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May 09

FRA NewsBytes May 9, 2014

NewsBytes 05/09/2014

NewsBytes 05/09/2014

In this issue:
HASC Approves Defense Authorization
House Panel Subpoenas VA Secretary
Senate Panel Discusses Military Pay and Benefits
House Spending Bill Pressures VA on Seamless Transition


HASC Approves Defense Authorization
The House Armed Services Committee (HASC) marked up and approved the House version of the FY 2015 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA, H.R. 4435) this week, which is $31 billion less than the enacted FY 2014 NDAA. The text of the committee action was not available at press time but press accounts and information obtained from the committee indicate that the panel rejected the administration’s proposed TRICARE fee and co-pay increases, Basic Allowance for Housing (BAH) cuts, and pay caps for active duty/Reserves (flag officers are denied a pay raise in 2015). The cut to stateside commissary subsidies was reduced, but not eliminated. The commissary cut for FY 2015 was reduced from the proposed $200 million to $100 million. (Members can use the Action Center, action.fra.org, to ask their legislators not to cut commissary benefits.) To offset the increased cost of eliminating most of the benefit cuts, the committee mark would reduce operation and maintenance (O&M) funding. Committee members from both parties expressed reluctance to make major changes to pay and benefits until the Military Compensation and Retirement Modernization Commission makes its final report that is scheduled to be released February 2015.

The House committee mark-up is only the second phase of a long legislative process to get to a final version of the FY 2015 NDAA. The bill still needs to be approved by the full House and the Senate has yet to start its markup process for the NDAA.

House Panel Subpoenas VA Secretary
The House Veterans Affairs Committee (HVAC) voted unanimously this week to subpoena Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki in the aftermath of accusations that delays in health care at the Phoenix, Arizona VA hospital resulted in the deaths of as many as 40 veterans. Members can reference last week’s NewsBytes story for further details on the scandal.

The Shinseki subpoena will cover e-mails that allegedly discussed the destruction of a secret list of veterans waiting for care at the VA hospital. At Tuesday’s White House daily briefing, press secretary Jay Carney said that President Obama takes seriously the allegations that veterans died waiting for a care at the Phoenix location. He repeated that the VA’s Inspector General is conducting an independent investigation into the allegations, and that “the President remains confident in Secretary Shinseki’s ability to lead the department and take appropriate action.”

Senate Panel Discusses Military Pay and Benefits
Current and former generals and admirals testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) this week to discuss military compensation and the challenges and restraints caused by sequestration cuts. The first panel to testify consisted of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS), which includes:

  • General Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff;
  • Admiral James Winnefeld, Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff;
  • General Ray Odierno, Chief of Staff of the Army;
  • Admiral Jonathan Greenert, Chief of Naval Operations;
  • General Mark Welsh, Chief of Staff of the Air Force;
  • General James Amos, Commandant of the Marine Corps; and
  • General Frank Grass, Chief of the National Guard Bureau.

These panelists argued that the Department of Defense (DoD) cannot sustain the current growth of personnel costs, and that if Congress cannot curb the costs of personnel programs, readiness and modernization will be impacted. The JCS admirals and generals expressed support for the Administration’s budget request regarding military pay and benefits, which includes setting a pay raise for service members below the rate of the private sector, reducing basic allowance for housing (BAH) from 100 percent to 94 percent, reducing the subsidy to commissaries and making changes to TRICARE that would result in increased fees and cost-shares for most non-active duty beneficiaries. Commandant of the Marine Corps James Amos expressed concern about the impact commissary cuts would have on military families.

Senator John McCain (Ariz.) asked if the real problem is not personnel costs out of control but sequestration. These automatic cuts known as sequestration require that 50 percent of the cuts come from defense, even though defense spending makes up only 17 percent of the budget. Senators Kelly Ayotte (N.H.), Tim Kaine (Va.) and Angus King (Me.) echoed similar sentiments during the hearing. Senator Ayotte reminded the other Senators that these cuts were intended to be so punitive that Congress and the Administration would work together to find reasonable alternatives to sequestration. Unfortunately, that intention was not borne out.

A second panel consisting of retired admirals and generals from military associations briefly testified. SASC Chairman Carl Levin (Mich.) told this panel that he and other members of the SASC are developing a proposal as an alternative to sequestration. FRA believes this alternative will exclude defense or at least significantly reduce the scheduled punitive cuts for defense in the coming years. FRA believes defense should be excluded from sequestration and members are strongly urged to use the Action Center to ask their legislators to exclude Defense from sequestration: action.fra.org.

House Spending Bill Pressures VA on Seamless Transition
The House recently approved the Military Construction and Veterans Affairs (MilCon/VA) FY 2015 spending bill (H.R. 4486), which would hold back 75 percent of Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) requested record system upgrade funds, contingent upon the Department of Defense (DoD) and the VA proving that they are working to create a seamless medical record system for troops and veterans.

Rep. John Culberson (Tex.), chairman of the committee’s MilCon/VA Subcommittee, said that “similar language is planned for the defense appropriations and defense authorization bills set for May. Pentagon planners won’t get their full technology request until lawmakers are satisfied they’re addressing the shared records issue.”

The FY 2014 NDAA has an FRA-supported provision that requires DoD and VA to implement a seamless electronic sharing of medical health care data by October 1, 2016.

There is some sharing now between DoD, VA and the private sector, but more is needed. FRA supports a wider expansion of data sharing and exchange agreements between VA, DoD and the private sector.

The FY 2015 spending bill (H.R. 4486) provides $158 billion for the VA, a 7 percent increase of funding over the FY 2014 enacted level. The bill also provides advanced funding for FY 2016.

Before the bill passed the House it was amended to:

  • Provide funding for investigation into suspected misconduct at the Phoenix, Ariz. VA hospital (details of scandal in last week’s NewsBytes);
  • Ban a new round of Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) for DoD;
  • Prohibit closure of any stateside commissary in FY 2015; and
  • Prohibit bonuses for senior VA employees.

The bill now goes to the Senate for further consideration.