Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Veterans Legislative Update - February 2009

Can We Really Believe in Change? - After many years observing the political landscape, I have learned that it is easier to campaign for a political office than to govern from that office. Campaigns are an exercise in making promises, while governing means delivering on those promises. President Barack Obama, during his run for the White House, made many promises to veterans and members of the Armed Forces and their families. Many of us who attended the VFW National Conventions in 2007 and 2008 heard him deliver those promises. Most of these promises were later captured in an interview with Isaac D. Pacheco, in the “American Veteran”, Winter 2009. The following is a list of those promises with a short analysis of each. A year from now, in this space, we will discuss how well the Obama Administration and the 111th Congress deliver on those promises.

VA Appropriation-Obama:
“As President, I will fully fund the VA so it has all the resources to serve the veterans who need it…I also support proposals being introduced in Congress to pass the VA budget two years in advance to minimize disruptions and VA certainty”

Analysis-I suggest Mr. Obama read the constitution, Presidents no matter how well intended don’t fund anything. The President may propose a budget for an agency but it is The Congress that appropriates funding for the agency. Former President Bush learned that each budget cycle. Annually, his submissions to the Congress under funded VA, while the Congress always added money to the Bush requests.

At this writing, there are no bills dealing with advanced funding. More troubling, VA Secretary Erik Shinseki during the his confirmation hearing before the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee was an enthusiastic supporter of the concept of advanced funding for VA. In a more recent hearing before the House Committee on Veterans Affairs, Secretary Shinseki was less than enthusiastic. His statement may indicate that the Administration’s support of advance funding is softening after less than a month in office. Shinseki said, “My preference would be a timely budget”, referring to getting the VA appropriation done before the new fiscal year. Shinseki went on to say, “If that is not possible, I am sure there will be a discussion about other options.” Not exactly an about face on his earlier testimony, it is more like a left face.

Concurrent Receipt of Military Retirement Pay and Veterans Affairs Disability Compensation-Obama:
“I support immediately and completely ending the disability tax and providing full and concurrent receipt of retirement pay and disability compensation.

Analysis-We certainly support the President’s position. Previous administrations, both Democratic and Republican, for more than twenty years opposed the concept of concurrent receipt. It was the Republican dominated Congress in 2002 and 2003 that forced partial concurrent receipt on the Bush Administration in the form Concurrent Disability Retirement Pay and Combat Related Special Compensation. The occupant of the Oval Office may have changed but the “bean counters” in the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) remain. Sadly, the Congress missed the boat by adding this one to the economic stimulus package. Our quick review of the House and Senate stimulus bills show exactly nothing which will directly benefit the military community.

TRICARE Fees and Copayments Increases-Obama:
“I will ensure that America keeps the sacred trust we made with the men and women who devote their careers to military service….I was proud to consistently oppose President Bush’s plan to dramatically increase fees for military retirees using TRICARE”

Analysis-It is clear that the new President wasn’t well briefed on this issue. The so-called “sacred trust” was broken long ago when military retirees, after being told that in exchange for twenty or more years of service they and their dependents would receive free health care, found themselves paying for their “free” healthcare in the form of TRICARE enrollment fees and co-payments. While we applaud President Obama’s campaign rhetoric we’ll see if his “Green Eye Shade” guys in OMB get the word or continue to recommend draconian increases to TRICARE enrollment fees and co-payments. The Congressional Budget Office has already indicated that increases to TRICARE fees and co-payments are “options” for Congressional consideration.

Opening VA Healthcare to Non-service Connected Veterans-Obama: “I am committed to ending the unfair ban on healthcare enrollment of certain groups of veterans, including Priority 8 veterans, who often earn modest incomes. I have voted to end the unfair policy, which has resulted in the VA turning away nearly one million veterans since 2003.

Analysis-Unlike military retirees who served twenty or more years, no one ever promised a non-service connected veteran free or low cost health care. In 1996, when the Congress enacted the Veterans Health Care Reform Act, it established a system of priorities for health care. The bill provided that if there was insufficient funding to treat non-service connected veterans, the Secretary of Veterans Affairs had the authority to deny enrolled non-service connected veterans healthcare. Former Secretary Principi exercised that authority in 2003 by not enrolling new Priority 8 veterans. President Obama claims he voted to end the “unfair policy” – not completely true, he only voted for last year’s appropriation which allows only certain Priority 8 veterans to enroll in VA Healthcare.

While we are committed to ensuring veterans receive the healthcare they need, we are concerned that a sudden influx of non-service connected veterans will result in degradation of care needed by service connected disabled veterans. Not all Priority 8 veterans “earn modest incomes”. Priority 8 includes the wealthiest veterans; who can certainly afford to pay co-payments and an enrollment fee. Lastly, does President Obama envision VA as the test bed for a National Health Care System?

VA’s Disability Claims Backlog-Obama: “There are currently more than 800,000 claims pending within the Veterans Benefits Administration. VA error rates have grown high. Over 100,000 cases contain significant errors. In the Senate, I voted to increase funding to hire additional claims staff. As President, I will hire additional claims workers and convene our leading veterans groups, employees and managers to develop an updated training and management model that will ensure…decisions are rated fairly…”

Analysis-We hope this isn’t “A Bridge Too Far”. When former President George W. Bush took office, he tasked his first VA Secretary, Anthony Principi, with the mission of fixing this problem. Eight years and billions of dollars after a VA Secretary said he will fix the problem, America’s veterans and their surviving spouses are waiting. Given the current Global War on Terrorism and the elderly World War II and Korean War population and the herbicide related diseases afflicting Vietnam veterans, the hiring of new personnel alone will not reduce the backlog. Someone hired by VA today, will not be able to competently rate claims for three years. Money alone is not the fix, the problem is systemic and requires a major restructuring of the Veterans Benefits Administration how it transition people from active military status and a complete revision of the rating schedule.

President Obama set the bar high for his administration. Let’s see how well he delivers on these promises. With the Administration and The Congress of the same party, they have the political high ground to deliver on those promises. The President while he speaks eloquently of a “sacred trust”, must understand that for those who willingly placed themselves between this nation and its enemies “sacred trust” is more than a phrase, it represents payment for a lifetime of sacrifice in the service of our nation.

Bipartisan Bill Introduced on TRICARE
- Reps. Chet Edwards (D-TX) and Walter Jones (R-NC) this week jointly reintroduced their Military Retirees' Health Care Protection Act (H.R. 816) which would bar the Defense Department from unilaterally increasing military TRICARE enrollment fees, co payments, and other fees.

Under their legislation, only Congress would have that authority. Edwards and Jones have championed this legislation for several years, and have been joined by hundreds of their colleagues who signed on as cosponsors of their bill. Their effort, along with the resistance of top Armed Services Committee leaders, is a big reason why Congress has rejected repeated Pentagon proposals to double or triple TRICARE fees for retirees under age 65 and increase pharmacy copays for all beneficiaries who purchase medications through TRICARE's retail or mail-order pharmacy systems.

"I hope the new administration will not request the same premium increases as the last, but this legislation will allow us to remove any temptation," Edwards said in announcing the newly reintroduced bill. "We cannot attract the best and brightest to fight our war on terrorism in the years ahead if they see us breaking faith with those who served in years past."

"This legislation is about offering protection for the men and women who are willing to protect our nation from its enemies, and keeping promises to those who have promised to put themselves in harm's way when called upon," Rep. Jones agreed. "The families of our armed forces deserve consistent health care benefits."

We in the Veterans of Foreign Wars have long appreciated the support of Representative Edwards and Jones fore veterans, military retirees, active and reserve members of the Armed Forces. We are gratified that Mr. Edwards, last year’s recipient of the Veterans of Foreign Wars National Organization’s Congressional Award, has taken a critical leadership role on this issue. We also appreciate the work that Representative Jones is doing to reform the Reserve Component Retirement System.

More Quality of Life Legislation - Although the focus in Congress is on the passage of an economic stimulus package we are gratified that some members have filed bills which address a number of our legislative priorities.

H.R. 775 (Rep. Ortiz, D-TX) would repeal the requirement to deduct VA survivor benefits from military Survivor Benefit Plan annuities.

H.R. 613 (Rep. Jones, R-NC) would allow a survivor to keep the entire retired pay for the month in which a service member dies. Current practice requires the government to recoup the money and pro-rate it based on the date of death.

H.R. 593 (Rep. Smith, D-WA) would better protect against deduction of VA disability compensation from military disability severance pay in instances of combat- or operations-related disabilities. A narrow interpretation of the recent law change on this topic covers only injuries occurring in a combat zone - excluding those which incurred in combat training or other operations-related accidents.

State Legislative Update

Proposed Ad Valorem Tax Changes-The Department of Florida, VFW adopted legislative priorities. which if approved, will benefit some veterans who are homeowners. The first requires that counties provide a 100% ad valorem exemption to active service members for the period in which they are serving in combat zones. The other priority calls for removing the pre-service residency requirement for those veterans seeking an ad valorem exemption based on service connected disabilities deemed combat related. Currently. to qualify for the Combat Related Ad Valorem exemption, the veteran must be at least 65 years old and must have entered active duty as resident of Florida.

At this writing, we are lining up sponsors for these bills in both the Florida Senate and House of Representatives. Assuming passage of these bills, the people of Florida will have to approve these changes through referenda during the General Election in November 2010.

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