FRA NewsBytes May 2, 2014

NewsBytes 05/02/2014

NewsBytes 05/02/2014

In this issue:
Markup of Defense Authorization Act Begins in House
FRA Briefs Coast Guard Retiree Council
FRA, Others Discuss Veterans Issues with HVAC Chairman
Statement by VA Secretary on Allegations Regarding the Phoenix VA Health Care System
Veteran’s Omnibus Bill Stalls on Senate Floor

Markup of Defense Authorization Act Begins in House
The House Armed Services’ Subcommittee on Military Personnel marked up its portion of the House version of the FY 2015 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA-H.R. 4435) this week. The subcommittee approved measures that:

  • Reject the administration’s request for TRICARE fees and co-pay increases;
  • Prohibit the administration’s proposal to merge TRICARE Prime, Standard, and Extra into one program;
  • Ban the administration’s proposed one-percent cap on active duty/reserve pay;
  • Reject the administration’s request to reduce commissary benefits;
  • Stop the administration’s request to require active duty dependents to pay a co-pay when seeking treatment at a military treatment facility (MTF); and
  • Delay for one year the administration’s request to cut Basic Allowance for Housing (BAH) benefits.

The subcommittee wants to delay substantial changes to pay and benefit programs until the Military Compensation and Retirement Modernization Commission (MCRMC) makes its final report, which is scheduled to be released in February 2015.

The subcommittee did approve the administration’s request to reduce active duty end strengths by 52,800 (Navy end strength will not be reduced, but Marine Corps end strength will be cut by 6,100) and cuts Reserve Component end strength by 12,900 (Navy Reserve cut by 1,800 and Marines Reserves cut by 400). The bill also authorizes the Department of Defense (DoD) to survey service members on the value they place on forms of compensation, relative to one another. Other provisions deal with sexual assault in the military, suicide of service members and dependents, and domestic violence and response.

The legislation will now go to the full House Armed Services Committee (HASC) for markup and approval, scheduled for May 7, 2014. The Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) markup of the Senate’s version of the bill is scheduled for May 21, 2014. Once both chambers approve their version of the Defense Authorization Act, a conference committee will be appointed to reconcile the differences between the House and Senate bills. The final bill is then sent to the House and the Senate for approval, after which it will be sent to the president for his approval or veto.

Members are urged to use the FRA Action center (action.fra.org) to share their views with lawmakers on these and other issues that impact their earned benefits.

FRA Briefs Coast Guard Retiree Council
FRA’s Director of Legislative Programs John Davis and Phil Odom of the Military Officers Association of America (MOAA) briefed the Coast Guard Retiree Council this week on current legislative issues associated with retiree benefits. Top issues are proposed TRICARE fee increases, possible cuts to commissary benefits, expanding concurrent receipt eligibility to include additional disabled retirees, and repeal of the Survivor Benefit Plan/Dependency and Indemnity Compensation (SBP/DIC) offset. The Coast Guard Retiree Council, which is co-chaired by retired Master Chief Petty Officer of the Coast Guard (MCPOCG) Skip Bowen and RADM John Acton, USCG (Ret.). The council meets annually to ensure retirees’ concerns are brought to the attention of USCG leadership and that members of the retired community are kept informed on key legislative initiatives. FRA also hosted a reception for the Council at the Navy Memorial.

FRA, Others Discuss Veterans Issues with HVAC Chairman
FRA’s Chris Slawinski, with representatives from other veteran service organizations, participated in a roundtable discussion of veteran’s issues this week with Rep. Jeff Miller (Fla.), chair of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, other members of the committee, and House leadership.

The free-flowing discussion focused on the spike in veteran deaths at the Phoenix, Arizona VA medical center allegedly due to delays in treatment (see story below for additional details), the need for legislation to help veterans impacted by toxic exposure, and the need for two-year budgeting for the VA.

Statement by VA Secretary on Allegations Regarding the Phoenix VA Health Care System
Media reports and hearings at the House Veterans Affairs Committee (HVAC) have exposed excessive delays of treatment in the Phoenix VA Health Care System. Beginning several years ago, a surge of veterans and an exodus of medical staffers resulted in increasing delays in care. Waits for first-time appointments with primary care doctors exceeded one year, and referrals to specialists often took months.

Because of the logjam, vets began flooding the hospital emergency room, which already was shorthanded. A previous director of the emergency department said patients waited hours while nurses with inadequate triage training tried to determine which ones needed immediate attention for life-threatening problems. Senator John McCain’s office claims that there have been more than 2,000 complaints filed against the VA Phoenix office in the last 18 months. There are also reports that VA staff has been destroying documents to cover up their negligence in treating veterans. The HVAC was made aware of the issue at an April 7th hearing and requested the VA Office of Inspector General (OIG) to investigate. The Secretary of VA has also charged Under Secretary for Health Petzel to conduct an internal review of the incident.

Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric K. Shinseki made the following statement on the allegations regarding the Phoenix VA Health Care System:

“We take these allegations very seriously. Based on the request of the independent VA Office of Inspector General, in view of the gravity of the allegations and in the interest of the Inspector General’s ability to conduct a thorough and timely review of the Phoenix VA Health Care System (PVAHCS), I have directed that PVAHCS Director Sharon Helman, PVAHCS Associate Director Lance Robinson, and a third PVAHCS employee be placed on administrative leave until further notice.

“Providing Veterans the quality care and benefits they have earned through their service is our only mission at the Department of Veterans Affairs. We care deeply for every Veteran we are privileged to serve. We believe it is important to allow an independent, objective review to proceed. These allegations, if true, are absolutely unacceptable and if the Inspector General’s investigation substantiates these claims, swift and appropriate action will be taken.”

Veteran’s Omnibus Bill Stalls on Senate Floor
Senator Bernie Sanders (Vt.), Chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee and sponsor of veterans’ omnibus legislation, the “Comprehensive Veterans Health and Benefits and Military Retirement Pay Restoration Act” (S. 1982), has been unable to get his bill called for vote on the Senate floor. The impasse is a result of a disagreement concerning possible amendments to the bill and cost offsets for existing provisions in the bill. An important provision in the bill expands the VA caregiver program to all who were seriously injured in the line of duty. This provision currently only applies to wounded warriors who were injured in the line of duty on or after September 11, 2001. This legislation would provide the caregiver pay, training, and relief from 24/7 care. There are many other important provisions in this legislation and members can refer to last week’s NewsBytes or the Action Center (action.fra.org) for further details on the bill. Members are urged to go the Action Center to ask their Senators to support this legislation.