17 May 2017 Washington Update

May 16, 2018
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 Inside this issue
TREA: The Enlisted Association’s Washington Update
TREA: The Enlisted Association’s Washington Update
House Passes VA MISSON Act
The House of Representatives yesterday passed, by a vote of 372-70, the VA MISSION Act (H.R. 5674) to extend and reform the Veterans Choice Program to allow more private care options. Funding for the Choice Act was scheduled to expire at the end of the month.

The legislation, which TREA: The Enlisted Association supported in a letter sent to the House Veterans Affairs Committee, would also lift the restrictions on family caregiver benefits, which are now limited to post-9/11 veterans, and extend them to the caregivers of veterans of all eras.

The bill will now go to the Senate, where the Chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee (SVAC), Senator Johnny Isakson (R-GA), and the SVAC Ranking Member, Senator Jon Tester (D-MT), have already expressed their support.

President Donald Trump has said he will sign the bill quickly when it reaches his desk.

In a statement last week, the White House said the bill would “transform the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) into a modern, high-performing, and integrated healthcare system that will ensure our veterans receive the best healthcare possible from the VA, whether delivered in the VA’s own facilities or in the community.”

As stated in last week’s Update, just two Democrats on the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee (HVAC) voted against the consolidation of the VA’s community care programs into one, one of which was HVAC Ranking Member Tim Walz (D-MN), who is a Life Member of TREA: The Enlisted Association.

This is clearly bipartisan (or, more importantly, non-partisan) legislation. The only opposition to it is based on policy, not political, differences.

Ranking Member Walz said “he supported 95 percent of the measure, but had concerns about how its provisions would unfold in future years.” The VA MISSION Act, for example, would fund the new private sector health care program through the regular discretionary budgeting process. While Walz supported that funding stream, he issued an amendment to shield it from potential cuts when budget caps are reinstated. All three Walz amendments were voted down by the full committee.

The funding issue is a real one – Congress, especially this one, has shown little to zero patience when costs go up. As we all know, healthcare costs continue to rise in the private sector. What happens in the coming years when the cost of veterans getting care in the community rise? Will Congress finally ‘bite the bullet’ and increase spending? Or will they pull back on private healthcare for veterans while simultaneously having failed to properly invest in brick and mortar VA healthcare facilities? We shall see.

The VA MISSION Act would provide veterans access to private sector care when the services they are seeking are not offered at VA, there is no full-service medical facility in their state, they previously were eligible for outside care under the Veterans Choice Program or VA cannot meet its own standards of care in providing care to an individual veteran. It would also allow a veteran and doctor to mutually agree that private care was in the patient’s “best medical interest.”

The VA provider would have to first assess the distance the veteran must go to receive care from the department’s network of more than 1,200 medical facilities, the nature of the services required, the frequency of treatment, the timeliness of available appointments and other “excessive burdens to care.”
The measure includes another controversial provision to put VA through a process similar to the Defense Department’s Base Realignment and Closure Commission.

TREA: The Enlisted Association will keep you updated as the measure works its way through the Senate.

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Public Service Loan Forgiveness Is a Military Recruiting Tool; Congress May Cut It Anyway
TREA: The Enlisted Association has been leading the charge, along with other veteran education advocates, to fight the PROSPER Act, H.R. 4508. This is a controversial bill that would sunset the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program for public-sector employees, including service members.

This is a huge problem for the military. Getting qualified people to serve their country is hard enough, as any recruiter will tell you. When the cost of education is factored in, especially for doctors, lawyers, and cybersecurity professionals, many of these potential recruits simply cannot afford to serve their country without the promise of getting their student loans forgiven after 10 years.

Despite TREA: The Enlisted Association’s opposition, the bill’s proponents see PROSPER as a way to curb rising college costs and enable students to pursue careers without large amounts of student loan debt.

A Defense Department document released earlier this year states the loan forgiveness program, available to eligible borrowers after 10 years of qualifying student loan payments, is an “important recruitment and retention tool for the military to compete with the civilian sector,” particularly in specialty fields. The Navy has also raised concerns for the Navy Judge Advocate General’s Corps, which leans on this program as an incentive for new recruits.

TREA: The Enlisted Association has learned that roughly 80 percent of the lawyers at the US Army Litigation Services Agency (USALSA) use the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program, as well as the Income-Driven Repayment Plan. Both would go away under the PROSPER Act.

TREA: The Enlisted Association has recently learned that House Leadership intends on bringing the bill to the floor for a vote the week of June 18th.
“Sources with close knowledge of the legislative agenda tell Military Times PROSPER has a lot of must-pass legislation to compete with, and the partisan nature of the bill may make it a tough sell in an already-contentious election cycle.”

The good news, for now, is that the Senate does not seem likely to introduce companion legislation any time soon.

TREA: The Enlisted Association will keep you updated as the issue works its way through the legislative process.

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Another TREA: The Enlisted Association-Backed Bill Now Up for a Vote in the House
The House Veterans’ Affairs Committee also sent the Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act to the full House for a vote.

The Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act would grant presumptive Agent Orange exposure status to US service members who served in the territorial seas of Vietnam during the Vietnam War. This would enable eligible veterans to receive expedited consideration for Veterans Affairs (VA) benefits if they suffer from any of the diseases the U.S. Government has linked to Agent Orange. This measure has received support from various veterans organizations, including the Fleet Reserve Association, Military-Veterans Advocacy, Inc., and the Blue Water Navy Association.

During the Vietnam War, more than 20 million gallons of the herbicide “Agent Orange” were sprayed to remove jungle foliage. A toxic chemical in the herbicide has since been linked to devastating health effects, including non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma (NHL), various cancers, Type II Diabetes, and Parkinson’s disease.

The Agent Orange Act of 1991 (AOA) empowered the Secretary of Veterans Affairs to declare certain illnesses “presumptive” to exposure to Agent Orange and enabled veterans to receive disability compensation for these related conditions.

However, in 2002, the VA stopped giving benefits to blue water veterans and limited the scope of the AOA to only those veterans who could provide proof of “boots on the ground” in Vietnam. As a result, veterans who served in the waters off of the Vietnamese coast or in bays and harbors were required to file individual claims to restore their benefits, which have then been decided on a case-by-case basis.

This bill restores the presumptive coverage for those who served in the territorial seas of Vietnam that existed prior to 2002 and lifts the burden from the individual veteran to prove direct exposure to Agent Orange.

The presumption currently exists for veterans who served on land and inland waterways, and therefore the bill places Navy personnel on the same playing field as those who served in country.

The legislation would also reduce backlogged VA claims for veterans who are suffering from diseases the U.S. government has linked to Agent Orange, therefore reducing the overall backlog.

TREA strongly supports this legislation and we hope it will be voted on and passed very quickly.  Our next task will then be to get the Senate to pass the bill.

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Lawsuit: Army Wrongly Denied Housing Benefits to Deployed Reservists
Army reservists deployed to Europe are suing the Army, claiming that they were wrongly denied housing allowance payments, subjected to humiliating criminal investigations and forced into debt by the service after the Army “willfully disregarded” its own policies to refuse benefits owed.

The lawsuit says the soldiers faced threats that “jeopardized their careers and security clearances by flagging them as subjects to fraud or larceny investigations,” according to Stars & Stripes.

The dispute began in 2016 after reservist soldiers deployed to Europe and received benefits authorized by the Army, which included basic housing allowance, or BAH, for their stateside homes.

Full-time servicemembers normally receive either BAH or overseas housing allowance; however, when reservists mobilize overseas, they receive BAH because they cannot work the civilian jobs that pay their mortgages and rent. They also receive OHA when ordered by the Army to live off post, as the plaintiffs were in Germany because of a lack of available housing.
The benefit is spelled out in the Joint Federal Travel Regulations, which govern how allowances are paid: “A Service member called/ordered to active duty in support of a contingency operation is authorized primary residence-based BAH/OHA beginning on the first active duty day . . . This rate continues for the duration of the tour.” Army regulations reiterate the policy.

Months into their respective deployments, the finance office at U.S. Army Europe decided the benefits should no longer be paid.

The Army Reserve and National Guard members, who were dispatched to Europe for contingency operations, are seeking to restore their benefits and abolish Army-imposed debts that have been levied.

Defense Financing and Accounting Services reviewed the case of Col. Bradley Wolfing and concluded that the Army’s decision to ignore (the Joint Federal Travel Regulation) and deny COL Wolfing his primary residence location BAH entitlement was erroneous, a conclusion will likely factor into any future litigation.

Needless to say, destroying the careers of servicemembers who did nothing but follow existing Army regulation is unconscionable, and TREA: The Enlisted Association hopes that the judge agrees.

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New Veteran ID Cards Are “In the Mail”
ID cards from the Department of Veterans Affairs’ new program are “in the mail,” according to VA officials.

All honorably discharged veterans can apply for the ID card, which was ordered by Congress in 2015. The card, which is not an official form of federal ID and does not qualify veterans for any federal or military benefits, is meant to serve as proof of past military service at private businesses.

Veterans who hold other identification showing service, such as a military ID or VA health ID card, do not need to apply.

About 90,000 veteran applications for the card have been received, according to VA Spokesman Curt Cashour. Of those, 21,000 have been approved and are awaiting printing and mailing.

Veterans must apply for the card online. Card applications are not available at VA facilities.

 

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