FRA Calls for Improvements in Veteran Services
Alexandria, VA – The Fleet Reserve Association (FRA) addressed its top veterans’ concerns yesterday before a joint hearing of the House and Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committees. FRA’s Director of Legislative Programs John Davis outlined the Association’s top priorities, asking the committees to ensure adequate healthcare funding to treat all veterans, resolve the existing backlog of unadjudicated disability claims and advance efforts that will facilitate a seamless transition between military and veterans’ healthcare systems. FRA also asked lawmakers to eliminate restrictions on disability claims filed by veterans who were exposed to herbicides while serving off the coast of Vietnam and eliminate offsets experienced by some beneficiaries who are eligible for multiple benefits.
Healthcare Funding and Sequestration
A high priority for FRA is to clarify that the entire Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) budget is exempt from sequestration as mandated by the 2011 Budget Control Act (BCA) that will take effect January 2013. Although the proposed FY 2013 budget includes an increase in healthcare spending to account for the estimated one million active duty personnel who will become veterans in the next five years, it does not take into account the effects of these automatic budget cuts. FRA supports legislation (H.R. 3895) that seeks to exclude VA healthcare programs from automatic sequestration cuts next year.
The Unresolved Claims Backlog
FRA expressed its deep concern about the growing backlog of unresolved disability claims at the VA. Despite additional funding and personnel to address the problem, the VA reports that, as of January 2012, more than 900,000 veterans are awaiting benefit decisions, with 60 percent of those unadjudicated claims pending 125 days or more, which accounts for an increase of more 100 percent over the past three years.
The Association strongly believes that veterans injured in service to their country deserve accurate and timely disability determinations. For years, FRA has advocated for new and improved technology to better manage the deluge of disability claims associated with our nation’s decade at war, but the goal of a truly seamless transition from DoD to VA remains elusive. FRA supports the Administration’s efforts to create a Joint Virtual Lifetime Electronic Record (VLER) and an integrated Electronic Health Record (iEHR), and urges aggressive committee oversight of the Integrated Disability Evaluation System (IDES) to ensure that disability ratings are fair and consistent between the different services, between enlisted and officers, and uniform between DoD and VA.
Equity for Blue Water Veterans
“The VA’s limited definition of Vietnam service is preventing many FRA members from receiving compensation and benefits they’ve earned through significant personal sacrifice,” explained Davis. “More than 500,000 so-called ‘blue water’ veterans and military retirees served aboard ships off the Vietnam coast from 1964 to 1975, many of whom have health problems commonly associated with herbicide exposure. They have been denied benefits because they didn’t have ‘boots on the ground’ and have endured lengthy legal struggles to prove their health problems are service-related.”
Concurrent Receipt and SBP/DIC Offsets
FRA continues its advocacy for legislation authorizing the immediate concurrent receipt of full military retired pay and veterans’ disability compensation, without offset, for all disabled retirees. Significant progress has been made toward this goal, but those with disability ratings of less than 50 percent are still receiving less than their due. FRA contends that military retirement is earned through career service and veterans disability benefits are awarded for service-connected injury or illness – neither benefit should be offset by the other. Similarly, FRA supports legislation (H.R. 178 and S. 260) that addresses the offset experienced by surviving family members who are eligible for Survivor Benefit Plan annuities (a benefit for which the military retiree paid monthly premiums) and Dependency Indemnity Compensation, which is paid to survivors of service members who die of service-connected causes.
FRA’s full statement, available at www.fra.org/testimony, also urges reform of the Uniformed Services Former Spouse Protection Act (USFSPA), a law that is poorly written and regularly ignored by state courts in determining divorce settlements for military retirees.
FRA is a congressionally chartered, non-profit organization representing the interests of current and former enlisted members of the U.S. Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard. In addition to its advocacy work on Capitol Hill, FRA also sponsors a national Americanism Essay Contest and assists its members with disaster relief grants. The Association also sponsors an Education Foundation that awards scholarships to deserving college students.
The Association recently celebrated its 87th anniversary and, as the collective voice for all Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard enlisted personnel, FRA speaks on behalf of its members on Capitol Hill. There is no law protecting military benefits, so FRA is here to stand guard.