Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Vets Funding Passed!

Today, the House of Representatives passed legislation that provides guaranteed funding for health care programs within the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). The House approved a bill (H.R. 1016) by a 409-1 vote. H.R. 1016 would provide for two-year advance funding for certain Department of Veteran Affairs health care programs, prosthetics and Internet technologies. As a cosponsor of H.R. 1016, and a member of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, I am very pleased that the House took action to help protect the funding of important VA health care programs.

In addition, the House also passed a few other bills related to veterans. I have summarized those bills below:

• H.R. 1211 would require the VA to study the barriers and services for women veterans; it would provide staff training to better treat sexual trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD); it would establish a child care pilot program for certain veterans receiving care; and it would allow the VA to provide care for a newborn of a woman veteran receiving VA maternity care. The House passed this bill with a 408-0 vote.

• H.R. 1172 would allow the VA to post a list of organizations that provide scholarships to veterans and their survivors on its website. The House passed this bill with a 411-0 vote.

• S. 407 amends the rates of compensation for veterans with service-connected disabilities and the rates of dependency and indemnity compensation for the survivors of certain disabled veterans and will codify increases equal to that of the cost of living adjustment of Social Security, and make it retroactive to December 1, 2008. The House passed this bill with a 403-0 vote.

I hope that this legislative update is helpful. Please do not hesitate to contact either my Sarasota Office (941-951-6643) or my Bradenton Office (941-747-9081) on a veterans issue or with any other concern that you have.


Vern Buchanan
Member of Congress

Monday, June 15, 2009

Legislative Update - June 2009 by LTC Lee F. Kichen

Federal Legislative Update:

Bill to Ease PTSD Burden of Proof Goes to Committee-A bill designed to make it easier for veterans to receive benefits and immediate care for post-traumatic stress disorder moved to the House Veterans Affairs Committee on Wednesday and is expected to be voted on by the committee this month. This bill if it becomes law will, in essence, relax the requirement to prove a “combat stressor”. H.R. 952 would clarify that “combat with the enemy” is defined as duty in a combat theater during a time of war or against a “hostile force during a period of hostilities” for those seeking service-connected benefits for disabilities. According to the bill’s sponsor Rep. John Hall, D-N.Y, it “essentially establishes service in combat as a presumptive stressor for the incurrence of PTSD. No longer should veterans have to leap high hurdles and battle with VA in order to receive urgently needed benefits”. If a veteran did not possess an award for valor or Purple Heart or badge denoting combat such as a Combat Infantryman Badge or Combat Action a veteran can substantiate a stressful event by witness letters from commanders or fellow service members to verify that they had been exposed to a traumatic event. In some cases, those people were difficult to find; some had died. In other cases, the veterans gave up because asking for the letters forced them to relive experiences they were not ready to talk about. Those not in infantry or other combat-related positions — including all women — also have had a difficult time proving combat status.

Bill Introduced Granting Benefits to Certain World War II Groups-HR 2270 would extend $1,000-a-month benefits to several World War II groups not covered by the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944, commonly known as the World War II GI Bill of Rights, but, who were provided veteran status under the GI Bill Improvement Act of 1977 — was forwarded to the House Veterans Affairs Committee. That bill was introduced by Rep. Steve Buyer, R-Ind., and came in response to HR 23, which provided monthly payments to Merchant Marines who served during World War II. Buyer said veterans such as the Flying Tigers — only 18 of whom are still alive — and the United States Cadets Nurses Corps should also receive benefits.

House Committee Marks up Vet Bills: Several other VFW-supported bills cleared their respective subcommittees this week. All of the bills now move to the full committee for consideration.

HR 1037 would authorize $10 million annually to implement a five-year pilot program to expand work-study activities for veterans on campuses.

HR 1098, The Veterans' Worker Retraining Act of 2009 would increase educational assistance for veterans pursuing internships or on-the-job training. It also increased the monthly training assistance for eligible veterans and their dependents under the Survivors and Dependents Educational Assistance program.

HR 2180 would waive housing loan fees for veterans with service-connected disabilities called to active duty.

HR 1821, The Equity for Injured Veterans Act of 2009 would extend VA's Vocational Rehabilitation program to 15 years following discharge or release from active duty. It also authorizes single parents participating in the program up to $2000 a month for child care services.

Benefits Bill for Women Veterans Cleared: A comprehensive bill that will improve health care for female veterans cleared the House Veterans' Affairs Subcommittee on Health this week. HR 1211, The Women Veterans Health Care Improvement Act is a VFW priority goal. The bill as passed would:

· Authorize $4 million to VA to study barriers women face in accessing care and another $5 million for an assessment of the VA's health care services and programs provided to female veterans.

· Create a new program to offer graduate medical education, training and certification to mental health professionals who provide counseling, care and services for veterans suffering from sexual trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder.

· Authorize $1.5 million in 2010 and 2011 for a pilot program to provide child care to veterans who are receiving mental health or other intensive care services at VA facilities.

· Provide health care services for the newborns of female veterans, who delivered at VA facilities, for 7 days after birth.

Last month, the Senate VA Committee passed similar legislation in a large health care bill. VFW thanks both Senator Patty Murray and Representative Herseth-Sandlin for their leadership on this most important bill.

No COLA for 2010-Military retirees, disabled veterans and others receiving inflation-adjusted federal benefits should not expect to see any increase this year, according to a new Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimate. According CBO projections Social Security recipients will not receive a COLA. Since military retired pay, VA disability compensation and survivors’ benefits are linked to Social Security there is little possibility of an increase this coming year.

Social Security, military and federal civilian retirement and some other federal benefits automatically increase each Dec. 1 based on the Consumer Price Index, a measurement of the cost of goods and services maintained by the Labor Department’s Bureau of Labor Statistics. Largely due to falling energy and transportation expenses, the CPI shows consumer prices are lower today than one year ago. The May 15 report shows costs today are 0.7 percent lower now than one year ago. Continuing drop in CPI will not result in any reduction in benefits as there is no provision under the law that would trigger a reduction in benefits if the CPI falls below the previous year.

Administration Proposes Widening Eligibility for Concurrent Retirement and Disability Pay (CRDP) -In an earlier article we indicated that we would possibly see some liberalization of the eligibility criteria for CRDP. This past month we saw the Obama White House proposal to expand concurrent receipt to service members who were medically retired, sometimes referred to as Chapter 61 retirees.
Under the Administration’s proposed Defense budget, all Chapter 61 retirees will become eligible for Concurrent Retirement and Disability Pay (CRDP) over a five-year period starting in January 2010. The expansion will come in two phases.

The first three years of the five year phase-in opens CRDP eligibility to the more severely disabled Chapter 61 retirees with less than 20 years of service.

  • On January 1, 2010, Chapter 61 retirees with less than 20 years of service and a VA rating of either 90% or 100% become eligible.
  • On January 1, 2011, Chapter 61 retirees with less than 20 years of service and a VA rating of either 70% or 80% become eligible.
  • On January 1, 2012, Chapter 61 retirees with less than 20 years of service and a VA rating of either 50% or 60% become eligible.

The remaining two years of this phase-in extends CRDP to Chapter 61 retirees, regardless of years of service, with a VA rating of less than 50%.

  • On January 1, 2013, all Chapter 61 retirees with a VA rating of either 30% or 40% will become eligible.
  • On January 1, 2014, all Chapter 61 retirees with any VA rating become eligible.

Unfortunately some disabled retirees will still be left out of the “concurrent receipt calculus” Once this plan is completed, the only disabled retirees ineligible for CRDP will be non-medical retirees with 40% or lower VA disability ratings. The 10-year cost of the expansion is estimated to be $5.8 billion.

While this new initiative represents a 180-degree turnabout from the positions of all previous Administrations, Republican or Democrat, it still is not “full and immediate concurrent receipt of military retired and VA disability compensation” which has been our long standing goal. Regardless of the time served whether it was twenty years or some period less the economic and quality of life impact of a disabling condition is the same. If the Administration doesn’t want to go “the final mile”, maybe our friends in The Congress can drag them over the finish line and provide concurrent receipt for all disabled retirees.

TALLAHASSEE TALES: State Legislative Update

Proposed Constitutional Amendment Goes to the 2010 Ballot-The Department of Florida, Veterans of Foreign Wars at the conclusion of 2008 adopted two legislative priorities calling for legislation which would grant an Ad Valorem tax exemption for active personnel serving in combat operations. Additionally, we called on the legislature to expand eligibility for the “combat related” Ad Valorem tax discount. The Florida Legislature heard us. At the conclusion of the session, the Legislature adopted the resolution which places on the ballot an amendment to the Florida Constitution to provide an additional property tax exemption for members of the United States military or its reserves, the United States Coast Guard or its reserves, or the Florida National Guard who receive a homestead exemption and were deployed in the previous year on active duty outside the continental United States, Alaska, or Hawaii in support of military operations. Although our original proposal was limited to veterans serving in combat operations we applaud the sponsors and cosponsors for doing the right thing. Our number one mission in 2010 is to get the voters to approve this amendment. State Senator Dave Aronberg (D-27) and State Representative Doug Holder assured us that they will lead the effort to pass a resolution broadening eligibility for the “combat related” Ad Valorem discount to veterans with combat related disabilities who are now homesteaded in Florida and entered the Armed Forces from other states.

Instant Bingo Machine Bill Killed in the House-Just when we thought we were going to get legislation authorizing instant bingo machines, the House of Representatives backed away from the Senate bill. Our friends in the Florida Senate have pledged to introduce a bill in 2010; our job will be to get the House to agree to a Senate bill.

Governor Crist Signs Legislation Favorable to the Military and Veterans Communities

Senate Bill 316, High School Diplomas/Vietnam War Veterans – This legislation recognizes the enormous commitment and sacrifice veterans of the Vietnam War made to serve their country during war time. This bill, sponsored by Senator Lee Constantine, authorizes the Commissioner of Education to award Vietnam veterans who were honorably discharged with a Florida high school diploma. This bill is similar to existing legislation that awards diplomas to veterans of World War II and the Korean War.

House Bill 509 State Veterans Benefits– Sponsored by Representative Juan Zapata and Senator Mike Fasano, this legislation will improve the lives of Florida’s veterans and their families for generations to come by accomplishing several important goals:

· Waives building and permitting fees for safety and accessibility residential renovations for Florida’s 20,000 veterans permanently and totally disabled as a result of their military service.

· Removes the cap on certain military and veteran license tag fees to help fund Florida’s Veterans Nursing Home Trust Fund.

· Incorporates Title 33 of the United States Code into Florida law, allowing the implementation of the New GI Bill, or Post 9/11 GI Bill, which goes into effect August 1, 2009.

House Bill 685, Educational Dollars for Duty Program – This bill, sponsored by Representative Bill Proctor and Senator Mike Fasano, makes significant improvements to the Florida National Guard’s Education Dollars for Duty Program (EDD). The following changes to Florida law have been made to increase the program’s effectiveness and to increase its usefulness as a recruitment and retention tool:

· Expands eligibility to guard members seeking a master’s degree, to those with more than 15 years service, and to those who have not completed basic military training.

· Extends the program to include Florida’s accredited nonpublic postsecondary education institutions and vocational-technical programs.

· Clarifies that the EDD program is available for active members and requires members to complete their enlistment or reenlistment contract, instead of serving only three years after the exemption is granted.

· Authorizes the program to include college-preparatory courses.

The legislation also ensures fairness and equitability to the members of the Air National Guard.

House Bill 635, Military Affairs – This legislation adds significant legal protections for Florida National Guard soldiers and airmen on active duty while they are serving the State of Florida. Sponsored by Representative Michael Scionti and Senator Charlie Justice, this bill enhances re-employment rights and adds protective measures against discrimination of military members by employers. It also creates a civil penalty of up to $1,000 per violation.