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Retiree & Veteran Affairs News 28 May 2015

Association of the United States Army Logo - Eagle with Shield, Torch, Olive Branch
Thursday, May 28, 2015

WHAT’S THE RUSH? 

Lawmakers on the Senate Armed Services Committee approved the fiscal 2016 defense authorization bill last week.  Included in the measure is a proposal that would fundamentally change the current military retirement system.

The proposed retirement system overhaul reflects the recommendations made earlier this year by the Military Compensation and Retirement Modernization Commission (MCRMC) and largely mirrors language included in the defense authorization bill passed last week by the House of Representatives.

Instead of the current 20-year, cliff-vested retirement benefit, servicemembers that serve at least 20 years would get government contributions to a 401(k) in exchange for a reduced retirement pension.  Troops who stay less than 20 years will have a portable benefit when leaving the service.

The Senate’s plan would continue the defined benefit for those who complete at least 20 years of service at a multiplier rate of 2.0 times years of service and would authorize government-matching Thrift Savings Plan (TSP) contributions for members of the uniformed services that will vest at the beginning of 3 years of service (2 years, 1 day) at a government matching rate of up to 5 percent.

This new modernized retirement system would apply to members first joining a uniformed service on or after January 1, 2018; current members are grandfathered but may choose to be covered by the new plan.  The House bill’s modifications would take effect on or after Oct. 1, 2017. 

The bill takes the changes even further than the House bill.  The Senate’s version “Authorizes the Secretary concerned to allow the voluntary election of lump sum payments of retired pay for those serving 20 or more years of service.  Members who elect to take the lump sum may choose to take 100 percent or 50 percent of the discounted present value of their defined retirement benefit that would be due to them prior to becoming eligible for Social Security.  Unlike the House proposal, the Senate bill stops government contributions to 401(k) accounts after 20 years of service.

So what’s the problem?  AUSA wanted to wait until the Pentagon is finished with their in-depth review of the MCRMC’s proposal.  We are not convinced by the conclusions reached by the MCRMC and remain concerned that converting to a 401(k) style retirement would hurt retention down the line.  Determining the actual value of future benefits is next to impossible.  The MCRMC’s analysis is based on assumptions for unknowable factors like future inflation, military pay raises, stock market returns and individual investment decisions.

THE REST OF THE STORY.  

The Senate Armed Services Committee also voted to:

§  Provide servicemembers with a 1.3 percent pay raise instead of the 2.3 percent mandated by law. 

§  Authorize fiscal year 2016 active-duty end strengths for the Army of 475,000.

§  Revise the method by which the monthly amount of the basic allowance for housing is determined by authorizing the Secretary of Defense to reduce the monthly amount by up to 5 percent of the national average for housing for a given pay grade and dependency status.

§  Extend for 1 year authority to temporarily increase the rate of basic allowance for housing in areas impacted by natural disasters or experiencing a sudden influx of personnel.

§  Repeal the inapplicability of the modification of basic allowance for housing to benefits under the laws administered by the Secretary of Veterans Affairs.

§  Increase from 90 to 180 the number of days of active duty required to be performed by reserve component members for duty to be considered Federal Service for purposes of unemployment compensation for ex-servicemembers.

§  Terminate the program of educational assistance for reserve component members supporting contingency operations and other operations as recommended by the Military Compensation and Retirement Modernization Commission. This program is duplicative with the Post-9/11 GI Bill, which provides a more robust benefit for servicemembers.

§  Terminate the entitlement to unemployment insurance for those receiving Post-9/11 educational assistance as recommended by the Military Compensation and Retirement Modernization Commission.

§  Request a report on a plan to privatize the Defense Commissary System, in whole or in part, and directs a GAO assessment of potential costs and benefits from privatization.  The bill also requires a pilot program on privatization of commissaries.

Neither the House-passed bill nor the Senate Armed Services Committee adopted the Pentagon’s proposals to establish enrollment fees for TRICARE for Life beneficiaries or consolidate the TRICARE program.  The Senate bill did include a provision that would raise cost-shares for the TRICARE pharmacy benefits program.

What’s next:  The Senate bill will go to the floor for a full vote.  Sources say the vote could come as early as June.

NO END TO SEQUESTRATION.

The one thing neither the House nor Senate bills did is end sequestration.  Instead, House and Senate leaders added money to the Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) fund as a workaround.  The added funds, authorized for operations and maintenance within the DoD’s base budget, were used to sidestep spending caps mandated by the Budget Control Act (BCA) of 2011.

As a result of this maneuver, the White House issued a veto threat and many Democrats voiced their opposition.  In fact, both of the top Democrats on the House and Senate Armed Services Committees voted no on the measures.

Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., said, "If we don't effectively find a way out of this BCA dilemma this year, then what we've done is institutionalize OCO as a way to fund the defense bill every year.  And I think it will grow and grow and grow."

Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., "Both Democrats and Republicans agree that the [2011] Budget Control Act caps are extremely damaging and as long as Congress fails to enact a solution, a variety of key national priorities will continue to suffer.  I understand that finding a compromise to remove the caps has been elusive, but that does not justify the use of gimmicks to protect one part of the budget, and shortchange other portions that are vitally important to the future of our country.”

- See more at: http://www.ausa.org/legislation/newsletter/Pages/21MayLegislativeNewsUpdate.aspx#sthash.FD8dJgil.dpuf

PROGRESS ON THE DEFENSE POLICY BILL

To say that we are disappointed with the news coming out of the Senate Armed Services Committee’s markup of the fiscal 2016 defense policy bill is an understatement. 

While the complete details are still emerging, we have been told that the Personnel Subcommittee has followed the House lead and has voted to adopt a recommendation made by the congressionally-chartered Military Compensation and Retirement Modernization Commission (MCRMC) that would overhaul the military’s current retirement system from a defined plan to one that follows the civilian 401(k) model. 

The House plan would allow servicemembers not eligible for military retirement to contribute to a portable Thrift Savings Plan with matching contributions from the Defense Department.  Those currently serving would have the option of remaining grandfathered into the old system or choosing the new TSP option.  The retirement modifications would be effective for individuals who join the military on or after Oct. 1, 2017. 

Our position:  AUSA wanted to wait until the Pentagon finished their comprehensive review of the MCRMC’s proposal.  We are not convinced by the conclusions reached by the MCRMC and remain concerned that converting to a 401(k) style retirement would hurt retention down the line.

Where the Senate panel broke with the House bill is also very concerning.  If passed, the Senate bill would:

1.     -- Provide servicemembers with a 1.3 percent pay raise instead of the 2.3 percent mandated by law.  By remaining silent on the issue, the House bill approved the 2.3 percent.

2.      --Increase the amount of out-of-pocket expenses servicemembers will pay for housing.  The House bill did not approve a Pentagon plan that would increase out-of-pocket expenses for those living off-base by capping growth in housing allowances.  House lawmakers said the idea needs more study.  It appears that the Senate does not agree.

3.    -- Increase TRICARE fees.  We won’t have any details about TRICARE fee increases until the full Armed Services Committee finishes its mark up.  The only thing Personnel Subcommittee Chairman Lindsay Graham, R-S.C., would say is that his panel’s bill would modify payments made by participants in the TRICARE network.  Needless to say, we are very interested in the details.

Meanwhile, over on the House side, floor debate on amendments to their version of the defense policy bill is underway.  Last night, the House Rules Committee voted to allow 135 amendments to be offered to the bill. 

However, the House action is not without drama. 

House Armed Services Committee Ranking Member Adam Smith announced Wednesday he will oppose the bill. The measure includes a war fund with nearly $40 billion added that essentially are base-budget funds.  But since Republican congressional leaders are opposed to equal domestic-spending hikes, Smith and other House Democrats say they will vote no on the measure.  Even if Smith and all of the House Democrats vote no, the GOP would still have enough votes to pass the measure. 

In a statement, Smith said, "Both Democrats and Republicans agree that the [2011] Budget Control Act caps are extremely damaging and as long as Congress fails to enact a solution, a variety of key national priorities will continue to suffer.  I understand that finding a compromise to remove the caps has been elusive, but that does not justify the use of gimmicks to protect one part of the budget, and shortchange other portions that are vitally important to the future of our country.

"Even worse, this short-term work-around does not enable the Department of Defense to undertake long term planning or provide the certainty that they can count on such funding in the future," Smith added. "I have great respect for Chairman [Mac] Thornberry, but I cannot vote for this bill under these circumstances.”

Look for more details on all of this in next week’s legislative update. 

AUSA ON THE HILL 

AUSA President Gen. Gordon R. Sullivan, USA, Ret., met with Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., last week.  Cotton, a former Army officer, served in Iraq and Afghanistan. 

Sullivan and Cotton discussed their shared concern about the direction of the Army.  Both men are alarmed that the steep cuts in Army end strength will leave the service ill-prepared to fight its many missions.  Sullivan also provided AUSA’s position on other issues important to AUSA and its members.  

- See more at: http://www.ausa.org/legislation/newsletter/Pages/14May2015LegislativeNewsUpdate.aspx#sthash.bISLM06m.dpuf

Memorial Day 2015
National Commander John Stroud will be representing the VFW at the White House Monday morning, as well as participating in Memorial Day ceremonies at Arlington National Cemetery and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Locally, many of our 6,800 VFW Posts will be having similar ceremonies to honor our fallen. As we gather to remember the more than one million Americans who died in our nation’s conflicts going back to the Revolutionary War, please remember to keep our 83,000 missing and unaccounted for servicemen — and their families — in your thoughts. As of this week, there are 73,515 missing from World War II; 7,852 from the Korean War; 1,627 from the Vietnam War; 126 from the Cold War; and 6 from post-Vietnam wars and conflicts. More information, plus loss statistics, are available on the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency website.

Denver Project Hangs in the Balance

On Thursday, the House passed an authorization bill that will allow VA to continue building the Denver VA Medical Center, but as of Friday at noon, the Senate still has not passed the measure. The project is days from shutting down for a second time due to funding issues. This bill will give VA some breathing room to continue building the facility, but a long-term solution to complete the project will still need to be worked out over the next few weeks. Included in the bill is further expansion of the Choice Program. This bill will allow VA to consider issues like excessive burden, geographic challenges, environmental factors and medical conditions when granting access to the Choice program. These are expansions the VFW has called for based on feedback from you, our members.
 
We will keep you updated through the Action Corps Weekly as news develops on the Denver project and any further expansion of the Choice program occurs.

House Passes Multiple Veterans' Bills

On Monday, the House passed several bills that the VFW testified in support of earlier this year. These included H.R. 474, the Homeless Veterans’ Reintegration Programs Reauthorization Act of 2015, H.R. 1038, the Ensuring VA Employee Accountability Act, H.R. 1313, the Service Disabled Veteran Owned Small Business Relief Act, and H.R. 1382, the Boosting Rates of American Veteran Employment Act. Two other bills that passed are H.R. 91, the Veteran’s I.D. Card Act, and H.R. 1816, theVulnerable Veterans Housing Reform Act of 2015. All of these bills now go to the Senate for consideration. Check back in with the Action Corps Weekly for updates as they continue to move through the legislative process.

Senate MilCon/VA Appropriations Markup

On Thursday, the Senate Committee on Appropriations held a markup of its version of the MilCon/VA appropriations bill for fiscal year 2016. The bill includes $69.2 billion for VA’s discretionary accounts, which is $500 million more than the House’s version, but nearly $1 billion short of VA’s request. It includes $63.3 billion in advance appropriations for VA’s medical care accounts for FY 2017. As this bill moves to full Senate consideration and conference, VFW’s National Legislative Service will work with Senate and House leadership to ensure Congress appropriates VA the resources it needs to provide veterans the benefits and services they have earned and deserve. Stay tuned to the Action Corps Weekly as this bill moves through Congress. To listen to the markup or read more, click here.

New Army and Navy Service Chiefs Nominated

The Pentagon announced that Army Gen. Mark A. Milley and Navy Adm. John M. Richardson have been nominated to lead their respective services. Milley, 57, is currently the head of U.S. Army Forces Command. He will replace Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, who has been the Army Chief of Staff since September 2011. Richardson, 55, is director of the Naval Nuclear Propulsion Program. He will replace Adm. Jonathon W. Greenert, who has been Chief of Naval Operations since September 2011. Both Milley and Richardson are expected to be confirmed by the Senate. Read Milley’s bioRead Richardson’s bio.

Fighter Aces Receive Congressional Gold Medal

Only 1,447 American pilots have earned the coveted title of “ace” by shooting down five or more enemy aircraft. America’s last air aces came during the Vietnam War, and due to the ever-evolving nature of aerial warfare, there may never be another. In recognition of this group’s extraordinary contribution to clear the skies, Congress on Wednesday bestowed its highest civilian award, the Congressional Gold Medal, on 77 surviving members of the American Fighter Aces Association. Read more.

Four MIAs Identified

The Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency announced the identification of remains belonging to three soldiers who had been missing-in-action since the Korean War and one pilot who had been missing since World War II. Identified are:

  • Army Cpl. Abilesio L. Apodaca, 18, of Albuquerque, N.M. In early 1951, Apodaca and elements of Heavy Mortar Company, 9th Infantry Regiment, 2nd Infantry Division, were occupying a position near Hoengsong, South Korea, when attacked by Chinese forces. It would later be learned that he had been captured, but died in a POW camp. Apodaca will be buried tomorrow with full military honors in Santa Fe, N.M.
  • Army Cpl. Richard L. Wing, 19, of Toledo, Ohio. In late November 1950, Wing was assigned to Company H, 5th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Cavalry Division, deployed near Kunu-ri, North Korea, when attacked by Chinese forces. It would later be learned that he had been captured, but died from dysentery in a POW camp. Wing will be buried with full military honors on June 5 in Arlington National Cemetery.
  • Army Pfc. Paul L. Tingle, 36, of Montpelier, Ohio. In late 1950, Tingle was assigned to Company I, 3rd Battalion, 9th Infantry Regiment, 2nd Infantry Division, deployed near Kujang, North Korea, when attacked by Chinese forces. It would later be learned that he had been captured, but died in a POW camp. Tingle will be buried with full military honors on June 8 in his hometown.
  • Army Air Forces 2nd Lt. Alvin Beethe, 23, of Elk Creek, Neb. On Nov. 26, 1944, Beethe, of the 393rd Fighter Squadron, 367th Fighter Group, 9th Air Force, was piloting a P-38 Lightning that failed to return from a mission against enemy forces near Duren, Germany. Another pilot reported the aircraft crashed near the town of Morschenich. Beethe will be buried with full military honors on June 8 in Arlington National Cemetery

Uneven Improvement in Jobless Rate

The unemployment rate for veterans fell to 4.7 percent in April, a full percentage point drop from April 2014, but the unemployment rate for post-9/11 veterans increased to 6.9 percent, up 4/10 of a percentage point from March 2015 and 1/10 of a point higher than April 2014. Part of the reason could be that the total number of veterans in the labor force has fallen in the last year while the number of post-9/11 veterans in the labor force increased by almost 11 percent.

What to watch: With the number of post-9/11 veterans in the labor market expected to increase through natural attrition and because the Army is getting smaller, job hunting becomes more important, especially in knowing where to find jobs. Unemployment decreased in 31 states, increased in 18 and was unchanged in one, Idaho, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE May 26, 2015

 VA Begins Summer of Service to Bolster Volunteer Assistance for Veterans Calls Upon Individuals, Organizations and Communities to Serve Veterans in Nationwide Effort

 WASHINGTON, DC—The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) today announced a new nationwide initiative designed to build upon its existing partnerships to grow the number of individuals and organizations serving Veterans in their communities. The Department is renewing its commitment to Veterans and embarking upon a “Summer of Service” that seeks the help of citizens across the country to honor that commitment. “We have made progress over the past year addressing the challenges we face in delivering care and benefits to millions of Veterans and their families,” said Secretary of Veterans Affairs Robert A. McDonald. “While there is more work to do to honor our sacred commitment to Veterans, we also recognize that VA cannot do it alone. We are asking Americans everywhere to join the Summer of Service and help us give back to those who have given so much to our nation.” In the coming weeks, VA will be working closely with Congressional partners, Veterans Service Organizations, Mayors and local communities, private sector and non-profit organizations, and VA employees to identify new and innovative ways to support VA’s commitment to care for those who “have borne the battle” and their families. As part of VA’s Summer of Service, the Department has committed to holding an open house in VA facilities the week of June 28 to spur increased local engagement and welcome members of the community interested in supporting the needs of Veterans. VA has also established the following goals to achieve by Labor Day: Increasing Volunteers: Committed to engaging with 100,000 volunteers to support care and benefits programs and local events. Increasing Community Partners: Committed to expanding current agreements to provide services and support reaching more than 15,000 Veterans and family. Recruiting Medical Professionals: Hiring clinicians and clinical support staff to further expand access to care and homelessness. Congress: Host Congressional Members and Staffs at VA facilities across the country. The Department has an outstanding volunteer program, which will be highlighted throughout the country this summer. VA will build upon the ongoing work of its more than 350,000 employees and 76,000 volunteers around the nation. While the central focus of the campaign will be increasing volunteerism and partnerships, it will also provide individuals and communities an opportunity to support other important priorities. Despite a hiring effort that brought more than 11,000 net new employees onboard over the past year, VA still needs more health care providers, claims specialists, medical support assistants, and cemetery directors to continue to expand needed services. VA’s partners can help by getting the word out this summer. In the last year, VA has completed more than 46 million appointments, an increase of more than two million from the previous year. Nearly 3 million Veterans received care in the private sector, an increase of more than 44 percent from the previous year. The number of Veterans and Survivors receiving monthly compensation and pension benefits has increased to nearly 5 million. In an effort to improve the Veteran’s customer service experience, VA has begun the most comprehensive re-organization in its history. The initiative, called MyVA, has been guided by ideas and recommendations from Veterans, employees, and stakeholders. “There is no mission more noble than serving Veterans and their families. At VA, we constantly strive to improve the way we do our job,” said McDonald. “State by state, community by community, person by person, there are a number of ways we can all come together to serve Veterans. From expanded partnerships with the private sector and non-profit organizations, to accelerating hiring, to celebrating the commitment of VA employees and volunteers – we need the help of communities everywhere to succeed.” Volunteers can help to serve Veterans by visiting http://www.volunteer.va.gov/ to find out the needs of your local VA facility. Follow #VASummerOfService on Vantage Point, Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, and join VA in caring for America’s Veterans. For more information, go to: http://www.va.gov/vasummerofservice/ #

Top VA Contracting Official Says VA Improperly Spent up to $6 Billion Annually

In an explosive new report that was released last week the top contracting official at the Department of Veterans’ Affairs, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Acquisition and Logistics Jan Frye said that there was a ‘culture of chaos and lawlessness’ at the Veterans’ Health Administration (VHA) that permitted billions of dollars to be spent without regard to proper contracting processes.

The report detailed the use of “purchase cards,” which are intended to be used for small purchases of up to $3,000. VHA employees, some of them not even authorized to make any purchases at all, used the cards to purchase billions of dollars’ worth of goods and services for VHA. The report details the use of the cards to purchase up to $1.8 billion of prosthetics. No competitive bidding process was followed and no contract was ever signed, thus degrading VHA’s ability to ensure low costs and quality products to protect both the US taxpayer and veterans, respectively.

At a hearing of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee last Thursday some members of the committee even said that VA attempted to prevent Mr. Frye from testifying, trying to send another VA contracting official to the hearing who had only been on the job for a month. Needless to say, that did not go over very well.

According to The Washington Post,VA has 25,500 purchase cards that were used about 6 million times last year to make $3.7 billion in purchases, mostly for the VHA. Using the cards, and doing an end run around federal acquisition regulations, allows VA to buy drugs and medical supplies quickly.

While it is unclear at this time exactly how much money has been wasted in recent years at VHA, it is clear that these practices are simply unacceptable at a time when VA has been coming to Congress and trying to take money away from the Choice Card Act by explaining how tight their budget is.

It is high time that VA got its house in order financially, and hopefully this lights a fire under Congress to make sure that they do it. It looks like both Democrats and Republicans have decided to come together on this issue to make a difference. TREA will continue to ensure that they stay focused on fixing this problem.

12 years on Army Releases Chemical Exposure Report

Last week the New York Times reported that the Army released a report outlining service members’ exposure to a chemical agent that occurred in Iraq in 2003. Members of the 811th Ordinance Company were emptying an Iraqi Republican Guard warehouse when they suddenly became dizzy, disoriented and began vomiting. They were immediately taken to a military hospital but never learned what they had been exposed to.

Last week, after years of asking, Brad R. Carson, an acting under Secretary of Defense for personnel and readiness allowed the declassification of a 2 page report saying they were exposed to a Scud rocket fuel that included benzenamine 3, 4 dimethyl; a “carcinogen and poisonous chemical.”

The report concluded that the Army finally released the information because at the time of the exposure Lieutenant (now Major) Marcus Clonch created an unclassified report of the event of every exposed service member’s medical record.

Like Agent Orange in Vietnam this is likely to be one of many similar exposures. If you know of similar incidents please let us know. To read the complete article go to: http://www.nytimes/2015/05/15/world/middleeast/12-years-later-a-mystery-of-chemical-exposure-in-iraq-clears-slightly.html

TRICARE Puts Out Article On Allergies

Today TRICARE released the following article on allergies and what treatments are available through TRICARE.

Allergy Season Is Here: TRICARE Can Offer Relief

In the spring, many people are happy to spend time outside after being inside for the winter. Temperatures are warmer, the days are longer and flowers are in full bloom. Unfortunately, spring is also the time of year when allergies flare and can cause discomfort to many.

According to the U. S. National Library of Medicine, allergic reactions are sensitivities to substances called allergens that come into contact with the skin, nose, eyes, respiratory tract, and gastrointestinal tract. They can be breathed into the lungs, swallowed, or injected.

Allergies occur when your immune system reacts to substances that do not bother most other people. Common allergens are:

*Animal dander

*Bee stings or stings from other insects

*Insect bites

*Plants

*Pollens

Reactions vary when a person is exposed to something to which they are allergic. First-time exposure may only produce a mild reaction. Mild allergic reactions include itching, rashes, watery or red eyes and nasal congestion.

Repeated exposures may lead to more serious reactions. Once a person has had an exposure or an allergic reaction (is sensitized), even a limited exposure to a small amount of an allergen can trigger a severe reaction. More serious reactions can include swelling of the face, eyes or tongue, difficulty breathing and more.

Some reactions can occur several hours after exposure, particularly if the allergen causes a reaction after it has been eaten. In very rare cases, reactions develop after 24 hours. One of the most severe allergic reactions, anaphylaxis, is a sudden and severe allergic reaction that occurs within minutes of exposure. Anaphylaxis requires immediate medical attention. Without treatment, anaphylaxis can lead to death within 15 minutes.

Doctors use skin and blood tests to diagnose allergies. Treatments can include medicines, allergy shots, and avoiding the substances that cause the reactions. TRICARE covers proven services and supplies needed to diagnose and treat allergies. For more information, visit the Allergy Services page on the TRICARE website (http://www.tricare.mil/allergy). For more information on the care and treatment of someone having an allergic reaction, visit the NIH’s Allergic Reactions web page:http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/000005.htm.

Second Veterans Choice Program Report

On Monday, the VFW released a second report on the Veterans Choice Program based on feedback from more than 9,600 veterans. The VFW found that participation and awareness of the program has improved. However, the report reveals several areas of concern that still remain to be addressed. Read the report and the VFW’s 13 recommendations.

Senate Holds Hearing on Key Bills

On Wednesday, the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee held a hearing on several important bills related to VA benefits. The bills under discussion addressed several important issues including VA employee accountability, improving the disability claims process and making GI Bill eligibility calculation fairer for reservists. There is strong support for S. 681, the Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act of 2015. Introduced by Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), this critical bill would finally extend presumptive service connection for conditions related to Agent Orange exposure to Blue Water Navy Veterans. At the hearing, Chairman Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) indicated that the Committee will continue to move the bills through the legislative process, with a markup to be scheduled sometime in June. To view a video of the hearing and read the full transcript, click here.

House Holds Oversight Hearing

On Thursday, the House Veterans’ Affairs Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations held a hearing to better understand the allegations of VA employees improperly using government purchase cards. A year ago, the VA’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) substantiated misuse of these cards, and recently a whistleblower has stepped forward claiming VA has done little to eliminate the practice. VA, the OIG and the whistleblower all testified in what was a heated hearing. To read the witnesses’ statements and watch the hearing, click here.

Senate Committee Moves NDAA

On Thursday, the Senate Armed Services Committee voted on their version of the National Defense Authorization Act of 2016. The Senate committee's bill set guidelines for $613 billion. Unlike the bill passed by the House of Representatives, the Senate bill includes language that would lead to the privatization of commissaries. We oppose this provision. The Senate bill did include supported language to provide a Thrift Savings Plan (TSP) contribution to every service member. However, the Senate bill excluded a House provision that would provide TSP contributions to service members who continue to serve past 20 years. We will continue thel fight to ensure that TSP contributions continue throughout the service member’s career before the president signs the bill into law.

VA Grants Higher Ed Waivers

A section of the VA Access, Choice and Accountability Act required public universities to provide veterans in-state tuition rates or have their education programs disapproved for GI Bill funding. While quickly implementing this change is important, it is equally important to ensure that universities have adequate time to make the appropriate changes so student veterans who are enrolled are not harmed if their school cannot comply by the deadline. Secretary McDonald used his authority today to grant a blanket waiver to universities that are not in compliance with the law, as long as they produce a compliance plan by June 15, 2015. To learn more, read VA’s press release. 

Burial of Unclaimed Remains

On Wednesday, VA announced its program to reimburse an individual or entity for the purchase of a casket or urn used to inter a deceased, unclaimed veteran in a VA national cemetery, if the veteran died with no identifiable next of kin and insufficient resources to pay for a casket or urn. Starting this week, VA will reimburse the actual cost of a casket or urn, not to exceed an annually established average cost, used to inter an eligible unclaimed veteran. Read more about the program.

National WWI Memorial Design Competition

The World War I Centennial Commission is opening a design competition for the new national memorial that will be built a block away from the White House in Pershing Park, which is along Pennsylvania Avenue between 14th and 15th Streets. Officials have set up a two-stage competition and it is open to all. In the first stage, participants will submit narrative and graphic descriptions of a design concept responding to the competition's design goals. Judges will select three to five submissions, and those entries will be further refined and developed in the second stage. The commission will have final decision on the selected design based on the recommendation of a jury. The submission deadline is July 21, 2015, with the finalists to be announced on Aug. 4, 2015. The commission expects to announce its selected design in January 2016. The design competition formally begins May 21, and competition rules will be posted on the commission’s website.

Two WWI Soldiers to Receive Medal of Honor

Two World War I veterans will posthumously receive the Medal of Honor for conspicuous gallantry. President Obama will present the nation’s highest medal on June 2 to:

  • Army Pvt. Henry Johnson, a member of Company C, 369th Infantry Regiment, 93rd Division, who distinguished himself on May 15, 1918, in the vicinity of the Tourbe and Aisne Rivers, northwest of Saint Menehoul, France. While on night sentry duty, Johnson and a fellow soldier were attacked by a German raiding party. Despite being wounded, Johnson mounted a brave retaliation resulting in several enemy casualties, and prevented his badly wounded comrade from being taken prisoner by engaging an enemy soldier in hand-to-hand combat. He died in 1929 and is buried at Arlington National Cemetery. Accepting the medal on his behalf will be New York National Guard Command Sgt. Maj. Louis Wilson.
  • Army Sgt. William Shemin, a member of Company G, 2nd Battalion, 47th Infantry Regiment, 4th Division, distinguished himself on August 7-9, 1918, in the vicinity of the Vesle River, Bazoches, France. Shemin left the cover of his platoon's trench and crossed open space to rescue wounded comrades, repeatedly exposing himself to heavy machine gun and rifle fire. Due to casualties suffered by his superiors, Shemin took command of the platoon and displayed great initiative under fire until he was wounded on August 9. He died in 1973. Accepting the medal on his behalf will be his daughter, Ms. Elsie Shemin-Roth, of Webster Grove, Mo. Read more.

Two WWI Soldiers to Receive Medal of Honor

The Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency announced the identification of remains belonging to Army Cpl. Ben L. Brown, 17, of Four Mile, Ore., who is being buried today with full military honors in Roseburg, Ore. In early 1951, Brown was assigned to Company I, 3rd Battalion, 38th Infantry Regiment, 2nd Infantry Division, when his unit was forced to withdraw south to a more defensible position. Brown was reported missing in action after the battle. Read more.

Major Week for Defense Bills in Congress

This week is a big one as far as the FY2016 defense budget is concerned. The House of Representatives will vote on its version of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), probably on Tuesday. That bill would restructure the military retirement system and instead of the current guaranteed retirement program it would institute a mixed programs that would include a TSP – thrift savings plan which would place much more of the responsibility for retirement on the shoulders of the individual servicemember and put a significant portion of retirement funding into the stock market. We have written at length about his in previous updates and encourage you to take a look at them if you have questions.

We have urged Congress not to rush into passing this new program but rather to take a long look at all of the ramifications, which we are not convinced has happened.

In addition, according to Bloomberg news, the bill would “pour billions of dollars into high-profile weapons programs such as Lockheed Martin Corp.’s Joint Strike Fighter, Boeing Co.‘s Super Hornet aircraft and the battle-tested A-10 ‘Warthog’ plane.

“In addition to setting funding levels for the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1, the legislation would press President Barack Obama to help Ukraine by authorizing $200 million for the purchase of weapons for them. It would authorize another year of funding for Israeli missile defense systems and strengthen prohibitions on transferring military detainees out of the U.S. Navy prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.”

The Senate will also work on its version of the FY2016 NDAA, with the full Senate Armed Services Committee working on the bill over a three-day period starting on Wednesday. We believe the Senate bill will make the same types of changes in the military retirement system as the House made, although there are likely to be some differences.

It is important to remember that both the House and the Senate bills grandfather in all current military retirees and currently serving, although the currently serving are likely to have the option to participate in the thrift savings plan if they so choose.

We have lobbied extensively on these bills and we are watching them carefully.

VA Claims Choice Card Extremely Underutilized

The Veterans Healthcare Access, Choice and Accountability Act launched on Nov. 5 with $10 billion in funding to allow veterans who live more than 40 miles from a VA hospital or clinic or who have been told they would have to wait more than 30 days for VA care to receive healthcare from a private physician. Congress, the White House and veteran service organizations (VSOs) believed that this would quickly relieve backlogs at VA hospitals and clinics.

However, experts are blaming a hurried rollout that has led to confusion as to exactly who is eligible and what they need to do to coordinate treatment. It is now estimated that only 37,648 medical appointments have been made through April 11, which is less than 10 percent of the almost 432,000 appointments pending in the VA’s scheduling system involving a wait of more than 30 days.

This new information is surprising because in March VA officials claimed that more than 45,000 appointments had been completed and that participation had been rising. A VA spokeswoman said data analysts recently corrected that count to exclude duplicate appointments and “incomplete transactions.”

While the overall numbers seem to be low, with the recent change in how the “40 mile” rule is calculated the number of veterans eligible to receive care outside of the VA system is expected to double.

One important factor is that many vets have a longstanding relationship with caregivers at their local VA and would prefer to stay in the system, even if it means having to wait or drive long distances. The VSOs and MSOs have also suspected that some veterans interested in the program were deterred by bureaucratic hassles, confusion about procedures or a lack of available, participating doctors.
VA has also had a longer than expected time to get its employees up to speed on the program, since there are several similar programs (including the PC3 program). However, VA does say that the overall use of VA-approved private-sector care is up 44 percent over the past year.

We will continue to beat the drums to ensure veterans get the care that they deserve. The next step is to make sure that VA understands it is not enough to merely be less than 40 miles from ANY VA facility; rather, the standard should be whether or not vets are 40 miles or less from the care that they need. If they are more than 40 miles from the care that they need, they should be able to use the Choice Card to get the care that they need in the private sector.

VA Facility Put Veterans at Risk to Cut Costs

A Department of Veterans Affairs medical center (VAMC) in Beckley, West Virginia, put patients at risk by substituting prescribed mental-health medications with older drugs to cut costs according to a U.S. Office of Special Counsel (OSC) investigation. The OSC is tasked with investigating and prosecuting whistleblower cases. The OSC wrote in a letter to the White House and Congress that the practice violated VA policy and created a “substantial and specific danger to public health and safety.”

VA rules bar the agency from basing drug restrictions on economics alone and require the agency to provide specific medications when necessary for a patient’s health needs. The VAMC in Beckley implemented a “blanket restriction” on administering two antipsychotic drugs, aripiprazole and ziprasidone, to help meet its cost-saving goals for fiscal 2013.

The decision was made by the facility’s pharmacy committee without a clinical determination about the possible health impacts. The chair of the panel at the time was not a physician.

The Office of Medical Inspector recommended that the clinic determine whether the drug substitutions affected patients’ health, in addition to disciplining the pharmacy committee’s leadership and appointing a physician to head the panel.

The VA says that they have begun their own investigation in the wake of the OSC report.

Washington Awestruck by WWII Planes

Last Friday the metropolitan Washington, D.C., area was privileged to see the “Arsenal of Democracy Flyover.”  Starting just after noon eastern time and lasting for about 45 minutes, WWII fighter, bomber, transport and scout aircraft flew in formation down the Mall. Area roads were jammed by cars filled with spectators eager to find the best viewing spot. Cars ended up parked alongside major highways and people stood on bridges or any other elevated area they could find. In addition, many of the taller buildings in the area had people standing atop them watching as the planes roared by.

According to newspaper reports there were to have been 15 separate formations flying at 90 second intervals, but few of those watching were counting either the number of formations or the time between them. 
The flyover was part of the commemoration of VE Day that ended WWII in Europe and was accompanied by a wreath laying ceremony at the WWII Memorial as well as other events.

Women Veterans Can Be Role Models for Health

A woman’s behavior is emulated by young people.

By Hans Petersen

Monday, May 11, 2015

“This week, let us renew our commitment to empowering all women with the chance to live strong, healthy lives.”President Barack Obama

National Women’s Health Week kicks off on Mother’s Day, May 10, and is celebrated until May 16, 2015. The goal is to empower women to make their health a priority. VA takes this opportunity to help women Veterans understand what steps they can take to improve their health and to encourage them to serve as role models for health.

Women can be important role models.

As role models, a woman’s behavior, example, or success is emulated by others, especially by younger people. In general, a role model helps to guide others through life as they develop, to make important decisions, and to help find happiness later in life.

People, especially children, look to their role models for inspiration and use what they learn as a blueprint for how they should behave when they’re older. Role models are parents, immediate family members, teachers, and women Veterans, just to name a few.

Women are leaders in their communities, professions, and households — places where people are watching the examples they set. Others will follow a woman’s approach to health. From the foods they eat, to their exercise habits, to the way they care for the health of others, women, including women Veterans, are role models for health.

People are watching the examples set by women leaders.

What Role Does She Play?

Women with a career as a health professional (i.e., doctor, nurse) are not the only role models for health. Other roles include:

·         Certified health coach

·         Exercise instructor

·         Caregiver

·         Volunteer

What Can You Do To Be A Role Model For Health?

The National Institutes of Health provides tips on how to be a role model for health with kids. Explore the full list of tips on how to be a good role model, including:

·         Make Your Home a Healthy Eating Zone

·         Get Your Family Moving

·         Limit Screen Time

VA as a Health Care Resource

VA offers primary and specialty health care services for women Veterans that can help them live healthy lives and maintain role model status. Learn more about VA health care for women Veterans.

Here are some other great resources:

We Can! Tip Sheet: Be a Good Health Role Model 
Be a Healthy Role Model for Children 
Women Veterans Health Care: Health and Wellness 
Women Veterans Health Care: Telephone Health Care

- See more at: http://www.va.gov/HEALTH/NewsFeatures/2015/May/Women-Veterans-Can-Be-Role-Models-for-Health.asp#sthash.rt3obqcC.dpuf

Take Action

Over the next few weeks and months, Congress will be debating changes to the military retirement system. One of the largest proposals that will be debated is to modernize the retirement system so all members of the military will walk away from their service with a government-matching retirement savings plan, similar to a 401(k). We need you to contact your members of Congress to let them know the VFW supports providing a retirement savings for all military service members.

VFW Urges House to Approve Defense Bill

We are urging the U.S. House of Representatives to approve the National Defense Authorization Act when it comes up for a vote next week. The $495.9 billion base budget provides additional funding for fighter aircraft, helicopters, ship building and missile defense. It also includes supported provisions to improve financial literacy training and create a new blended military retirement system, beginning Oct. 1, 2017, “Aside from hostilities, one of the greatest threats to an All-Volunteer Force is a strong economy that offers other employment options,”, who also wants the Senate Armed Services Committee to retain the new retirement feature when it begins discussing the fiscal year 2016 defense bill next week. “In order to meet future enlistment and retention goals, the military must be able to compete with a civilian sector that by and large offers some type of contributory retirement program for its employees,”.

VFW Files Suit Against VA

The VFW and Disabled American Veterans filed a joint lawsuit Wednesday to force the Department of Veterans Affairs to change a new claims submission procedure that eliminated the informal claims process and instituted a rigid, veteran-unfriendly system for filing claims for benefits, among several other disagreements. Previously, any form of written communication would have served notice to the VA that within one year, that veteran would be filing a formal claim for disability compensation. If approved, the claim’s effective date could be backdated to the day of the initial notification. Now the VA requires all veterans to use a standardized form, which essentially postpones the effective date and denies compensation to veterans. “The VFW doesn’t oppose the use of standardized forms,” said VFW National Veterans Service Director Bill Bradshaw. “Our opposition is to this all-or-nothing approach that VA is forcing on veterans—changes, that if left in place, will guarantee in this year alone that tens of thousands of service-connected wounded, ill and injured veterans will be denied benefits they were entitled to before the change became effective.” The VFW, DAV and other veterans’ service organizations fought against the change after VA first proposed it in October 2013. “The VA’s move to a standardized form should not come at the cost of an informal claims notification procedure that works,” said Bradshaw. “The VA can and should accept both.” Read the lawsuit here.

Happy V-E Day!

Thousands of veterans, family members and spectators packed the National World War II Memorial this morning to commemorate the 70th anniversary of Victory in Europe Day. Along with speeches and wreathes being laid by Allied embassies, the ceremony also included a massive, multi-ship aircraft flyover by vintage Army Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps trainers, transports, fighters and bombers from both theaters of war. Approximately 1 million of the 16 million men and women who served in uniform during WWII remain. Read more.

Nomination Hearing Held

On Wednesday, the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee held a nomination hearing for David J. Shulkin and LaVerne H. Council. Mr. Shulkin has been nominated to be the next Under Secretary for Health, and Ms. Council has been nominated to be the next Assistant Secretary for Information and Technology. Both would bring private sector experience to their new roles. The Committee must now vote to advance these nominations for a final confirmation vote by the full Senate. To read the nominees’ written testimony and to watch the hearing, click here.

Obama Nominates New JCS Leaders

The VFW Washington Office was at the White House Rose Garden Tuesday to witness the president nominate Marine Corps Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr. to serve as the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Air Force Gen. Paul J. Selva to serve as vice chairman. Dunford, who has served as commandant of the Marine Corps since Oct. 17, 2014, is a Boston native, the son of a retired Boston police officer and Marine veteran of Korea. The general is currently the commander of U.S. Transportation Command, headquartered at Scott AFB, Ill. Both nominees are expected to be confirmed by the Senate.

- See more at: http://www1.ausa.org/resources/retireeaffairs/RetireeNews/2015/Pages/Ret...