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1. TRICARE Enrollment Changes and Freeze: On Wednesday, the VFW participated in a veterans and military service organization working group led by Mr. Guy Kiyokawa, deputy director of the Defense Health Agency (DHA). Discussions focused on implementation of the National Defense Authorization Act TRICARE changes, starting Jan. 1, 2018, and the Department of Defense’s (DOD) Interim Final Rule (IFR), released Sept. 28. The IFR explains how DOD plans to implement the changes and outlines the details of the new calendar year billing system, the requirement for an annual enrollment period, as well as the conversion from TRICARE Standard and Extra to TRICARE Select. The IFR also outlines the new proposed cost-share system for Select. Instead of the current percent-of-services-used model, they have implemented an averaged flat rate model that results in higher copays for many currently serving active-duty family members and retirees. Individuals who join after Jan. 1, 2018, will have lower copays, but will now be required to pay an annual enrollment fee for Select. TRICARE Prime copays will also increase under the new system. Read the summary of changes or see the complete details. DOD also provided information on the enrollment freeze taking place in December in order for them to prepare the system for the TRICARE changes, and encouraged all beneficiaries to make any changes to their enrollment by Nov. 20, 2017.
2. TRICARE Changes Webinar: TRICARE will hold a webinar on Monday, Nov. 20, from 1-2:00 p.m., EST, to review the upcoming changes set to take effect on Jan. 1, 2018. The webinar is designed to help beneficiaries prepare for the changes and will be led by health analysts from the Defense Health Agency. Topics to be covered include changes to the health plans, costs, enrollment, assessing care, and stateside regions and contractors. Register for the webinar.
3. House Committee on Appropriations Holds VA IT Hearing: Secretary of Veterans Affairs David J. Shulkin testified Wednesday before the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Military Construction, Veterans Affairs, and Related Agencies on efforts related to the new Electronic Health Record (EHR). As VA moves to have the same EHR used by the military, the subcommittee expressed concerns with cost overruns and completing the project on schedule. Secretary Shulkin stated that the Pacific Northwest would be the first region to implement the new health care record and that it would be fully operational within 18 months. He acknowledged that it would take 10 years for full implementation across all regions, and estimated that VA would need to repurpose funds allocated to deliver health care to account for costs associated with implementations. The need to repurpose health care dollars stems from Congress’ failure to pass a full-year budget for Fiscal Year 2018. Current IT funding is not sufficient for the EHR project. Movement of funds could lead to erosion in the successes of other programs, including veteran homelessness, women veterans programs and VA’s goal to prevent veteran suicides. Watch the hearing
4. Hearing on VA Efforts to Prevent, Combat Opioid Overmedication: The Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Military Construction, Veterans Affairs, and Related Agencies held a hearing on Wednesday to discuss actions taken by VA to prevent opioid overmedication. The hearing was scheduled after a report was released this summer by VA’s Office of Inspector General (OIG), which highlighted data showing veterans who receive VA community care are prescribed opioids at a significantly higher rate than veterans receiving treatment within the walls of VA. Witnesses for the hearing included VA’s OIG, VA doctors and the father of Jason Simcakoski, a veteran who died from overmedication of opioids in Wisconsin. The Simcakoski family has since been a strong advocate in championing lawmakers to better address the opioid epidemic within the veteran community. Subcommittee Chairman Sen. Jerry Moran asked VA to discuss how their providers and non-VA community providers differ in clinical prescribing guidelines and information-sharing capabilities. Full Committee Vice Chairman Sen. Patrick Leahy focused on barriers faced by VA which seemingly make it easier for veterans to obtain opioid prescriptions rather than receive complementary treatments and therapies not involving opioids. Watch the hearing.
5. Veterans Legislation Roundup: This week the Senate passed two pieces of House legislation supported by the VFW –– H.R. 3949, the VALOR Act, and H.R. 1545, the VA Prescription Data Accountability Act 2017. H.R. 3949 amends existing law in order to simplify how non-federal apprenticeship programs based in more than one state are certified; simplify the registration process for employers; allow approval agencies to certify programs; and give veterans more opportunities to gain employment through apprenticeship programs. H.R. 1545 directs the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to disclose information about an individual –– currently about a veteran or the dependent of a veteran –– who is dispensed medication prescribed by a VA employee or by a non-VA provider authorized to prescribe such medication by VA to a state-controlled substance-monitoring program to the extent necessary to prevent misuse and diversion of prescription medicines. The VFW applauds Reps. Khanna and Kuster for the introduction of these important bills.
6. Honoring World War I Memorials Act of 2017: This week, U.S. Representative and VFW Life member Tulsi Gabbard introduced H.R. 4328, the Honoring World War I Memorials Act of 2017. This piece of legislation would authorize the Secretary of Veterans Affairs to provide $50 million in grants to rehabilitate and restore WWI memorials that have fallen into a state of disrepair. The VFW endorses this legislation and believes that on the eve of the centennial anniversary of the close of WWI, this is an important step in ensuring that the monuments built to honor the sacrifices of the more than 4.7 million service members who served during “The Great War,” are restored to their original condition. Read the bill text.
7. Online Exchange Shopping a Winner: The military exchanges opened their online shopping doors to honorably discharged veterans over the Veterans Day weekend. The Army and Air Force Exchange Service said their online weekend sales more than doubled over the same timeframe last year. Details were not available from the Navy, Marine Corps or Coast Guard exchange systems, but the new VFW-supported veterans benefit came out of the gate a winner. To shop online at any or all the military exchanges, you must first verify your eligibility through VetVerify.org. Regarding Amazon comparisons, here’s an article written by CBS Radio’s “Connecting Veterans” host Eric Dehm, a member of VFW Post 1469 in Huntington Station, N.Y. Of note is Amazon does not split its profits with military MWR programs.
8. Expansion of Commissary In-house Brands: This week, the VFW met with senior officials from the Defense Commissary Agency (DeCA) at Fort Myer, Va., to discuss the expansion of two DeCA private-label brands –– Freedom’s Choice and HomeBase –– that are intended to compete with brand name items. Freedom’s Choice products provide an additional option to most common food items such as canned goods and cheese; and HomeBase products provide an additional option for non-food items such as paper plates, toilet paper and trash bags. These two brands are already in place in many DeCA facilities; however, senior officials stated that beneficiaries can expect to see an increase in selection in the coming months, at facilities both inside and outside the continental United States.
9. MIA Update: The Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency has announced identification of remains and burial updates of eight American servicemen who had been missing in action from World War II and Korea. Returning home for burial with full military honors are:
— Army Sgt. Gerald J. Mueller, 20, of Saint Paul, Minn., whose identification was previously announced, was buried Nov. 8 in Fort Snelling, Minn. Mueller was a member of Battery D, 82nd Anti-Aircraft Artillery Battalion (Automatic Weapons), 2nd Infantry Division. The unit, part of Support Force 21, was providing artillery fire support for South Korean forces on Feb. 11, 1951, when Chinese forces launched a massive counter-offensive, driving the support force to withdraw. After fighting their way south through ambushes and roadblocks to Wonju, Mueller could not be accounted for and was declared missing in action as of Feb. 13, 1951. He was later reported captured and taken to Suan Bean Camp, where Chinese and North Korean forces later reported he died while in their custody. Read about Mueller.
— Marine Cpl. Anthony G. Guerriero, 22, of Boston, whose identification was previously announced, will be buried Nov. 14 in Arlington National Cemetery, near Washington, D.C. Guerriero was assigned to Company B, 1st Battalion, 2nd Marines, 2nd Marine Division. Guerriero’s unit landed on the small island of Betio in the Tarawa Atoll on Nov. 20, 1943, against stiff Japanese resistance. Guerriero was killed Nov. 21, 1943, and buried in a battlefield cemetery on the island. His remains, then unidentified, were later interred in the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, known as the Punchbowl, in Honolulu. Read about Guerriero.
— Marine Corps Pvt. Vernon P. Keaton, 18, of Lubbock, Texas, whose identification was previously announced, will be buried Nov. 16 in Lula, Okla. Keaton was assigned to the USS Oklahoma, which was moored off Ford Island, Pearl Harbor, when Japanese aircraft attacked his ship on Dec. 7, 1941. Keaton was one of 429 crewmen killed in the attack. Read about Keaton.
— Marine Corps Reserve Assistant Cook Frank L. Masoni, 21, of Gilroy, Calif., whose identification was previously announced, will be buried Nov. 18 in his hometown. Masoni was a member of Headquarters Company, 2nd Battalion, 2nd Marine Division. Masoni’s unit was one of those tasked with securing the small island of Betio in the Tarawa Atoll. Encountering fierce resistance by the Japanese, almost 1,000 Marines and sailors were killed and another 1,000 were wounded in the battle. Masoni was killed on the second day of the battle, Nov. 21, 1943, and buried in a battlefield cemetery on the island. His remains, then unidentified, were later interred in the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, known as the Punchbowl, in Honolulu. Read about Masoni.
— Army Air Forces 1st Lt. Homer A. Spence, 22, of Manteca, Calif., whose identification was previously announced, will be buried Nov. 18 in his hometown. Spence was a member of the 96th Fighter Squadron, 82nd Fighter Group. On July 20, 1944, Spence flew his P-38J on a bomber escort mission targeting Memmingen Airdrome in Germany. On the return flight, his aircraft was seen diving into the clouds and there was no further communication from him. Read about Spence.
— Marine Corps Sgt. William D. Ball, 21, of Hollywood, Calif., whose identification was previously announced, will be buried on the 74th anniversary of his death, Nov. 21, in Arvin, Calif. Ball was a member of Company B, 1st Battalion, 2nd Marine Regiment, 2nd Marine Division, Fleet Marine Force. Ball’s unit was one of those tasked with securing the small island of Betio in the Tarawa Atoll. Encountering fierce resistance by the Japanese, almost 1,000 Marines and sailors were killed and another 1,000 were wounded in the battle. Ball was wounded on the first day of battle, Nov. 20, 1943, and was identified for evacuation to the USS J. Franklin Bell for treatment. Ball never made it to the ship and his status was adjusted from wounded in action to missing in action as of Nov. 21, 1943. His remains, then unidentified, were later interred in the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, known as the Punchbowl, in Honolulu. Read about Ball.
— Navy Fireman 2nd Class Martin A. Gara was assigned to the USS Oklahoma, which was moored off Ford Island in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, when Japanese aircraft attacked his ship on Dec. 7, 1941. Gara was one of 429 crewmen killed in the attack. Interment services are pending. Read about Gara.
— Army Air Forces 2nd Lt. William H. Harth, Jr., was a bombardier assigned to the 329th Bombardment Squadron (Heavy), 93rd Bombardment Group (Heavy), which was known as “The Traveling Circus.” On Aug. 1, 1943, Harth’s B-24D aircraft, nicknamed “Hell’s Angels,” participated in a historic mission, code-named Operation TIDAL WAVE. This mission was the first large-scale, low-altitude attack by U.S. heavy bomber aircraft. As Harth’s aircraft approached Ploesti, Romania, it was hit by German antiaircraft fire. Harth was killed when the aircraft crashed. Interment services are pending. Read about Harth.
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