue of escape, the unit surrendered. It would be later learned that Burke died of malnutrition between March and May 1951. Read more.   
  • Army Staff Sgt. Kenneth L. Cunningham, 21, of Ellery, Ill., will be buried Jan. 21 with full military honors in Albion, Ill. As previously announced, then Private 1st Class Cunningham on Oct. 3, 1969, was an observer in an OV-1C Mohawk aircraft on a surveillance mission over the tri-border area of Cambodia, Laos and South Vietnam. Contact was lost and the aircraft was found two days later atop a 7,000-foot peak in a mountain range north of Kontum. Cunningham’s remains were not recovered. He was assigned to the 225th Aviation Company, 223rd Aviation Battalion, 17th Aviation Group, 1st Aviation Brigade.

DOD Announces Results of Military Awards Review

The Pentagon has made a number of changes to the military decorations and awards program to ensure service members receive appropriate recognition of their actions. While the news leaked a day early, it was scheduled to be release after a conference call that The Retired Enlisted Association, represented by Deputy Legislative Director Mike Saunders, participated in.

Then-Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel initiated the review in 2014 to improve the military awards program by reviewing lessons learned from the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Key changes to the decorations and awards program include:

-- Implementation of new goals and processes to improve timeliness of the Medal of Honor and other valor awards;

-- Standardization of the meaning and use of the Combat Distinguishing Device, or “V” device across the services as a valor-only device to ensure unambiguous and distinctive recognition for preeminent acts of combat valor;

-- Creation of a new combat device, to be represented by a “C” worn on the relevant decoration, to distinctly recognize those service members performing meritoriously under the most arduous combat conditions;

-- Introduction of a “remote impacts” device, signified by an “R” to be worn on the relevant decoration, to recognize service members who use remote technology to directly impact combat operations; and

-- Adoption of a common definition of Meritorious Service Under Combat Conditions to determine eligibility for personal combat awards.

Service Cross, Silver Star Review

To "ensure that those service members who performed valorously were recognized at the appropriate level," the defense official said that Defense Secretary Ash Carter has directed the military departments to review Distinguished Service Cross, Navy Cross, Air Force Cross, and Silver Star Medal recommendations since Sept. 11, 2001, for actions in Iraq and Afghanistan.

There are approximately 1,000 Silver Star and 100 service cross recommendations under review, the official said. While there is a possibility a medal could get upgraded, no service member will have the award downgraded, he said. The defense official noted "unusual Medal of Honor awards trends," as one reason for the review. The first seven Medal of Honor awards for actions in Iraq and Afghanistan were posthumous, he said. There may have been a perception that only a fallen service member could receive the nation's highest military award for valor, he said. After the Defense Department clarified the “risk of life” portion for the Medal of Honor's criteria in 2010, all 10 recipients have been living, he noted. The review is to ensure that no one deserving of a higher honor has been overlooked, the defense official said.

The results of the reviews are due to the secretary of defense on Sept. 30, 2017, he said.

VBA Officials at Heart of VA Hiring Scam Demoted, But Not Prosecuted

The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) announced last week that it has again demoted two senior executives who’d been found manipulating the hiring system for their own financial gain. Their initial demotions had been rescinded after the agency botched the paperwork supporting the disciplinary action the first time.

In December, the VA rescinded its demotions of Diana Rubens and Kimberly Graves, saying it had inadvertently omitted one of five evidence binders that the agency had provided to the two officials.

The move turned back the clock on not only the punishments but also their appeals process, which had already begun, adding to outrage over the VA’s handling of the case.

The moves followed the VA Inspector General’s Office's release of an investigation in September concluding Rubens, the director of Veteran’s Benefits Administration’s Philadelphia Regional Office, and Graves, the director of the VBA’s St. Paul Regional Office, had “inappropriately used their positions of authority for personal and financial benefit” by arranging the transfer of subordinates whose jobs they wanted and then volunteering for the vacancies.

The situation with Rubens and Graves has led the members of the Senate and House Veterans Affairs Committees, on a bipartisan basis, to rebuke of the VA for its failure to hold corrupt officials accountable. Critics were further incensed when the VA’s top lawyer determined the organization did not have the legal authority to recoup the hundreds of thousands in relocation bonuses that the women had obtained through abuse of their offices. Additionally, the Department of Justice recently found that there was not enough evidence to prosecute the two officials.

A VA statement said the employees can now submit new appeals of their reassignments to the Merit Systems Protection Board. VA officials did not respond to questions about whether this has taken place, but both women had appealed their demotions the first time around, and they could take similar action now that the demotions have been formalized.

TRICARE Pharmacy Copays go up February 1

from Press Release:

Military pharmacies and TRICARE Pharmacy Home Delivery will remain the lowest cost pharmacy option for TRICARE beneficiaries when some TRICARE pharmacy copays change in 2016. On Feb 1, 2016, most copays for prescription drugs at Home Delivery and retail network pharmacies will increase slightly.

The 2016 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) requires TRICARE to change its prescription copays. All drugs at military pharmacies, and generic drugs through Home Delivery, are still available at no cost to beneficiaries. Copays for brand name drugs through Home Delivery increase from $16 to $20, for up to a 90-day supply. At retail pharmacies, generic drug copays go from $8 to $10, and brand name drug copays go from $20 to $24 dollars, for up to a 30-day supply. Copays for non-formulary drugs and for drugs at non-network pharmacies will also change.

Beneficiaries can save up to $208 in 2016 for each brand name prescription drug they switch from retail pharmacy to Home Delivery. Home Delivery offers safe and convenient delivery of your prescription drugs right to your mailbox.

To see the new TRICARE pharmacy copays, learn more about the TRICARE Pharmacy benefit, or move your prescription to Home Delivery, visit www.tricare.mil/pharmacy

VA announces 2016 life insurance policy dividend levels

The VA has announced that they will be paying approximately $88.1 million in dividends to approximately 430,000 veterans who served prior to 1956 and have “qualifying life insurance policies.” (The dividends come from investments in U.S. securities held in trust financed by veterans’ paid insurance premiums.)

The Department of Veterans Affairs will pay:

  • $53.5 million – Anticipated total amount of dividends to qualifying Veterans of World War II holding National Service Life Insurance policies that begin with the letter “V”.
  • $2.3 million – Anticipated total amount of dividends to be paid to qualifying World War II-era Veterans holding Veterans Reopened Insurance policies that begin with the letters “J,” “JR” or “JS”.
  • $32.2 million – Anticipated total amount of dividends to be paid to qualifying Korean Conflict-era Veterans holding Veterans Special Life Insurance policies that begin with the letters “RS” or “W”.
  • $105,000 – Anticipated total amount of dividends to be paid to qualifying Veterans who served after World War I until 1940 and hold U.S. Government Life Insurance policies that begin with the letter “K”.

The VA will automatically pay the dividend on the anniversary date of the policy by sending it to the insured Veteran. The veteran does not need to take any action.

If you have any questions about your VA insurance policy you should either call toll-free number at 1-800-669-8477 or send an email to [email protected]

TRICARE Retiree Dental Program (TRDP) reaches 1.5 million enrollees

Delta Dental, the contractor for the TRICARE Retiree Dental Program (TRDP) announced that in January 2016 they surpassed 1.5 million enrollees. The TRDP is America’s “largest voluntary, all-enrollees paid dental program.” It provides both fee for service and preferred provider program (network) benefit.

“We are proud to serve our military retirees and their family members,” said Patrick T. Henry, senior vice president for Delta Dental’s Federal Government Programs division. “Through our collaborative partnership with the Defense Health Agency (DHA), we continually improve the TRDP, which is central to our partnership with the agency. Achieving this milestone is very gratifying, and our commitment to helping these families receive quality oral care and improve their overall health is stronger than ever……..The program continues to grow while we keep premiums low for what amounts to a broad benefits and wellness package. We are committed to maintaining the right benefit at the right price while providing the best customer experience possible.”

U.S. has plan to evacuate troops and families in case of attack in Korea

The Military Times reported after North Korea claimed that it had successfully detonated a hydrogen bomb, about the standing evacuation plan that the U.S. military has to evacuate American troops, their families and even their pets from Korea.

The noncombatant evacuation plan (or NEO)” spells out the necessary steps families of military personnel, civilians and even some pets must take to retreat from the radioactive fallout.”

The Military Times explained:

“ The NEO guide, which also can be found through the U.S. Forces Korea website, dictates a basic evacuation plan that has been used in past crises elsewhere, such as in 2006, when the U.S. evacuated American civilians from Lebanon.

Here's how it would work:

ELIGIBILITY. Those who may be ordered to evacuate include U.S. government civilian employees and dependents, U.S. military family members, and other designated personnel. Others who may be designated as eligible for authorized assistance include private U.S. citizens and their dependents; legal residents of the U.S.; foreign national employees of the U.S. government and their dependents, and other designated non-U.S. government foreign nationals. For that last group, the U.S. Embassy in Seoul makes the designations.

GET IT TOGETHER. Anyone tapped to leave the affected area will assemble after an alert from leadership — either the U.S. military or embassy — goes out. The NEO binder that families receive should contain their “pertinent documents (passports, Power of Attorney, etc.), should the family have to be evacuated,” the former official said.  “Once a year, families would muster with this binder and their packed luggage, pet carriers, and so on and get accounted for as if they were being evacuated.”

WAIT, PETS? Yes, pets are considered family members and can be registered to leave an affected area if necessary, the NEO document says. But this area is a bit gray. After an emergency evacuation practice exercise in 2006, U.S. Forces Korea’s top commander at the time, Gen. B.B. Bell, told local commanders that Americans found themselves “in chaos” during the Lebanon evacuation, according to a report in Stars and Stripes. “What do you do with 5,000 dogs?” Bell asked, noting that six out of 10 families in Korea at the time had pets. While pets cannot be abandoned, one alternative is to ship them.

THE PLAN. Those eligible for evacuation would meet at a designated evacuation control center to be properly vetted with their materials before they relocate. A relocation center, according to the NEO guide, would be positioned south on the Korean Peninsula. Evacuees then would move to an airport or seaport to move to a designated “safe haven” or return to the U.S.”

The plan is tested annually. It was last tested in November 2015.

At the same time the House of Representatives is planning to vote on new and broader sanctions against North Korea as early as today. Last Thursday Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-WI) announced that the House would vote on such H.R.757 a bill introduced last year by House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce (R-CA). Democratic House Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) said that the House Democrats would support the bill.   

New DHA head meets with VSO Representatives

Last week Vice Admiral “Rocky” Bono met with several VSO/MSO representatives. VADM Bono is a doctor (surgeon) in the Navy’s Medical Corps. While the meeting was more a getting to know you event than anything else it was very interesting to see how open and welcoming everyone at DHA was.

Next year, as we have told you again and again next year’s military personnel legislation is clearly going to be about healthcare. Especially about TRICARE for active duty family members, the Guard and Reserve and for retirees under the age of 65. (At this moment it does not look like they are planning to look at TFL but we will keep watching to make sure.) Unlike the question of increasing members’ co-pays, deductibles and other costs this is a subject that representatives of beneficiaries and DoD agrees. And so for once they want us on their side.

We will still clearly be fighting over their desire to always shift more and more costs to the beneficiaries. But on some matters we may be on the same side. Next year looks like it will be a very interesting year on the Hill.

VA announces disability status for Camp Lejeune veterans

Last week the Department of Veterans Affairs finally granted presumptive disability status for 8 diseases to those veterans who drank the poisoned water at Camp Lejeune from 1953-1987.

The diseases are:

  • Kidney Cancer
  • Liver Cancer
  • Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma
  • Leukemia
  • Multiple Myeloma
  • Scleroderma
  • Parkinson's Disease
  • Aplastic Anemia / Myelodysplastic Syndromes

This only came after years of pressure from Congress, especially from Senator Burr (R-NC) and the North Carolina delegation in the House and the Senate.

This followed the 2012 passage of the Honoring America’s Veterans and Caring for Camp Lejeune Families Act of 2012 which required the VA to provide health care to veterans and their families who had certain diseases due to their exposure to the contaminated water at Camp Lejeune during those years.

Congress Makes Changes to GI Bill and other Educational Programs

At the end of November Congress finally passed the National Defense Authorization Act for FY2016.  Among many other things in the bill were changes to the GI Bill and a number of other military-related educational programs.

The changes that were made are to the following:

The Reserve Educational Assistance Program (REAP) GI Bill Is Ending

Reserve Reintegration Programs

Expansion of Education Counseling During Outbriefing

No More Unemployment While Getting The GI Bill

You can click on this link to read details of the changes:

http://www.military.com/education/2015/12/01/2016-ndaa-education-changes.html

Senate Passes Bill to Protect Servicemembers from Foreclosure

House of Representatives Now Has to Act

From Press Release:

The Senate voted unanimously to pass legislation to help protect the homes of members of the armed forces from foreclosure. The bill would extend through 2017 a provision that safeguards active duty servicemembers against losing their homes for one year following the completion of their service in the field.

The current one-year safeguard from foreclosure will expire at the end of 2015 and revert to the three-month protection that was originally enacted under the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act (SCRA).

In 2008, Congress first extended the period of foreclosure protection under the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act (SCRA) from 90 days to nine months in response to a report by the Commission on the National Guard and Reserves. The report found that “the threat of foreclosure is a stressor that need not be placed on members of the armed forces during the first months of their return to civilian life.”

In December 2014, Congress extended the foreclosure protection until January 2016. Unless the House of Representatives acts by the end of this year, the period of foreclosure protection will revert back to just 90 days starting in 2016.

The SCRA provides for the temporary suspension of judicial and administrative proceedings and actions that may adversely affect servicemembers during military service. Key provisions include limiting the interest rate on debts incurred prior to a person's entry into active duty military service, prohibiting military families from being evicted from rental or mortgaged property; and prohibiting military families from having their life insurance canceled or being taxed in multiple jurisdictions.

(It seems very unlikely that the House of Representatives will act before the end of the year. But they may very well take this bill up as soon as they return and make the effective date retroactive to January 1st 2016.)

DoD Releases 2016 Basic Allowance for Housing Rates

Last week the Department of Defense has released the 2016 Basic Allowance for Housing rates. The BAH will increase an average of 3.4% on January 1, 2016. An estimated $21 billion will be paid to approximately 1,000,000 Service members. This means that the BAH rates will rise on average $54.00 a month.

The members cost sharing was raised to 2% in the finally passed and signed FY2016 National Defense Authorization Act. According to DoD “this means for 2016, a typical member will need to absorb two percent of the national average housing cost by pay grade.”

TRICARE Announces Premium Hike

TRICARE Health Plan officials have announced the 2016 premiums for TRICARE Young Adult Prime and Standard options covering beneficiaries 23 to 26 years old. These premiums are adjusted on an annual basis and go into effect Jan. 1. For 2016, the monthly premium for TYA Prime is $306 per month, and TYA Standard is $228 per month. Lower-cost plans may be available depending on income and residence, and assistance with paying premiums may be available. Beneficiaries may also qualify for Medicaid. Go to www.healthcare.gov to evaluate eligibility and options. Open enrollment for the Health Insurance Marketplace begins Nov. 1 and runs through Jan. 31. For more information, visit the TRICARE Young Adult website

Senate Holds Hearing on Military Transition Programs

On Tuesday, the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee held a hearing titled, “Is Transition Assistance on Track?” Representatives from VA, DOD, and the Department of Labor (DOL), were on hand to provide testimony about the various programs their departments provide to support service members as they separate from the military. Topics included the DOD Transition Assistance Program (TAP), VA Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment, DOL Jobs for Veterans State Grants program, their strengths and weaknesses, and ways to improve them. The VFW supports all three of these initiatives and is actively engaged in the TAP process at 20 military installations through our Benefits Delivery at Discharge program. To see a webcast of the hearing, click here.

Senate Holds Field Hearing in Phoenix

On Monday, the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee held a field hearing in Phoenix regarding issues related to the VA’s Veterans Choice Program, accountability and management as they relate to the Phoenix VA Medical Center. Senator Dan Sullivan of Alaska chaired the hearing and was joined by both Arizona Senators, John McCain and Jeff Flake. Local veterans discussed continuing difficulties faced at the Phoenix VAMC and with the Choice Program. Also testifying was a VA doctor who acted as a whistleblower for issues faced by employees. Defending actions taken and corrections made were VA’s Under Secretary for Health, and the President and CEO of TriWest Healthcare Alliance, which manages the scheduling and payment process of the Choice Program. Read the testimony.

IB Framework Briefing

On Monday, in partnership with the Independent Budget (IB), VFW National Legislative Director, Ray Kelley, provided a briefing of the IB’s framework for veterans health care reform to the Commission on Care. The Commission on Care was mandated in the Veterans Access, Choice, and Accountability Act, or Choice Act, and is tasked with making recommendations to Congress on the future of VA health care. To read the IB’s framework click here.

Omnibus Budget Bill Introduced

On Wednesday, Congress introduced an omnibus budget bill for Fiscal Year 2016. Totaling more than 2,000 pages, the bill includes several key provisions for the Department of Veterans Affairs, including:

  • $50 billion for VA medical services (a nearly 10% increase over the previous year), including $1.5 billion for Hepatitis C treatment, $7.5 billion for mental health care, $605 million for caregiver programs and $6.7 billion for homeless veteran programs.
  • $2.7 billion for processing claims and reducing the backlog on initial claims and appeals. This money allows for an additional 770 employees to handle the processing of claims and appeals.
  • $1.2 billion for construction, which is more than three times the amount of the previous year. Requirements in the bill force the VA to allow another federal agency to manage construction programs costing more than $100 million.
  • Advance appropriations for VA’s FY17 budget totaling more than $165 billion.
  • $283 million for related agencies, such as the American Battle Monuments Commission, which cares for cemeteries and monuments around the world, and Arlington National Cemetery, which will be able to complete projects deferred in previous years.

In all, the bill funds health care for 7 million veterans, compensation and pension benefits for 5.2 million veterans and their survivors, GI Bill benefits for 935,000 veterans, and vocational rehabilitation for 137,000 veterans. The bill included several veterans policy and tax changes that would curtail the VA’s use of high dose opioid medications to treat chronic pain, exclude military housing allowance when determining whether a tenant is low-income, and reauthorize the Work Opportunity Tax Credit, which incentivizes employers to hire unemployed and disabled veterans. The bill also marks the first time Congress made advance appropriations for both mandatory and discretionary spending, which will impact the FY17 budget. The bill has cleared the House and Senate and requires approval by the president no later than December 22 to prevent a government shutdown. The VFW Action Corps will publish more updates as they become available .

Proposed Expansion for Camp Lejeune Eligibility

On Thursday, the VA announced that it will classify eight medical afflictions as presumptive disabilities for purposes of adjudicating compensation benefits for veterans who were exposed to contaminated water at Camp Lejeune between 1953 and 1987. Additionally, National Guard and Reserve service members who did not serve on active duty but conducted training at the base will be considered as part of this expanded policy. This means that VA will now presume that a veteran’s exposure entitles that veteran to VA disability compensation benefits for any of the eight covered conditions. This is a major change as no condition was considered under “presumptive status” for disability benefits. Currently, the VA only provides no-cost health care for 15 covered conditions. Moving forward, those who receive VA compensation benefits will also be eligible for VA health care if they were not otherwise eligible. As a result, veterans who served 30 or more days at Camp Lejeune between 1953 and 1987 and have been diagnosed with esophageal cancer, breast cancer, renal toxicity, female infertility, lung cancer, bladder cancer, hepatic steatosis, miscarriage, and neurobehavioral effects are eligible for no-cost VA health care, but are not presumed to be eligible for VA disability compensation benefits. The VFW will work to ensure veterans who suffer from medical conditions that are associated with exposure to contaminated water at Camp Lejeune receive the health care and benefits they deserve and will hold the VA accountable to ensuring its presumptive list is accurate.

Those who have filed in the past and were denied can file again, while those who are pending a decision that could be denied will not receive any decision until a final ruling is approved on the proposed expansion. Any veteran who needs help completing a VA claim for their service can contact the VFW for assistance at 1-800-VFW-1899. The VFW accredits more than 1,600 service officers to assist veterans with their VA claims and benefits. To read the VA’s announcement on this issue, click here

VA Expands Prosthetics Benefits

After years of successful tests, the VA has agreed to begin providing exoskeletons to paralyzed veterans who meet the robotic legs’ height and weight limits. Currently, 45 veterans meet the requirements and should have the opportunity to receive the newly approved robotic legs, which will not replace wheelchairs, but can last up to four hours of continuous use. The VFW will continue to track the progress of this revolutionary rehabilitation treatment and provide updates as it becomes more widely available.  

Bergdahl Gets General Court-Martial

The Army recommended this week that Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl be tried by general court-martial under charges of desertion (Article 85) and misbehavior before the enemy (Article 99) under the Uniform Code of Military Justice. Bergdahl spent almost five years as a Taliban captive before being released on May 31, 2014, in a controversial prisoner swap that freed five Taliban leaders from the U.S. military detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. If convicted, maximum punishments could include a dishonorable discharge, reduction in rank to E-1, total forfeiture of all pay and allowances, and life in prison, as well as the death penalty. An arraignment date has not been announced, but it is expected to take place at Fort Bragg, N.C., where U.S. Army Forces Command is headquartered.

MIA Update

The Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency has announced the identification of remains of two American servicemen who have been missing-in-action since World War II and Korea. Being returned home for burial with full military honors are:

  • Army Air Forces 1st Lt. Leonard R. Farron, of Pierce County, Wash., was piloting a P-39 Airacobra that failed to return to base after a strafing mission over Guadalcanal on Oct. 15, 1942. He was assigned to the 67th Fighter Squadron, 347th Fighter Group, 13th Air Force.
  • Army Pvt. James M. Smith, 19, of Wilcox County, Ga., was lost fighting in South Korea on Feb. 12, 1951. He was assigned to Company K, 38th Infantry Regiment, 2nd Infantry Division.

Top Ten VA Services List for Veterans in 2016

One thing we all hope for in a New Year is good health. For America's Veterans, that's our job. At our VA hospitals and Community-Based Outpatient Clinics, we are here to serve you.

By Hans Petersen

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Happy New Year from the Veterans Health Administration!

Whether you are a Veteran, related to one or count a Veteran as a good friend, here are some valuable suggestions for New Year’s Resolutions in 2016 for America’s Veterans.

We hope you put this at the top of your Favorites list, save it in the device of your choice or maybe just print it out and hang it on the fridge. It could come in handy many times in 2016.

1. Sign Up For VA Health Benefits

This is an easy guide to VA’s comprehensive medical benefits package. It includes helpful instructions on how to apply.

2. Drop By a Vet Center

Did you know there are 300 Vet Centers across the U.S. and surrounding territories? They are for Veterans who have served in any combat zone and offer a broad range of counseling, outreach, and referral services.

3. Learn About VA Mental Health Resources

The Guide to VA Mental Health Services for Veterans and Families is intended for Veterans, Veteran family members, members of Veteran Service Organizations, or members of other groups interested in VA mental health care.

4. Help a Homeless Vet Find a Home

VA is committed to ending Veteran homelessness. No one who has served our country should ever go without a safe, stable place to call home.

5. Watch Veterans Share Their PTSD Experiences

Brave Veterans with PTSD tell their stories, hoping it will help other Vets — a compelling VA online resource.

6. Discover The Many Ways VA Is Helping Women Veterans

VA has made tremendous progress improving services for women by redesigning the delivery of comprehensive primary care for women and training VA providers in women’s health.

7. Enroll in the MyHealtheVet Online Program

My HealtheVet is VA’s online personal health record. It was designed for Veterans, active duty Servicemembers, their dependents and caregivers. My HealtheVet helps you partner with your health care team. It provides you opportunities and tools to make informed decisions and manage your health care.

8. Stop Smoking and Binge Eating

Here’s help to quit smoking, lose weight, and a lot more to keep your healthy.

9. Take Advantage Of The Veterans Crisis Line

The Veterans Crisis Line connects Veterans in crisis and their families and friends with qualified, caring VA responders through a confidential toll-free hotline, online chat, or text.

10. Save These Links To VA Services

This is a quick list of links to the many health support services available to Veterans. Have a happy, healthy 2016!

- See more at: http://www.va.gov/HEALTH/NewsFeatures/2015/December/Top-Ten-VA-Services-List-for-Veterans-in-2016.asp#sthash.svzbzfkz.dpuf

Unpopular Retirement Reform

Seventy percent of midcareer military families with incomes of $50,000 or more prefer to keep traditional 20-year military retirement rather than switching to a hybrid, which offers reduced retirement but with a lump sum continuation bonus and a tax-free retirement saving plan. This is according to a Financial Behaviors Index survey by First Command Financial Services.

What to watch: With some details still to be determined in the overhaul of military retirement, the effective date of a blended benefit has been delayed until 2018. With current service members grandfathered in the old retirement system, the current career force will have time to look at the options and select the benef