FRA NewsBytes October 9 2015

FRA Newsbytes 10/09/2015

FRA Newsbytes 10/09/2015

In this issue:
Senate Passes NDAA
President Signs Denver VA Hospital Bailout
Former HVAC Member Nomination Moves Forward
Warrior-Family Symposium Reviews Mental Health Solutions
FRA NHQ Office Closed for Columbus Day

Senate Passes NDAA
After some delays, the House and Senate passed the final version of the FY 2016 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA, H.R. 1735) in early October and it awaits final approval as this issue of FRA Today goes to print. The bill includes:

  • The creation of a new “blended” military retirement system for those who join the military after January 1, 2018;
  • Increased pharmacy co-pays for family members and retirees for prescriptions filled off base or by mail. These increases will range from $2 to $4 depending on whether drugs are brand-name or filled at retail outlets;
  • An active duty pay increase of 1.3 percent, which is lower than the civilian wage increase of 2.3 percent;
  • Authorizing Survivor Benefit Plan (SBP) benefits for a second spouse, when first divorced spouse is deceased;
  • Reducing BAH rates by one percent a year until 2019;
  • Continued dual Basic Allowance for Housing (BAH) payments to service members married to other service members;
  • The establishment of victim’s rights for sexual assault and domestic abuse; and
  • Rejecting the Administration’s request to reduce stateside commissary funding.

FRA is deeply disappointed that the FY 2016 NDAA did not make any improves in concurrent receipt, the Uniformed Services Former Spouses Protection Act (USFSPA), the offset experienced by SBP annuitant who are also eligible for Dependency Indemnity Compensation (DIC) offset, and many other programs.

The Association is opposed to the “blended” retirement system for those who joined the service after January 1, 2018, which will reduce the current 20-year retirement benefit from 50 percent of base pay to 40 percent, provide a continuation bonus after 12 years of service if the member agrees to remain on active duty for an additional four years, and authorizes a mandatory Thrift Savings Program with a one-percent employer contribution and additional employer match of up to four percent of employee contributions. FRA believes that shifting benefits from future retirees who served a 20-year career to service members who serve as little as two years, and providing a portable benefit, will lay the groundwork for serious retention problem. Legislators ignored the fact that the current retirement system was established to ensure a strong and top-quality career force despite arduous service conditions.

The bill now goes to the President to be signed into law or be vetoed. President Obama has issued a veto threat for the legislation because it sidesteps sequestration spending caps. The Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) Chairman Senator John McCain (Ariz.) argued that the funding level authorized in the bill is the same funding level requested in the President’s FY 2016 budget request and reducing Defense spending to sequestration levels could endanger the lives of service members overseas. The president is not opposed to Defense spending exceeding the spending caps, but only if other non-defense related spending subject to sequestration caps is also allowed to do the same. Should Obama choose to veto the measure, it would be only the fifth time in the 53-year history of the consolidated annual defense authorization that a president has sent the bill back to Congress.
President Signs Denver VA Hospital Bailout
The president recently signed into law legislation, S. 2082, which was sponsored by Senate Veterans Affairs Committee (SVAC) Chairman Johnny Isakson (Ga.). S. 2082 extends certain expiring provisions of law administered by the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and provides addition funding ($625 million) for construction of the Denver, Colorado VA Medical Center. Before the final vote in the House of Representatives, HVAC Chairman Jeff Miller (Fla.) provided a blistering verbal condemnation of VA mismanagement that included a list of expensive and extravagant art work recently purchased at VA offices. The health care provisions extend through fiscal year 2016. Some of these include extension of authority for:

  • Collecting of copayments for hospital care and nursing home care:
  • Requiring nursing homes to provide care to certain veterans with service-connected disabilities;
  • Providing assistance and support services for caregivers;
  • Recovering from third parties the cost of care and services furnished to veterans with health-plan contracts for non-service-connected disabilities;
  • A pilot program that provides assistance for child care for certain veterans receiving health care;
  • Providing grants to veterans’ service organizations (VSO) for transportation of veterans in remote rural areas;
  • Continuing the DOD–VA Health Care Sharing Incentive Fund;
  • A Department of Defense-VA Medical Facility Demonstration Fund; and
  • A pilot program on counseling women veterans separated from service.

Estimated cost for the completion of the VA Medical Center in Denver is $1.675 billion, but some have noted that the total cost for the project could reach $2 billion. Congress has mandated that the project be taken over by the Army Corps of Engineers.
Former HVAC Member Nomination Moves Forward
The Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee (SVAC) recently approved the nomination for former Rep. Michael H. Michaud (Maine) to be Assistant Secretary of Labor for Veterans’ Employment and Training. Michaud served as Ranking Member on the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee in the 113th Congress (2013-2014). During his tenure as Ranking Member he sponsored the “Medicare VA Reimbursement Act” (H.R. 2953) at FRA’s request. The legislation would have authorized Medicare reimbursement for eligible veterans to improve access for Medicare-eligible veterans and enhance health care funding for the VA. Before Michaud’s nomination can move to the full Senate for a vote, however, it will need to be approved by the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, which shares jurisdiction over that position.
Warrior-Family Symposium Reviews Mental Health Solutions
The Military Officers Association of America (MOAA) and the Wounded Warrior Project recently co-hosted the 9th annual Warrior-Family Symposium in Washington, D.C. This year’s theme, “Our Nation’s Military: Caring for Our Own,” focused on government and non-government solutions to improve the mental welfare of service members, veterans, their families and caregivers. The morning panel discussed how the government has moved the needle forward in improving issues like mental-behavioral health, suicide, sexual trauma, and substance abuse. Although the government has come a long way in improving care for veterans and their families, panelists discussed challenges with program awareness and accessibility. The afternoon panel provided a five-year outlook on mental health care needs. Keynote speaker Sen. Johnny Isakson (Ga.), Chair of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, said, “When it comes to veterans’ health care, there are no excuses.” Although Sen. Isakson noted the progress made by the VA, he stressed the need for continued improvement and congressional support. Veterans Affairs Secretary Bob McDonald also attended the event, and talked about the progress made by the VA over the last few years, as well as the remaining challenges the department faces. The VA has reduced the backlog dramatically and cut decision times. Wait times for appointments have gone down, and claim decision accuracy has gone up. McDonald said that although there has been considerable improvement, the department still has a long way to go.

The Association appreciates the Symposium focusing on mental health. FRA is troubled by the high rate of suicide among veterans, which has been reported as high as 22 per day. The Association supported the “Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for American Veterans Act,” which was introduced January 7, 2015 (H.R. 203/S. 167). It was signed into law on February 12, 2015 and requires the VA and DoD to allow for an independent third party evaluation of their mental health care and suicide prevention programs.
FRA NHQ Office Closed for Columbus Day
The FRA NHQ office will be closed on Monday, October 12, in observance of Columbus Day. We will reopen at 0800 on Tuesday, October 13.