BATTLING INSIDE THE BELTWAY - Federal Legislative Update
Conference Committee Finishes FY 2008 Defense Authorization Act - Just when we thought it couldn’t be done the Joint House and Senate Conference Committee has reconciled the differences between their respective chambers’ versions of the FY ’08 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). There are many provisions in this bill impacting the health and quality of life of active duty troops, reservists, retirees and their families. Many provisions of this bill address the legislative priorities of the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the other veterans’ service organizations and military associations. What follows is a quick analysis of the 800 plus page report.
Wounded Warrior Act - After the Walter Reed story broke earlier this year, it became evident that wounded service members and their families were facing incredible challenges during the recovery process. The Senate and House versions of the Wounded Warrior Act and some provisions of the Dole-Shalala recommendations emerged as mandates in the NDAA.
Creates a Wounded Warrior Resource Center to serve as a single point of contact for service members, their families and primary care givers to report issues with facilities, obtain health care and receive information on benefits;
- Requires semi-annual inspections of housing facilities for recovering service members;
- Requires DoD and VA to develop joint policy on care and management of the Armed Forces, including the development of an interoperable electronic health care system;
- Mandates DoD-wide standards for processing medical evaluations and training and qualifying those performing the evaluations;
- Mandates the establishment of new DoD-wide standards for processing disability evaluations to reduce the discrepancies between DoD assessments and those conducted by VA as well as ensuring consistent decision among the military departments;
- Requires comprehensive policy to address traumatic injury, post traumatic stress disorder, other mental health conditions and eye injuries;
- Mandates that DoD and VA establish a standard rating for service members’ disabilities that takes into consideration all medical conditions;
- Establishes a board to review the cases of service members separated without retirement benefits with a disability of 20 percent or less to ensure that such ratings are fair and accurate; and
- Requires DoD and VA to jointly study the feasibility and advisability of consolidating the disability evaluation systems of the military departments and VA.
Analysis: Thumbs up, this is a good start. We are concerned that the bill does not address the fact that unlicensed psychologists are treating combat post traumatic stress disorder patients as recently revealed at the James A. Haley VAMC in Tampa. We are encouraged that the Conference Committee did not adopt the Dole/Shalala Commission recommendation calling for two tiered disability system for combat disabled and non-combat disabled veterans.
Quality of Life
- Authorizes 3.5% pay increase to active and reserve members of the force.
- Prohibits increases in TRICARE and pharmacy user fees
- Authorizes a monthly payment of to $50.00 to surviving spouses denied the full amount of their Survivor Benefit Plan benefit because of concurrent receipt of Dependency and Indemnity Compensation. The amount will be increased by $100 by 2014.
- Expands eligibility for Combat Related Special Compensation to Chapter 61 disabled retirees with fewer than 20 years of active service.
- Authorizes disabled retirees, who are considered 100% disabled by virtue of being unemployable, to receive full Concurrent Disability Retired Pay and VA disability compensation effective 1 Jan 05.
- Thumbs up for a reasonable pay raise and holding the line on TRICARE and pharmacy user fees.
- Thumbs down for missing an opportunity to end the DIC offset to SBP. The fifty dollar allowance is an insult to the surviving spouse who looses about $1,100 dollars because of this egregious offset.
- Thumbs side ways for opening CRSC to disabled retirees with less than 20 years of service and providing full CDRP to those disabled retirees who are receiving 100% disability compensation by virtue of being unemployable. Congress needs to finish the job by granting full and immediate concurrent receipt to those military retirees not currently eligible for either CRSC or CDRP.
GI Bill Expansion - Allows reservists to use their MGIB-RC benefits for 10 years after they separate from the reservists. Allows reservists with three cumulative years of active duty service to qualify for education benefits at the 80% active duty rate.
Analysis: Thumbs down; this was a minor tweak, The conferees missed an opportunity to completely reform veterans education benefits by not moving adopting the VFW’s priority of a 21st Century Bill which would virtually cover the full costs of a college education to include tuition, books, fees and a living stipend.
Reserve Retirement Age - Reduces the age at which a Reservist can draw retired pay below the age of 60 by 3 months for every aggregate 90 days of active service in support of a contingency operation.
VA Legislation Held Hostage - Three bills to improve VA care for wounded warriors appear to have been shelved for the year due to "holds" placed on them by former Ranking Member Senator Craig of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee (SVAC).
S. 1233, an omnibus veterans' health measure, would direct the VA to develop individualized plans for the treatment and rehabilitation of veterans with traumatic brain injury (TBI), among many other things.
S.1315, the Veterans Benefits Enhancement Act, would authorize additional wounded warrior benefits including a new term life insurance program for disabled veterans. The sticking point is that the bill also would increase disability benefits for World War II Filipino veterans, including non-citizens living outside the US, in part by barring recent court-directed expansion of VA compensation to certain additional categories of disabled US veterans.
SVAC Chairman Daniel Akaka (D-HI) says Congress never intended the expansion directed by the court. His legislation would block the court-directed expansion and use those savings to pay for other upgrades in the bill for US veterans, as well as the Filipino benefits expansion.
Sen. Craig has blocked action on the bill because he opposes funding expanded benefits for Filipino veterans by barring the court-directed expanded benefits. Under Senate rules, any Senator may place a "hold" on a bill to prevent a floor vote. Senator Richard Burr (R-NC), the SVAC's new Ranking Member said this week, "Having talked to at least those that I know have holds on [the bills], nobody has a position where they would entertain lifting the holds by the end of the year." That leaves wounded warriors caught in the middle.
S. 1315, contains $633 million in benefit upgrades for Afghanistan and Iraq conflict veterans. But the bill also would provide $332 million for Filipino veterans. Some of its other provisions would:
- Create a new term life insurance program for disabled veterans ($326 million)
- Allow retroactive coverage (to Oct 7, 2001) of traumatic injury insurance (TSGLI) payments to severely disabled veterans ($47 million)
- Upgrade veterans mortgage life insurance ($51 million)
- Increase job training benefits ($31 million)
- Improve adaptive housing and automobile equipment benefits for severely wounded warriors ($22 million)
- Increase Supplemental Disabled Veterans Insurance ($26 million)
- Authorize COLAs for surviving spouse dependent benefits ($9 million)
The last bill on hold is the Military Construction/Veterans Affairs Appropriations Bill H.R. 2642 which funds all VA programs. As we wrote in this space last month, VA must operate at last year’s funding levels in spite of the fact that the newest generation of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans is placing huge demand on the health care and compensation and pension systems. It is inconceivable that during a time of war that bills so critical to all generations of warriors are being held hostage by partisan bickering.
Veterans of Foreign Wars Honors Del Ray Beach State Legislator- Jack McDermott, Commander of Florida’s Veterans of Foreign Wars announced the selection of Florida State Representative Maria Lorts Sachs as the recipient of its Legislative Achievement Award. Representative Sachs represents the 86th District in the Florida House of Representatives. In announcing this selection, Mr. McDermott lauded Ms Sach’s service to Florida’s veterans and their families. “We are deeply indebted to Representative Sachs work on behalf Florida’s veterans and their families.