FRA NewsBytes March 13 2015

FRA Newsbytes 03/13/2015

FRA Newsbytes 03/13/2015

In this issue:
Senate Agent Orange/Blue Water Navy Bill Introduced
Comprehensive Concurrent Receipt Bill Introduced in Senate
President Visits Phoenix VA Medical Center
VA Updating VASRD

Senate Agent Orange/Blue Water Navy Bill Introduced
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (N.Y.) has introduced the “Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act” (S.681), which would clarify a presumption for filing disability claims with the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) for ailments associated with exposure to Agent Orange herbicide during the Vietnam War. Congress should recognize that so-called “blue water” veterans who served off the coast of Vietnam were exposed to Agent Orange herbicide. This bill authorizes presumptive status for VA disability claims associated with Agent Orange exposure for this group of veterans. This bill is a companion bill to H.R. 969, which was introduced earlier by Rep. Chris Gibson (N.Y.). FRA staffers are scheduled to meet with HVAC staff to ask for a hearing, markup, and Committee approval of this important legislation. Shipmates are strongly urged to use the Action Center (action.fra.org/action-center) to ask their senators and representative to support these proposals.
Comprehensive Concurrent Receipt Bill Introduced in Senate
Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (Nev.) has introduced comprehensive concurrent receipt legislation, known as the “Retired Pay Restoration Act” (S. 271). This legislation would authorize the immediate payment of concurrent receipt of full military retired pay and veterans’ disability compensation for all disabled retirees.

Earlier, Rep. Gus Bilirakis (Fla.) introduced the “Retired Pay Restoration Act” (H.R. 303), which would expand the eligibility of retirees with less than 50 percent disability rating to receive service-connected disability from VA and their full retirement pay for those retirees eligible for Concurrent Retirement and Disability Payments (CRDP). Currently, only CRDP disability disabled retirees with a rating of 50 percent or more are eligible for concurrent receipt. Rep. Sanford Bishop (Ga.) has also introduced comprehensive concurrent receipt reform (HR 333) that includes disabled retirees with CRDP less than 50 percent and CRDP (Chapter 61) medically retired (less than 20 years of service). Rep. Sanford’s bill is similar to the Senate bill and would have the same impact. Members are urged to use the FRA Action Center (action.fra.org/action-center) to contact their senators and representative to ask their support for these proposals.
President Visits Phoenix VA Medical Center
On Friday, March 13, the president will travel to Phoenix, Arizona to discuss veteran’s issues. The president and Secretary of Veterans Affairs Bob McDonald will visit the Phoenix VA Medical Center. During the course of this visit, the president will hear about progress made to improve the VA’s ability to serve veterans in a timely and effective manner—areas where more progress is needed and further steps that are planned.

The VA claims it has made progress in accelerating care to veterans and addressing instances of unacceptable wait times nationwide by improving the timeliness of care within the VA system, expanding access to VA and non-VA care, and taking advantage of the new authorities in the Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act that was signed into law last year. This act provides the VA additional resources to improve access and quality of care for veterans. To improve service delivery, VA medical centers have increased access to care inside and outside of VA, added more clinic hours and work days, and deployed mobile medical units. To respond to veterans’ mental health needs, VA has also substantially increased mental health staffing, expanded the capacity of the Veterans Crisis Line by 50 percent, and enhanced its partnerships with community mental health providers. Next week, FRA National President John Ippert is scheduled to tes tify before joint a hearing of the Senate and House Veterans Affairs committees and will discuss the VA Choice program, the VA budget, Agent Orange/Blue Water Navy legislation, the disability claims backlog, concurrent receipt, USFSPA, and several other legislative issues. A copy of his testimony will be posted on the FRA website.
VA Updating VASRD
FRA welcomes the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) efforts at updating its Schedule for Rating Disabilities (VASRD, or Rating Schedule), which will modernize and improve the delivery of disability benefits to veterans. The VASRD governs how VA claims processors evaluate the severity of disabilities. Updating the VASRD is essential to better reflect modern medicine, clarify rating criteria, help VA claims processors make more consistent decisions with greater ease, and ensure greater understanding of VA decisions. While the VA has routinely updated parts of the VASRD, it has not systematically updated the entire VASRD since 1945. A working group of specialized physicians (VA and non-VA), stakeholders (including members of Veterans Service Organizations), and claims processors review each system and provide analysis to assist the VA in developing changes.

The updated Rating Schedule may afford some veterans with service-connected disabilities an increase in their disability evaluation based on the new rating criteria. Federal statutes prohibit the VA from reducing the disability evaluations of veterans who are already service-connected due solely to changes in the rating criteria. If a claim or an appeal is awaiting a decision when the VA publishes the final updated rating criteria, the VA will apply the criteria previously in effect and may continue to apply those criteria, if more favorable to the veteran, after the new criteria becomes effective. The VA will apply the new criteria for periods after their effective date if more favorable to the veteran. Claims processors using the Rating Schedule will receive training on recognizing how and when to apply its updates, as well as on its significant changes. FRA will monitor the updating process to ensure disabled veterans are adequately compensated for their injuries.