Action Corps Weekly – December 18, 2015
In observance of the holidays, this is the last issue of the year. Our next issue will be on January 8, 2016.
In this Issue:
1. Senate Holds Hearing on Military Transition Programs
2. Senate Holds Field Hearing in Phoenix
3. IB Framework Briefing
4. Omnibus Budget Bill Introduced
5. Proposed Expansion for Camp Lejeune Eligibility
6. VA Expands Prosthetics Benefits
7. Bergdahl Gets General Court-Martial
8. MIA Update
1. Senate Holds Hearing on Military Transition Programs: On Tuesday, the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee held a hearing entitled, “Is Transition Assistance on Track?” Representatives from VA, DOD, and the Department of Labor (DOL), were on hand to provide testimony about the various programs their departments provide to support service members as they separate from the military. Topics included the DOD Transition Assistance Program (TAP), VA Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment, DOL Jobs for Veterans State Grants program, their strengths and weaknesses, and ways to improve them. The VFW supports all three of these initiatives and is actively engaged in the TAP process at 20 military installations through our Benefits Delivery at Discharge program. To see a webcast of the hearing, click here: http://www.veterans.senate.gov/hearings/is-transition-assistance-on-track121515.
2. Senate Holds Field Hearing in Phoenix: On Monday, the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee held a field hearing in Phoenix regarding issues related to VA’s Veterans Choice Program, accountability and management as they relate to the Phoenix VA Medical Center. Senator Dan Sullivan of Alaska chaired the hearing and was joined by both Arizona Senators, John McCain and Jeff Flake. Local veterans discussed continuing difficulties faced at the Phoenix VAMC and with the Choice Program. Also testifying was a VA doctor who acted as a whistleblower for issues faced by employees. Defending actions taken and corrections made were VA’s Under Secretary for Health, and the President and CEO of TriWest Healthcare Alliance which manages the scheduling and payment process of the Choice Program. To read the testimony, visit http://www.veterans.senate.gov/hearings/field-hearing__phoenix-121415.
3. IB Framework Briefing: On Monday, in partnership with the Independent Budget (IB), VFW National Legislative Director, Ray Kelley, provided a briefing of the IB’s framework for veterans health care reform to the Commission on Care. The Commission on Care was mandated in the Veterans Access, Choice, and Accountability Act, or Choice Act, and is tasked with making recommendations to Congress on the future of VA health care. To read the IB’s framework click here: http://www.vfw.org/uploadedFiles/VFW.org/VFW_in_DC/IB_AFrameworkforVeteransHealthCareReform.pdf.
4. Omnibus Budget Bill Introduced: On Wednesday, Congress introduced an omnibus budget bill for Fiscal Year 2016. Totaling more than 2,000 pages, the bill includes several key provisions for the Department of Veterans Affairs, including:
- $50 billion for VA medical services (a nearly 10% increase over the previous year), including $1.5 billion for Hepatitis C treatment, $7.5 billion for mental health care, $605 million for caregiver programs and $6.7 billion for homeless veteran programs.
- $2.7 billion for processing claims and reducing the backlog on initial claims and appeals. This money allows for an additional 770 employees to handle the processing of claims and appeals.
- $1.2 billion for construction, which is more than three times the previous year. Requirements in the bill force VA to allow another federal agency to manage construction programs costing more than $100 million.
- Advance appropriations for VA’s FY17 budget totaling more than $165 billion.
- $283 million for related agencies, such as the American Battle Monuments Commission which cares for cemeteries and monuments around the world, and Arlington National Cemetery which will be able to complete projects deferred in previous years.
In all, the bill funds health care for 7 million veterans, compensation and pension benefits for 5.2 million veterans and their survivors, GI Bill benefits for 935,000 veterans, and vocational rehabilitation for 137,000 veterans. The bill included several veterans policy and tax changes that would curtail VA’s use of high dose opioid medications to treat chronic pain, exclude military housing allowance when determining whether a tenant is low-income, and reauthorize the Work Opportunity Tax Credit which incentivizes employers to hire unemployed and disabled veterans. The bill also marks the first time Congress made advance appropriations for both mandatory and discretionary spending which will impact the FY17 budget. The bill has cleared the House and Senate and requires approval by the president no later than December 22 to prevent a government shutdown. The VFW Action Corps will publish more updates as they become available.
5. Proposed Expansion for Camp Lejeune Eligibility: On Thursday, VA announced that it will classify eight medical afflictions as presumptive disabilities for purposes of adjudicating compensation benefits for veterans who were exposed to contaminated water at Camp Lejeune between 1953 and 1987. Additionally, National Guard and Reserve service members who did not serve on active duty but conducted training at the base will be considered as part of this expanded policy. This means that VA will now presume that a veteran’s exposure entitles that veteran to VA disability compensation benefits for any of the eight covered conditions. This is a major change as no condition was considered under “presumptive status” for disability benefits. Currently, VA only provides no-cost health care for 15 covered conditions. Moving forward, those who receive VA compensation benefits will also be eligible for VA health care if they were not otherwise eligible. As a result, veterans who served 30 or more days at Camp Lejeune between 1953 and 1987 and have been diagnosed with esophageal cancer, breast cancer, renal toxicity, female infertility, lung cancer, bladder cancer, hepatic steatosis, miscarriage, and neurobehavioral effects are eligible for no-cost VA health care, but are not presumed to be eligible for VA disability compensation benefits. The VFW will work to ensure veterans who suffer from medical conditions that are associated with exposure to contaminated water at Camp Lejeune receive the health care and benefits they deserve and will hold VA accountable to ensuring it’s presumptive list is accurate.
Those who have filed in the past and were denied can file again, while those who are pending a decision which could be denied will not receive any decision until a final ruling is approved on the proposed expansion. Any veteran who needs help completing a VA claim for their service can contact the VFW for assistance at 1800-VFW-1899. The VFW accredits more than 1,600 service officers to assist veterans with their VA claims and benefits. To read the VA’s announcement on this issue, go to: http://www.va.gov/opa/pressrel/pressrelease.cfm?id=2743.
6. VA Expands Prosthetics Benefits: After years of successful tests, VA has agreed to begin providing exoskeletons to paralyzed veterans who meet the robotic legs’ height and weight limits. Currently, 45 veterans meet the requirements and should have the opportunity to receive the newly approved robotic legs, which will not replace wheelchairs, but can last up to four hours of continuous use. The VFW will continue to track the progress of this revolutionary rehabilitation treatment and provide updates as it becomes more widely available.
7. Bergdahl Gets General Court-Martial: The Army recommended this week that Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl be tried by general court-martial under charges of desertion (Article 85) and misbehavior before the enemy (Article 99) under the Uniform Code of Military Justice. Bergdahl spent almost five years as a Taliban captive before being released on May 31, 2014, in a controversial prisoner swap that freed five Taliban leaders from the U.S. military detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. If convicted, maximum punishments could include a dishonorable discharge, reduction in rank to E-1, total forfeiture of all pay and allowances, and life in prison, as well as the death penalty. An arraignment date has not been announced, but it is expected to take place at Fort Bragg, N.C., where U.S. Army Forces Command is headquartered.
8. MIA Update: The Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency has announced the identification of remains of two American servicemen who have been missing-in-action since World War II and Korea. Being returned home for burial with full military honors are:
– Army Air Forces 1st Lt. Leonard R. Farron, of Pierce County, Wash., was piloting a P-39 Airacobra that failed to return to base after a strafing mission over Guadalcanal on Oct. 15, 1942. He was assigned to the 67th Fighter Squadron, 347th Fighter Group, 13th Air Force.
– Army Pvt. James M. Smith, 19, of Wilcox County, Ga., was lost fighting in South Korea on Feb. 12, 1951. He was assigned to Company K, 38th Infantry Regiment, 2nd Infantry Division.