Retiree & Veteran Affairs News 6 July 2015
WHY DID DEMOCRATS TORPEDO THE DEFENSE SPENDING BILL?
On June 11, Republican and Democratic members of the Senate Appropriations Committee approved the fiscal 2016 defense spending bill, 27-3. On June 18, those same Democrats joined forces with the rest of their party and blocked the measure from reaching the floor for debate and a full vote. The 50-45 vote failed to achieve the 60 votes needed to advance the bill.
Democrats are opposed to the GOP maneuver that added $38 billion to the Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) fund. Since the OCO fund is not subjected to budget caps, this would allow the Pentagon to work around sequestration spending caps enacted by the 2011 Budget Control Act. Democrats believe that by refusing to allow the Republicans to move forward with any of the 12 annual spending bills, they will force the GOP to start budget negotiations to end sequestration once and for all. Additionally, they are adamantly opposed to adding money for defense and not adding it for domestic programs.
Republicans contend that national security is so important that it cannot wait for Congress to hash out a budget deal. They intend to use the Democrat’s strategy against them by painting them as anti-military and holding the military hostage in order to get more money for non-defense programs such as the IRS and EPA.
Unfortunately, this game of political brinkmanship is all too familiar. How it all plays out is unclear.
FISCAL 2016 DEFENSE AUTHORIZATION BILL HEADS TO CONFERENCE.
Now that the House and Senate have passed their respective versions of the fiscal 2016 defense authorization bill, the measures will now go to conference to iron out any differences. Here are some of the major items of contention and AUSA’s position:
Basic Pay Raise
House: Proposes a 2.3% pay basic raise
Senate: Proposes a 1.3% pay basic raise
AUSA: Supports House version. We believe the value of military pay has been eroded by two consecutive years of pay caps, and we do not support limiting the raise again in 2016.
Basic Allowance for Housing (BAH) Cuts
House: Does not support
Senate: Bill includes two cuts related to military housing allowances. One requires soldiers to pay more out-of-pocket for housing by holding allowance rates to as much as 5 percent below the actual average cost of housing for their pay grade and location, a move estimated to save the government $3.8 billion over five years. The second proposal reduces housing allowances for members who are married or living together. Each member of a married couple would no longer receive a housing allowance, but instead receive a single allowance at the with-dependents rate.
AUSA: Supports House bill. If the Senate proposal was adopted, the result would be an average reduction in pay of $1,100 per couple per month. For unmarried members living together, their housing allowance would be reduced by 25 percent or to the rate for an E-4 without dependents.
Commissary Funding Cut
House: Does not support
Senate: Bill reduces taxpayer funding for commissaries by $322 million. It authorizes across-the-board increases to reimburse the cost of transporting some U.S.-made items to overseas stores, and authorizes price increases to fund operating costs by removing a requirement for commissary items to be sold at cost.
AUSA: Supports House bill
TRICARE Pharmacy Fee Increases
House: Does not support. Instead the bill proposes that the Defense Department establish a pilot program of preferred retail pharmacy networks to see whether such a program, currently available in Medicare, would reduce government costs.
Senate: Copayments for those using the TRICARE pharmacy system would increase beginning in 2016. Service members retired for medical reasons, spouses of members who die on active duty, and the family members of both of those groups would be exempt from any copay increases.
AUSA: Supports House bill. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office says the Senate’s proposal could lead some beneficiaries to reduce their use of medication, and possibly lead to more outpatient visits and hospitalizations. Besides that, beneficiaries are already doing their part to lower health care costs. Pharmacy co-pays increased in 2014 and 2015.
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE July 2, 2015
VA-led Consortium Launches Brain Bank for Research on PTSD
WASHINGTON - A consortium led by the Department of Veterans Affairs’ (VA) National Center for Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) has launched the first brain tissue biorepository (also known as a “brain bank”) – to support research on the causes, progression and treatment of PTSD affecting Veterans. The national brain bank will follow the health of enrolled participants during their lifetime. Participants in the brain bank will donate their brain and other body tissue after their death. The donated tissue, along with each Veteran’s health information, will provide crucial information for use in research on PTSD and related disorders. “Although we have learned a great deal about abnormalities in brain structure and function from brain imaging research, there is no substitute for looking at the neurons themselves,” said consortium director Dr. Matthew Friedman. “Understanding the cellular and circuit contributions to abnormal brain activity in PTSD is critical in the search for potential biomarkers of susceptibility, illness and treatment response and for developing new treatments targeting the conditions at the cellular level.” Dr. Friedman also is the founder of the national brain bank, and former Executive Director and current Senior Advisor to the National Center for PTSD. The national brain bank will investigate the impact of stress, trauma and PTSD on brain tissue in order to advance the scientific knowledge of PTSD, particularly the identification of PTSD biomarkers. Participating sites are located at VA medical centers in Boston, Massachusetts, San Antonio, Texas, West Haven, Connecticut, and White River Junction, Vermont, along with the Uniformed Services University of Health Sciences at Bethesda, Maryland (USUHS). PTSD is a significant mental health concern among Veterans. In 2013, 533,720 Veterans with primary or secondary diagnosis of PTSD received treatment at VA medical centers and clinics. PTSD is a serious mental disorder resulting from exposure to direct or indirect threat of death, serious injury or physical violence, including sexual violence. The national brain bank is seeking Veterans with PTSD to participate in research about PTSD that affects Veterans. Veterans without PTSD are also eligible to participate in the brain bank because it is important to study Veterans without PTSD to compare the impact of stress, trauma and PTSD on brain tissue. Veterans interested in learning more about enrolling in the brain bank are encouraged to call its toll-free number 1-800-762-6609 or visit its website http://www.research.va.gov/programs/tissue_banking/PTSD/default.cfm
VA Program for Veteran Families
A veteran’s family is vital to his or her recovery from physical or mental wounds. The VA offers an array of programs and benefits to families who want to assist their veterans. Coaching into Care is a VA program created to provide a coaching service for family and friends of veterans who see that their veterans are in need of help. This program helps veteran families find ways to motivate their veterans to seek care and services for physical and mental health conditions. The service is free and provided by licensed clinical social workers and psychologists. The goal of the service is to help veterans and family members find appropriate services in their community. Learn more.
Debt Relief for Corinthian Colleges Students
Over the past six years, the VFW has worked to provide veterans with improved education consumer protections, and the federal and state governments have taken unprecedented actions to establish tougher regulations to prevent misleading claims by career colleges. They have cracked down on bad actors through investigations and enforcement to hold colleges accountable in order to improve the value of their programs, protect students from abusive colleges and safeguard the interests of taxpayers. Most recently, the federal government forced Corinthian Colleges to shut their doors. In response to these closings, the Department of Education has launched some important changes with regard to debt relief for students who have attended the now defunct Heald, Everest and Wyotech colleges/universities, all part of the Corinthian Colleges consortium of schools. This information may be useful to service members, veterans, and family members who were enrolled and took on student loan debt at one of these schools. For more information on qualifying, click here. For the forms you need to turn in to your student loan servicer, click here.
The VA to Grant Benefits
In response to the recent Supreme Court decision, the Department of Veterans Affairs will now grant marital benefits to veterans who are legally married, regardless of state residency. This move will provide previously denied disability, survivor and burial benefits to same-sex couples. The VA is currently writing the rules for the effective date for claims. The Action Corps Weekly will keep you updated as the VA publishes its guidance regarding these benefits changes.
Arkansas Purple Hearts Awarded
Purple Hearts were awarded Wednesday to the family of Army Pvt. William Andrew "Andy" Long, 23, of Conway, who was killed, and to Pvt. Quinton I. Ezeagwula, now 24, of Jacksonville, who survived after being shot nine times by Abdulhakim Muhammad outside a Little Rock military recruiting center on June 1, 2009. Prior to a recent change to federal law, Purple Hearts could only be awarded to military members killed or wounded by a foreign combatant. The American-born Muhammad, formerly known as Carlos Leon Bledsoe, pled guilty and is now serving a life sentence. Read more.
Neller Nominated to Lead Marine Corps
Lt. Gen. Robert Neller has been nominated to become the 36th Commandant of the Marine Corps, succeeding the current Commandant Gen. Joseph Dunford, who is expected to become the next Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Neller is currently the commander of Marine Corps Forces Command in Norfolk, Va., and Marine Corps Forces Europe. He is a veteran of Iraq, Somalia and Panama. Read more.
Tarawa Remains Recovered
Remains believed to belong to up to three dozen Marines killed during the 1943 World War II Battle of Tarawa have been recovered and are being returned to the U.S. for identification. One of the Marines is believed to be 1st Lt. Alexander "Sandy" Bonnyman Jr., 33, of Knoxville, Tenn., who would be posthumously awarded a Medal of Honor for his heroic actions during the four-day battle, fought Nov. 20-23, 1943, which saw more than 1,000 Marines killed in action. The remains were recovered by History Flight, a Florida-based nonprofit organization that is assisting U.S. government MIA search and recovery efforts through an expanded public-private partnership opportunity. Read more.
Korean War MIA Identified
The Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency announced the identification of remains belonging to Army Sgt. Joseph M. Snock Jr., 21, of Apollo, Penn., who will be buried July 6 with full military honors in Arlington National Cemetery. Snock was assigned to the Heavy Mortar Company, 31st Infantry Regiment, 7th Infantry Division, 31st Regimental Combat Team, historically known as Task Force Faith. He would be reported missing in action on Nov. 29, 1950, as his unit was conducting a fighting withdrawal to positions south of the Chosin Reservoir in North Korea. Read more.
VA Will Extend Veterans Benefits to Same-sex Couples
Military Times reports that same-sex married couples will now be able to share veteran’s pensions, home loans, medical services and similar benefits previously unavailable to them. On Friday, the Supreme Court ruled that same-sex couples have the right to marry in all states and that those unions must be recognized. Gay rights advocates hoped the measure would drop the last obstacles in getting benefits through the Veterans Affairs Department for same-sex couples with military ties. Active-duty same-sex military couples received access to Defense Department benefits in 2013, when the high court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act. But even after that ruling, VA officials denied benefits for some same-sex couples in states where their marriages were not legally recognized, citing other federal restrictions.
Now those barriers are gone. In a statement, VA officials said they are working quickly to provide instructions on extending benefits to all married couples, including same-sex spouses. Officials said that they will issue new guidance in coming weeks to clarify any potential points of confusion, in cases where same-sex couples may not be immediately eligible for the benefits.
Legislation to Protect Veteran and Military Students
Senators Tom Carper (D-Del.), Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) introduced the Military and Veterans Education Protection Act of 2015 to close a loophole that allows for-profit schools to avoid having to secure at least 10 percent of their revenue from non-federal sources.
Since 2009, more than one million service members, veterans, and their families have financed their higher education using the G.I. Bill, and millions more will take advantage of this benefit in the years to come. In the past five years, 40 percent of Post-9/11 G.I. Bill tuition benefits have gone to the for-profit sector, even as questions continue to be raised about these institutions’ graduation, default, and job placement rates. The recent collapse of the for-profit chain Corinthian Colleges – which received $186 million in Post-9/11 G.I. Bill dollars – due to financial problems is another glaring reminder that Congress must remain diligent to protect active-duty military, veterans, and taxpayers.
The 90-10 rule is an important safeguard that is intended to protect taxpayers by ensuring that for-profit schools obtain at least 10 percent of their revenues from sources other than taxpayers. However, current law leaves open a loophole that allows for-profit institutions to count military and veteran educational assistance, including the generous Post-9/11 G.I. Bill, as non-federal revenues. Some bad actors in the for-profit industry are exploiting this "90-10 loophole" by aggressively recruiting veterans and G.I Bill tuition dollars, rather than obtaining 10 percent of their revenue from non-federal sources. This legislation would require GI Bill benefits that come from the Department of Veterans Affairs and military education benefits offered through the Department of Defense to count toward the 90-percent limit on the federal share of a school’s revenue.
VA Drops Net Worth in Determining Eligibility
The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has eliminated the use of a veteran’s net worth when determining eligibility for health care benefits and co-payments. Co-payments for veterans in the lowest Priority Groups (7 and 8) are higher than any other group. Dropping net worth will make some veterans in these categories eligible for higher-priority groups.
VA Expands Agent Orange Exposure Coverage
VA Secretary Bob McDonald announced a new decision that could benefit as many as 1,500 to 2,100 Air Force and Air Force Reserve personnel who might suffer from any of 14 presumptive medical conditions that have been determined to be related to Agent Orange exposure aboard contaminated C-123 aircraft. He made the decision following a 2015 report by the National Academy of Sciences Institute of Medicine. All airmen who were assigned to flight, ground or medical crew duties at Lockbourne/Rickenbacker Air Force Base in Ohio (the 906th and 907th Tactical Air Groups or 355th and 356th Tactical Airlift Squadrons), at Massachusetts’s Westover AFB (the 731st Tactical Air Squadron and 74th Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron), or with the 758th Airlift Squadron in Pittsburgh, during the period 1969 to 1986, and who may have developed an Agent Orange-related disability, are encouraged to file a disability compensation claim with the VA.
Retired Soldier Council advises the Army Chief of Staff By Mark E. Overberg, Deputy Chief, Army Retirement Services
The Chief of Staff, Army (CSA) Retired Soldier Council convened at the Pentagon from April 20-24 to review issues of concern to the retired community and advise Army Chief of Staff Gen. Raymond T. Odierno. During their meeting, Council members discussed current and proposed Department of Defense (DOD) policies that affect the retired community with 15 senior DOD officials. At the conclusion of the meeting, retired Lt. Gen. James J. Lovelace and retired Sgt. Maj. of the Army Kenneth O. Preston, the Council’s Co-Chairs, discussed their key proposals and concerns with Odierno. They also provided written recommendations for addressing 30 Army- or DOD-level issues affecting the retired community that were nominated by installation retiree councils. The Co-Chairs told Odierno that the retired community’s major concern is that the “Army not break trust with [them].” They thanked Odierno for his strong support of the Council, saying, “As part of the Army team, the retired community stands ready to support and disseminate your message. We will continue to do our part in telling the Army story.” The Co-Chairs also thanked Odierno for his support in retaining the health care benefits the Military Compensation and Retirement Modernization Commission recommended to cut. In itsreport to Odierno, the Council acknowledged that the DOD faces significant challenges due to declining budgets, but wrote “even small increases in TRICARE fees have a significant impact on the Retired Soldier . . . especially the retired Staff Sergeants, Sergeants First Class, and Master Sergeants.” The Co-Chairs commended Odierno on the Army’s improvement in communicating with the retired community over the last year. Council members were especially happy with recent improvements on the Soldier for Life website (http://soldierforlife.army.mil/retirement), including the new Army White Pages and the Army Echoes Blog. They were also appreciative of the addition of Linked In to the Soldier for Life social media outlets on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+. Council members said this will be welcomed by the retired community who “desire to remain informed and engaged with America’s Army…their Army.” The Council’s final report included recommendations for addressing 10 issues involving health care, eight related to benefits, and 12 concerning retirement services or communications. The report says,“[Retired Soldiers’] most significant issues focus on the loss of their deferred compensation (earned benefits), which decreases their purchasing power.” The issues in the report focus on increased health care costs, access to health care services, and the Army’s ability to communicate effectively with Retired Soldiers and their families. The members of the CSA Retired Soldier Council serve on Army installation or Army Service Component Command retiree councils. These councils nominate members to represent all Retired Soldiers and surviving spouses worldwide on the Army Council. The Co-Chairs select nominees each year to fill vacancies on the 14-member Council. Nominees approved by the CSA serve four-year terms and are recalled to active duty annually for the week-long meeting. During the 2015 annual meeting, the Council represented the views of 939,000 Retired Soldiers and 248,000 surviving spouses.
Exchange is proud to serve Soldiers, families and retirees for 120 years — and beyond By Tom Shull, Exchange Director/CEO
This summer marks an historic milestone for military families and their quality of life. July 25 will mark the 120th anniversary of the then-War Department’s decision to establish the post exchange system on every Army post “wherever practicable.” Today, “practicable” means there is an Exchange in all 50 states, five U.S. territories and more than 30 countries. For 12 decades, the Army & Air Force Exchange Service has gone where the Army goes. From the American frontier, World War II, Vietnam and today in Afghanistan, we have proudly served alongside Soldiers. Throughout the years, what the Department of Defense’s oldest and largest military retailer has brought a taste of home to the front lines while supporting Soldiers’ families on the home front. The Exchange’s history dates back to sutlers, who sold goods out of tents to troops during the French and Indian War from 1756 to 1763. Later came canteens, small rooms where Soldiers could get food, drinks, pens, paper and more. In the late 1800s, these canteens changed their names to “post exchanges.” From there, the modern-day Exchange was born, when, in 1895, post commanders were authorized to set up exchanges at every post. If only the Soldiers of those long ago days could see us now! The modern Exchange benefit has come a long way from those first tents and canteens. Beyond the Main Store, the Exchange has grown to include Expresses, Military Clothing, fast-food restaurants, bakeries, school lunches and even Internet service in both garrison and deployed locations. Today, the Exchange delivers a modern shopping experience—the buildings are clean and energy efficient. And, the Exchange offers something for every member of the family, from the main store to the mall to the food court. All over the world, the Exchange team strives to deliver world-class customer service to all shoppers—and serving military retirees is a critical part of this mission. The Exchange stood alongside you while you served, and we want to take care of your needs into the future. One of the Exchange’s core values is family serving family. The Exchange team takes care of its own not only through goods and services, but also by improving quality of life on Army posts around the world. Exchange earnings provide dividends to support Army Morale, Welfare and Recreation programs for Soldiers and their families. In the past 10 years, the Exchange has distributed more than $2.4 billion for the Morale, Welfare and Recreation program to fund quality-of-life improvements. The Exchange has no shareholders — 100 percent of our earnings support service members and their families. If you don’t live near an Exchange, please come see us at shopmyexchange.com, the Exchange’s online shopping site. Last fall, the Exchange gave shopmyexchange. com its first major overhaul in 10 years. The updated site offers the best navigation, product selection and service we’ve offered in 120 years. The Exchange’s online product assortment is now updated regularly and includes many of the same items found in our brick-and-mortar locations. During my Army service, I commanded C Company, 1-22 Infantry Regiment. The regiment’s motto, “Deeds Not Words,” is a fitting description of the bravery and selflessness demonstrated by those who defend our country. This motto communicates the need to act and sacrifice. This is a phrase the Exchange takes to heart in our service to you. The Exchange team appreciates the sacrifices you and your families have made for our country. It’s an honor to serve you and yours. Here’s to the next 120 years of service to Soldiers, families and retirees! Tom Shull, a former infantry company commander, is the first civilian Director/CEO of the Army & Air Force Exchange Service. Before coming to the Exchange, he served on the National Security Council staff in the Reagan White House and served as CEOs for several renowned retailers and consumer goods companies.
How to report the death of a Retired Soldier
Contact the Department of the Army Casualty and Mortuary Affairs Operations Center anytime by calling (800) 626-3317. You will be immediately referred to a local Casualty Assistance Center, who will report the death to the Defense Finance and Accounting Service to stop retired pay and the initiate the survivor benefits process. When reporting the death, please provide as much of the information below as you have: • Full name • Next of kin information • Social security number and/or service number • Circumstances surrounding the death • Retirement date • Copy of the death certificate • Retired rank • Copy of the Statement of Service (Last DD Form 214)
Updating spouse Survivor Benefit Plan elections after a divorce By Bill Hursh, Army Survivor Benefit Plan Program Manager
If you have a spouse or spouse and child Survivor Benefit Plan (SBP) election, you must take several critical actions when you divorce to ensure your election correctly reflects your beneficiaries. Because you no longer have an eligible spouse SBP beneficiary, you must notify the Defense Finance and Accounting Service (DFAS) of the change. If you desire to change your SBP election to former spouse coverage, federal law allows you one year from the date of the divorce to notify DFAS of the change. Submit the change to DFAS on a SBP Election Statement for Former Spouse Coverage (DD Form 2656-1) with a copy of the divorce decree, a copy of a separate court order if former spouse SBP was awarded in a separate court order, or a written agreement, if applicable. You will owe premiums for the former spouse coverage from the date of the divorce. If you take no action within one year of the divorce, you cannot change your election to former spouse coverage. If you do not desire to change your SBP election to former spouse coverage, submit a SBP Election Change Certificate (DD Form 2656-6) to DFAS with the divorce decree. DFAS will suspend your spouse coverage and premiums. If your SBP election was for spouse and child coverage, DFAS will recalculate your SBP premiums for child only while your spouse SBP coverage is suspended. If you remarry, submit a DD Form 2656-6 within one year to notify DFAS of your SBP election for your new spouse. You can choose one of three SBP options: (1) decline coverage for the new spouse and any future spouse; (2) increase coverage if the previous SBP election was for reduced spouse coverage; or (3) resume previous spouse coverage. If you take no action within one year of remarriage, federal law directs that your new spouse will become your SBP beneficiary on the first anniversary of the marriage and premiums will resume. Your former spouse may request a former spouse SBP election based on a written agreement or court order. By law, the former spouse request must be submitted to DFAS within one year of the date of the court order or written agreement that first awarded the former spouse SBP. The former spouse must submit the request to DFAS on a SBP/Reserve Component SBP Request for Deemed Election (DD Form 2656-10), with a copy of the divorce decree, a court order if SBP was awarded in a separate court order, or a written agreement, if applicable. A subsequent court order or written agreement awarding former spouse SBP may be dated over a year after the divorce. In this situation, the Retired Soldier would be unable to change the SBP election to former spouse and the former spouse would have to request the election to obtain the former spouse SBP. The former spouse request ensures that the SBP converts to former spouse if the Retired Soldier fails or is unable to make the change. If you have further questions concerning your SBP election, contact the nearest Retirement Services Officer (RSO) for assistance.
Army expands news feed just for Retired Soldiers By Mark E. Overberg, Deputy Chief, Army Retirement Services
Since its launch on Feb. 19, the new Army Echoes Blog has published over 50 articles specifically for the Army's retired community at http://soldierforlife.army.mil/retirement/blog. Retired Soldiers asked for more frequent and timelier news than the Army can publish in the hard copy edition of its Army Echoes newsletter. The Army Retirement Services Office responded by creating the Army Echoes Blog and integrating it into the new Soldier for Life website. "We realize that not all of our Retired Soldiers can or want to receive news from us electronically," said John W. Radke, the Chief of Army Retirement Services, "but for those who do, we want to help them stay engaged with the Army and understand all of their retirement benefits." Radke continued, "Army budgets limit how much we can publish in our hard copy format and mail to our retired community. But we'll ensure those without computers receive the most critical updates by mailing them the newsletter three times each year. The Army won't break faith with our Retired Soldiers." The Army Echoes Blog provides a wide range of searchable, authoritative, retirement-related news and benefits information. So far, articles have been written by the Soldier for Life Office, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, TRICARE, Army & Air Force Exchange Service, the U.S. Army Public Health Command, Army Emergency Relief, the Defense Finance and Accounting Service, the Department of Veterans Affairs, Army Times, and Military Times to name just a few. The blog is easily accessible on the Soldier for Life website without a user name or password at http://soldierforlife.army. mil/retirement/blog. Readers can save the website as a favorite and return on a daily basis to read new articles or they can subscribe to the blog using instructions on the right side of the web page. This will allow the Army to push new articles to their personal Microsoft Outlook account or internet browser.
Protect Your Retirement Pension
Provided by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau Blog at http://www.consumerfinance.gov/blog/ A pension advance is a loan or cash advance in exchange for all or part of your pension. Many pension advance companies charge consumers high interest rates and fees. These costs can really add up. Pension advances can quickly strip away pension income. If you are considering a pension advance, follow these dos and don’ts: Don’t give anyone access or control over your monthly pension payments. Pension advance lenders sometimes arrange for monthly payments to be automatically deposited in a newly created bank account and then debited to pay back the loan, fees and interest charges. This allows the company to withdraw payments and fees directly from your account. If you’re asked to sign up for life insurance with the pension advance company as your beneficiary, be cautious. Pension advance companies sometimes require consumers to sign up for life insurance with the company as the consumer’s beneficiary. You could end up footing the bill for the insurance. Don’t be fooled by patriotic-sounding names, logos or claims of government-backing. Some companies try to trick consumers into thinking that their pension advance loan is endorsed by a federal or state government agency. Don’t fall for this. Do look at other options. If you’re turning to pension advances because you’re having financial difficulties, consider getting financial coaching or counseling from a professional. Many non-profit credit counseling agencies charge slidingscale fees so consumers who need help can afford their services. We’d like to hear from you. We want to hear about your experiences with pension advances, good and bad. You can share your story at: www.consumerfinance.gov/your-story .
VA Tells Congress it has $2.6 billion Funding Shortfall
The Department of Veterans Affairs said last week that it has a budget shortfall of almost $2.6 billion in veteran health care funding. Deputy VA Secretary Sloan Gibson said that the main reason for the shortfall was because of increased demand by veterans for health care, including new life-saving treatments for Hepatitis C.
Deputy Secretary Gibson told the House Veterans’ Affairs committee that the Veterans’ Health Administration (VHA) has seen a 10.5 percent increase in workload for the 12-month period that ended in April. TREA was represented at the hearing by Deputy Legislative Director Mike Saunders.
In a surprise move, House Veterans’ Affairs committee chairman Jeff Miller (R-FL) agreed with the VA’s request for flexibility by letting them use money from the new Veterans Choice program to pay for the increased health care. This was a complete reversal from a bipartisan coalition of representatives only last week. Additionally, the agency is considering furloughs, hiring freezes and other significant budget maneuvers.
While we has not supported VA’s requests to reprogram Choice Card money in the past, we are more supportive of their current requests since it turns out that much of the shortfall is a result of increased demand for healthcare that veterans are receiving in the community, as opposed to healthcare received at VA facilities. There are seven different community-based programs for veterans to receive non-VA healthcare. Chairman Miller vowed to consolidate those programs into one, more efficiently-run, program.
The VA completed 7 million more appointments for care in the past year, compared to the previous year, Gibson said, but said veterans still face increased wait times in Phoenix, Las Vegas and other sites.
We believe that the increased workload is properly attributed to VA finally accounting for its workload in a forthright manner. In years past, any increase in demand for healthcare would have been invisible to the system since it would have been hidden on imaginary waitlists.
House Leader Pelosi and Democratic Caucus holds Roundtable on Veterans Healthcare
On June 17th House Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and Representative Tim Walz (D-MN) chaired a roundtable with their caucus and representatives from several VSOs and MSOs. While many issues were briefly discussed the focus all afternoon was on the availability and quality of VA healthcare. Rep. Walz stated that this was a crucial time for the VA and its mission and that we must all work to guarantee that proper service be provided for all those who have served our country so well. Reading the first article in this Update you can see that the VA is, indeed, facing a critical time.
Just When it Looks Like Congress is Starting to Work Again, a New Monkey Wrench Gets Thrown Into the Process
Congress is now in the final stages of passing the FY2016 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). This massive legislation, which Congress has passed every year for the last 52 years, gives the Department of Defense and any other department or agency that is referenced in the bill the authority to carry out its functions. From our standpoint, those authorities can sometimes be good, as in establishing Tricare for Life, or bad, as in authorizing new Tricare co-pay and enrollment fees.
Besides containing provisions that make major changes in the military retirement system, give a 1.3 percent pay raise to active duty personnel, increase some Tricare prescription fees, among many other things, the bill also includes language supporting more than $35 billion in extra overseas war spending, which has drawn both criticism from Democrats who call it irresponsible budgeting and a veto threat from the President.
Members of the staff from both the House and Senate have already begun meeting to iron out the differences between the House and Senate bills and the members of the House who will be negotiating with the Senate have already been named. They expect to pass a final bill prior to the August recess.
The next task Congress has with regard to the DOD budget is to pass the FY2016 Appropriations bill. This is the legislation that actually gives money to the Defense Department so it can keep running.
However, that bill, along with every other bill that appropriates funds to run the federal government, is quickly getting caught up in politics and there is increasing talk around Washington about the possibility of another government shutdown. According to The Hill newspaper, “Democrats are adamant that Republicans back off their plans to increase defense spending without doing the same for nondefense programs.
They argue the GOP is using a budget gimmick to funnel more money to the Pentagon without raising spending limits on healthcare and social welfare programs.
To try to force the party’s hand, Senate Democrats say they will block every annual spending bill unless Republicans agree to a budget summit.
Republicans, for their part, say they have no intention of caving to Democratic demands.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) say they won’t convene a budget summit and warn Democrats could earn the wrath of voters by blocking bills to fund the military.”
You can read the entire article here: http://thehill.com/homenews/news/245067-congress-paddles-toward-a-shutdown
President Obama’s veto threat applies not only to the Defense Appropriations bill but every funding bill that might pass Congress unless domestic spending for things like education and infrastructure is increased like defense has been.
Another issue that will have an increasingly greater affect on the process is the looming need to increase the federal debt ceiling. This issue has gotten caught up in Washington politics before but without the increase, the U.S. government would be forced to default on some of its loan obligations.
Fathers’ Day is celebrated at the Vietnam War Memorial
Last week numerous people came from around the country to Washington DC to remember and honor their fathers at the Vietnam War Memorial. A group called Sons and Daughters in Touch and the Vietnam Memorial Veterans Fund held a ceremony to show their respect and love at The Wall.
Former Vietnam POW Rear Admiral Robert H. Shumaker told the crowd of sons and daughters who were honoring their fathers who died during the Vietnam War that the need to see his son kept him going while he was a prisoner.
The Sons and Daughters in Touch was founded in 1990 to join together children who lost their fathers during the Vietnam War. The organization’s stated mission is:
“To locate, unite and provide support to the Gold Star 'sons and daughters' and other family members of those who died or remain missing as a result of the Vietnam War; to produce a periodic e-newsletter providing important information to all SDIT stakeholders; to promote healing via networking and special projects, to regularly address other Gold Star family organizations, high schools and college classes in hopes of providing education on the historical and emotional legacy of war.”
House Hearing on VA's Budget Shortfalls
On Thursday, the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee held a hearing to discuss VA’s Fiscal Year (FY) 2015 budget. Deputy Secretary Sloan Gibson testified that the VA faces a $2.6 billion shortfall in its FY 2015 budget that may force the Department to shut down its medical facilities by mid-September. Gibson testified that the shortfalls were due to higher than expected demand for health care at VA medical facilities and through non-VA community providers. Committee members discussed the VA’s use of the Choice Program and how the VA plans to address shortfalls. Chairman Miller committed to working with the House Appropriations Committee to authorize the VA to use funds from the Choice Program to address budget shortfalls. Before the hearing, the VFW joined its Independent Budget partners to call on Congress and the VA to work together in good faith and swiftly find a solution that provides the VA additional funding this fiscal year to meet the needs of veterans seeking care, both from VA and through the VA’s purchased care programs. View a video of the hearing. View the Independent Budget Veterans Service Organizations’ joint statement.
The VFW Testifies on Benefits and Cemetery Bills
On Wednesday, the House Veterans’ Affairs Subcommittee on Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs held a hearing to discuss pending legislation. VFW Deputy Legislative Director Aleks Morosky testified, offering the VFW’s strong endorsement of bills that would grant concurrent receipt to all military retirees, extend veteran status to retirees of the reserve component, and allow the VA to furnish medallions to mark the private gravestones of all veterans, regardless of their date of death. Additional bills supported by the VFW include legislation to: extend the VA’s authority to contract with private doctors to conduct compensation and pension exams, require a study on the interment process of veterans’ unclaimed remains, and allow the VA to grant survivor benefits without a formal claim when the veterans’ record already contains sufficient information. We will provide updates on these important bills as they continue to move through the House. To read the full transcript and watch a webcast of the hearing, click here.
Senate Hearing on Pending Health and Benefits Legislation
On Wednesday, the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee held a hearing to consider a number of important bills pending before the committee. Committee members discussed the importance of curbing the VA’s reliance on high-dose prescription drugs to treat mental health and manage chronic pain, and ensure VA employees are held accountable for poor performance and wrongdoing. To read the testimony or view a video of the hearing, click here.
VA Nominations Confirmed
On Monday, the Senate confirmed the nominations of Dr. David J. Shulkin to be the VA Under Secretary for Health and Ms. LaVerne H. Council to be the VA Assistant Secretary for Information and Technology. Shulkin will replace Dr. Carolyn Clancy who has served as the Interim Under Secretary for Health since Dr. Petzel’s retirement following last year’s access crisis. Council will occupy an executive position that has been vacant since 2013.
The Fight Continues Over COLA Penalty Fight
We pounded Congress last year into eliminating legislation that penalized military retirees with a one-percent reduction to annual cost-of-living adjustments. In a compromise, Congress grandfathered all military retirees and those currently serving in uniform, but Congress still imposed the one-percent penalty on all new enlistees, should they reach retirement eligibility. In an opinion editorial entitled “A battle the troops can’t win alone,” VFW National Commander John Stroud wrote that “the world will remain a very dangerous and unpredictable place even after America ends its current involvements, and future military retirees may be required to serve just as long and perhaps sacrifice even more than their predecessors.”
New Military Health Care Survey
In an effort to better understand what’s important to patients, the Military Health System has asked the VFW to distribute a new patient survey for all military members, their families and retirees to take. The survey is anonymous, unless you want to have someone contact you, and takes only a couple of minutes to complete. Take the survey.
National WWI Memorial Design Competition
A design competition is underway for a new National World War I Memorial that will be built a block away from the White House in Pershing Park. Centennial Commission officials set up a two-stage competition that is open to all. Participants are asked to submit narrative and graphic descriptions that respond to the competition's design goals. Judges will then select those entries for further development. The commission will have final decision on the selected design, based on the recommendation of a jury. The submission deadline is July 21, with the finalists to be announced on Aug. 4. Learn more.
Recovered Airman Burial Update
The Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency announced that Air Force Chief Master Sgt. Edwin E. Morgan, 38, of Eagle Spring, N.C., will be buried tomorrow with full military honors in Rockwell, N.C. On March 13, 1966, Morgan was assigned to the 6252nd Combat Support Group as the loadmaster of an AC-47D gunship aircraft that departed Da Nang Air Base, Vietnam, on an armed reconnaissance mission along the Vietnam-Laos border. The aircraft failed to return to base. Read more.
Carson Will Offer ‘Revolutionary’ Plans for Army Personnel Reform
A senior Pentagon official is making the case for a massive overhaul of the military personnel system--from recruiting to promotions to tour length and duration of service--in a move he describes as modernizing an aging set of rules and policies that are preventing the services from getting the most out of its people.
“We must have a personnel system worthy of our mission,” said Brad R. Carson, undersecretary of the Army and acting undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, in a June 24 appearance before the Association of the U.S. Army’s Institute of Land Warfare.
Carson heads an effort ordered by Defense Secretary Ashton Carter that is expected to lead to formal recommendation by Aug 19 about modernizing military and civilian personnel practices. “I have promised him revolutionary change,” Carson said.
“It is my belief, my fervent belief, that the current personnel system, which has satisfactorily served us for 70 years, now is outdated,” Carson said. “What once worked for us has become now, in the 21st century, unnecessarily inflexible, inefficient and inequitable.”
“There has been a revolution in human resources going on out there, and we are not part of it,” Carson said. This new effort involves about 100 people in the DoD and the services to propose what is being called “A Force for the Future.”
“What we have is not what it should be,” Carson said, noting the Army and the other services spend a lot of money recruiting very few people into the military, do not seem to reward those who earn higher academic degrees, move people through assignments so quickly that they rarely are able to make use of the expertise they are learning, and force people to retire when they are at what the private sector would consider their peak. “That makes no sense,” Carter said.
Carson praised the Army for doing better than the other services in managing personnel, but he said even the Army has problems tracking and advancing top talent. He didn’t offer details about possible changes, but mentioned the following areas are being studied:
- Accessions are expensive, with the Army alone making 16 million contacts a year to recruit about 68,000 people, 40 percent of whom don’t complete their first enlistment term and 20 percent who don’t make it to their first duty station. Carson said Army recruiters average 10 contracts a year, about the same as the Navy and Marine Corps, but the Air Force gets an average of 45 contracts per recruiter. “Is there a better way to do this?” Carson asked.
- The Army has become a “family business,” he said, noting 83 percent of recruits have a family member serving in the military and 33 percent have a family member who is retired military. “This level of military service in no way reflects the broader society,” Carson said.
- Attrition rates are higher for women than men but the Army “really doesn’t know why so many women leave,” Carson said. Fifty percent of female Army officers get out after their initial obligation. “To lose half at their first opportunity is something that cannot stand,” he said.
- The higher the investment in an officer’s education and training, the more likely he or she is to get out within 10 years, Carson said, noting that retention rates after the initial obligation are 38 percent for service academy graduates, 43 percent for four-year ROTC scholarship graduates, and 55 percent for non-scholarship ROTC students. This is “the opposite of what one would hope,” he said.
- Officers with graduate degrees paid for by their service are under-represented in the general officer ranks, something Carson said appears to show getting the degree “prejudices your chances for promotion to general officer rank.”
- Tenure in top military jobs is far shorter than in the private sector, Carson said. On average, chief executive officers in the private sector hold their respective posts for seven years; the Army chief of staff holds the job for four years or less.
Commissaries Safe for Another Year
UPDATE ON COMMISSARIES: We have been warning for the last few years that the commissary system was being looked at as a place that DoD could cut in order to save money. Fortunately, in the past we successfully fought any attempts to do that. But this year, we almost didn’t dodge that bullet.
Because of mandatory spending cuts enacted by Congress in 2011, the defense budget needs to be cut in order to conform to the law. As one of the ways to cut the budget, Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.), Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, placed language in the FY2016 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that would have begun the process of privatizing the commissary system.
TREA and its sister veterans and military organizations fought hard to defeat the McCain effort, and this week we finally won the fight.
Thanks to Senators James Inhofe (R-Okla.) and Barbara Mukulski (D- Md.), who introduced an amendment to the NDAA that was adopted by the Senate, DoD is required to study the effects of privatization on retirees, active duty personnel, and their families before initiating any pilot program or developing any plans to privatize the commissaries.
The House of Representatives had kept the commissary system in place when it passed its version of the FY2016 NDAA several weeks ago. So although the House and Senate need to work out the differences in their two plans and reach agreement on everything, the commissaries are safe for another year. However, they will be under attack again next year.
VA Expands Disability Benefits for Air Force Personnel Exposed to Contaminated C-123 Aircraft
From VA Press Release:
WASHINGTON – The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) published a new regulation that expands eligibility for some benefits for a select group of Air Force Veterans and Air Force Reserve personnel who were exposed to the herbicide Agent Orange through regular and repeated contact with contaminated C-123 aircraft that had been used in Vietnam as part of Operation Ranch Hand (ORH).
VA published this regulation as an interim final rule so that it could immediately begin providing benefits to eligible Air Force veterans and Air Force Reserve personnel who submit a disability compensation claim for any of the 14 medical conditions that have been determined by VA to be related to exposure to Agent Orange.
Secretary of Veterans Affairs Robert A. McDonald made the decision to expand benefits following receipt of a 2015 report by the National Academy of Sciences Institute of Medicine (IOM) on Post-Vietnam Dioxin Exposure in Agent Orange-Contaminated C-123 Aircraft. This VA-requested report found evidence that as many as 1,500 to 2,100 Air Force and Air Force Reserve personnel who served as flight, medical and ground maintenance crew members on ORH C-123 aircraft previously used to spray Agent Orange in Vietnam were exposed to the herbicide.
“Opening up eligibility for this deserving group of Air Force veterans and reservists is the right thing to do,” said Secretary McDonald. “We thank the IOM for its thorough review that provided the supporting evidence needed to ensure we can now fully compensate any former crew member who develops an Agent Orange-related disability.”
Under this new rule, Air Force and Air Force Reserve flight, medical and ground maintenance crewmembers who served on the contaminated ORH C-123s are presumed to have been exposed to herbicides during their service, thus making it easier for them to establish entitlement for some VA benefits if they develop an Agent Orange-related presumptive condition. In addition, for affected Air Force Reserve crew members, VA will presume that their Agent Orange-related condition had its onset during their Reserve training. This change ensures that these reservists are eligible for VA disability compensation and medical care for any Agent Orange-related presumptive condition, and that their surviving dependents are eligible for dependency and indemnity compensation and burial benefits.
The interim final rule can be found on the Federal Register: www.federalregister.gov/public-inspection. VA will immediately begin processing claims and issuing benefits to eligible Air Force crew members.
VA encourages reservists who were assigned to flight, ground or medical crew duties at Lockbourne/Rickenbacker Air Force Base in Ohio (906th and 907th Tactical Air Groups or 355th and 356th Tactical Airlift Squadron), Westover Air Force Base in Massachusetts (731st Tactical Air Squadron and 74th Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron) or Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, International Airport (758th Airlift Squadron) during the period 1969 to 1986, and developed an Agent Orange-related disability to file a disability compensation claim online through the joint VA-Department of Defense web portal, eBenefits (https://www.ebenefits.va.gov/).
VA also has identified several active duty locations where ORH C-123 aircraft may have been used following their service in Vietnam. Active duty personnel who served in a regular USAF unit location where a contaminated C-123 was assigned and who had regular and repeated contact with the aircraft through flight, ground or medical duties during the period 1969 to 1986, and who develop an Agent Orange-related disability, also are encouraged to apply for benefits. For more information on applying for these benefits, including the affected units, Air Force Specialty Codes and dates of service for affected crew members, and a listing of Agent Orange-related conditions, visit www.benefits.va.gov/COMPENSATION/claims-postservice-agent_orange.asp.
In order to avoid unnecessary delay of benefits, claimants should annotate “(C-123)” after each Agent Orange related disability in Part II, Block 14 of VA Form 21-526 or Section I, Block 11 of VA
Form VA Form 21-526EZ when filing on eBenefits. Example: Diabetes (C-123). If claimants have any of the following documents, they should be attached to their application:
Discharge, separation papers, (DD214 or equivalent)
USAF Form 2096 (unit where assigned at the time of the training action)
USAF Form 5 (aircraft flight duties)
USAF Form 781 (aircraft maintenance duties)
Dependency records (marriage & children’s birth certificates)
Medical evidence (doctor & hospital reports)
VA will process all claims related to C-123 exposure at the St. Paul, Minnesota, VA Regional Office. Claims not filed through eBenefits should be mailed to the following address (or faxed to 608-373-6694):
Department of Veterans Affairs
Claims Intake Center
Attention: C123 Claims
PO Box 5088
Janesville, WI 53547-5088
Individuals with specific benefit questions related to herbicide exposure on C-123s may call VA’s special C-123 Hotline at 1-800-749-8387 (available 8 a.m. – 9 p.m. EST) or e-mail [email protected].
Congress Ensures Denver VA Hospital Construction Will Continue
On June 12 Congress gave final approval one more “stopgap” measure to avoid a construction shutdown on the over-budget VA Medical Center that is currently being built in Denver.
There has not been agreement on a longer-term agreement that is acceptable to both Congress and the VA to fully fund construction of the facility.
The House approved a deal Friday raising the project spending cap by $150 million, to just over $1 billion. The Senate approved it Thursday.
The project would have hit its previous spending cap of $900 million within days, forcing a halt in construction. Contractor Kiewit-Turner has said a shutdown would add up to $200 million to the project’s price.
The half-finished medical center is expected to cost up to $1.73 billion, nearly triple the estimate the Veterans Affairs Department gave last year.
The VA is asking Congress for $625 million more to complete a slightly scaled-back version. Lawmakers balked, demanding significant concessions in exchange for more money.
In fact, the U.S. Senate passed an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that would strip the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) of construction authority over $100 million and transfer it the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
Congressman Mike Coffman (R-CO) has led the effort to remove the VA from managing major construction projects, with the four largest VA construction projects in the country hundreds of millions of dollars over budget and years behind schedule.
Senator Michael Bennett (D-CO) has been a strong advocate of this effort on the Senate-side of the legislative branch of government as well.
This is the second time in the last month that Congress has approved a stopgap measure to keep construction going on the project.
The measure approved Friday allows the VA to shift $150 million from elsewhere in its budget to Denver hospital construction but doesn’t provide any new money.
Fight for VA Funding Continues This Week
This Thursday, June 25, at 10:30 a.m. the House Veterans Affairs Committee is holding a hearing on “The State of VA’s Fiscal Year 2015 Budget.” It is expected that at the hearing Deputy Secretary Sloan Gibson is going to say that the VA is presently facing a shortfall of $2.7 billion this fiscal year and “Veterans are going to respond with increased demand, so get your checkbooks out. The VA is also planning to ask Congress to allow them to take money out of the Choice program to pay for other programs which are falling short of money and to pay for the high cost of the new drug cure for Hepatitis C.
Since members on both sides of the aisle believe that the VA is doing everything it can to slow roll and kill the Choice program it is likely to be a very interesting hearing. To watch it on line go to the Committee’s website at http://veterans.house.gov/legislation/schedule and follow the prompts.
VA Campaign Encourages Public to Help Raise PTSD Awareness
As the country recognizes Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) Awareness Month, the VA National Center for PTSD (NCPTSD) is inviting the public to participate in its “PTSD Awareness: June 2015” campaign, which began June 1. This year’s goal is to help more Veterans, their families, caregivers and community members understand what PTSD is and know that there are specific treatments that can help improve and save lives.
“Raising PTSD awareness is essential to overcoming the myth, misinformation and stigma that too often prevents Veterans from seeking help,” said VA Secretary Robert A. McDonald. “VA is one of the largest integrated mental health systems in the United States that provides specialized treatment for PTSD, so we know that care works. We encourage everyone to join us in this important effort to share important information about PTSD and help Veterans receive care they need.”
This year’s campaign focuses on online materials and encourages the general public to “learn, connect, and share” to raise PTSD awareness. Anyone can “learn” how PTSD treatment can help, “connect” by reaching out to someone, and “share” what they learn by spreading the word.
June 27 also has been designated by VA as PTSD Awareness Day for the fourth consecutive year. For more information on PTSD and the ways to raise awareness throughout the year, professionals and members of the public can visit the National Center for PTSD website, www.ptsd.va.gov/about/PTSD-awareness/. This site offers resources such as:
*PTSD Coach Online and the award-winning PTSD Coach mobile app, which provide symptom-management strategies. The app is always with you when you need it.
*Continuing Education (CE) and continuing medical education (CME) opportunities for providers, including PTSD 101 Courses, on the best practices in PTSD treatment (CEs/CMEs offered).
*AboutFace: An online video gallery of Veterans talking about PTSD and how treatment can turn your life around.
*Whiteboards: Short animated videos to learn about PTSD and effective treatments.
*Subscribe to the PTSD Monthly Update - Stay up to date on new information about PTSD and trauma year round.
VA’S Treatment of PTSD
The health and well-being of the courageous men and women who have served in uniform is the highest priority for VA.
*VA is one of the largest integrated mental health systems in the United States that provides specialized treatment for PTSD.
*In fiscal year 2014, more than 535,000 of the nearly 6 million Veterans who sought care at VA healthcare facilities received treatment for PTSD.