FRA NewsBytes June 19 2015

FRA Newsbytes 06/19/2015

FRA Newsbytes 06/19/2015

In this issue:
Senate Passes NDAA Despite Spending Controversy
Agent Orange Presumption Expanded, but Not for Blue Water Navy Veterans
FRA Meets with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Others
Dual BAH on the Chopping Block
VA Drops Net Worth in Determining Eligibility

Senate Passes NDAA Despite Spending Controversy
The Senate approved (71-25) its version of the FY 2016 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA-S. 1376) despite a Presidential veto threat and a partisan disagreement over spending. The House and Senate versions bypass sequestration spending limits (automatic budget cuts) on the Defense budget by shifting an extra $38 billion into the emergency war fund, which is not included as part the general DoD budget. These extra Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) funds, however, will be used for regular Defense operations. Threats to oppose this bill have been withdrawn.

Only a small number of floor amendments were considered. The Senate approved an FRA-supported amendment to halt the privatization of five stateside commissaries, but deferred other amendments that would advance FRA’s legislative agenda. Concurrent receipt expansion, elimination of pharmacy co-pay increases, Agent Orange/Blue Water Navy presumption, a larger (2.3% vs. 1.3%) annual pay increase for active duty service members, and veteran status for 20-year reservists who are not mobilized were not included in the final measure.

Now that both chambers have approved their respective versions of the NDAA, a conference committee will be appointed to resolve the differences between the two bills. Once the differences are resolved, the bill must be approved by the House and Senate, after which it will be sent to the President to be signed into law or vetoed. FRA will continue its fight to include the key provisions referenced above. Members are urged to use the FRA Action Center (action.fra.org/action-center) to weigh in on these and other issues that impact FRA members.
Agent Orange Presumption Expanded, but Not for Blue Water Navy Veterans
Despite the VA’s irrational opposition to helping Blue Water Navy veterans, the agency has expanded presumption for exposure to Agent Orange for a select group of Air Force and Air Force Reserve veterans who served in Vietnam. It is now presumed these service members were exposed to the herbicide Agent Orange through regular and repeated contact with contaminated C-123 aircraft that had been used as part of Operation Ranch Hand (ORH). As a result, the VA can immediately begin providing benefits to this veteran population who submit a disability compensation claim for any of the 14 medical conditions that have been determined to be related to exposure to Agent Orange.

“I am pleased the VA has finally ended the wait and will now provide disability benefits for the Air Force veterans who were exposed to Agent Orange,” said Senator Kirstin Gillibrand (N.Y.). “However, there are still hundreds of thousands of Blue Water Navy veterans who are being denied benefits they need and deserve because of a technicality in the law. Congress owes it to the Blue Water Navy veterans who bravely served our country and have fallen victim to Agent Orange-related diseases to finish the job by passing legislation that would finally solve this problem and provide access to the benefits they deserve.”

FRA is supporting Senator Gillibrand’s “Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act” (S. 681) and its House companion bill (H.R. 969, sponsored by N.Y. Rep. Chris Gibson), measures that would clarify a presumption for exposure to Agent Orange during the Vietnam War for veterans who served off the coast of Vietnam, so-called Blue Water veterans. FRA National Executive Director (NED) Tom Snee regularly brings attention these concerns when he attends the quarterly Veterans Service and Military Service Organization (VSO/MSO) roundtable discussion, sponsored by Senate Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and the House Democratic Caucus. (See below.)

Members are urged to use the FRA Action Center (action.fra.org/action-center) to ask their U.S. Representative and U.S. Senators to support the Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act.
FRA Meets with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Others
In addition to sharing FRA’s concerns about Agent Orange exposure (see above), NED Snee also voiced FRA’s perspective on several other concerns in the veterans’ community. The discussion for this quarter’s gathering of military and veterans organizations also focused on implementation of the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Choice program, which is intended to allow veterans to use non-VA health care if they live more than 40 miles from a VA facility or have been waiting more than 30 days for an appointment at the VA. The discussion also focused on the VA’s aging infrastructure, construction cost overruns and the lack of mental health professionals in the VA.
Dual BAH on the Chopping Block
The 2016 Senate National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA-S. 1376) includes a provision that will dramatically change how dual-service couple’s Basic Allowance for Housing (BAH) will be calculated. The Senate is proposing to authorize only to the higher-ranking member of a dual-service couple to receive BAH. Under current policy, service members who are married to one another, have no children and are assigned to the same location can each draw BAH at a lower “without dependents” rate. If the couple has a child, the more senior ranking member can draw BAH at a higher “with dependents” rate, while the other member continues to draw BAH at the lower “without” rate.

To put this matter in perspective, an E-6 living in the Washington, D.C. metro area receives BAH of $2,016 per month as a single service member, and a single E-7 gets $2,148/month. Under current regulations, a married couple with these ranks would jointly receive $4,164 per month in BAH. If the proposed changes take effect, the E-7 would be eligible to receive $2,553 in BAH and the E-6 would get $0. Marriage would effectively reduce their collective housing allowance by $1,611 a month—or $19,332—over the course of a year.

If the same two single service members married civilians, their BAH would both be at the “with dependents” rate of $2,463 for an E-6 and $2,553 for an E-7, which is much more than if they married each other.

FRA opposes this provision, and the issue is listed on the FRA Action Center (action.fra.org/action-center). We strongly encourage all shipmates to use the FRA Action Center today to let your senators know that you oppose this provision.

President Obama has also voiced strong opposition to the proposal and said that the targeted cuts to BAH would “impose a marriage penalty.” An online petition is also aimed at stopping this proposal. If the petition (available at https://petitions.whitehouse.gov/petition/stop-senate-proposed-bill-specifically-unfairly-targets-and-limits-bah-benefits-dual-military-spouses) garners 100,000 signatures, the White House will review the matter and provide an official response.
VA Drops Net Worth in Determining Eligibility
FRA applauds the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) for eliminating the use of a veteran’s net worth when determining eligibility for health care benefits and co-payments. Co-payments for veterans in the lowest Priority Groups (7 and 8) are higher than any other group. Dropping net worth will make some veterans in these categories eligible for higher-priority groups.

FRA believes that veterans have earned health care benefits through their demanding service to their country, regardless of their personal financial situation. Our nation made a commitment to all veterans in return for their service, and limiting eligibility for health care and co-payments conveys the wrong message to our service personnel currently serving and those who have served in the past.