Newsbytes – 10/11/2013

FRA Newsbytes 10/11/13

FRA Newsbytes 10/11/13

In this week’s edition:
Bill Provides Military Death Benefits
Budget Battle Limits VA Services
Military Commissaries Re-open
FRA 86th National Convention

Bill Provides Military Death Benefits
On Wednesday, October 10, President Obama immediately signed into law a targeted stopgap measure funding military death benefits. Funds allocated under the joint resolution (H. J. Res 91), sponsored by Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (N.J.), will be available until December 15 or until an appropriations law is enacted, whichever comes first. The legislation passed the House 425-0 on October 9. The Senate cleared the legislation by unanimous consent yesterday (October 10), and it was immediately signed into law by President Obama.

Last week, President Obama signed into law legislation (H.R. 3210  P.L. 113-39) that funds pay for the military until January 1, 2015, and legislators assumed the law included death gratuity benefits. The Department of Defense (DoD) interpretation of “pay and allowances” in the legislation did not include death benefits paid to family members of service members killed in action while the government is shut down. The Pentagon says 17 service members have been killed in Afghanistan since the shutdown began. The Fisher House Foundation, a non-profit organization that helps military families in need, provided families of fallen service members advance grants to cover travel and other expenses until the Pentagon is able to pay out death and burial benefits that had been suspended during the government shutdown. “After losing a loved one in service to our nation, these families should not have to endure more pain as the re sult of political squabbling,” said Fisher House CEO Ken Fisher.

In response to the narrow interpretation by DoD, Congress put H. J. Res. 91 on the legislative fast-track to mandate that death gratuities and related survivor benefits for survivors of deceased military service members will be paid during the government shutdown. FRA thanks the nearly 2,000 Shipmates who responded to our associated “Making Waves” alert in less than 48 hours.

Budget Battle Limits VA Services
The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) announced this week that the Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA) had been relying on carryover funding to continue activities during the lapse in appropriations. These funds have now been exhausted, and therefore over 7,000 VBA employees will be put into furlough status and a number of services will be suspended, including: the Education Call Center; personal interviews and hearings at regional offices; educational and vocational counseling; outreach activities and programs, including those conducted at military facilities; and VetSuccess on Campus.

In addition, more than 2,700 Office of Information Technology (OIT) employees will be furloughed. All development of VA software will cease, including work on the Veterans Benefits Management System (VBMS), the system critically important to reducing the backlog of disability claims. Access to VBA facilities for Veterans Service Organizations (VSO) with office space is suspended.

VA claims processing will continue until the VA’s remaining mandatory funds for these programs are exhausted, which is projected to happen in late October. VBA can continue to employ staff in its compensation and pension call centers. Individual veterans can still initiate claims or check on the status of a claim by dialing 1-800-827-1000.

VBA’s home loan guaranty and life insurance programs will continue operation during the appropriations lapse. However, Veterans seeking approval of VA home loans may be impacted, as access to Internal Revenue Service data used by private-sector lenders to verify income may not be available. For more information on the reduction of VA activities due to the lack of appropriations go to: http://www.va.gov/opa/appropriations_lapse_plan.asp

Military Commissaries Re-open
The Defense Commissaries Agency (DeCA) announced this week that they are returning to normal business hours. The DeCA announcement followed the Department of Defense’s (DoD) October 5, 2013 decision that most DoD civilian employees will be recalled to work beginning Monday. As part of DoD’s guidance, commissary operations were deemed necessary to support service members and their families. FRA believes these benefits are an essential part of the military benefit package.

FRA 86th National Convention
Note that next week, October 14-20, the senior staff at NHQ will be attending the 86th National Convention in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and will have limited e-mail access.