Legislative Update May 31 2011

 
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Legislative Update May 31 2011

 Congressional Updates

 

House Passes Veterans’ Bills

 

On Monday, May 23 the House of Representatives affirmed its commitment to America‟s veterans by passing four pieces of legislation helping and honoring veterans of all generations. The measures included:

 

H.R. 1383, which would fix the Post-9/11 GI Bill to keep student veterans in the school of their choice, passed by a recorded vote of 389-0. The bill would authorize VA to pay tuition and fees to assist eligible veterans attending private education and training institutions under the GI Bill (Public Law 110-252). That law created a new, permanent entitlement program to provide assistance to veterans who served after Sept. 11, 2001, as they pursue higher education.

A 2010 law (P.L. 111-377) made a series of corrections to the Post-9/11 GI Bill. While that measure enhanced benefits for many veterans, it included a provision that capped benefits for students attending private institutions at $17,500 in the next academic year, amounting to a potentially drastic cut in benefits for some veterans.

The House passed measure – introduced by House Veterans‟ Affairs Committee chairman Jeff Miller (FL-1st) – would modify the Post-9/11 GI Bill to temporarily preserve higher reimbursement rates for tuition and fees for veterans who were enrolled in education programs at private higher education institutions on or before April 1, 2011. It would set the payable amount of benefits for such students at $17,500 or at the established charges payable level determined using the maximums published in October 2010 – whichever is greater – through July 31, 2014.

H.R. 1627, which was approved by a vote of 380-0, would establish a new process for the placement of monuments at Arlington National Cemetery. It would also enforce the reservation process at Arlington. Finally, the bill contains a provision supporting the placement of a monument in Arlington to Jewish chaplains who have died while on active duty.

H.R. 1657, which passed the House by a near-unanimous 382-1 tally, would impose penalties for small businesses claiming veteran-owned status. It would direct that any business determined by the VA Secretary to have misrepresented its status as a small business owned and controlled by veterans or service-disabled veterans in order to increase its contracting opportunities shall be debarred from contracting with the VA for not less than five years.

 

Finally, H.R. 1407, approved by a voice vote, is the annual cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) for veterans and survivors. Because of the economic downturn, veterans receiving disability compensation and survivors receiving dependency and indemnity compensation (DIC) payments have received no COLA for the past two years. A report issued earlier this month by the Medicare and Social Security Trustees projected that Social Security recipients would receive a 0.7 percent cost-of-living increase in 2012.

These measures now head to the Senate for consideration.

 

LEGISLATIVE FOCUS FOR THE WEEK:

 

Seamless Transition: Improving VA–DOD Collaboration

 

On May 18 The American Legion attended a hearing held by the Senate Veterans‟ Affairs Committee. The committee held this hearing to examine the ongoing efforts by the Departments of Defense (DOD) and Veterans Affairs (VA) to truly provide a „seamless transition‟ for our service members and veterans from one department to the other. Witnesses before the committee were Deputy Defense Secretary William J. Lynn III and Deputy Veterans Affairs Secretary W. Scott Gould.

 

The partnership to ensure seamless transitions for wounded warriors from military to VA medical care has made significant progress, but work remains to be done, Deputy Secretary Lynn said. Both Lynn and Gould laid out their goals and achievements to show the progress of the partnership, established four years ago.

 

The new Integrated Disability Evaluation System (IDES), which DOD and VA developed, serves more service members than the prior system. The old system is still being phased out with those wounded warriors in that program still being processed concurrently with the full adoption of the new system. IDES is expected to be in place by year‟s end, according to both witnesses.

 

In the new system, service members will get a single set of physical disability exams based on VA medical protocol, and processing will be done simultaneously by DOD and VA. Also, service members will continue to receive their full pay, allowances, compensation, medical base support care and benefits under the new system, which should largely eliminate the benefits gap under the former system. The new evaluation system is expected to cut processing time down to 400 days, compared to 540 days under the former system. Mr. Lynn said the processing time goal is to eventually be less than 300 days.

 

With regard to DOD and VA working together toward a common electronic health records system, the witnesses said, "Among the many current systems that exchange data to varying degrees, DOD and VA have created a service called the „Blue Button‟ that will allow beneficiaries to safely and securely access personal health data at TRICARE Online." To support the most severely wounded and injured, the large military medical centers provide scanned records and radiology images for patients transferring from to VA polytrauma rehabilitation centers.

 

However, more work needs to be done to successfully integrate electronic health records. DOD and VA have agreed to implement a joint common platform that has compatible data and services, joint data centers, common interface standards and a common presentation format.

 

Substantial challenges remain in the process. One challenge is the need for further improvements in the coordination of medical care for the injured. Secondly, DOD has outstanding prosthetic care, but VA needs to do much better. Consequently, there will more hearings on Seamless Transition. Next week the committee will hear from some of the wounded warriors going through this process and hear about their experiences.

 

House Approps. Committee Approves MilCon/VA Spending Bill for FY ‘12

 

On May 24, by a vote of 60-1, the full House Appropriations Committee approved a draft spending bill to fund Military Construction, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and Related Agencies for fiscal year (FY) 2012. The measure would provide $14 billion for military construction projects, $752 million below the President‟s request. VA discretionary funding would be set at $60.2 billion, $476 million less than the President‟s request. It would also include $52.5 billion in advance appropriations for the major VA medical accounts. This draft bill will now go to the full House, where the leadership hopes to have all 12 FY ‟12 spending bills passed by the beginning of the August recess.

 

Letters of Support

 

On May 24, The American Legion sent letters of support to House Speaker John Boehner (OH-8th), House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (VA-7th), House Rules Committee Chairman David Dreier (CA-26th), and House Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller (FL-1st). These missives supported adding the language of H.R. 1497 as an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act. Originally introduced by Rep. Mike Rogers (MI-8th), H.R. 1497 would repatriate the remains of 13 American naval officers and sailors currently buried in a cemetery in Tripoli, Libya. These men were casualties of one of America‟s first foreign conflicts, the First Barbary War.

On May 26, a letter was sent to Rep. Bob Filner (CA-51st), giving Legion support to a number of bills which he had introduced. Specifically:

H.R. 806, the "End Veteran Homelessness Act of 2011," would extend through FY2011, and increase the amount of, the authorization of appropriations for VA comprehensive service programs for homeless veterans. The American Legion has long supported initiatives to help homeless veterans;

H.R. 810, the "Fair Access for Veterans Benefits Act of 2011," which would extend the 120-day limit for the filing of an appeal to the Court of Veterans Appeals after a final decision of the Board of Veterans' Appeals upon a showing of good cause for such time as justice may require.

H.R. 812, the "Agent Orange Equity Act of 2011," would include inland waterways, ports, harbors, waters offshore, and airspace as part of the Republic of Vietnam, for purposes of the presumption of service connection for diseases associated with exposure by veterans to certain herbicide agents while in Vietnam.

H.R. 813, which would amend title 38, United States Code, to reduce the period of time for which a veteran must be totally disabled before the veteran's survivors are eligible for the benefits provided by the Secretary of Veterans Affairs for survivors of certain veterans rated totally disabled at time of death to one year.

H.R. 814, the "Medicare VA Reimbursement Act of 2011," would amend title XVIII (Medicare) of the Social Security Act to direct the Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS), in cooperation with the VA Secretary, to establish a Medicare VA reimbursement program under which the HHS would reimburse VA, from the Medicare trust funds, for any item or service: (1) furnished to a Medicare-eligible veteran by a VA medical facility for the treatment of a non-service-connected condition; and (2) covered by Medicare or determined to be medically necessary by VA.

 

H.R. 1133, the "Helping Our Homeless Veterans Act of 2011," authorizes VA to enter into agreements with state or local government agencies, tribal organizations, and nonprofit organizations to collaborate in the provision of case management services to expand and improve the provision of supported housing services and related outreach to veterans, including veterans in rural areas or underserved veterans who live in metropolitan areas or on Indian lands.

 

QUESTION OF THE WEEK: In the latest issue of the Legion Magazine and article notes that, as a cost cutting measure, VA Healthcare Priority Group 7 & 8 may be cut. What’s the update?

 

In October 2010, the Congressional Budget Office issued a report outlining the costs for caring for veterans within the VA medical system and compounded the escalation of that cost with the return of troops from Iraq/Afghanistan in the coming years. The article, written by Tom Philpott, puts the entire debate in context and does a wonderful job explaining the concerns expressed by many, including The American Legion based on what we knew in late March. Because of printing deadlines, much has changed since it was authored.

 

As we‟ve noted, as recently as last week, this consideration is no longer being discussed. Even this week, House leadership and Majority Leader Eric Cantor (VA) took time when meeting with all the nation‟s veteran service organizations to declare, "we have an obligation, no matter what, to care for our nations veterans. We intend to meet that obligation and will not eliminate care for Category 7 and 8 veterans."

 

This change of heart is a positive development and byproduct of tremendous lobbying by The American Legion and other organizations. It takes it off the table for the next two years, but we must be ever mindful of the report and predicted pending cost escalation. We must work with leadership to understand that cutting these veterans from the system will only temporarily change the balance sheet. Long-term solutions, such as allowing VA to bill Medicare are much more fiscally and morally responsible.

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News from the World of Military and Veterans Issues. Iraq and A-Stan in parenthesis reflects that the author is currently deployed to that theater.