At Your Service!!!
Lee F. Kichen
BATTLING INSIDE THE BELTWAY
Federal Legislative Update
Florida’s Veterans of Foreign Wars Takes the Battle Inside the Capital Beltway-The Veterans of Foreign Wars National Legislative and Community Service Conferences met March 2-5, 2008 in Washington, DC. Department of Florida Commander Jack McDermott and Auxiliary President Jodi Nierney led a delegation of Comrades and Auxiliary members to this very important event which culminated in meetings with members and their staffs of the Florida Congressional Delegation and National Commander-in-Chief George Lisicki’s testimony to a Joint Session of the Senate and House Veterans Affairs Committees. We were able to meet with a majority of the 27 members of the Congressional Delegation or their staff.
VFW Commander in Chief Testifies Before a Joint Session of the Senate and House Veterans Affairs Committee- VFW Commander-in-Chief George Lisicki presented the VFW's legislative priorities on March 4 before a joint hearing of the House and Senate Veterans Affairs Committees. Lisicki called on the members to provide full funding for VA healthcare and benefits for veterans of all generations, and to fully support current legislation that would create a 21st Century GI Bill. Other major issues included the VFW's strong opposition to the Dole/Shalala Commission recommendation that would compensate veterans with similar injuries differently based on their age, opposition to prescription copayment increases and enrollment fees. Commander-in-Chief Lisicki also decried the inordinately high error rate VA has in adjudicating claims for compensation and pensions. Lisicki said, “The VFW is greatly concerned with the accuracy of VA’s claims ratings decisions. VA’s own quality measurements show that VA makes a significant error in over 100,000 cases each year. This is grossly unfair to our sick and disabled veterans. After waiting months for a single ratings decision, they are too frequently left with an incorrect decision. We cannot accept this. The poor quality of these decisions only exacerbates VA’s problems. In most cases, a veteran will file an appeal, adding to the swollen backlog. This clearly could have been avoided had the case been resolved accurately in the first place. Of special concern to the VFW, however, is the number of veterans who give up out of frustration.” To read the entire testimony or to view the taped hearing, go to: http://veterans.senate.gov/public/index.cfm?pageid=16&release_id=11533&view=all
Heard on the Hill-The Commander-in-Chief’s testimony and our visits with members of Congress and their staffs elicited open and frank dialogue on a myriad of issues we are following:
Health Care Funding-Both Senate VA Committee Chairman Daniel Akaka (D-HI) and Ranking Member of the House VA Committee Steve Buyer (R-IN) indicated that Congress will increase health care funding over the level requested by the White House. Senator Akaka sees a $4.6B increase while Rep. Buyer spoke of a $3.8 B increase over the Administration’s numbers. As this is an election year it is certain that we will see the Congress appropriate at far higher levels than those requested by the President. House VA Committee Chairman Bob Filner (D-IN) states that he supports sufficient funding to reopen the VA Health Care System to Priority 8 veterans.
Veterans Education-Both political parties apparently support some reforms to the current GI bill and it is reasonably certain that we will see some movement this session towards that end. The fact that Senator John Warner (R-VA) is now supporting Senator Jim Webb’s bill S. 22 Post-9/11 Veterans Educational Assistance Act of 2007 will now attract even greater bi-partisan support. However, it is now clear the Administration will oppose this bill. One Defense official, who declined to be named, described the bill as a "retention killer" for the all-volunteer military. Defense officials believe enhanced post-service education benefits, particularly if enacted while troops face multiple deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, could trigger an exodus severe enough to put the viability of the volunteer military at risk. DoD’s position a realistic GI Bill for the 21st Century would result in many young service members, trained at great expense, to voluntarily separate after completing their initial service obligation to go college fulltime.
The Defense official said that World War II was a different era when the government was worried about long-unemployment lines from millions of returning draftees. A robust GI Bill now would make it difficult to keep careerists. "Why would anybody stay for another deployment when they can go out on a four-year free ride, with guaranteed rent and utilities at the E-5 standard, which by long-standing DoD policy is a two-bedroom townhouse?" This is an absurd turn around on the part of DoD, in the eighties and the nineties, during the “Be All You Can Be” days the Army and the other services used as educational benefits as a major recruiting incentive.
Dole/Shalala Disability Compensation Recommendations-Both Senate VA Committee Ranking Member Richard Burr (R-NC) and House VA Committee Ranking Member Steve Buyer (R-IN) have introduced legislation which could lead to implementation of the recommendations of Secretary Shalala and Senator Dole. We are still looking at S. 2674 and
H.R. 5509, however, while purporting to streamline the transition of wounded and injured service members, these bills apparently call for revamping of the disability system that has worked well since World War II and it includes language which precludes this new cohort of medically retired service members from receiving Combat Related Special Compensation.
Copayments and Enrollment Fees-The White House in its budget submission once again called for increased copayments and enrollment fees for non-service connected veterans desiring VA health care. The Administration also wants to raise the current TRICARE Prime enrollment fee of $460 to $2,000, increase the TRICARE Standard from $300 to $1270 annually and establish a $120 enrollment fee for TRICARE for Life on top the current Medicare premium. Virtually every Member of Congress or the staffers tell us that these copayment and fee schedules are a ‘no-go’ this year. Nevertheless VFW will continue to get our Senators and Representatives to support either S. 604 or H.R. 579.
Senator Bill Nelson’s Co-Sponsorship of Veterans Education Legislation-Upon learning that Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) agreed to co-sponsor S. 22, Post-9/11 Veterans Educational Assistance Act of 2007, VFW State Commander Jack McDermott said: “Senator Nelson clearly understands that the current GI bill is a vestige of the Cold War and that we need educational benefits meeting the reality of the Global War on Terrorism. The current package of educational benefits pays only $9,000 a year while the national average cost of tuition is $12,000 a year which does not include the cost of books, food and housing. We have asked service members, both active and reserve, to make immeasurable sacrifices since 9/11. We owe them more than a pat on the back. We owe them a GI bill equal to that given to veterans of World War II”.
If enacted into law this bill would increase educational benefits for members of the military serving on active duty since September 11, 2001. Veterans will receive funding for tuition and fees and a monthly stipend of $1,000. Under the existing Montgomery GI Bill a veteran has only 10 years to use his or her educational benefits while H.R. 2702 will give the veterans 15 years to use this benefit. It will also allow officers who graduated from the Service Academies or were commissioned through the ROTC program to attend graduate school. Additionally, it will also refund the $1,200 active duty members paid to participate in the Montgomery GI Bill.
McDermott went on to say “Once again, Senator Nelson has shown himself to be a true veterans’ advocate. He understands that by improving education benefits, the military improves its ability to recruit a quality of the force.”
Representative Buchanan Cosponsors H.R. 579 “Military Retiree Health Care Protection Act” -After learning that Congressman Vern Buchanan (R-FL 13) agreed to sponsor H.R. 579, VFW State Commander Jack McDermott, State said, “We are gratified that Mr. Buchanan is on record in opposition to the Defense Department’s proposals to make thousands of military retirees pay up to $2,000 more each year for their military health care and pharmacy coverage. Even allowing for inflation since the current fees were established, these proposed increases would far outstrip annual retired pay increases and greatly erode retired compensation values. Congress knew enacting TRICARE for Life (TFL) would be expensive. Forcing large fee increases on retirees to help pay for it would be wrong. The Congress believed in 2001 that TFL was earned by military service, why is the Defense Department now insisting on raising fees during a war?” Retirement benefits are the main incentive for a military career. Shifting a greater share of the cost of health care on military retirees would be penny wise and pound foolish when recruiting is becoming more difficult and an overstressed force is facing greater difficulty retaining service members.
State Legislative Update
VFW State Legislative Priorities Gain Critical Sponsors-State Senator Mike Bennett (R-21) and State Representative Mike Grant (R-70) at the Sarasota County Veterans Commission meeting February 28, 2008 indicated that they would cosponsor S.B. 108/H.B. 687 the Disabled Veteran Owned Business Preferences in State Contracting Bill and S.B. 620/H.B. 347 Veterans In-State Tuition Exemption Bill. State Representative Maria Sachs (D-86) who recently received the Veterans of Foreign Wars Department of Florida’s Legislative Achievement Award is also a co-sponsor of H.B. 687 and is cosponsoring H.B. 59 which would also expand tuition exemptions for veterans attending Florida’s colleges and universities. We truly appreciate the support of these legislators who are always willing to champion veteran’s issues in Tallahassee.
Legislature Considering Establishment of a Veterans Direct Support Organization (DSO)-The Florida Department of Veterans Affairs is seeking legislative approval of a not for profit corporation with the purpose of raising funds from private donors to support its mission. Although the Veterans of Foreign Wars opposed this concept, we asked State Senator Charlie Dean (R-3) and State Representative Ron Reagan sponsors of their respective chamber’s versions (S.B. 1462 and H.B. 861) of this bill to amend them to allow veterans service organizations such as the VFW to share the revenues accrued to the proposed DSO.