Federal Legislative Update
Congress Comes Back to a Full Plate-Members of Congress come back to Washington after the holiday break to a heavy work load. Veterans, military retirees and their families have much at stake between now and the election. The veterans service organizations and the military associations have made their priorities clear through testimony before Congressional committees and letters to the Hill leadership. Much of January was devoted to cleaning up some of the left over work from the 1st Session of The 110th Congress. February saw the enactment of an economic stimulus package and the President sending his budget message to The Congress both of which will impact the veteran’s community.
Bush Signs FY 2008 Defense Authorization Act-In this space last month, we reported that the President vetoed this bill due to the administration’s concern over a provision that would have allowed lawsuits against the assets of Iraq for the crimes of Saddam Hussein. The veto reflected the President's strong belief that the current Iraq government desperately needs all of its assets to build a stable government and shouldn't be held responsible for the crimes of the previous regime. Shortly after The Congress returned it cleaned up the bill and sent it to the President who signed it immediately. In December and January, we provided a detailed lay down on the provisions of this bill. One provision we have been following closely is the implementation of Combat Related Special Compensation for medical retirees with less than 20 years of service. According to our contacts in DC, the military services are waiting on DoD to complete the implementing instructions.
President Bush Signs Provision Providing Additional Funding to VA-In January, President Bush signed an emergency funding bill which provides VA an additional $3.7B. This additional funding plus the $2.9B increase in the VA appropriation provides the federal government’s second largest department a $6.6B increase over last year’s funding levels.
White House Sends Budget Proposal to the Congress-Before the ink was dry on the VA emergency appropriation, VA Secretary LTG (R) James Peake, former Army Surgeon General, presented the administration’s $94 billion blueprint for FY2009 VA funding at a House Veterans Affairs Committee hearing on February 7. The White House is requesting $41.2 billion for health care, $2.3 billion more than this year's amount. Peake said the budget would provide care to nearly 5.8 million veterans, including over 330,000 Iraq and Afghanistan veterans. The budget includes $3.9 billion to improve access to mental health care services; $1.5 billion for prosthetic equipment and sensory aids; and $762 billion to improve long-term care services for aging veterans.
Secretary Peake said this would "virtually eliminate" excessive medical appointment delays by the end of the year vs. 250,000 delays in April 2006 and 69,000 as of last month. He said this would be accomplished in part by fielding 64 new outpatient clinics this year and 51 in 2009, for a total of 846 nationwide.
The VA also plans to hire more claims workers and upgrade information technology to streamline paper-based claims procedures. If this works -- and other plans have foundered in recent years -- the VA hopes to reduce processing time to 145 days and improve accuracy of decisions to over 90% by the end of 2009. From the author’s perspective as a Veterans Service Officer, those goals may be the moral equivalent of “A Bridge to Far”.
The Veterans of Foreign Wars considers this budget blue-print to be a good start. We are concerned about the proposed $38 million reduction for medical research. These reductions will limit research on injuries and exposures of wounded warriors and substance abuse, and impose a 15% cut in mental health research. These cuts are unacceptable during a time of war and especially in light of current needs for wounded warrior care and rehabilitation.
Once again the administration is proposing enrollment fees of $250 to $750 annually for health care and a hike in pharmacy fees from $8 to $15 for Priority 7 and 8 non-service connected veterans. This proposal has been considered dead on arrival by previous Congresses and we urge this Congress to once again write the death certificate on this ill-conceived idea.
Administration Attempting to Increase the Cost of “Free” Retiree Healthcare-The Department of Defense is again proposing large increases in TRICARE fees that will force military retirees to assume more of the cost for the so-called free health care promised them if they stayed in uniform for twenty or more years. Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Ike Skelton (D-MO), attacked the department’s proposal to increase health care fees for retirees under age 65. The proposal closely tracks the recommendations of the DoD Task Force on the Future of Military Health Care, except that it does not propose an enrollment fee for TRICARE for Life. Recently, I had an opportunity to discuss this matter with Minority Leader John Boehner (R-OH) who assured me that the House will not favorably consider this proposal. Regardless of what these powerful players tell us now, we need to keep the heat on them.
Economic Stimulus Package-Will provide some rebates to disabled veterans who have no taxable income. We expect the checks to be in the amount of $300.00, however, at this writing we don’t know who will receive those checks. As soon as this information becomes available, we will pass it on.
GI Bill-Reforming the education benefits for veterans is the center piece of the VFW’s legislative program for 2008. Just as in 1944 when Congress enacted the first GI Bill of Rights for returning World War II, a GI Bill for the 21st Century would be an economic stimulus which could drive the American economy for the next fifty years. The World War II educational package resulted in higher national productivity, consumer revenue and tax revenue. Every dollar spent on veteran’s education in the late 1940s and early 1950s added seven dollars to the national economy. The Congressional Research Service estimates that the World War II GI bill was an economic engine that resulted in a $5-$12 increase in tax revenue for every $1 spent on sending a veteran to college. The Veterans of Foreign Wars urges its members to contact their Senators and ask them to support S. 22 and their members of the House of Representatives and ask them to work to pass H.R. 2702 which dramatically increases veterans education benefits.
Sarasota Congressman Agrees to Cosponsor the Reserve Retirement Bill Introduced: The Veterans of Foreign Wars was extremely disappointed that the National Defense Authorization Act didn’t contain language making reforms to the Reserve Component Retirement System retroactive to 9-11. After learning that Congressman Vern Buchanan (R-FL 13) agreed to sponsor H.R. 4930, Jack McDermott, State Commander of Florida’s Veterans of Foreign Wars issued the followed statement: “I am incredibly gratified that Mr. Buchanan is an early cosponsor of this important bill which if enacted into law will significantly modernize the Reserve Component retirement system. Under the current system, a member of the National Guard or reserves is not eligible to receive retirement until he or she reaches age 60. Recently enacted legislation 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. However, the Congress failed to make this provision retroactive to 9-11. H.R. 4930 addresses this injustice by making the changes to the system retroactive to the beginning of the war on terrorism. This is clearly the right thing to do for the over 600,000 reservists and members of the National Guard who have been mobilized in support of the war on terrorism.” Buchanan joins his Congressional colleagues, Jeff Miller (R-FL1) and C. W. Bill Young (R-FL10) in sponsoring this bill. We urge all members of the Florida congressional delegation to join Messrs. Buchanan, Miller and Young in working towards the passage of this important legislation.
State Legislative Update
VFW State Legislative Priority Gains House Sponsor-State Representative Bill Proctor introduced H.B. 687 which if enacted into law will grant Disabled Veteran owned businesses priorities on contracts with state government. We truly appreciate Mr. Proctor’s leadership in the effort to assist entrepreneurial veterans in growing their businesses. We urge all veterans and their family members to contract their members of the Florida House of Representatives and urge them to cosponsor this important bill.